Capital idea - Issue 17 - Magazine | Monocle

thumbnail text

Abuja looks like no other african city. traffic flows along wide, smooth, tree- lined boulevards. Modern buildings, many with granite or marble facades, rise above the pavements. expensive new houses fill the streets that climb out of the city, giving their owners expansive views of the capital. Slums, the curse of the developing world, appear to be non-existent. Three decades ago none of this was here. as the chaotic sprawl of lagos grew ever larger, and the ethnic and religious battles of the whole country continued to cause conflict, Nigeria’s then military rulers sought to create a new capital for africa’s most populous nation. they chose a spot in the geographical centre, a piece of land inhabited by a sprinkling of farmers. it was neither christian nor Muslim, nor was it an area dominated by a single ethnic group.

The city was planned. A team of european and US architects drew up the original blueprint, but it was a Japanese architect, Kenzo tange, who fine-tuned it and oversaw the first wave of development. Working with local Nigerian architects, tange and his team created a masterplan, a document that marked out the usage for every single plot of land. “they tried to build a utopian city,” says aliyu Modibbo Umar, the current minister for abuja and the man now responsible for implementing the masterplan.

But in the 32 years since abuja was born things have not gone according to the masterplan. corruption has bedevilled the city’s development. Buildings have been constructed where parks should have been planted. Areas mapped out for commerce have become sprawling residential neighbourhoods.

So now Abuja is going back to the drawing board. The original plan has been revised and the city is once again in the midst of a construction frenzy. The previous minister, Nasir ahmed al-Rufai, began this process when he came to office in 2003, but it is only in the past two years, particularly since his successor, Umar, took over in July 2007, that real progress has been made. Billions of euros have been allocated – some public, some private. Umar talks excitedly about creating the finest city in africa.

Across abuja there are striking examples of architecture.the gold-domed National Mosque stands on top of a hill a few hundred metres from the angular National christian centre. Not to be out- done, the central Bank – a shimmering blue glass l-shape – rises above the church next door. Nearby is the citextty’s most bizarre building – Ship House, a building that resembles an enormous ocean liner. Originally commissioned as the headquarters of the National Shipping association, it has since been taken over by the Ministry of Defence. All ministries moved to abuja in 1991 and many of them are housed in a series of buildings that overlook eagle Square in the heart of the central district. Yet for all of abuja’s sometimes quirky architecture there is a sense of disappointment among government officials that the city does not look more african.

“This city was built for Europeans, not Africans,” says Bashir Haiba, head of Abuja Property Development Agency, the government body responsible for city planning. Area One Section One, the city’s first housing development, is based on the cul-de-sacs and roundabouts of Britain’s derided “New town” project Milton Keynes. The mansions that line Maitama, the diplomatic enclave, are mock-ups of American country homes.

“We have not developed something of which you can say, ‘This is Nigerian’,” sighs Haiba, as he takes Monocle on a tour. Some fear the city is about to make the same mistakes all over again. The grandest new projects are carbon copies.

A €1bn lakefront development, including shopping mall, theme park and flats, is based on the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront development in Cape Town. It even has the same architect – Louis Karol.

The Abuja Boulevard, a major shopping avenue that will be built in the centre of the city, is modelled on a rather odd cross-fertilisation of Paris’s Champs Élysées and Los Angeles’s Rodeo Drive.

It is not only the architecture that is imported. A previous minister decided he liked the look of London’s black taxis – so he shipped over 300 of them. The current minister is considering bringing in London’s red buses, too. The residents are also imported. The first wave of immigrants to the new capital took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They came from all corners of the country, bringing with them a diverse range of cultures and customs. So far, there is no distinctive Abujan culture, but, as the first generation of Abujan-born Nigerians become adults, that is beginning to emerge.

Sal Gbajabiamila’s café and bookshop is one of the venues that is helping to create this new culture. During the day it is filled with Abuja’s smart professionals, tapping away on laptops and using the free wi-fi; at night the restaurant hosts live music, film screenings and book readings.

The business is successful, but not without its problems. Like the rest of Nigeria, Abuja is in the grip of an energy crisis – something of an irony considering the country’s status as Africa’s largest oil producer. Like every other business owner, Gbajabiamila has to rely on a generator for electricity. “The amount we spend on keeping the lights on is crazy.” Outside the door the sound of thousands of generators keeping the city’s lights on provides a gentle background hum.

