Capitol of the dark, dank, dirty and dangerous
Many of us who started out our lives and careers in Lagos, Nigeria’s erstwhile capital, would not trade in our affection and adulation for the megalopolis for any other Nigerian city. Lagos, that enigmatic conundrum which never ceases to awe, astound and amaze the most casual of visitors, holds a folkloric appeal for many.
The very first poem in my premier volume of poetry, Fingermarks, published in 1996, is indeed titled “Lagos.” Leading second generation Nigerian poet, Odia Ofeimun, indeed put together an anthology of poems by several authors in celebration of the essence, colour and mystique of the city, titled Lagos of the Poets, published in 2010. He graciously accommodated “Lagos,” one of a number of poems I wrote about the city, (or is it state), in that volume.
Some of the lines of the poem read thus:
This is Lagos,
Where eyes dart and rove
Round a million marvels:
Shanties, shacks, mountainous mounds
Of man-made garbage
At the relentless collision
Of aromatic hotels and stinking osa.
This is Lagos
Where house-head and household
Scarcely see eye to eye
Hedged in the hassles of sweaty hussles…
This is Lagos
Where cars crawl like crabs
In knotted traffic queues…
This is Lagos
Where bridge bases seethe
With hordes of homeless citizens
Where man and mongrel
Scuttle and scuffle
For mouldy morsels on rotting heaps…
This is Lagos
Robed in many oriki:
Eko akete ilu ogbon!
Ilu j’omo ta, j’omo jere
Ma j’omo ke re oko dele!!!
Austine Amanze Akpuda, respected literary scholar and author himself, noted in his review of my poem Lagos, that the “style is denominated by clamorous satiricality.” According to Akpuda, “Olusunle is one poet whose signature poem on Lagos, has given the city a prominence comparable to that given London by William Blake and Charles Dickens, or Dublin by James Joyce.” Despite it’s rainbow of characteristics and multiplex tendencies, however, the city of Lagos continues to allure, even arrest voyeurs and residents alike.
Twenty-three years ago, I found myself in Abuja, Nigeria’s new capital. A democratically elected administration, which threw up Olusegun Obasanjo, a retired army general and former military Head of State as President, replaced the erstwhile military government, May 29, 1999. I had functioned as campaign press secretary to Obasanjo, all through the electioneering process, which began formally with his declaration to seek the nation’s top job, November 1, 1998. Obasanjo had a role for me to play in his administration.
My earliest visit to Abuja, by the way was in 1991, ahead of the summit of the African Union, (AU). It was hosted by the regime of Ibrahim Babangida, who ruled as military president, between 1985 and 1993. Onyema Ugochukwu, editor of the Daily Times at the time, detailed me to assess the level of preparedness of the government for such a huge international event. Away from the mammoth construction site, which Abuja was, Ugochukwu also tasked me specifically, to interrogate the social life in the blossoming capital. I remember turning in a feature which I titled “Abuja: City with a budding soul.”
That successive military regimes barely prepared for transition to popular governance, was very obvious when the Obasanjo government took over. Official and residential accommodation, were grossly inadequate. Several government functionaries had to be quartered in highbrow hotels like Transcorp Hilton and Sheraton, for several months, while houses and estates were being scouted and procured by relevant government agencies. Contractors handling infrastructure, which were to serve as offices for the expanded bureaucracy of democratic governance, had their work cut out under a government, which desired to hit the ground running.
I remember that the first time my family visited me when I was eventually assigned a house, my wife made a pertinent observation, when she interrogated my level of preparation for emergencies, as was the trademark in Lagos. “I can see you have no rechargeable battery-powered lamps here, like we have in Lagos. You have no water receptacles for storage too. Maybe I should get some when we get back to Lagos, and freight via Young Shall Grow or Ekene Dili Chukwu transporters,” she offered. I smiled at her good intentions and told her a bit about the Abuja I had come to know within my first year.
