28 Years Later: How Abuja Became Nigeria’s Capital

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The tarred, expansive roads of Abuja are signs of a modern city in tune with a rapidly evolving world. Looking, one might be tempted to believe that the city had always existed as the seat of authority in Africa’s most populous country, but December 12, 2019, will mark the 28th anniversary of Nigeria moving its capital from Lagos to Abuja. The choice of Abuja was informed by several decisions and has affected the lives of a number of ethnic groups since then.

What prompted the change of capital?

Recovering from the brutal horrors of the Nigerian Civil War, the Yakubu Gowon-led government had started considering a move to take the capital of Nigeria away from Lagos by the early 1970s because of its proximity to the coast and being easily accessible by the sea in the event of an attack. The population boom that Lagos experienced in the 70s and 80s and its effect on social amenities and living conditions also prompted the government to step up its plans to move the capital outside Lagos.

After replacing General Yakubu Gowon as the leader of the nation, General Murtala R. Mohammed stepped-up actions by commissioning a panel to study a plan to move the capital and the panel returned with a report stating that the capital should be moved and the government flush with newly minted oil money acceded to the panel’s report.

Why Abuja?

The decision to locate the capital in Abuja was taken because of its position on the Nigerian map. Located in the center of the nation, Abuja was seen as a neutral point for the diverse religious and ethnic groups that made up Nigeria and intended to be accessible to all Nigerians regardless of wherever they were coming from in Nigeria. As General Mohammed himself said while announcing the plan: “The area is not within the control of any of the major ethnic group in the country. We believe that a new federal capital created on such a virgin land, will be for all Nigerians a symbol of their oneness and unity. The Federal Territory will belong to all Nigerians.”

How was it built?

While preparing to build Abuja, Nigeria studied other major capitals that influenced the city’s planning. Brasilia (capital of Brazil), Paris (capital of France), Islamabad (capital of Pakistan), and Washington D.C. (capital of United States of America) were some of the cities considered for important details such as urban planning. The competition to develop the masterplan for Abuja and the Federal Capital Territory was worn by International Planning Associates (IPA) – a consortium of three American firms: Planning Research Corporation, Wallace, McHarg, Roberts and Todd, and Archisystems. The International Planning Associates (IPA) produced a masterplan that detailed the majority of design elements and structures that are visible in the city. Construction work began in full flow in the 1980s and by the end of the 80s, there was a functional water and telephone system to cater to one million people. Hospitals were built, primary schools, a university was established in 1988 and by the close of the decade, a lot of people were flocking to what was being dubbed the Center of Unity. On December 21, 1991, under General Ibrahim Babangida, Abuja officially became the capital of Nigeria.

What happened to the native residents?

Before it became the nation’s capital, Abuja was inhabited by groups like the Gbagyi, Koro, Gade, and Gwandara who had lived on the lands for over 4,000 years. The relocation of the capital from Lagos resulted in the displacement of these natives who had their primary means of livelihood – farming – affected by the construction work. There were over 800 villages in the location over which the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) was built according to Al Jazeera. Committees were created by the government to oversee the relocation process and provide compensation for affected persons. In the later years, when indigenes did not move as fast as expected the government considered relocating them involuntarily and this led to them being moved to the fringes of the new capital.


Photo Credit: Connect Nigeria 

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