In our concluding series of articles (see part 1 here) seeking to provide insights to our readers about Nigeria, we visit Abuja, the nation’s capital city, for another perspective. In this piece, titled ‘Understanding Nigeria: Abuja, a City in Search of a Soul’, we explore the city’s culture and the wider socio-political considerations that influence the country as whole.
Coming back to Abuja
We were booked to fly the lunchtime Air Peace flight from Lagos to Abuja. The relatively new airline had come highly recommended for its relative reliability. With the current dire economic situation in Nigeria, the local aviation industry finds itself in some sort of ‘aviation Bermuda Triangle’ where airlines are struggling to stay afloat and to keep flights on schedule. We took the thirty minute delay in our stride.
Temperatures were north of 30°C (86°F) as we stepped out of Abuja’s Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport. The empty glass shell of an airport terminal expansion glistened in the late afternoon sunshine. It reminded us of a similar, Chinese led construction project we had seen in Zanzibar. Abuja loves her shiny new toys too.
In 1991, Nigeria officially moved her capital from coastal Lagos to landlocked Abuja. As one of Africa’s few purpose built cities, Abuja wore a ‘new city’ cloak back when I was a scholar in the city. Construction cranes dotted the landscape, transforming it from lush green Savannah into an aesthetically pleasing urban landscape.
Abuja, Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory (FCT) was personal for me in many ways. I spent six years attending secondary school in Kwali, a small village located 70 kilometres from the city centre. Some of my most enduring friendships were birthed in those formative years.
Every time the government completed a new building or project, more often than not, our school’s activity clubs got invited to join the celebrations. I cherished those rare treats for the opportunity to see the birth of a new city but mostly for the chance to escape the boredom of boarding school.
However, I also had sad memories from Abuja. This was the city where my father had lived and worked, intending to move our family from Lagos after a few years…until he took ill and died suddenly. I still wonder what path my life would have taken if I had lived in Abuja.
Rolling back the years
Abuja is a city where politics and the business of government are the primary activities. Beyond that the city struggles to define itself in any discernible way. I was keen to see what had changed in the decade since I last visited in 2004.
Compared to the claustrophobic and chaotic roads of Lagos, Abuja’s roads felt unbounded and free. Unfortunately, the locals seemed to translate this freedom into an invitation to race each other and change lanes without warning. Still, anything was better than the drudgery of Lagos traffic.
We headed north east from the airport towards Nordic Hotel, Abuja; a boutique luxury hotel located in the quiet neighborhood of Mabushi. From memory, I remembered the Abuja City Gate which marked the city’s limits. What once looked majestic to me now seemed uninspiring and stuck in time. A rumoured replacement with a bold and dynamic design, part of a proposed ‘Centenary City’, is yet to be installed.
The Abuja National Stadium loomed large in the foreground; the dry, dusty haze surrounding it signalled the onset of the seasonal north-easterly Harmattan winds from the Sahara Desert. This was meant to be the home of the nation’s once respected national football team. The stadium’s isolation seemed to mirror the team’s current state.
A solitary billboard marked the location of the proposed Abuja Centenary City, an ambitious private sector urban development project (if it ever gets built) which promises to create Nigeria’s first smart city to rival to places like Dubai (UAE) and Songdo (South Korea).
We soon arrived at the innovative Nordic Hotel. A cold towel reception provided a welcome respite from the humidity and heat. Taking a break, we planned an itinerary for the next day.
A lost opportunity to tell a story
In its early years as the nation’s capital Abuja quickly gained a reputation as an artificial city with no soul, a place where people could become…anonymous.
Mostly attracting itinerant politicians, civil servants and business travellers, weekends typically saw life drain out of the city as the week’s inbound traffic all but disappeared. Astronomical rents pushed many of the working class to satellite towns on the outskirts of the city. These towns quickly developed a life of their own.
A friend, a busy entrepreneur who had time between meetings, had offered to take us on a quick tour of the city. The next morning, we set out after a Nigerian-Continental-Lebanese breakfast at Nordic Hotel’s partner restaurant, BluCabana.
Our first stop was the Abuja Arts and Crafts Village. This tourist trap is a collection of traditional huts located in the shadow of Sheraton Hotel and features a variety of products representing cultures from all over the country.
