Saving Abuja’s Trees

by Bob MajiriOghene Etemiku

Naomi Campbell, 39, is a world class British super model. She made her name from purring and waltzing through the aisles of fashion houses in Brisbane, New York, Paris and Berlin and Milan. On a good day, Campbell would have no reason to be in Nigeria. But here was Campbell, on a sultry July 11, 2008 afternoon in Abuja, Nigeria. What was her mission? To waltz, purr and model? Sort of. On that that day, Campbell was in Abuja to add zest to a tree planting ceremony held at the Abuja National Park and Botanical Gardens. A couple of weeks before, the Abuja Market Management Limited, AMML, mobilized Abuja traders to participate in an ambitious tree planting programme. Michael Okpo, AMML managing director said that the exercise was carried out to meet the one million target set by the authorities of the Federal Capital Territory Authority, FCTA. In all, over one million trees were planted, probably sustained with the media hype that Campbell’s presence generated.

Nearly two years after, the trees are now fully grown. From the Banyans to the birches, the semi-Bo, the Cypress, the Palms and Pines, the Masquerade, the Ficus, the lush-emerald tress spread Abuja out in the everyday sun as one of the greenest cities in Africa. To the East and West, and to the North and Southern parts of the six municipal districts of Abuja, these trees are the canvas upon which the architectural painting that the city has become. In fact, officials of the FCDA who did not want to be mentioned told this reporter that every fortnight, the trees that line up the way leading to Area 11, Garki, receive special treatment. ‘We have employed fumigators to spray the trees and maintain them so that they don’t lose their shine’, the source said. Investigations by Bob MajiriOghene Communications, BMC, reporters also reveal that there seem to be a strict policy by the FCTA and FCDA that for every land allocated for the erection of any kind of building, provision must be made for at least three trees.

In 2008, when the Federal Capital Territory Administration, FCTA, increased the budget for parks and recreational facilities in the city from N100 million to one billion, it increased the number of seedlings in subsequent plantings and also appointed Theophilus Danjuma, a retired Lt-General as Chairman of Abuja Green Society. The result of these efforts is that the city is green all year round. Perhaps spurred by the successes recorded by this tree planting crusade, the Lags state government also launched its own tree planting exercise. It did not record the kind of success like Abuja’s. In fact, most residents mocked the tree planting exercise and referred to the governor, Babatunde Fashola, as the new Guru Maharaji of Nigeria [the Maharaji is the leader of religious sect in Lagos whose temple in the outskirts of the city resembles a botanical garden].

Abuja, Nigeria’s federal capital territory, FCT, is a 7,000 square kilometer-area hewn out of four states – Niger, Nassarawa, Plateau and Kogi. Located between Latitude 9 and Longitude 7 degrees, Abuja comfortably nestles in an area known as the ‘Middle Belt’ of Nigeria. Daily, as early as 6:30am, the sun is already blazing hot, making residents grapple with temperatures as high as 84 to 90 degrees. As a result, most people within the city take refuge under the many trees in the city. At nearly every point that this reporter visited in the city, these trees provide shades for petty traders to display their wares. GSM retailers, fruit vendors and second hand clothes sellers treasure and cluster under the trees. Leslie Adamou, an Abuja resident said she likes the trees for another reason. ‘Whenever, I wait for a taxi under this scorching sun, I wait under the trees instead of the bus stop because the air under the trees is generally very cool’, she said. Abuja trees also serve the interest of a lot of school children who wait under the trees until they are either picked up by their parents or wait to board a bus home.

An internet site, says that most city trees often serve architectural and engineering functions. ‘They provide privacy and emphasize views or screen out objectionable views. They reduce glare and reflection. They direct pedestrian traffic. They provide background to and soften, complement or enhance architecture’, the site maintained. That may not be too different from what Abuja is today.

But it is in the power to regulate climate that trees are less known. At night, while everyone is asleep, trees are at work. They produce the oxygen that human beings need for their survival, after having mopped up all the sleaze from dangerous gases like carbon monoxide, Sulphur dioxide and other poisonous gases produced from our industrial and economic activities. What this does for residents of the Federal Capital City, FCC, is that they breathe fresh and crisp air, quite unlike the acrid and pungent stenches that slap residents in the face every morning in Lagos, Warri and Port Harcourt.