“Thanks for your thoughtfulness,” I told my wife. “From the bit I’ve seen about this new federal capital since I got here, things seem to be working. Abuja is light years away from Lagos. Power outages are few and far between, with electricity restored within minutes of seizures. Water runs too. If there are challenges, we request for tankers to supply some water as stop-gap, just in case the supply system is being serviced.” And we joked over it. Now I wished she placed a bet on the topic. She would have won several times over.
To a large extent, the Abuja I met in 1999 was a functioning, serviceable, beautiful capital city. Street lights worked. It was such a delight beholding the delectable lighting of the city as your aircraft descended through night sky, to the tarmac of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, (NAIA). If you are a regular night flyer into the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, (MMIA), in Lagos, you will understand my drift. Traffic lights were functional, traffic rules substantially obeyed. The roads were well paved and there was free flow of vehicular traffic. Road markings were visible. Garbage collection was prompt. Incidents of theft and robberies in the city were few and far between. Abuja was shaping up like a model, successful, experimental, purpose-built African city, a pride to the Black continent.
As a public official who, in the line of duty, regularly received foreign guests on behalf of government, you could almost touch the sense of pride and accomplishment with which I chaperoned them around our beautiful city. Yes, whenever Abuja was to host large summits or meetings of African or global leaders, select government officials were required via formal correspondences, to help in receiving dignitaries. As one on a media schedule, with “one leg” in sports coverage, I regularly played host to such dignitaries.
Away from the regular hangouts in Hilton and Sheraton, which were the most sought-after those years, we took our guests to the old Blake Resort and even the defunct Kesthern hillside dance bar. And they had no reason to doubt our good intentions, there were also no bombings or abductions in the city as we have witnessed in more recent years. Some of our adventurous guests even wanted to visit Zimbabwe, the earthy roadside resort in Nasarawa State, on the Abuja-Keffi highway, where a bouquet of indigenous drinks and delicacies are sold! The newness, all-round aesthetics and therapeutic feel of Abuja, rapidly consigned my good old Lagos to the back of my mind. As a fleeting guest to Lagos, yes, but no more permanent residency.
Sadly, so suddenly sadly, Abuja is unraveling before our very eyes. First, it was the metal coverings of the service ducts and manholes across the city, which were stolen. While freelance garbage scroungers, known as baba’m bola in popular parlance were initially fingered in the trend, the widespread phenomenon across the expanse of the Capitol suggests there may be a coordinated syndicate, perpetuating the criminal trend. Those metal coverings are weighty by the way, and require those who appreciate the economic value to target the pilfering. With dysfunctional lighting on Abuja streets, the gaping manholes have become a major security threat. Many residents have landed on the tables of orthopaedic surgeons, for the management of broken bones, after slipping unknowingly, into the dangerous cavities.
As if in a contest of disappearing acts, street illuminations and traffic lights, are no more operational in many parts of the city. The poles bearing streetlights in places, have been overrun by reckless drivers, while dealers in metal scraps, have gladly assisted the authorities in clearing up such carcasses. Darkness is no respecter of zones or districts, by the way. Streets, residences and housing estates in the Garkis, Wuses, Maitamas, Asokoros, Wuyes, Jabis, Jahis, Utakos, and so on, wallow in perennial darkness, night after night. The music of night in Abuja is a cacophony of the noise of an assortment of fuel-powered generators, with the throats of the smaller I pass my neighbour devices, routinely muffled by the earth-quaking baritone of larger brands. Today’s Abuja is a far cry from the primordial Abuja, where casual visitors posed for photographs on the streets, or with landmarks as backdrops, in the Capitol’s night ambience.
Expectedly, crimes fester under the cover of darkness, such that dangerous underground sub-economies for hard drugs, today, thrive in parts of the city. Thefts, robberies, muggings, even murders are on the increase in Abuja. A very good friend of mine was dispossessed of the phone he was holding in his hand, in broad daylight, as he slowed down by a road intersection, en route Bolingo Hotel. Another friend was assaulted and dispossessed of his laptop and phones, as he stopped one evening around the Federal Secretariat in the Three Arms Zone one evening, to check his car engine. Wasn’t a nursing mother member of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), 26-year-old Stephanie Terungwa, recently set up by her friend, Jennifer Tsembe and murdered in Abuja last May?
