Monday Column by Emmanuel Yawe
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On February 3 of 1976, General Murtala Mohammed, the Head of Nigerian State delivered his last national broadcast. In that speech, he proclaimed Abuja as the new federal capital of Nigeria.
One of the major reasons this decision was taken according to him was the centrality of the place which would make it accessible and a property of all Nigerians. Figuratively speaking therefore, Abuja was conceived as the heart of Nigeria.
If Murtala gave Nigeria a heart, President Shehu Shagari gave it the first pulse. In 1982, he decided to hold the first ever National Independence Anniversary Celebration in the new heart of the nation. A series of activities were lined up to precede the D-day on October 1 1982. The New Nigerian Newspaper, where I worked at the time and the only newspaper in Nigeria owned 100% by the Federal Government, was ecstatic and planned to give it maximum publicity. I remember A. B Ahmed, one of the best essayists on our editorial team at the time writing a beautiful article captioned ‘Abuja – The Heart Begins To Beat’.
I became part of the efforts to give the 1982 Independence Day Celebration in Abuja full publicity almost by accident. The newspaper had sent a reporter, Shitu Saude and a photographer, Joshua Ebene, to ensure full coverage of the pre-Independence Day activities and those on October 1 itself. Much to the disappointment of our Editors, they received weak and or stale reports, allowing other newspapers to take the shine of the novel experiment by President Shagari.
That was how I was drafted in, given a vehicle to meet Mike Reis, our reporter in Minna, Niger State to come to Abuja and reinforce the weak team that was giving our Editors sleepless nights. We drove from Minna into Suleja. Lo and behold, the first people we saw was Shitu Saude and Joshua Ebene exchanging blows in a fierce boxing duel. We separated the combatants and established some truce. There was no need asking the pugilists what led them to box each other on the streets. The stench of alcohol was everywhere in the boxing arena. The god of Bacchus had taken over their journalistic commitment to their employer. We could now see the wisdom of our Editors in sending us to Abuja.
That incidence has remained stuck in my memory because it was my first visit to Abuja. But I digress.
On December 12 1991 the giant step was taken. If Murtala Mohammed gave Nigeria a heart and Shehu Shagari gave the heart its first pulse, Ibrahim Babangida gave the heart a regular beat. Apart from the Presidential Villa which serves as the residential and office complex for the President and his Vice, President Ibrahim Babangida provided the basic infrastructure that made Abuja begin to function as Nigeria’s capital.
Lagos was and still is a security nightmare. The decision by President Babangida to relocate to Abuja was hastened by the bloody adventure of a man we called Gwaza when we were primary school mates at Apir near Makurdi the Benue state capital. In 1990, now known as Major Gideon Orkar, he and his band of murderers invaded Dodan Barracks in Lagos and nearly wiped out the Presidents family. They killed many soldiers including the aide de camp to the President. The mad men then proceeded to make incoherent announcements on the radio, expelling some states from the Nigerian nation! Nigeria was on the brink of Armageddon.
It is not so easy for a coup maker to roll tanks into Aso Rock, the massively fortified Presidential palace as Gwaza did in Lagos. But the security agencies and the government they serve must be making a fool of themselves if they think an overthrow of government is not possible again because of improved security at the Presidential fortress. Lest we forget, it was in Abuja and right there in the Villa that Abacha booted Shonekan out of power.
Despite its shortcomings, Abuja remains the most civilized and serene town we have in Nigeria. The first test of the cosmopolitan serenity of Abuja came on November 22 2002. The decision by Ben Bruce to bring the Miss World contest to Nigeria was a controversial one. As the debate went on, a pupil reporter at This Day newspaper published an article that was considered blasphemous by some Muslims. Hundreds of Muslim youths went on the rampage in Abuja on November 22, armed with sticks, daggers and knives. They set fire to vehicles and attacked anyone they suspected of being Christian.
Again, on 7th July 2010, economic activities were grounded in some parts of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja, as over 700 ex-militants from the Niger Delta region stormed the city and protested against what they described as Federal Government’s insincerity in the implementation of the post-amnesty programme.
The ex-militants, who did not meet the October deadline of disarmament, said the Federal Government had refused to document them since they laid down their arms last year, demanding that the Federal Government should return the weapons they voluntarily surrendered so that they would go back to the creeks and continue their ‘normal lives’.
These two unrelated events are enough proof to any doubting Thomas that Nigerians are prepared to desecrate the high nationalist ideals for which Murtala Mohammed created Abuja. Worse still followed the deadly bombings in Abuja.
It started with the bombing by MEND, a Niger Delta terror group, on October 1 2010 as President Goodluck Jonathan presided over Independence Day celebrations. Then followed the Boko Haram bombings of Abuja; the United Nations August 26th 2011; the 16th June 2011 bombing of the Police Headquarters; 26th April 2011 bombing of Thisday newspapers office in Abuja; the twin bombing of Nyanya bus station on 14th April 2014; bombing of the Banex shopping complex in Abuja etc.
These are clear indications that Nigeria’s heart has started bleeding. Even then, there is nothing as frightening as the invasion of Abuja by battalions of members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria whose leader El-Zakzaky is under government detention. Evidently, these followers are willing to be martyred, rightly or wrongly. Death means nothing to them, it seems.
Most disturbing is the perception, in sections of the public, that they have a justifiable cause. The courts have ruled that the government should free their leader. In a democratic system, the government is duty and honour bound to obey the courts. In government cycles, however, is the argument that national security concerns cannot be compromised on grounds of individual’s freedom. This makes some sense. However, the government can find a more intelligent way of containing El-Zakyzaky. The flow of blood on the streets of Abuja makes me sad.