Africa: A Short Diary of an Abuja Boy

Abuja

Simbo Olorunfemi prompted this recall with his spectacular post, “Headies in Atlanta, NMA in Abuja”.

So, I felt nostalgic. After responding to his great piece I thought to share my response here because I didn’t realise I would write so much in a short time. So, as an Abuja boy, nostalgia was the first feeling I got after reading Simbo’s piece.

I got to this city with my mom in 1985/86. At that time Wuse II, Garki II and what we know as city centres today did not exist. Agura was the leading hotel until Nicon Noga Hilton Hotel, NNHH (now Transcorp) was built and opened in 1987, then Sheraton debuted in the city, followed by Hyatt Regency, which initially was to own but never operated what’s now Nicon Luxury Hotel.

Eddie King Burger was our Mr. Biggs. Then few ‘joints’ as we called them (actually, places to hangout) sprouted. Among the popular ones was the spot owned by a lovely Tiv family, just by their home corner in Area 2 Section 1, where we all queued to buy roasted peppered chicken.

My mom (thankfully by my side as I write this), had her official quarters behind Area 1 Shopping Centre, she ran a triangular routine Office-Home-Church. I always looked forward to Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays because they were church-free days, at least for her denomination, CAC. On those ‘free’ days she would take me to NNHH which just opened for business. To attract people, 6-7pm everyday was called HAPPY HOUR at NNHH.

Everything sold in the Hotel that hour was at half the regular price. Area 2 Shopping Centre was the main city centre, later UTC Area 10 where we gathered for sports and some socialisation and networking. I met my girlfriend in my neighbourhood but we often took a walk to UTC to socialise. If you met any Abuja person in Lagos or elsewhere in those days, you could tell it was Abuja you first met. We all knew ourselves because the population was quite small.

You could buy 10 big tubers of yam for just 3 naira and a basket of eggplant, tomatoes etc for just half the price of 10 tubers of yam. Water supply was impeccably stable and regular, there were no boreholes nor wells in the city, but certainly available in the villages peopled by the original inhabitants of the territory, predominantly the Gbagyis, who are mostly found in central Nigeria.

READ: Africa: Ibru and Capital Hotels to Sell Abuja Sheraton to Former Mobil Producing Now 11PLC Owners of Lagos Continental Hotel

The Lower Usuma Dam supplied every home pipe borrne water. Electricity supply was 24/7, 365 days. There was no power outage in Abuja in my first three years. The first outage occurred on 30th September 1989, and it lasted for just an hour.

The historical electricity company, NEPA, made repeated announcements about the outage for 7 days before it happened, and pleaded the outage was to enable it undertake a TAM (Turn Around Maintenance), in preparation for the Independence Anniversary celebration of that year.

I remember having an invasive medical procedure at Garki Hospital in 1989, for just 2.50 (Two Naira, Fifty Kobo), yet it was performed by consultants, all of them Nigerians who mostly studied abroad but they ran the hospital well, very professionally and effectively. Though, so many other medics at the hospital also trained and had earlier worked elsewhere in Nigeria.

In those days, no one was allowed to spread clothes outside of the buildings or on the railings of the balcony. The fear of Gen. Vatsa was the beginning of wisdom. As I learnt, he was a decent and civil man. He would ride on horse in the evening, looking for violators. Clothes outside and by balconies were confiscated and taken to FCDA where owners will pay to have them back. All roads where buildings were to be sited were completed before buildings are constructed. From what I harvested from fragments of information, Gen. Vatsa (FCT’s best Minister, may God rest his soul) had a task force that inspected buildings to ensure all amenities were in place, including places to dry clothes, before the buildings were allocated to people.

Everywhere was peaceful and secured. If you travelled and returned at night, you could walk home without being scared, if there were no taxis at the time of your arrival. Taxi fares were cheap, I remember paying 80 kobo from Area 1 Shopping Centre to NNHH. It was real fun until December 12, 1991, when IBB moved to Abuja from Lagos, officially relocating the seat of the central government. From that moment everything changed. Things became increasingly expensive. Let me contextualise this.

General Babangida’s movement from Lagos to Abuja did not come with a modicum of strategic planning it deserved, especially concerning food management and supplies policy, as well as housing and crime control. So, without increase in food production to align with the growing population, the natural economic law of correlation of Demand and Supply was activated.

Also, without adequate accommodation, for all those who moved with General Babangida from Lagos, Abuja began to experience congestions in housing. Slums began to sprout. Now, usually at the end of many streets branching off a major road, you would easily find a slum as people improvised shelter. And naturally, criminalities evolved with conurbations.

It marked the beginning of the destruction of the Abuja Masterplan. Even Aso Rock is improperly sited. Same for Eagle Square, where our Presidents took Oath of Office. My source connected to The Akinola Aguda Panel, which recommended Abuja as the new capital for Nigeria, said the present location of Eagle Square was meant to be a terminus for trains or coaches bringing civil servants to the city from places like Abaji and Lokoja where civil servants’ residences were to be located.

So, by original conception, few public or civil servants were to live in the city. It explained why Mamman Kontagora and Nasir El-Rufai tried to decongest the city. Kontagora, may God rest his soul, tried to develop satellite towns, and for those already instituted, he was intentional in making the towns to have access to basic facilities that were available in the metropolis.

As we may know, El-Rufai made conscious attempts to recover the Masterplan. He was going to demolish many buildings, including the ECOWAS Secretariat because, as I learnt, the building’s location offends civil culture of the built environment.

Then, sadly and suddenly (as Fela would say), the phenomenon of Abuja marriage crept into the social space stealthily. Many people with subsisting marriages simply ‘remarried’ in Abuja ostensibly as many seem to justify it, the spouses were in Lagos.

Indeed, many MDAs (Ministries Departments and Agencies) set the tone for this saddening feature of old Abuja because they didn’t plan their relocation properly, especially the allocation of housing and other facilities that would make workers to settle in properly in the new city. Some people even contracted partners and/or got married to ‘strange’ people because of accommodation.

Besides, many civil servants interacted so closely without respect for privacy because for mostly junior staff, a flat could be allocated to three persons or more, the living room became a shared resource, like the kitchen and even washrooms. Thence, boredom and unwarranted intimacy apparently caused people to start dating and ‘mating’, many emergency couples even had children while still legally married to their original spouses in Lagos or wherever the spouses were. It was so bad that NTA had to produce a special feature/report on the phenomenon, many homes were ‘broken’. Very saddening.

Otherwise, early history of Abuja was fun-filled. We played, we went to the library in Area 2 (sometimes we were there before the library is opened and we would read till 5pm when it closes), we visited Old Parade Ground for sporting activities, we went to night clubs (Safari in NNHH, and Dazzle in Sheraton), we played football, basketball at UTC, we did workouts in the morning.

In fact, I was on a morning routine exercise the day the 1990 Coup occurred. I didn’t know there was a coup until I got to Area 10 and was told (politely) by a soldier to go back home, after he briefly told me what was happening in Lagos.

Strangely, that day I didn’t listen to the radio (a very significant media system ever invented) before leaving home, and as I jogged northwards, I saw very few people also having workouts but not up to 5 people right from Area 1 up to Area 10, which was typical of Abuja of mid 80s to 1990. The old Abuja can be sleepy, almost like a deserted city, especially early in the morning and late in the evening, but it was a safe city, very safe.

By Omoniyi Ibietan, Ph.D., fnipr, MACCE, MIIC

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