Make no mistakes, the Lagos culture of the wholesale appropriation of bridge bases by miscreants, is gradually creeping into contemporary Abuja. The numbers of vagrants populating spaces beneath flyovers may be insignificant for now. It may not be long, however, God forbid, before we are treated to cannibalistic and carnivorous displays reminiscent of the exploits of the famous “Clifford Orji” in Lagos, which made the headlines over two decades ago. Before we know it, makeshift kitchens and sofas may begin to germinate from these under-passes.
If you are worried by untoward trends in the districts and layouts enumerated above, you’ll have to be doubly concerned about developments in other sections of the city. Parts of Apo, Durumi, Dutse Alhaji, Gudu, Gaduwa, Gwagwalada, Lokongoma, Lugbe, Kubwa, have become virtual ungovernable spaces. Cyclists, popularly known as okada, tricyclists, keke and unpainted commuter vehicles, operate by their own rules and regulations. This is not only about riding or driving against traffic, this is not only about their deathly recklessness.
There is this over-arching sense of entitlement about the conduct of these public transport operators, even when they are unquestionably wrong. And for all you care, most of these guys are not duly licensed, nor are their automobile documents up to date. Let’s hope that someday, combined teams of officers from the Federal Road Safety Commission, (FRSC); the Nigeria Police Force (NPF) and the Vehicle Inspection Office (VIO), will collaborate to engage these outlaws. A sustainable template for the management of these vagrants must be articulated and pursued.
Slums and ghettos are festering across the Federal Capital. When was the last time the FCT Minister, Mohammed Musa Bello, pay visits to Mpape, Lugbe, Gbazango, Bwari, Kabusa, Kuje, Gaube, Gidan Mangoro, Chikuku, Karmo, Jikwoyi, Orozo, among other parts of the FCT? We saw a bit of Bello the other day when there was a fracas at the Dei Dei building materials market, which claimed a number of lives. Just in case he doesn’t know, these communities are time bombs waiting to explode.
Abuja streets and neighbourhoods are dirtier today. Street sweepers are occasionally sighted in highbrow communities, undertaking cosmetic clean ups, presenting facades of environmental sanitation. Garbage evacuation and waste management, has become a very topical issue in the capital city. There are familiar sights of waste disposal trucks unwittingly spreading garbage on the streets as they haul stuff from one location to another. It is also sad that over 30 years after the formal activation of Abuja as the seat of federal administration, a sustainable garbage management regime has not been emplaced. In a world where biodegradable waste and non-biodegradable debris are variously recycled and reused with due cognisance for environmental protection, the subsisting practice in today’s Abuja, remains archaic and hazardous. Government is perennially in the business of hunting for dump sites in locations, which are soon overrun by blossoming physical development.
Seven years after his appointment as Minister of the FCT, not many residents of the territory have faint images of the face of the FCT Minister on the screens of their minds. He is that unseen and anonymous. If he was overwhelmed by the scope of his brief in his first term as Minister, he was assigned a deputy in 2019, in Ramatu Tijjani Aliyu. Unfortunately, the twosome, have barely impacted on the spectacular showpiece and idyllic haven Abuja was envisioned to be.
Can we expect any miracles within the coming eleven months of an administration, which is winding down and better consigned to the dunghill of history? Not in an election year, when public officers are in the rat race to outdo themselves in pinching mega billions of our commonwealth for their personal retention and the consumption of their generations yet unborn. They know fully well, that there is never a day of reckoning for light fingers in Nigeria. Yes, we cannot expect magical changes in a regime where ex-convicts are treated to the red carpet on the gleaming floors of the presidential villa. True. They are simultaneously feted to lavish buffets, complete with customized golden crockery, on the glittering, shimmering dining table of the State House.
Olusunle, PhD, poet, scholar, journalist and author, is a member of the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE).