Nigeria bulldozes slums to polish capital

ABUJA (Reuters) - Scavenging through mounds of rubble in Nigeria’s capital Abuja, Usman Landam plucks out the biggest mud blocks he can find, determined to rebuild his two-bedroom hut after government bulldozers knocked it down.

Children fetch firewood amidst the rubble of a demolished building in Gosa, Abuja, July 21, 2008. Scavenging through mounds of rubble in Nigeria's capital Abuja, Usman Landam plucks out the biggest mud blocks he can find, determined to rebuild his two-bedroom hut after government bulldozers knocked it down. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

Landam’s plight illustrates a stark discrepancy lurking at the heart of the world’s eighth biggest crude exporter.

As oil prices surge, producer nations are reaping heady financial rewards. But in many of those countries, only a few are lifted by the swell while millions more are buffeted by waves of food and fuel inflation.

Or in Landam’s case, swept aside by the new wealth.

“My house used to be there,” the 25-year-old said, pointing to the pile of crushed rocks, splintered wood and corrugated metal left after his home was destroyed last month.

“I hope to make a new home for my wife and child, but it will take some time,” he added.

The OPEC member nation’s government says homes in the shanty towns around Abuja, most of which lack electricity or piped water, are illegal and do not fit into its master plan to develop a prestigious capital.

Like most Nigerians, Landam cannot afford to live in the sumptuous villas and apartments that have been built in Abuja, one of the most expensive cities in Africa.

Instead they are relegated to shanty towns, like Toge, on Abuja’s fringes -- dusty settlements of homes, schools, churches and bars that have become a major irritant to a government bent on creating a pristine city.

Nigeria, which produces 2 million barrels of oil a day, is spending hundreds of millions of dollars modernizing Abuja, a mixture of office blocks, luxury hotels and huge mansions surrounded by granite hills.

Many poorer Nigerians resent Abuja’s development at the expense of other regions and see it as an artificial, sanitized city where even “okadas” -- the cheap motorcycle taxis that are the most popular form of transport in Lagos -- are banned.

Its grandeur is also a world away from most Nigerians’ lives: of the country’s 140 million people, nine out of 10 live on less than $2 a day, according to U.N. statistics. They struggle with a lack of water and electricity, appalling roads and crumbling public services.

“Abuja is for the politicians and millionaires. It’s not for the ordinary man,” said Isaiah Ayuba, a 20-year-old living in Gosa Sariki, a shanty town near the international airport.


The authorities have demolished more than 800,000 homes in slums around Abuja since 2003, according to the Swiss-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE).

“The people living in these villages are not just the poor, but also the middle-class -- lawyers, police officers,” said Deanne Fowler, a senior research officer at COHRE, which has urged President Umaru Yar’Adua to halt the evictions.

“There is no affordable housing for Nigerians working in Abuja,” she said.

The government says it does not want Abuja, the pet project of successive leaders since the days of military rule, to end up like the sprawling urban mess of the former capital, Lagos, a crime-ridden city of more than 10 million people.

It first drew up plans for Abuja in the 1970s during a global oil shock which swelled the nation’s coffers as crude prices rocketed.

The aim was to create an accessible city in the centre of the country, somewhere “ethnically neutral” and thus immune to sporadic, deadly bursts of religious and tribal violence, to replace the chaos of Lagos as the seat of government.

In 1976, it created the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), an 8,000 square km (3,088 sq mile) region within which all land came under control of the central government.

Buildings without planning permission were destroyed and villages bulldozed to make way for huge government office blocks and luxury hotels on a grid of four-lane highways. Abuja finally became the federal capital in 1991.

But the development forced residents out into impromptu satellite towns that the authorities are now seeking to raze.

“The moment we relent and allow shanty towns they will keep growing and growing to the point where we can’t do anything about them so we thought it would be better to nip it in the bud,” FCT minister Aliyu Modibbo told Reuters.

“People have to obey the laws otherwise we’ll have slums and shanties all over just like Lagos, Brazil, Rio De Janeiro, Mexico ... These slums breed crime and all unfortunate things that make life impossible for law-abiding citizens,” he said.


Modibbo said most of those evicted around Abuja were unemployed squatters who had moved in from other regions.

He said the government had resettled 20,000-30,000 indigenous families throughout the FCT territory over the past 15 years and would continue to move more to low-cost housing.

But many have simply been pushed to slums further and further away from the bulldozers’ tracks.

Residents estimate that around 2,000 people lived in Toge before the earthmovers, escorted by dozens of armed police officers, arrived in June and razed hundreds of homes belonging to those born outside Abuja.

One person died and two were wounded when fighting broke out, they say. Now, only about 500 people remain, their homes spared because they were born in the area.

Landam was born in Abuja and his home was demolished by accident. He has received no compensation.

The authorities say residents were alerted months before by police who marked any home to be destroyed with a large red X.

But despite the warnings, Sunday Isaac and many others stayed in Toge because they could not afford to move. Isaac sent his wife and four children to the northern city of Kaduna to live with his brother but remained to protect his livelihood.

“I prefer to stay here because of my market,” he said outside his rented one-room mud hut, where he sells eggs, flour and lentils, and is now forced to sleep.

“I’ll need another house so my family can come back.”

(For a story on how oil wealth is not trickling down in Lagos, please double-click on; for a factbox on the Nigerian economy, double-click on)

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Editing by Nick Tattersall and Clar Ni Chonghaile