Everybody’s land. Nobody’s land: an insider’s reflection on Nigeria’s capital city.

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We sat at a spot near Banex junction, along the shopping street that features a conglomeration of plazas; Nigeria’s fancy word for a large collection of independent shopping outlets. Our spot was open thus affording us an unencumbered view of the busy street; of people returning from work and shoppers driving out of the busy street. The view was open because it was a suya joint. We had gathered over plates of the quintessential Nigerian snack and some drinks.

As the discussion proceeded, I told our guests that a little over two decades ago, the place where we sat was nothing more than a patch of low-grass bush with a few shanty “containers”. They looked incredulous. But it was true.

Like most families, mine had arrived at the capital in late 1999. Nigeria had become a democratic country again and there were high hopes for the capital city, Abuja. Even though Abuja had been declared the new Nigerian capital in 1991, nothing much happened until the end of that century.  By the time we arrived, a large section of the city was bushy; a fact that’s hard to believe considering the mind-numbing pace of development that occurred in less than two decades. It’s not surprising that Abuja was consistently named the fastest developing city on the continent for more than a decade. 

While I’m proud of the pace of growth, my admiration for the city grew for a different reason. And it’s a reason that’s a bit hard to explain to a non-Nigerian. But I’ll try. You see, in Nigeria, all citizens, regardless of their place of residence, trace their home to the part of Nigeria where the bulk of their ethnic group has lived for long periods. Thus when residing in a different part of Nigeria, people are considered “non-indigenes” or, to put it bluntly, “strangers”. The “indigene” vs “stranger” label is an almost ubiquitous appellation in most parts of the country, including its most cosmopolitan cities. Except in Abuja.

The idea of a capital that at once belongs to people from all over the country and eschews the “indigene” vs “stranger” label has distinguished Abuja from every other city in the country. Thus it’s no surprise that the city has evolved at rapid pace, buoyed by a massive migration flow and increasing inflows of oil and gas revenues. It is no exaggeration to say that Abuja is the city where every Nigerian feels at home away from their ancestral home. Of course the city is not without its ills.

The cost of living remains extremely high. Furthermore, as a teenager, I watched many houses get pulled down by the government because they were “illegal”. The authorities wanted to make way for expensive real estate development. Yet, for all its ills, the city remains free from the “stranger” appellation characteristic of other cities.     

Living in Abuja has been rewarding. Exploring the city with guests of Nugwa Journeys has been even more rewarding. We’ve gotten to see the city like she is. From upscale neighborhoods to sprawling outskirts; from beautifully designed malls to rowdy open-air markets. I feel a certain sense of pride and nostalgia in pointing at my high school to guests. And letting them know that this beautiful neighborhood or that suburb was nothing more than an uninhabited bush when I arrived. Even more importantly, there’s the almost palpable spirit of nonchalance that characterizes Abuja residents. The idea that the city belongs to all; citizens and expatriates alike. It’s almost unheard of in any other Nigerian city.

As we wind down our plates of suya, our bottles of zobo and/or fura, the street traffic gradually slows. Nightfall approaches. We embark on a short, reflective walk back to our hotels. A guest asks the difference between a Nigerian wax fabric and a Hollandis. I’ll try to explain. But the fashion designer will do better when we visit her tomorrow. For now, it’s the end of another day in the city that’s everybody’s and nobody’s.

Nugwa & Co. designs private luxury trips to interesting locations across West Africa. Learn more about us at https://nugwa.com/

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