Abuja became a city which has helped shape my life so I can work harder and smarter if only I want to live in the city.
When people come to Abuja, they usually don’t want to leave. That is why there are so many people here, a young man once told me. They try to stay back and get “connected.” They are eventually forced to leave when the connection does not seem to come. Little did the man know that he was telling me part of my own story.
Welcome to Abuja, Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory, home to more than 3 million Nigerians, including the first family.
Unlike Lagos, which was the country’s capital before December 12, 1991, when it was moved to Aso Rock by the then military Head of State, General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, Abuja is a planned city. It is not hard to see that.
Many people are forced to leave Abuja after stepping in in search of greener pastures, but meeting disappointment because they are not “connected.”
Some leave of their own volition for reasons other than not finding the greener pasture they came for. This was my own story. I have been visiting Abuja on and off until 2011, when I came in ready to stay. I was given a phone number of a family friend who, at the time, was believed to be an “Oga” (boss) at the Federal Ministry. He was my connection. When we talked on the phone before I left my home in Ogun State, he would tell me that if I really wanted a federal government job, I should come to Abuja. I did just that. I eagerly procured a Federal Civil Service entry form, filled out and dutifully submitted the form. My connection asked me to send him a number that would be given to me after filling out said form. I did. Here it is, six years later and I never heard from my connection again. I never even saw him throughout my stay…we only talked on phone.
Thankfully, in one of my earlier visits, I had met an entrepreneur at a book launch of a mutual friend. He indicated interest in hiring me after working with his organisation for some time. I left of my own volition. I just did not fit in at that time.
Land of Opportunity
That was not the case for Michael Chigbo Imo, a creative artist originally from Abia State. Right from the time he was brought to Nasarawa, one of the states surrounding Abuja to the Southeast, Imo had always wanted to move to the capital city of Nigeria. It was not until April of 2014 that he was able to realise his dream of doing so. It was a dream come true because Abuja gives him the opportunity to reach a larger audience for his work.
Imo describes Abuja as the second art hub in Nigeria. “Coming to Abuja became a necessity in a bid to add up to my creativity, explore and define a voice for myself through my chosen path. Abuja became the next spot,” he told me. “Abuja became an eye-opener to me based on where I had been before moving into the city.”
Compared to Lagos, Abuja is not so much of a bustling city in terms of budding entrepreneurs and startups, so it is an opportunity to start something without too much competition at the outset.
“Abuja became a city which has helped shape my life so I can work harder and smarter if only I want to live in the city.”
Imo lives in Jahi, just before Gwarinpa, about a 10-minute drive from the Federal Secretariat. Imo does his creative art at the Art and Craft Village behind one of Abuja’s most popular hotels, the Sheraton. Jahi is one of the 16 districts, or cadastral zones, in phase two of the city. Builders of the city, according to a 1979 master plan, divided Abuja’s development into four phases, with a projection that the city will have a population of 3 million by the year 2010 and a maximum population of 4 million later on.
Though Imo is yet to have what he can describe as his big break in the capital city, he has come close to it in the three years he has been there. One such moment was a joint performance piece he created titled Though I Don’t Know You – in collaboration with Uche Uguru, Yusuf Durodola, Doofan Kwaghool, and Osi Otsemobor at the residence of the Belgian Ambassador to Nigeria as part of the celebration of French Cultural Week.
“I would not have that kind of audience if I wasn’t in Abuja,” the heavily-built artist said smiling with an air of pride. Fisayo Soyombo, editor at the International Center for Investigative Reporting, agrees with Imo on that. Abuja is that kind of place where you can, by chance, meet any of the who’s-who of the country. Of course, the chances of meeting any of the 109 senators or the 360 House of Representatives members, or even important members of the diplomatic community are always high if you live in the city’s center or you know the right place to hang out. Who says you can’t even meet the President or his deputy? That is the life in Nigeria’s capital city where everyone you meet is potential creme de la creme. “I have met some people like that,” Fisayo said thoughtfully. “There is a man I admire because of his integrity and the many works he has done in the country and I just met him. It would not have happened if I hadn’t come here.”
He also told me that he has met some young entrepreneurs who are making good use of the resources in the city to impart people’s lives positively.
Relaxed or Lackadaisical
Fisayo has only spent a few months in Abuja. He resettled from Lagos in May of 2017, but he definitely has an opinion about the city. The roads are good. That means you spend far less on maintaining your automobile here than in many other places in the country. He believes it is easier to plan in Abuja, too, because there are no gridlocks on the road.
“It is healthy to live here. You can wake up and leave your house by 7 o’clock and you still get to the office by 7:15 a.m., even if you don’t live close to the office,” he says.
He was quick to compare Abuja with Lagos and other capital cities in Africa and Europe. One of his conclusions from the comparison is that most people working in the formal sector, both state owned and private, seem laid back…or they have a lackadaisical attitude towards work.
“You can’t schedule a meeting for anytime earlier than 9 a.m.,” he noted with great concern. For most workers in Abuja, it is business as usual…9 to 5. “Can you imagine civil servants rushing home like school pupils immediately at 5 p.m.,” he asked rhetorically. If there is one thing the multi-award-winning editor would change about Abuja, it would be to to insert the goal-getting work attitude of Lagosians into workers in the city.
Travails of a Newcomer
Other concerns he has may be categorised as travails of a newcomer. For example, navigation around town is a tedious chore if you don’t have a good guide or at least Google maps. The road signs and directions are not really available to guide you, and there are not many landmarks, so one junction looks like the other and it can be painful to find yourself needing to make abrupt turns on Abuja roads.
Surprisingly, the lack of road signs for ease of navigation in Abuja is not a new problem. A Facebook note written seven years ago by the Federal Road Safety Commission acknowledged the same issues then. The Facebook note titled Road Sense – Abuja Corridors, posted on September 20, 2010, reads: “…More traffic lights, as well as road signs, are still needed in many of the junctions in the city.” The post also mentioned the alarming rate of bad drivers in the city, a problem that still persists as of now, Fisayo testifies. “In Lagos, road crashes happen because people are in a hurry and the roads are either not good or too narrow, but in Abuja, road crashes happen because of the sheer lack of driving skills on the part of the driver,” he states.
He blames this reality on the “pressure to impress others” that seems to affect many in the city and the ability to afford the cars. There wouldn’t be a need for all of that if there was an efficient intra-city means of transportation other than cars. If there were trains that would take you to your destination conveniently, you would gladly drop your car and that takes most of the pressure off, he says.
It is not an easy life for a bachelor in Abuja. First, because pocket-friendly cafeterias are not readily found there as in other cities. “Imagine I have to drive 10 to 15 minutes on a free road before I get roasted corn, and if I am looking for regular cafeterias where I can get food at the rate of N500 ($1.39) per plate, I have to spend at least N400 ($1.12) on transport,” said Fisayo, who lives in Gwarinpa and works at Wuse Zone Two.
Gwarinpa is one of the 11 districts, or cadastral zones, in phase 3, while Wuse is one of the 10 districts in phase 1.
Second, many ladies in the city are just not into marriage. A lot of them earn their living from the untaxed, but booming sex industry in the capital city. The very colourful nightlife of the city, which is restricted to city parks, nightclubs and hotels is a testimony. “It is better to go back to your home town and bring a wife, than to hope to find true love in Abuja,” Fisayo said, passing to me one of the earliest pieces of advice he got when he stepped into Abuja for the first time.The logic that follows the advice agrees with some of the things Imo, the artist, blames as the downside of living in the capital city. Many people are victims of peer pressure here. They struggle hard to fit in so they end up living what he describes as “fake life.”
The city of Abuja was not designed to give room for low-income earners to thrive and live. Abuja has a clearly-defined wide margin between the ruling class, the rich and the poor, the 29-year-old creative artist suggests. “A lot of young men and women pretend to be what they are not so as to be accepted and fit in into the societal strata of Abuja.”
He has more than good reason to conclude the way he did. He told me the story of a guy who came to steal his shirts and trousers from the line recently.He narrated looking at a distance as if he was watching the scene again: “I chased after him and caught him. Grabbing him by the waist, the first urge I had was to slap him. I did. An onlooker quickly followed up with several lashes of belt. The young man admitted with great remorse, begging to be heard out before I vent my anger. I was boiling within but I calmed down to listen to him. People had gathered, ready to land blows on him and deliver jungle justice immediately. But, I was touched when he told me his story.”
“He is sick. He had gone to get some medications, but was unable to pay the bills. That was why he stole the clothes. He was going to pawn them to raise N1300 ($3.6). I was touched and furious at him at the same time. I asked if it was him who stole my cardigan about three months back, but he said no.”
Imo said he had to beg the livid mob that had gathered ready to lynch the thief not to deliver “jungle justice” to the thief. He didn’t even let them take him to the police. “If there was free health service, social security or something of such to alleviate his poverty, he probably would not have to steal,” he rationalised. However, for anyone who sees this guy, if he hadn’t been caught, would think he was living the Abuja life, not knowing the dirty stuff he had to do to get by.
Some Like It, Some Don’t
In the end, Imo, who still sees Abuja as very germane to his dream of getting his art out to an international audience, thinks Abuja tends to be overrated if one has never lived there before. “The wasteful life of the supposedly rich and the ruling class appears to be what glitters therein, but is not gold,” he says.
For Chidiebere and Helen Onyeukwu, a married couple who met and got married in Abuja, there is nowhere you can compare Abuja with. Abuja is home. Helen has been in Abuja for close to 20 years. She came into the city when her parents relocated from Abeokuta in the early 2000’s. Helen’s husband, Chidiebere, practically saw the Abuja city being built. His parents migrated to the city for the first time in 1989 when he was just a little boy. In 1993, just two years after Abuja was formally declared Federal Capital Territory, his family returned to Minna, Niger, the state bordering Abuja to the west. They returned to Abuja in 1998 and he has stayed there ever since, even though his parents have retired to their village in Imo State.
The couple are self-employed. Helen shares her time between being a fashion designer while she also supports her husband in his business. Abuja offers the couple the opportunity to mix with people of different backgrounds, which they see as something very important, especially for their less than one-year-old baby girl. Apart from English and the Nigerian Pidgin English, the couple speak three major languages in Nigeria – Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba. While Chidiebere also speaks Gwari, the language of the original settlers in Abuja, the Gbagyi peoples.
Unlike Fisayo who sees it as “lackadaisical attitude to work,” Chidiebere, who has lived in several parts of Abuja before settling down in Kuje, 40 kilometers to the main city, notes that one of the things he appreciates the most in Abuja is the relaxed nature of the city in general. “Abuja generally is quiet compared to some other states where people are always on the move. Life here is more relaxed. If you have the basic necessities of life at your disposal, then you can make good use of the city,” said the businessman who deals in the sales and installation of electrical equipment, fire alarm, cameras, intercoms and security systems.
“Because of the government presence, too, when it comes to infrastructure, you can get them, especially in the city center. Generally Abuja is a place you can enjoy good roads, electricity to some extent and water.”
Helen finds a way to add kitchen matters into the discussion. “Food items are abundant here, you know? Farmers from surrounding states all bring their farm produce here,” she said. Apart from Nasarawa and Niger states, Abuja is is also bordered on the north by Kaduna and on the south east by Kogi states, all of which are major agricultural enclaves in the country.
The only thing the couple regrets at the present time about being in Abuja does not have to do with the present at all. “When we came in then, landed properties were very cheap. If my parents had known or if I had money then, we would have bought a lot of plots, and now when a plot goes for several millions, we would be billionaires,” Chidiebere said not betraying any form of regret at all.
The relaxed nature or laid back attitude of the city may be a bone of contention among newcomers and old timers in the city. You can’t change that fact. There is one reality, though, that every Abuja resident, including Chidiebere, Helen, Imo, and Fisayo agrees on. It is that the availability of basic infrastructure in the city makes it more comfortable than most other places in the country. The real life in Abuja is the total package…the good and the not so good.