Abuja styles itself as the “centre of unity”, a city where everyone in Nigeria is welcome. The grand white gate at the end of the airport road marks the entrance to Abuja with the words “You are Welcome”. But it is clear not everyone is. For a start only the president, vice-president and visiting dignitaries are deemed welcome enough to drive through the gate – everyone else has to drive round it.
Prices in the city get so high that many of the mansions and apartments lie empty. Everyone, from the minister to a security guard, agrees that Abuja was conceived as a city for the elite.
For a town established as a seat of government, little thought was given to where its civil servants would actually live. Instead they live in satellite towns such as Kubwa, some 50km outside the city, and commute into work every day. Kubwa is a bustling, dusty town filled with young men on motorbike taxis winding their way along potholed roads. Young women carry enormous trays of bananas on their heads. Igbo music blasts out of barbers shops. There are no street lights.

In recent years hundreds of thousands of homes in places such as Kubwa have been knocked down because city officials say they are not part of the masterplan. The poor have moved further and further away from the heart of the city – some have even moved across the border into the next state. the situation is even worse for the inhabitants of Sabon lugbe, a slum several kilometres outside the city gates.the residents were abuja’s original inhabitants, farmers from the Gbagyi tribe who had worked on the land for centuries. They were resettled 25 years ago but city officials have told them their homes will be knocked down again to make way for a new estate. tens of thousands of people will be made homeless.
Indakuzo Jarumi, the traditional chief of the Gbagyi in Sabon lugbe, weeps as he contemplates their future. “We don’t know where we will go,” he says. “There is nothing we can do.”

Abuja has become an enclave for the rich. “We hide our poor,” says Michael Nwoye, deputy project manager for Julius Berger, Nigeria’s largest construction firm. He tells a story of a commonwealth heads of state meeting taking place in Abuja. The route the dignitaries were due to travel went past a ramshackle slum market. Julius Berger was hired to stack rows of containers along the road to hide the poverty. They went along with the plan.

The city’s developers, Nwoye argues, did not give any thought to where the “cooks and the drivers” would live. Cities cannot survive without people to do the dirty, difficult and dangerous jobs. “They should have first of all provided the satellite towns with infrastructure before they demolished the slums,” Nwoye says.

Umar, the minister, acknowledges the problems but insists that the masterplan must be adhered to. “It’s really painful to demolish someone’s house but we have this set of rules.” Even Umar is not a fan of the rules. Every city needs a plan, he says, but Abuja’s has become too inflexible. “I’ve always thought the masterplan was stupid. Now i am responsible for it I think just most of it is stupid.”
He is trying to change it, bit by bit, but progress is slow. Even the changes that are being made – shopping centres and luxury housing developments – will do nothing to solve Abuja’s most chronic problem. The city needs affordable housing. Without it, Nigeria’s capital will remain a place where the poor are kept outside the city gates.

As Monocle drives past yet another row of five-bedroom houses, our guide, a local journalist called Simon Reef Musa, says: “We have a saying here. The poor man never sleeps because he is hungry. The rich man never sleeps because the poor man is awake.”

Cities on the move

Building a capital from the ground up is a means of creating an idealised vision of what you would like your nation to be. When Washington DC was founded in 1790, the US was a vulnerable fledgling. The imperial architecture that would come to define the city was no accident. Other capitals have been built out of compromises, or are the result of a desire to project and protect power.

Islamabad, built during the 1960s, was a scheme to redistribute wealth and power away from Pakistan’s original capital, Karachi. It is no coincidence that Côte d’Ivoire’s capital Yamoussoukro, which supplanted Abidjan in 1983, was also the birthplace of its then president. Probably the most noteworthy artificial capital is currently being established in Burma. The ruling junta began moving itself from Rangoon to a vast new city at Naypyidaw in 2005, seen as a move to establish an impenetrable citadel.


01 View of Abuja with the National Mosque in the foreground 02 Diran Kolajo, a civil servant at the Ministry of Health, who is struggling to afford property prices in the city 03 Original masterplan for Abuja

04 Abuja’s city gate 05 Ship House, originally the HQ of the National Shipping Association, now home to the Ministry of Defence 06 The recently completed Nigerian National Christian Centre 07 Aliyu Modibbo Umar, Abuja’s minister 08 The main road through central Abuja 09 Ramatu Aliyu, who runs her own architecture and construction company 10 Bashir Haiba, head of Abuja Property Development Agency 11 Abuja Model City, a luxury development on the outskirts of the city

Share on:





Go back: Contents



sign in to monocle

new to monocle?

Subscriptions start from £120.

Subscribe now





Monocle Radio


  • The Briefing