Yearly, cities in the southerly, westerly and easterly parts of Nigeria begin to experience the harmattan from August. But not so for Abuja. The rains continue unabated even up to November, and there are scientists who are beginning to develop theories supporting the idea that the trees in Abuja are responsible for this. They said that the leaves on the trees absorb the intense heat from the sun with which they produce food, thereby preparing a cool atmosphere necessary for the rains to set in. says that these trees contribute to low electricity bills by companies in the city because they do not have to spend a lot of money on cooling systems for their equipment. That apart, when the rains may have subsided in other parts of the country, they continue to fall in Abuja, and this helps with the abundance of a harvest of crops like plantain, yams, and fruits like watermelons, citrus, pawpaw and beans.

Some of the trees in the city are also known to have very strong herbal and medicinal attributes. Take the case of the popular masquerade and the dongoyaro trees. Their leaves and bark form key components in local brews for the treatment of malaria fever. Though these trees are not common in the city, probably because they attract flies and litter, others like the mango line the route leading to and from the Nnamdi Azikiwe International airport.

But these trees have powerful enemies. First are the officials of the Power Holding Corporation of Nigeria, PHCN, Nigeria’s power company. Officials recently took their power saws to town and hewed a good number of them. They would have succeeded in cutting down half the trees in the city if the FCDA had not stopped them in the nick of time. PHCN officials said that they were trying to avert a ‘disaster’ because some of the trees had overgrown and entangled with many overhead power cables in the city. ‘We had to cut them down to stop them from interfering with power distribution and causing a nuisance’, a PHCN official who did not want his name published said. That is not all. The official said that they received reports that children waiting for their parents under these trees were in the habit of climbing these trees entangled in the power cables.

The FCDA was not happy with this. In a letter of protest and warning to PHCN general manager, Garki, the FCDA ordered him to suspend hewing the trees. ‘We are horrified that the PHCN took to felling trees that took a lot of money and years of painstaking effort to nurture. What we thought they could have done is notify us if they had any problem with the trees. Then we would have gone ahead to supervise the systematic pruning of these trees’, a senior FCDA official said.

Even though Abuja residents go about their normal businesses in the city, t

his incident is already raising questions concerning the genuineness of the claims made by the PHCN. In Nigeria as a whole, power generation is still low. Residents for the most part do not have power for upwards of 18 hours daily. If this were to be contrary, PHCN effort to say the least could have been understood, not mitigating their lack of tact in felling those valuable trees. The situation also brings to sharp focus the rationale by a significant city like Abuja still distributing power through obsolete methods like overhead power cables. There are allegations that in the original design of the city, overhead cables were not a part of the plan by the architects of the city. Chima Okereke a lawyer in Abuja with a bias for environmental and social law said that monies that were earmarked for the construction of underground cables like the ones in high brow sections of the city like Maitama and Asokoro were misappropriated by past governments and officials. ’The construction of these overhead cables came about from the leftover of what was stolen from what was earmarked for the underground cables. There is nowhere in the world today where modern cities use overhead cables. Overhead cables ruin the city’s aesthetics that these trees were supposed to create. So PHCN created the problem in the first place’, Okereke said. According to him, the use of these overhead cables reduces the status of a town like Abuja and further incapacitates Nigeria from participating in the United Nations Framework on Convention on Climate Change, UNFCCC, programme on carbon trading.

Other interests too, apart from the PHCN are against the trees. Evidences abound in the central business district, particularly in Wuse and Garki. While the petty trader is happy to display his wares under the trees, big companies like Febson Mall, the Fitness Centre, and all the banks around have chopped down the trees in front of their companies. There are speculations from concerned residents that the trees have been chopped off because they block these companies from view. Therefore, instead of the ‘systematic’ pruning that the senior FCDA official suggested, the trees are mostly chopped off from their base.

At these spots where most of the trees have been chopped off, our investigations show that 70 percent of them were chopped off from the roots. While some are dead out rightly, others are still managing to sprout again fuelling apprehensions that when they grow near the overhead cables, they would be chopped off once more.

For now, the vacuums created from the dead trees have already begun to take a toll on residents, most of who complain of the intensity of the sun. Meanwhile, most of the carcasses from these trees are already being gathered by residents for cremation as firewood.

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