13 May 2004

Nigeria: Abuja And the Poor


Last week, we engaged in a fulsome praise of the efforts the Federal Capital Territory Minister Mallam Nasir el-Rufai is making to ensure that Abuja does not become a slum.

While it is certainly alright to be concerned about the physical looks of the FCT, I however think that this government should take another look at the concept or design of the place.

I make this call because from what many can see, Abuja is not designed for the poor. Its designers probably intended that only the upper middle class and the upper classes will inhabit this city.

The first reality that hits you in this sedate place is that if you are on foot or on the back of an Okada and it starts raining, you have no place to hide your head.

Apart from the fly-overs and the very few bus stops available, there are no structures to offer some shelter against the rain or the sun. This means that planners of the city did not ever envisage that dwellers here will not own a car. You need to be rich to belong here.

A city is designed taking into consideration the culture of a people. But Abuja is deficient in this in many respects. Let me provide only one example: the eating culture of Nigerians in urban centres. The vast majority of the population go to bukaterias or what is popularly called Mama Put or eating joints.

The reality of Abuja is that today, those popular eating joints are doing business in structures erected illegally or in undeveloped plots allocated to rich land owners.

Whenever a legal allottee decides to commence development of his plot, a buka operator is sent packing. And by the time el-Rufai's demolition squad completes its crusade against illegal structures, patrons of Mama Put may have to go to the satellite towns to get their favourite meals. This is another pointer that Abuja is not meant for the poor.

While el-Rufai is rightly concerned about the environment or physical looks of this city, he should also think seriously about the necessity of providing facilities for where the various classes can have their meals. The big men and women eat out in five star hotels like NICON, Sheraton and Le Meridien and other fashionable eateries where meals there cost quite some fortune, but where will the not-so-rich eat their own food when bukateries are decreed out of complete existence in the city centre?

But beyond fulfilling this need, there is also the question of promoting our food culture. Most of our bukas cook our traditional food in our traditional manner and most of these dishes are tastier and more nourishing than some of the concoctions offered in five star hotels.

I know a minister in this city who prefers the delicacies, offered by the eating joint popularly called "Mama NICON". There can be no better testimony to the culinary skills of Mama NICON which are far superior to those of the original NICON.

A national newspaper recently reported that el-Rufai's favourite dish is a Yoruba delicacy consisting of beans cooked in a traditional manner and bread. This "combination" agrees with the minister's palate so much that at a particular function where the minister and other dignitaries were in attendance some one had to go miles away to get him the dish as he stoutly refused entreaties to eat other palatables on offer.

If conscious efforts are not made to preserve and promote our food culture which is popularised by bukateries, wont it go extinct sooner or later and only "continental dishes" will reign supreme? Where again will the honourable minister get his favourite dish?

Since the famous Abuja Master Plan which the Abuja planners talk about with religious affection is not set in granite, there is need for Minister el-Rufai and his team to tinker with it a bit and incorporate features that are consistent with our culture.

I wish to call for the creation of what I like to call STOMACH CARE DISTRICT in the centre of the city. This should be a district where all the Mama NICON, Mama Calabar, Mama Tiv, Mama Ijaw, Mai Shayi, Mai Nono and all those who provide simple, affordable and tasteful traditional Nigerian dishes that can serve the not-so-rich residents of Abuja.

This should be a place where it will be possible for any one to take his city brought-up children to taste our authentic Nigerian cuisines. We may have lost our culture in dressing, let us not lose the dishes we grew up to know and cherish just because we want a beautiful city.

Most modern cities take care to preserve a section called the traditional or native quarters where the people's building, food and worship culture is left intact. Our attempt to have a similar feature in Garki village, is not sufficient to give a glimpse of how we conduct our lives.

That is why it is necessary to create a stomach care district. Such a place should not be a shanty enclave but one which government provides standard buildings and other necessary facilities for Nigerians to go eat out when they feel like. A place like that will add a unique feature to a modern city like Abuja. It could even become a tourist haven.

It will also contribute to the emergence of widely accepted Nigerian dishes which, with expert promotion, can become" continental dishes". When cooks from all parts of the country congregate in one place, they are certain to share ideas and improve on their local dishes which will then elevate such to national offerings. National integration, which we yearn for, can also come through that!

Another thing which indicates that the designers of Abuja never had the poor in mind is the nature of the housing. Abuja's houses with ancient Roman architecture, are meant for barons and not the masses.

This explains why shanty towns like Karmo, Gwagwa, and Mararaba emerged and are growing at a very fast rate to serve the needs of the poor or to use the language of the times, "the financially challenged."

There is therefore an urgent need to design places complete with all the necessary infrastructures where the not-so-rich can have decent roofs over their heads. The rate at which the ghettos are growing if something urgent and massive is not done, government may be compelled to allow the places be because a major humanitarian crisis will emerge if any attempt is made to sack those entities.

If government chooses to build houses for the masses, rather than provide site and service plots for the people to build for themselves, one prays that such houses will not be priced beyond their reach. That will only result in the emergence of more ghettos far from where they are now.

At the present, it is not very fair to say Abuja is truly a home for all Nigerians for while some of the Nigerians are "residing" in heaven on earth which is the municipality, a majority of the other Nigerians are merely "existing" in some of the satellite towns.

Something should be done about this disparity if Abuja is to truly become a home for all of us. That is the challenge before el-Rufai.

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