President Buhari, may we hang out tonight?
My President, I found it necessary to invite you on a night out in our Federal Capital City, Abuja. You may recall that recently, I invited President Donald Trump to Lagos and offered to host him. Are you surprised I didn’t invite him to Abuja? I should be surprised if you are surprised. The reason will hit you once we take to the streets of Abuja on our night out. The first thing you will observe is that the streets lights are dead. Please note that I am taking you out in my car. I am driving. There is no convoy. We are taking a friendly ride around town like ordinary people. We will need to be extremely careful at the intersections because the traffic lights don’t work. And since there is little or no law enforcement on the roads, people drive like lunatics. I don’t think you will like it very much. How come the capital city of the world’s largest black nation is this way?
Here is a city we created more than forty years ago. Being able to create a modern city towards the end of the 20th century is a rare privilege. It puts the unfair advantages of modern technology at your disposal. What took a hundred years to build a hundred years ago, can now be done in less than twenty years. This is the great opportunity we have failed to take full advantage of. Less than fifty years ago, the city of Dubai was just a fishing settlement. But with the discovery of oil in the 60s, Dubai’s rapid transformation commenced, making it one of the most iconic cities in the world today, with several landmarks. Meanwhile between 1959 and 1990, Singapore famously transformed from Third World to First. Why is it different with our FCT?
Today, nobody talks about the Abuja Master Plan any longer. I don’t know what is happening to its implementation. I don’t think it was conceptualized with serious ambition in the first place. I say this because, more than forty years down the line, there is nothing in Abuja that makes me proud as a Nigerian. There is nothing in our FCT that’s the best in Africa. Not the roads. Not the airport. Not the Hospitals. Not the presidential Villa. Nothing. Yet we say we are the giant of Africa. It is clear that our FCT was conceptualized and is being developed by people who know nothing about destination branding. When you are building a city, you are building a brand. And just like a brand a city must have competitive advantage. It must have a unique selling point, because it is competing with other cities for tourists and investors. You must brand your city like you brand a product. Our FCT falls flat. No identity. No unique selling point. No mouth-watering attractions.
Let’s even leave those who envisioned the FCT alone for the moment. What about those who have been given the responsibility to develop and manage city? I remember my first visit to Abuja in 1985. I was with a group of actors going to attend the Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA Conference. We were billed to perform Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, directed by the late Bassey Effiong, who founded Anansa Playhouse. The late Mamman Vatsa was the FCT Minister at the time and being a poet, had graciously offered to host the conference for that year. We left Lagos in a chartered luxurious bus around midday. Around 9pm, we got lost in Okene. After several detours, we got back on the right way and eventually got to Abuja around 1am. Of course, those were the good old days. No armed robbers and kidnappers in the highways.
We drank, sang and danced all through the entire journey. When we got to Abuja, we didn’t know exactly where we were supposed to go. No mobile phones. It wasn’t possible to call any of our hosts to give directions. So we kept asking the few policemen we saw on check point duty. They weren’t too helpful. We ended up doing a merry-go-round of the city until 5am, before we located our destination. While this was going on, I was fascinated by the beauty of the new city. How the roads were excellent and lit all through the night. The paved walkways. The green areas. It was beautiful. There weren’t too many buildings then. But it was beautiful. For me, it symbolized the dawn of a new nation and a promise that we could establish our nation as one of the fastest developing in the world.
However, driving through the once pristine highways of the FCT these days makes me sad. Since Nasir el Rufai left as FCT Minister, the city has been in a rapid state of decline and decay. This is not what our Federal Capital City is supposed to look and feel like. In the last ten years, the city has had four ministers. Aliyu Modibbo Umar was there for just over a year before handing over to Muhammadu Adamu Aliero who managed the FCT for less than two years. Bala Mohammed spent five years as FCT Minister and left in May 2015 before Mohammed Bello was eventually appointed in November of the same year. What remains a mystery to me is the criteria that determines who becomes the FCT Minister. Even more confounding to me, is the bitter reality that our FCT has no brand positioning in the community of federal capital cities around the world. Since we started building the FCT, I have never heard any Nigerian President or Head of State or FCT Minister make any inspiring speech about what kind of city we are building. I have never heard them envision any tangibly promising future for the city. None of them has ever said anything about building anything that’s the best of anything in Africa.
Today, we have the Capital City of the world’s largest black nation with nothing that’s the world’s largest or best. When President Obasanjo decided to build a new national stadium in Abuja, he did not build Africa’s best stadium. Our Federal Capital should boast of at least a few ‘best’ things on the African continent, if not in the world. This is how you give a city a strong brand identity.
Our Federal Government as well as the successive FCT Ministers have failed to give the FCT an identity that we can be proud of, despite the humongous amounts of money purportedly spent building the city. Going forward, our FCT Minister should be some who understands destination branding. He must be someone who has a vision of what the capital city of the Federal Republic of Nigeria should represent. We must appoint FCT Ministers who will drive the positioning of our federal capital. That way, they would understand that it is unacceptable and unpardonable that ordinary street lights and traffic lights are not functional in the capital city of the world’s largest black nation.
• Muyiwa Kayode is CEO at USP Brand Management and author, The Seven Dimensions of Branding. Brand Nation is a platform for promoting national development based on the universal principles of branding.
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