A replica of the famous Benin bronze head sat next to a painting of a sensual Tiv dancer. Beads and bracelets worn by the Hausa-Fulani tribes contrasted with leather goods, iron sculptures and musical instruments. Fabrics of all kinds created a riot of colour.
Despite the unique access to Nigerian culture that it provided us, we felt that the village had potential to be more than a set of souvenir shops. It needed a more cohesive story.
HDYTI Tip: The craft village provides great shopping for cultural souvenirs. If you visit, be ready to haggle (go with a local if you’re not used to doing this).
Leaving the craft village, we drove a circular route within the city centre. Notable landmarks included the beautiful golden domes of the National Mosque, the symmetrical arches of the National Ecumenical Centre, and the blackened glass windows of the Central Bank of Nigeria towers.
Unfortunately, none of these were open for public viewing. Even worse, we were chased off by a zealous security man who caught sight of our cameras. Although we understood the need for strong security, it seemed strange that national monuments had no provision for visitors.
An uncompleted project to mark Nigeria’s centenary altered the skyline temporarily but was soon gone from view to be replaced by ubiquitous offices, shopping malls and luxury properties. Rock formations, parks and gardens completed the tapestry of Abuja’s landmarks of interest.
The lack of a cohesive tourism strategy by successive Nigerian governments has left Nigeria as a black hole in the international and African tourism community. Monuments, artifacts and places of interest fail to attract much domestic or international attention.
In Abuja, I saw a lost opportunity to tell several stories of a city which was designed as the country’s cultural melting pot and ‘Centre of Unity’.
Abuja, a city in search of a soul
Apart from the soullessness of Abuja as a tourist city, perhaps more important to consider is what Abuja represents to the rest of Nigeria.
Nigeria operates as a collection of federated entities (states) with a central government run by three tiers. In a fully functioning federated structure, each self-sustaining entity is meant to contribute something to the pot while the central government provides the policy, legislative and legal framework for the equitable distribution of wealth.
However, in Nigeria, with the exception of some states like Lagos, all power belongs to the Federal Government. The states (many of which struggle financially despite being blessed with a wealth of natural and human resources) receive a monthly allocation from the Federal Government. Much of their allocations go towards meeting recurrent expenditure, leaving precious little for other priorities including security, infrastructure, healthcare and education for the grassroots.
The quickest route to wealth in Nigeria is often through patronage and a connection to the seat of power. Many Nigerians view Abuja with suspicion, as a city lacking in soul and empathy and one that is out of touch with the harsh realities of everyday life in Nigeria . They view the place as a rent seeking institution, where favours are disbursed from the lofty Aso Rock (presidential villa) by emotionless ‘gods’.
For Nigeria to truly achieve her potential, Abuja needs to find its soul. Nigerians need to truly see Abuja as the city that cares about their heritage, present day struggles and future. Abuja needs to be a city that represents and showcases the best of Nigeria, a place all Nigerians can have a sense of true belonging regardless of their religion, ethnicity or proximity to power.
Room for optimism
This formed the core of our conversation that evening as we joined some friends for dinner at the artsy Salamander Café on Bujumbura Street. This (slightly overpriced) café / restaurant comes with a bar, outdoor seating, work space, bookshop and ‘free’ Wi-Fi.
HDYTI Tip: The locals will tell you that the best (wallet friendly) food in Abuja can be found in many of the popular gardens and parks rather than in fancy restaurants.
Around the table that night were dreamers, entrepreneurs and visionaries, young people who believe in Nigeria and what she could become.
As I found in Lagos, I also found in Abuja an irrepressible, positive spirit. Speaking to The Africa Channel, Jonas Schwarz Lausten, co-owner of Nordic Hotel believes that ‘Abuja holds a lot of promise from an investment point of view’. The Centenary City project is a great example.
I believe that with the right support, Nigeria’s youth have the potential to transform the country’s fortunes. However, Abuja first needs to find a soul.
Subscribe To Our Newsletter
Get HDYTI travel, food, & lifestyle goodies first! Be in the know! Yes, it's that behind the scenes info we won't post to social media right away. Also, it's a great place to hear about giveaways and deals first! Sign up today!