Abuja’s Utopia surrounded by urban blight

Patience Israel (20), a hairdresser, lived in a decent home in Karimo, a squatter settlement near Nigeria’s political capital, until it was demolished in January last year.

“That day was like a war,” says Israel, who had to move into a room with her mother at Chika, another squatter settlement on the other side of Abuja. “It was so unexpected. [After the demolition] we had to sleep outside for two days.”

Central Abuja looks like a modern capital with wide streets and a skyline with spectacular public buildings. But four years after a massive urban demolition programme began in 2003, little progress has been made in resettling the roughly 800 000 people that the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (Cohre) estimates have been displaced.

As a result of this and the eviction of 1,2-million other people in different parts of the country since 2000, Cohre has deemed the Nigerian government “consistently one of the worst violators of housing rights in the world”.

More than 24 settlements have been demolished around Abuja, many by force. “The government gave inadequate notice,” says Deanna Fowler, coordinator of the Global Forced Evictions Programme for Cohre.

“Sometimes they would come in, mark out houses and evict within a week. Other times they would wait months so people didn’t know what to do,” she says. “In some cases there was violence between police and residents.” Homes were destroyed while their owners watched, often before they had a chance to clear out their belongings.

Fowler has called on the government to rehabilitate slum communities rather than continue demolishing them.

Utopian thinking

The city’s master plan — written in 1976 when the military government decided to move its political capital from Lagos to Abuja — included a system of highways, infrastructure and new buildings that would wipe out surrounding farming communities, poor towns and squatter settlements.

The plan was to resettle those communities, but that has not happened. Some of the families displaced by the demolitions have resettled in nearby slums or overcrowded satellite towns, or returned to the sites where their homes were demolished and built temporary housing there again.

The Social and Economic Rights Action Centre (Serac) in Lagos estimates that 70% of Abuja’s population lives in slums or poor areas of towns. “Today, you cannot find where the people from the destroyed communities are in Abuja,” says Daniel Mbee, of Serac. “Some went to villages, some to Abuja and some to squatter settlements.”

A lack of low-cost housing has pushed most of the city’s workers far from the city limits to settlements that are growing rapidly. Civil servants, who make up much of Abuja’s workforce, earn as little as 30 000 naira (about $250) a month, while a room in the city centre costs at least twice that and rent must be paid one or two years in advance.

In satellite towns, a room is more affordable — about 2 500 naira ($20) a month — but water and sanitation is often grossly inadequate in these communities. “There has been decay in infrastructure, and the government has not done really well in keeping up,” says Mbee. “A number of communities do not have access to basic services.”

Resettlement problems

The house where Israel and her mother are now living is also in a community slated for demolition. Many people there are living in shacks made of wood and corrugated iron.

Some workers have been given plots of land at a discount, but in areas that are inaccessible, and few can afford the building materials for construction of their own homes, residents say.

Federal Capital Development Authority building inspector Clement Deyn says in one area more than an hour’s drive from Abuja, on a dirt track on the way to the village of Pegi, 5 000 people were meant to resettle but so far only 100 have taken possession of the land.

This area has no electricity, no proper road and insufficient water, says Matta Godwin (35), who fled her home in Jabi village after it was demolished in April. It is also too far from the city. “If you want to go to market, you suffer,” Godwin says. She estimates that transportation costs about 500 naira ($4) each way, eating up nearly all of a daily income.

Many of the people who had moved there are now packing up and getting out, she says.

New minister, new plan

A new minister for the Federal Capital Territory, Aliyu Modibbo Umar, took office in late July. He has promised a new approach to future demolitions that includes bringing in the private sector to build low-cost housing for Abuja’s working class.

“This is the new trend in Africa where the private sector will pay for certain things,” Modibbo says. “Even [in resettlement] we want to use the private sector.”

One scheme, a partnership between the government and the real-estate investment company FHT Ventures, is offering potential homeowners low-cost mortgages repayable over 30 years.

The head of FHT Ventures, Prince Olu Faboro, says he already has 5 000 applicants — about 30% of whom he thinks were victims of the demolitions.

He says he expects about 50% of Abuja’s civil servants will apply for the scheme and that the company should have houses ready for about 20 000 of them by the end of the year.

The ministry also recently announced that contractors working on resettlement houses now under construction will have their contracts revoked if building is not complete by January next year.

Housing advocates say the new government is saying the right things but it remains to be seen whether the situation will improve for hundreds of thousands of people being displaced. — Irin

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