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Searching for Abuja's soul

The Federal capital of Nigeria is a city like Islamabad created to meet official needs, writes Pankaj Vohra.

india Updated: Dec 01, 2007 01:49 IST
Pankaj Vohra

Like many new capitals of the world built during the past 30 years or so, Abuja, the Nigerian federal capital, despite having impressive buildings and modern architecture and infrastructure, lacks a soul.

It is a city like Islamabad created to meet government and official requirements and does not reflect accurately either the country or Africa. In fact, it is a city which with wide roads and well-designed buildings looks more like any western city. It gives a deceptive view of the great country and its warm people.

Smart layout

Any visitor to the capital will appreciate the wide roads and planned avenues, besides imposing structures like the Presidential complex, the National assembly, the National Golden Mosque and the National Church. But somehow the city, other than being the seat of the government and headquarters of business and finance, is certainly going to take many more years to evolve as a capital. The latest models from top car companies are a common sight on the well laid-out roads, where driving like in the west and the US, is on the right carriageway instead of the left unlike in most Commonwealth countries.

The country shifted to the right side driving sometime in the seventies evidently due to the American influence. Abuja, in fact, was created out of virgin land between two imposing rocks — Aso Rock and Zuma rock.

It is located in the centre of the country and is accessible from all directions. It's centrality, climate, low population density, availability of land for future expansion and ethnic accord were factored in to determine where the Federal capital should be.

The country, under late General Murtala Mohammad, was looking for a capital in place of Lagos, which was till then both the central and federal capital. The objective was to make a city which would serve as Nigeria's second best inspirational realisation after independence.

People's pride

Maxwell, a driver who took some of us around when we accompanied the Prime Minister on a bilateral visit to the country in the middle of October, was both proud and sad about the city. He showed off the best places to tourists and visitors and also lamented that it is a city which was comfortable only for those who had wealth or power. An interesting observation made by him was that very few two wheelers could be seen on the roads as the government discourages them to prevent snatchings and robberies.

The city stretches southwards from the Aso Rock and the impressive surroundings include the ministers' hill housing the residences of ministers and the presidential palace.

Significantly, Aso in the local tribal language signifies victory and that is the theme which seems to have inspired top architects from United States and Japan to give final shape to Abuja's urban planning.

The PRC Corporation, Wallace, Mettong, Roberts and Todd and Arch systems, which is a division of American firm Hughes Organisation, initially designed the city but it was Kenzo Tange, a Japanese architect who provided the finishing touches, along with his associates.

Evolving capital

But if the city lacks a soul, it is essentially because every city evolves with the passage of time and the people who live in it give it a certain character. In Abuja, all that is happening, but it will take time. The city is served by the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport located near the Zuma rock. The Zuma rock is also referred to as the Gateway to Abuja and the federal capital begins at its base where the state of Niger ends. The capital has some modern hotels like Nicon Hilton and Abuja Sheraton for visitors. The Abuja Sheraton certainly does not meet international standards given the state of the rooms which though reasonably expensive, need both maintenance and upgradation.

The city has taxi service but it appears that not much attention has been paid to reinforcing the mass transport system. The capital suffers from several drawbacks like capitals of many developing countries. Afterall, as the saying goes, even Rome was not built in a day.

Resource pools

Nigeria, however, is wealthy because of its oil and other resources and is India's largest trading partner in Africa. But the Chinese, Japanese and American influence in the capital is hard to miss.

Like new cities, it has good shopping centres as well as traditional haat or markets selling locally-made beads, art and clothes. Homes for government employees are on the outskirts and perhaps lack the facilities available in the national capital.

The restaurants in hotels and exclusive places serve various kinds of food — from purely Nigerian to Italian, Indian, Lebanese, French and British. In fact, a Lebanese restaurant offering a wide variety of alcoholic drinks and exquisite dishes is a hot favourite with visitors. The Night Club and Elephant bar in Sheraton and a night club in Hilton are packed on weekends. The cultures and traditions of adjoining states are yet to influence the life in Abuja despite it being bounded in the North by Kaduna state, in the west by Niger, in the east and southeast by Nasaraw and in the southwest by the Kogi state.

Sporting spirit

Abuja had bid for the 2014 Commonwealth games and was in the forefront of the race. But it eventually lost the games to Glasgow.

However, it is a matter of time before it hosts international sports events since it has scope for creating new infrastructure, in addition to its impressive stadiums. The event will help capital grow and bring it on the international map. The city is only 30- years-old and has been the capital since December 12, 1991.

It has the potential to grow and become the pride of Africa in the future provided it is able to upgrade security environment and absorb positive influences of the constituent states.

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