Of rodents, roaches and robbers
If the pace of the relocation of the seat of government since the formal proclamation of Abuja as the nation’s new federal capital was hitherto slow and sluggish, the events of Sunday, April 22, 1990 accelerated the snail-paced process. Murtala Ramat Mohammed, an army general and Nigerian Head of State, had on February 4, 1976, promulgated a law, which decreed Abuja as the nation’s new federal capital. Lagos, which had since independence in 1960 served as the Nigerian capital, had become largely unsuitable with accentuating population, urban congestion and intractable traffic snarls, which encumbered the business of governance. Mohammed and his advisers therefore conceived of a brand new capital territory built from scratch, in the manner of Brasilia.
Less than 10 days later, Mohammed, unfortunately, was killed by military coupists on February 13, 1976, as the official vehicle in which he was being chauffeured, was attacked by dissident soldiers on a street within the precincts of his office. Mohammed didn’t live to actualize his dream of a new administrative hub for Nigeria unfortunately, but his successors, Olusegun Obasanjo who replaced him and Shehu Usman Shagari, democratically elected president in consonance with the Mohammed/Obasanjo transition programme, worked for the realisation of this vision.
Indeed as civilian President, Shagari operated in the main from Abuja to give impetus to the sustained development of the new land. Whatever progress Shagari made in growing the new capital, however, was swiftly reversed by the overthrow of his government, three months into its renewed mandate, December 31, 1983. Muhammadu Buhari, a Major General and General Officer Commanding Third Armoured Division of the Nigerian Army, Jos, emerged his successor. His administration, which was also terminated in another military coup August 27, 1985, had little time for the sustenance of the development of the new capital.
If Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida who succeeded Buhari had become overly attached to the coastal allure and skyscraping delight of Lagos, he received a rude shock Sunday, April 22, 1990. On that day, a group of mid-level young military officers led by Gideon Gwaza Orkar, a Major in the Nigerian Army, attempted a violent overthrow of his administration. Fortuitously, Babangida the principal target of the coupists survived the coup. His aide-de-camp, Lt. Col. U.K. Bello, however was not as fortunate because he died protecting his boss.
That singular incident thoroughly shook Babangida who, historically, had the dreaded reputation of being an active participant in every coup in Nigeria, post-independence. Babangida must have reminded himself about the elimination of one of his idols, military superior and predecessor, Mohammed, on the streets of Lagos, 14 years before the attempt on his life. Babangida would subsequently fast-track developmental efforts in Abuja. He paid particular attention to the fine details of making the upcoming office and residence of the President, Commander-in-Chief, virtually impregnable. The new State House being developed therefore, would address the shortcomings of Dodan Barracks, Ikoyi, Lagos, where all post-independence Nigerian leaders, military and civilian, preferred as their office and abode.
Babangida formally transferred the capital to Abuja on December 12, 1991, a few months short of the second anniversary of the coup attempt on him. I have noted in a piece titled “Obasanjo, Democracy and the New Aso Rock,” that the sprawling complex was peculiarly fortified. The piece is published in a book titled “On The Trail Of History: A Reporter’s Notebook On Olusegun Obasanjo,” authored by me and published in 2006.
I had said inter alia that The Villa lies “ensconced between an intricate formation of domineering rocks, hedged round by a man-made canal and shielded from easy view by trees and shrubs.” My good friend and colleague during our days in the State House, Handel Okoli indeed once commented thus: “My brother, this place is a fortress, no mistakes about it. Whoever conceived it made no pretences about his background in the military and intelligence… It is a garrison, pure and simple.”
Aso Villa in recent times, however, has become the butt of jokes, insults, innuendos, abuse and denigration, in the recent past for a myriad of reasons. The dramas and developments, periodically emanating therefrom, are the stuff of tragicomedy. These vary from the comical, to the absurd, to the preposterous, to the simply unimaginable. You are alarmed for instance, when strictly private and personal goings-on in Nigeria’s own Capitol Hill, begin to dance around in the social media. Today, the wife of the President, Aisha Buhari, could be up in arms against those who locked her out of her apartment in the State House, on her return from a holiday! And you wonder who on earth has the temerity to bolt the doors behind the wife of the nation’s Number One citizen and throw the keys into Usuma Dam.
Tomorrow, rats and cockroaches have chased the President himself away from his office, such that he is “squatting” in an office in the First Lady’s wing of the Villa, attending to matters of state there. The President by the way, had been away in the United Kingdom for 100 good days on medical leave, while his deputy stood in for him. If his workstation had been allowed to degenerate so much so that rodents and roaches had found a new abode there, you wonder if he was ever expected back on his seat.
Before you sip a drink on that one, the rumour mill goes into overdrive once again that the President is purportedly taking a new wife! The story goes that his substantive wife has been out of the country for so many months and arrangements have been perfected for him to take one of his female ministers, Sadia Umar Farouk who is in-charge of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, as his new spouse. He is 79 while she is 46, but that wouldn’t matter. A time and date is fixed, while the venue will be the Central Mosque, Abuja.
A short while after, shooting, yes, gunfire is reported in Aso Villa. The First Lady has issues with the President’s nephew and his closest aide to wit, Sabiu Yusuf who also goes by the nickname “Tunde Idiagbon.” The story goes that Tunde, who just returned from a visit to Lagos at the height of the COVID-19 menace, had refused to self-isolate as necessary precaution in the management of the scourge. The First Lady is paranoid that he might infect members of the first family since he has free access to them, so she wants him forcefully ejected from The Villa. Security aides attached to the First Lady therefore make a public display of raw power, to the embarrassment and chagrin of Nigerians.
One evening in February last year, Laetitia Dagan an Assistant Director in the State House, was murdered in her accommodation in Abuja, a few hours after she returned from work. There were conflicting suggestions about why she was killed, with one school of thought proposing that some miscreants in her neighbourhood took her out because she reported their suspicious activities to the police. Also advanced, as reason was the fact that the leakage of some vital documents in her department was traced to her and those affected arranged for her murder.
To be continued on opinion page tomorrow.
Tunde Olusunle, PhD, journalist, poet and scholar, is a former presidential aide.
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