Abuja: The return of the natives

Monday Column by Emmanuel Yawe

royawe@yahoo.com | 08024565402

After General Murtala Mohammed sacked General Yakubu Gowon as Head of State in 1975, the difference between the two personalities was clear. General Gowon sedated Nigerians with long winding, endless speeches. Murtala never gave speeches; he thundered.
On Feb 3 1976, he delivered his last thunder bolt. In it he covered a variety of burning national issues one of which was the relocation of the Federal Capital from Lagos. He gave the reasons for the choice of the area which we now call Abuja. The new site he said satisfied the governments “criteria of centrality, good and tolerable climate, land availability and use, adequate water supply, low population density, physical planning convenience, security and multi-access possibility.
“The area is not within the control of any of the major ethnic groups in the country. We believe that the new capital created on such virgin lands as suggested will be for all Nigerians a symbol of their oneness and unity. The Federal Territory will belong to all Nigerians.
“The few local inhabitants in the area who need to be moved out of the territory for planning purposes will be resettled outside the area in places of their choice at government expense.
In order to avoid land speculation in the area, a decree is being promulgated immediately to vest all land in the Federal Territory in the Federal Government.”
The dream of a new capital built on “virgin land” was soon to be shattered by General Obasanjo who took over from Murtala after his assassination on Feb 13th. He ordered his Chief of Army staff Gen TY Danjuma to issue a classified proclamation on 13th July 1978 (a copy of which I have) which contradicted the pronouncements of his predecessor. By this new law, compensation to those whose lands were taken over by military diktat was stopped.
Obasanjo left office in 1979 and many things went wrong with the new Federal Capital before he came back as an elected President in 1999. Shehu Shagari who took over from him was enthusiastic about the movement to Abuja. Even then he tried to follow the laid out plan of providing infrastructure such as roads, electricity, telephones, water etc before moving. On 1st October, 1982, he held the first Independence Anniversary parade in Abuja, an event I covered for the New Nigerian Newspapers. The Presidential Villa he was building then was almost completed and he gave a sumptuous State lunch at the place with Awolowo, Zik and all the heavy weights of Nigerian politics in attendance.
In 1983, the Military struck. First Muhammadu Buhari took over from Shagari; but it was Babangida who took over from Buhari that made history as the first President to move to Abuja. Given his military background and the near encounter with death in Lagos during Major Orkars coup attempt, Babangida abandoned the State House built by Shagari and settled for the heavily fortified Aso Rock Villa of today.
Abacha who came after Babangida had his own ideas of what he wanted to do with Nigeria. He wanted to be a perpetual President and his friend and collaborator General Jeremiah Useni wanted to be Mayor of Abuja. You could therefore see the hands of “Jerry Boy”, who now preferred to be called the Sardauna of Plateau and environs in the sudden elevation of tribal traditional rulers in the territory, complete with pompous new titles and palaces. Was this the new Federal Capital that Murtala dreamed of as belonging to all Nigerians?
Obasanjo on his return as an elected President ordered his Minister of the territory, Nasir el Rufai to restore Abujas master plan. He forgot that the decision he took to stop compensation in 1978 had completely distorted the Abuja master plan as envisioned by Murtala Mohammed.
Those who lost their lands refused to relocate out of the territory. They remained with their customs and traditions, therefore contradicting the dream that Abuja would be a no-man’s land symbolize Nigerian’s oneness.
To be fair, Malam el Rufai did a wonderful job in halting the maddening drift towards a ghetto by Abuja when he was appointed Minister of the FCT. The problem with his approach was that he never investigated the cause of the distortion of Abuja’s master plan. He was only interested in the consequences of that distortion. If he scratched the surface to find who and what distorted the Abuja master plan, Obasanjo would certainly have qualified as number one culprit; number two would be stoppage of compensation.
My fear is that we may not be able to live peacefully with Obasnjo’s distortion of Abuja’s master plan until Jesus returns. At the time he ordered in 1978 that compensation to those whose lands were forcibly seized should stop, the level of enlightenment of the indigenous people of Abuja was very low. Today they are wiser.
Today led by their President Pastor Danladi Jeji, the Original Inhabitants Development Association of Abuja (OIDA) is making demands that we can only ignore at the risk of our ultimate peril. At a recent town hall meeting they called on the Federal Government to accord state status to the capital territory to enable them elect their own governor.
Jeji said that for over 41 years, several resettlement and relocation experiments were carried out in the FCT by various governments with “no headway due to policy inconsistencies.’’
He said that if the natives were allowed to elect their governor, members of house of assembly, and more local area councils created, there would be more accountability and development.
“The failure of the Federal Government to resettle, relocate and compensate our people at the initial cost of N2.8 billion in 1978 has led to several policies summersaults.
“In spite of all the challenges, we are still here, and we are not prepared to go anywhere, because we have nowhere to go.”
In other words, if we thought the natives of Abuja had disappeared into thin air, they have now returned.
And their demands are many: According to Jeji, “All we want is to also be represented in the Federal Executive Council. The natives no longer want a city-centered minister that focuses on developing elite districts.
“The constitution must be amended to reflect the cosmopolitan nature of Abuja.
“This is our own idea of restructuring, a restructuring based on devolution of governmental powers from federal authorities to Abuja city authorities.
“We no longer want the present military contraption, where a minister is appointed to run the Federal Capital Territory like a cantonment. We must change the constitution to reflect our wishes for a modern and cosmopolitan capital city.’’
He promised to sustain the struggle for FCT natives’ emancipation through constitutional amendments at the National Assembly, through peaceful dialogue and negotiations.
As a man of God, I believe Pastor Jeji will lead a peaceful protest through dialogue and negotiations as promised. But I fear that one day the natives will be led by a violent and dangerous demagogue. Holy hell will then be let loose in Abuja and Nigeria.

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