Abuja, the seat of the Federal Government of Nigeria is ranked as Africa's fastest growing capital city.
In fact, when the military government then headed by General Murtala Muhammed decided to move the country's political capital from Lagos to Abuja in 1976, the vision was not only to make the city a central beacon for the hopes and aspirations of all Nigerians, but as a centre of political activities for the rest of Africa.
The city's master plan envisaged orderly development; it guides, regulates and graduates its developments in districts and phases. The massive physical development of Abuja since then has met some of the goals of that vision. However, distortions in the city's original master plan have meant that the city has been growing in an uneven manner.
This is because such growth has largely been concentrated in the city centre, a deviation from the original concept, which was to spread physical development and settlements to outlying area councils in marked phases.
The plan was thrown out of sync with the sudden movement of the presidency from Lagos to Abuja in 1991, and the huge scramble that followed to meet deadlines to relocate federal ministries, agencies and departments, along with their workers.
As a result, there was concomitant scramble for accommodation and the land to provide it, creating the environment conducive for land speculation.
The government failed to address the long-term consequences of that when it neglected to enforce its own requirement that government ministries and departments be dispersed in the five area councils that make up the Federal Capital Territory.
Thus, the area councils, with the possible exception of the Abuja Municipal, are no more than village administrative centres, with hardly a functioning infrastructure or public utility.
Kuje, Kubwa, Gwagwlada, and Kwali area councils are supposed to be satellite towns meant to accommodate the greater percentage of the population of the Federal Capital Territory, including workers in the public and private sectors. They still do, but instead of commuting to the respective area councils to their places of work, they choke the highways to Abuja city centre every day.
Perhaps it was part of addressing the problem that the Ministry of the Federal Capital Territory created some new districts last March. These include Jahi, Wuye and Maitama extension, the latter one of which the Minister, Alhaji Bala Mohammed renamed Goodluck District.
In launching the new layouts, Mohammed said the government would spend 104 billion naira to provide infrastructure in them. He said opening up of more districts would encourage plot owners to commence development of their property.
True, part of the problem is not just the absence of infrastructure like roads and power supply; a major hurdle to cost-effective housing has been the high cost of land in Abuja, which on average, even at official rates, could be as much as 10 million naira a plot. The concentration of all major government and commercial activities in the city is to blame for this distortion.
Correcting the imbalance may be difficult and costly in the short run; but implementing it would be to the long-term benefit of the capital and the wellbeing of its residents. That is why the creation of new districts will have only a limited impact on the imperative of decongesting the city centre and making the entire capital territory a more-people friendly environment.
Nor would the recent proposal to spend 37.463 billion naira to develop and open up some selected satellite towns in Abuja this year.
Part of the plan, announced last week, is also to reclaim land in some areas, like Nyanya in the Abuja Municipal Council, and the amount includes seed money for the take-off of a new Satellite Town Development Agency (STDA).
Compared to the needs of Abuja and what is required to decongest the city, these measures amount to palliatives, and at best stop-gaps.
The government needs to summon the political will to move important ministries and agencies to area councils. The private sector too should be encouraged to build schools and set up businesses in the area councils so as to attract people away from the city centre.
That arrangement would be helped if the government concentrated its efforts at providing infrastructure like roads, hospitals, etc, to encourage investors and businesses to move to the area councils.