The media play a prominent role in providing adequate information to the public about social and physical developments around them. One doesn’t need to travel to London, New York, Paris or Mecca to discover the beauty of those cities. While the media may be objective in reporting the factual situation, public relations as a profession also influences the media to positively project the attractiveness of those societies. In the same sense Abuja the capital of Nigeria should not be an exception judging from its physical progression from its inception 30 years ago to its present position as one of the great cities in the world.
Going by the interplay of local politics the city has created an impression of a capital flowing with milk-and-honey to outsiders while the residents especially the poor and civil servants may have different perspectives. These are some of my discovery when I gleefully honoured an invitation from Federal Capital Territory (FCT) to be the Leader of the Rapportorial Team on International Conference on Abuja@30. The invitation from the Special Adviser to the Minister of FCT on Information and Strategies, Hajia Amina Salihu, stated that my team was to cover all the engagements, sessions, workshop and tours. The experience afforded one the opportunity to have the feeling of ordinary Nigerians, officials and foreigners about our most cherished and magnificent city. With scholars and editors in the team, we wondered whether our report should take an academic style, press perspective or PR angle.
No one can deny the positive strides that have culminated in the present exquisiteness of Abuja: the beautiful landscape and parks, maximum security, massive bridges to ease traffics, wireless locations to hook to free internet service (like within FCT), wide road networks, spacious market places, developed pedestrian pavements for joggers, functional street lights, preserved rail corridors for railway system of the future, recreational facilities for games: all of these devoid of eyesore of beggars, street hawkers and Okada riders who sometimes constitute nuisance in some of our urban cities. These are the legacy of the Minister of FCT, Nasir Elrufai whose positive impact on the development of the city and the restoration of the Abuja Master Plan, in the last three and half years has overshadowed the works of his predecessors. Though a controversial politician, who courts troubles with his blunt utterances, he is a committed technocrat who believes in positive changes even if they must come with pains. We may recall his altercation with former Minister of Aviation (Chikwe) on privatization; his allegation against a popular senator on attempted extortion from ministerial nominees and his involvement and comment on PTDF palaver; all these strangely involved members of his party. It seems his weakness is that, on personal conviction, he calls a spade a spade, ignoring political affiliation and social relationship. This, of course, is politically suicidal. Apart from his involvement in political issues, which sadly portrays him in some quarters as arrogant and exuding excessive youthful exuberance, his performance on sanitizing Abuja and daring the untouchables to comply with the regulation on land allocation and construction is outstanding and globally acclaimed.
At a Shadow Conference held in Kwalli Area Council, preceding the main Conference on Abuja@30, local communities represented by their spokespersons and other participants from other councils, shower praises on Elrufai for injecting sanity into the developmental efforts of the city centre and asked that such gesture be extended to the rural areas for their benefit. They also made frank observations and sincere recommendations on their expectations. The shadow conference was held to coincide with a regular Town Hall meeting rotated amongst area councils in FCT. The Town Hall meeting which Elrufai initiated was to give practical expression to the commitment to run an open government where every resident or stakeholder is given opportunity to contribute his/her quota to the progress of the Territory through feedback on policy implementation. This all-encompassing process ensures accelerated opening of the rural areas in the Federal Capital Territory, in line with the inclusive city initiative.
While there were wide commendations on the rapid transformation of Abuja to a befitting global city within a few years, from the remarks of notable personalities like President Olusegun Obasanjo, Senate President Ken Nnamani amongst other top local and foreign dignitaries, participants also made some key observations at the conference. Some of the observations were that the current infrastructure and facilities in the FCT are overstretched by the influx of people from all parts of the country in search of jobs and peace for those escaping communal crises. It was also observed that the removal of illegal structures and banishment of Okada riders and beggars from the city centre have caused hardship to vulnerable groups which made some to wonder if Abuja is an inclusive city accommodating all categories of Nigerians especially the poor. It was also observed that most residents, especially the rich do not pay taxes (including property taxes), even while expecting the city to function efficiently.
Though the FCTA has recently renovated and provided state of the art facilities in its hospitals across the districts in a bid to curb the prevalence rate of HIV/AIDS in Abuja, participants observed that the current prevalent rate of 6.2 is exacerbated by the influx of people. The vulnerability of women to HIV/AIDS is worsened by intergenerational transmission of the infection from older men to young girls. The reason for these may have to do with the fact that there is a reduction in trips by our scarlet girls to Italy for greener pastures and fun-seeking powerful and rich-men to Brazil for carnivals. The beautiful facilities and serene environment make Abuja the meeting point of the moneybags and damsels who are in trade by barter.
While there is argument that there is a performance gap in the provision of public safety services in the FCT, It was noted that the minister was able to provide employment through the creation of some agencies that offer new jobs for Nigerians like the Abuja Geographic Information Systems, Satellite Town Development Authority, Abuja Enterprises Agency, Bwari Vocational Training School, Abuja Leasing Company, Abuja Food Courts apart from others established in partnership with private sectors like Mass Transit Partnership and technological firms. These institutions have kept hitherto jobless graduates busy, unskilled citizens are engaged in menial jobs.
I cannot but agree with some of the recommendations of the conference that while the uniqueness of Abuja as a modern city must be maintained, we should imbibe modern values side by side with our local values; that through public and private sector participation, FCT should encourage the development of new housing estates, tourism, ICT and other services to meet the needs of the increasing populace; since without federal allocation, environmental and financial sustainability of the city may be difficult, the principle of progressive taxation should be implemented, whereby the rich pay more tax (including property taxes) that could be used to also improve infrastructure in rural areas; that the 1,000 affordable houses for the poor being constructed to mark the 30th anniversary, should be maintained as an annual project.
There were also recommendations that as a result of the vulnerability of women and girl-child to the HIV/AIDS, there is a need to empower them to make informed choices. This can only be achieved through public enlightment. Education being fundamental to the progress of society, FCTA is urged to provide more educational facilities and recruit more facilitators to meet the demand of its increased population.
Not only does the crime rate reduce in the city centre like Area One and Berger Junction that were notorious havens for pickpockets, more parks have been created in the neighborhoods for relaxation of residents and visitors which further make Abuja clean, unpolluted and environmentally friendly comparable to any other city in the world. The dream of the FCT Administration to complete the 1000 affordable housing units for the poor in a satellite area and arrange the takeoff of metro railway project to connect the districts and councils for smoother rail system must be pursued vigorously and realized before the expiration of Elrufai’s tenure
Even though the FCT Minister is not elected like some governors who administer funds of their local government councils, his administration ensures that all the area councils received their full monthly revenue from the federation account and still gives them more from the internally generated revenue. Nevertheless, the Constitution should be amended to create the office of a democratically elected Mayor of the FCT to act as a governor.
The present physical attributes of Abuja was made through the sacrifice of victims of the policy to reclaim the original masterplan. Some of them without options or alternative but accept the destiny for a better society. The question now is after Elrufai of FCT (not the politician) what does the future hold for the capital city?
This article by Yushau A. Shuaib was originally published in Punch January 18, The Guardian January 19, Daily Independent January, 19, Sunday Trust 21, New Nigerian January 22, Leadership January 31, 2006