Abuja: A city in search of administrator, by Ahmed Rufai Isah

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Ahmed Rufai Isah

The federal capital territory (FCT) is an intentional city that was created out of necessity. International associates, a consortium of American firms led by Wallace, Roberts and Todd (WRT), originally drew the capital’s master plan. It was supposed to create a well-ordered polish to Nigeria’s chaotic repute. Everyone who knows the former capital of the country, Lagos, recognizes that no better place is a representation of this chaos. Thus, with its derailing infrastructure, catastrophic markets, overflowing people (and garbage) and unplanned, insufficient housing.

Abuja was by design supposed to be the opposite of all the above. Since it was built in the center of the country, its location was to bring accord. It was also to reflect boundless potentials and growth just like major American cities. While markers describe the current growth of Abuja as tilting towards the initial master plan, a walk around the city does not principally portray this.

Corrupt officials overlooked the strategy for the city. They allowed infrastructural disarray to blossom and unauthorized street markets to bloom. No plan was made for low-income earners, transportation stayed unregulated and markets were left in decrepit conditions. For a dream city that was to be compared to other major cities in the world, it does not come close.

Beijing, one of the largest cities in the world and the capital city of China by 2006 recently marked two decades of double-digit growth. According to Financial Times, the municipal with just about the same descriptions as Abuja, changed its physical pattern and is credited with a better transportation system than previously recorded when its population skyrocketed.

In 2012, it further increased spending on infrastructure as a means of boosting growth. Railways, utilities and roads were prioritized in the framework of the city. Fast-forward five years later, the city is one of the fastest growing in the world and the third top business city in China – after Shanghai and Chengdu.

The former minister of the federal capital territory, Nasir El Rufai created similar reforms to that of Beijing during his tenure (2003 – 2007). He ensured the demolition of illegal structures to pave way for land that should have otherwise been used to provide infrastructures such as schools and hospitals for the people in the city. While the reforms had amazing potential and were hailed by many, the minister forgot to factor in the existence of artisans who repaired cars, cooked for a living or tend to flowers. There was also no thought about compensation and relocation for people who had hitherto made home in areas designated for other things according to the Abuja masterplan. Implementation of the demolitions and the alleged reallocation of prime properties to the then minister, his family and cronies also cast shadows on what was a noble quest.

The effect of this lack of vision further created sub urban districts where thousands, maybe millions of low-income earners in the city currently reside. These satellite towns do not have the same concentration of institutions and infrastructure, leading to a deficit and drawback for the initial growth plan for the city.

Functioning cities have smooth transportation, working intra city trains and regulated cabs. There are several major transit terminals in Cairo, for example. The city encompasses a widespread road network, rail system, subway and maritime facilities for its 16m residents. In fact, the metropolis is the hub of almost the whole Egyptian transport arrangement.

Abuja inhabitants do not enjoy this luxury – the city is devoid of functioning rail system to many states in the country, not to speak of intra city trains. Commuters have to prioritize owning private cars or otherwise joining public transport, which can be as unsafe as it is unfavourable.

Taxi and bus drivers in the city have transformed walkways to illegal parks, driving against traffic without recourse to traffic laws and turning traffic lights to mere decorations. Commuting in the city ends up a daily nightmare for the inhabitants. El Rufai tried to manage the transport network during his tenure by procuring hundreds of capacity buses with better-trained drivers to accommodate more people. He also ‘got rid’ of reckless motorcycle riders notorious for causing accidents.

While these transport reforms are not comprehensive and don’t match up to what is required for a mega city, it was a good start. Unfortunately many of El Rufai’s reforms suffered the sustainability problem a lot of well-meaning government reforms suffer.

Every minister who came after Nasir El Rufai left the federal capital worse than they met it. The current minister Bello Muhammed is already borrowing from the books of his last three predecessors. Bad street lights and a consistent rise in crime rates are the city’s current realities. Many residents lament the absent/poor governance in the capital and have tagged Bello Muhammed “Minister of Welcome Affairs” because of his unfailing presence in the welcome party of President Buhari.

In all, Abuja’s big city dream seems to have fallen by the road side. Cities across the globe including NYC, London, Dubai, are entering a data revolution stage where plans are backed by in-depth knowledge of the people, their needs, constraints and understanding of their diversity. Abuja’s development needs to be intentional for it to be meaningful; this development has to be reliant on data.  Data has to be the most important component of planning the city. But first, the city needs a competent administrator!