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From the New York Times: Abuja vs Lagos

  • April 28, 2016 9:45 PM
    Message # 3993751
    Nigeria News Editor (Administrator)

    Nigeria News Editor Note: This posting, referred by member Brian Boyle, may be especially poignant to those who remember a Nigeria before there was an Abuja, and Lagos encapsulated the hope of a thriving First City in a new nation. The article appeared on the Times' Opinion Page on April 27.

    Abuja PhotoBlogspot

    Will Nigeria's New Capital be old soon?

    ABUJA, Nigeria (New York Times, April 27, 2016)— A few weeks ago I sat in a taxi in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. “I think I’ve driven you before,” the driver said. How long ago, I asked. Two years, he confidently replied. And then a claim that stunned me: “I’ve still got your number saved.”

    Indeed he did. My name was saved as “TOLU TRANSCORP” — Transcorp being the city’s sole Hilton hotel, the center of Abuja’s social life, and the place where, two years ago, this driver took me. I had no such recollection, but his evidence sufficed.

    For me, that story perfectly illustrates Abuja’s sedate, small-town charm; such a random reunion would have been much less likely in frenzied Lagos, home to 18 million, more than three times the population of Abuja.

    After living in Lagos for 10 years, the last three as a full-time journalist, I’ve now moved to Abuja to work. Spending weekdays in Abuja and weekends in Lagos allows me to compare the two: Lagos, first settled in the 15th century, has long been a bustling port city, while Abuja is much younger and relatively unstoried.

    Lagos has been a city long enough to be “cultured,” with an unending array of book readings, open-mike events, theater festivals, concerts and entertainment award ceremonies. In February alone it hosted a marathon and two weeklong festivals, one for social media and the other for theater. This week, the Lagos International Jazz Festival takes place there.

    Abuja’s culture scene, by contrast, feels like something on the margins of the real world. Between government agencies, diplomatic missions and donor-funded civil society organizations — with their endless seminars, round tables and workshops — Abuja feels smothered.

    This year is the 40th since a military government decided that Nigerians should emulate Washington, D.C.; Canberra, Australia; Brasília; and Islamabad, Pakistan, by building a new, geographically central capital as “a symbol of Nigeria’s aspirations for unity and greatness.”

    But Abuja is proof that while you can decree a city into existence, no administrative fiat can give it a soul. It has neither a national museum nor a national theater, although it does have a National Ecumenical Center and a National Mosque — proof of how important religion is in Nigeria.

    And yet there’s plenty to admire in Abuja, and for Lagos to envy: the extensive highways (which, not surprisingly, tend to make the city’s car crashes more spectacular than those in Lagos); the generous portions of green area (where goat-head pepper soup and cold beer are served in gardens in the evenings); the much less humid air closer to the desert north, which makes the heat much more bearable than in Lagos, even though Abuja is hotter.

    And Abuja is a hero of sorts, since it was envisioned as an escape valve for Lagos, which has struggled with overcrowding for as long as anyone can remember.

    Throughout the 1980s, Abuja developed only halfheartedly, with the lure of Lagos proving more powerful than dreams of a fresh start in the nation’s interior. The turning point came in April 1990 — a coup attempt that failed to topple the four-year-old military government of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida.

    President Babangida survived it, but his enthusiasm for Lagos did not. Soon he ordered that the seat of government relocate to Abuja. There, a pristine presidential residence lay in the shadow of a 1,300-foot-tall outcropping of rock — a forbidding presence in a city that, unlike Lagos, was not yet touched by chaos.

    But while Abuja was appearing to save Lagos by decongesting it, it was simultaneously creating a new problem for Nigeria. According to popular folklore, discontent in the oil-rich Niger Delta bubbled over in the late 1990s when Gen. Sani Abacha, who succeeded Mr. Babangida as Nigeria’s military leader, brought thousands of youths to Abuja for a “2 million man march” to support his effort to succeed himself as a civilian president. The delta youths, the story goes, saw in Abuja’s gleaming buildings and modern roads evidence of the miracles oil money could create, a concept they couldn’t quite accept because back home in the delta, they associated oil only with misery — polluted farms and rivers, and murderous impulses within the army and police squads.

    It would be another decade before the delta people would finally feel at home in Abuja. In 2010, Goodluck Jonathan became the first Nigerian president to hail from that region; soon the Hilton’s lobby teemed with men wearing the delta’s trademark gowns and fedoras. Since last May, when President Muhammadu Buhari, a northerner, took office, those gowns have given way to the babanrigas and woven caps of the north.

    Around 2010, Abuja also began losing its innocence. Bomb explosions targeted government buildings, diplomatic premises, barracks, newspaper offices and crowded bus parks; the terrorist group Boko Haram and its affiliates are believed responsible.

    Those bombings left the city on edge, its streets swamped with military checkpoints and the hills ringed with armed sentinels. These days, thankfully, things are much calmer, and Abuja is finally shaking off its sense of terror.

    Meanwhile, 450 miles away, Lagos patiently waits for Abuja to become like it. In the 1950s, the government there decided to develop Victoria Island, until then a waste dump, into a model upscale residential area. But the chaos embedded in the city’s DNA eventually overran the island, too, and is now as endemic there as anywhere else.

    There’s nothing to suggest that Abuja — a product of what the Nigerian urban planner Simon Gusah describes as a “let’s run and leave the problem behind” mentality — will not follow the same route as Lagos. After 40 years, it still has no functioning rail system, and everyone travels by road, just as they do in the port city.

    I’m tempted to imagine my taxi driver giving Abuja a ride, and turning back to say to it, just as he did to me, “I think I’ve driven you before.” He proceeds to pull up Abuja’s phone number on his phone. There it is, but for some reason it’s saved in his phone book as “LAGOS.”

    Tolu Ogunlesi works in digital communications and is the author, most recently, of the novella “Conquest & Conviviality.”

    From the New York Times 4/27


    Last modified: May 09, 2016 10:40 PM | Nigeria News Editor (Administrator)

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