Between Wike And Gumi, Who Really Owns Abuja? By Lasisi Olagunju

BEFORE Abuja, there was Lagos as our Federal Capital. And this is where I would want to believe that there is something about our North and Federal Capital Territories. Before independence and immediately after independence, Lagos had a succession of two ministers of Lagos Affairs, both were northerners. One was Alhaji Musa Yar’Adua, father of the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. There was also Muhammadu Ribadu, grandfather of our immediate past First Lady, Hajia Aisha Buhari. Years later, Nigeria moved to Abuja and a long line of FCT ministers was recorded for the North. Now, some of the power elite from the north are said to be bellyaching over a southerner currently holding the steering wheel of Abuja, Lagos’ successor as the Federal Capital Territory. Leading the ground troops is fiery cleric, Sheikh Ahmad Gumi. He and his army of angry purists are not happy with Nyesom Wike’s presence as minister and with his ways in the FCT.

Juju musician, Ebenezer Obey, sings in one of his records that there is nothing new under the sun (Kò s’oun tuntun l’ábé òrun mó…). There is nothing the current FCT minister, Wike, is doing in Abuja today that was not done in Lagos of the first republic by Minister Ribadu in his days as Lagos Affairs Minister. Ribadu and Wike are more than two generations apart but if you ask 18th century Irish writer, poet and lyricist, Thomas Moore, to study the two and describe his findings in a poetic phrase, he would likely say he discovered a pair of kindred spirits. Guts for guts, tongue for tongue, their adjectival numerals would be six and half a dozen. Wike can talk and do anything; Ribadu could talk and do anything. He did what he had to do in Lagos before he was moved to the Ministry of Defence, then he died suddenly on May 1, 1965 at the age of 55. This is what Ribadu’s biographer wrote on him and how he ran the affairs of Lagos: “Before going over to Defence, Ribadu held the post of Minister of Lagos Affairs where he was so effective for his admirable performance. He was in charge when the city was being rebuilt. He had several decisions not being implemented because of the opposition of some people to move out of their places of abode to new sites given them by the government after they had collected their compensations… (They) refused to move out in spite of constant reminders. One morning, he visited the area and to the surprise of the Power of Powers (Ribadu’s nickname), instead of those people to come and plead, they shouted at ‘Gambari’. He parked his car and sent a message for a tractor (a bulldozer) which he personally supervised (while it) pulled down buildings owned by those residents. From then, when Ribadu was seen, he was called ‘Baba Eko’ – the father of Lagos.

“A particular incident which made him more feared was the house of one feared babalawo or juju priest. Some prominent Lagosians who were good friends of Ribadu pleaded with him to skip that man’s house for fear of serious consequences befalling him, but he ignored them. The chief priest himself visited Ribadu’s quarters pouring some powder, and three times, deposited chained chickens, goat and even a ram. On Ribadu’s order, his houseboys made feasts whenever these were brought in. Finally, he went to the (juju man’s) house the day it was to be broken down. Today, the place is occupied by a multi-storey building housing several offices. This, indeed, was the man Ribadu. Contrary to what the Babalawo and his friends believed, not even a headache troubled the indefatigable Ribadu. Had he not put his feet firmly on the ground, probably we could not have done any development in Lagos as it is today” (see page 21-22 of ‘The Power of Powers: A biography of the Late Alhaji Muhammadu Ribadu’ by Sidi H. Ali).

There are speculations about errant churches and mosques being threatened by Wike’s bulldozers. Mosques are sacred; churches are sacred. But Islam and Christianity are against persons who disdain the law and break it with impunity. The two religions have special hell fires for law breakers. If a mosque or a church finds itself running foul of the law, should it not willingly pay the price? A priest’s house was caught by the law in Lagos in the early sixties, Muhammadu Ribadu, the minister of Lagos Affairs, pulled down the sacred house. I do not think Wike would be doing anything new or strange if he also moves against sacred structures that offend the law.

Sheikh Gumi and his supporters spoke on the ownership status of Abuja. The sheikh has not stopped being in the news since then. (Apologies to Justice Victor Ovie Whisky and his Verdict ’83), the Supreme Court and its Verdict ’23 of last Thursday hasn’t stopped Gumi from trending. Nor has the ghastly parting gift of filth and odium from Justice Musa Dattijo Muhammad who declared that our judiciary had “become something else.” Gumi said some things that were as weighty as heavy. He spoke about Abuja and its ownership. He spoke on who was qualified to wield power there and who was not. He called the FCT minister “a satanic person” who should never have occupied a space reserved for Abuja, a city of saints. Gumi said “The Minister of the FCT is a satanic person; I said it before when he was appointed and some people were grumbling.” The sheikh said other things and it was from him that I learnt that nepotism has tribe and it is better in some than in others. Gumi said “Yet they kept blabbing about Buhari’s so-called nepotism. There was an element of nepotism under Buhari, I reckon. But our (northern Muslim) nepotism is not evil because it does no harm to anyone. If it cannot promote your interest, it won’t harm it either; here is the difference. That’s why I keep warning that power should not slip from our hands into theirs. Look how they took over all juicy and lucrative positions in the country. And they believe they’ll continue to govern us in the next four years and beyond. They think through their tricks they’ll get re-elected for another four-year term to make eight years in power. But that will not happen while we’re here by the will of God. Their ultimate goal is to impoverish the North…”

I asked questions and I was told Bola Tinubu’s choice of a southerner as FCT minister is heresy to the powers in the North. They think Abuja is the North’s property and a northerner must be in charge there in perpetuity.

But, shall we ask who really owns Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory? General Murtala Muhammed, the Kano man who created it, asked and answered that question at the very beginning. In his February 3, 1976 broadcast announcing that area as our new Federal Capital, he said it would “belong to all Nigerians” of all tribes and tongues. Here, I think I should quote him copiously: “The area is not within the control of any of the major ethnic groups in the country. We believe that the new capital created on such virgin lands as suggested will be for all Nigerians a symbol of their oneness and unity. The Federal Territory will belong to all Nigerians. The few local inhabitants in the area who need to be moved out of the territory for planning purposes will be resettled outside the area in places of their choice at government expense.” But, until Tinubu’s appointment of Wike to man that space, Abuja had been ruled as northern Nigeria’s 20th state to the shame of its history and the promise that birthed it.

Why did Nigeria build a new Federal Capital? And why the name Abuja? Linguistic historians say ‘Abuja’ is a combination of two lexical items: one is the name of the historical person who founded that emirate, the other an adjective: Abu+ja; ja is the Hausa word for red or fair in colour, while Abu is the shortened form of Abubakar. If I would translate ‘Abuja’ to Yoruba, it would be ‘Abú pupa.’ Two researchers, Julius Unumen and Adewale Adepoju, quoting several credible sources, give insights into this in a seminal article with the title: ‘Lessons of History for Planning and Development in Nigeria: The Example of the Contrast between Lagos and Abuja’, published in the January 2019 edition of the African Research Review, number 53. According to them, the old Abuja was named after its founder, Abubakar (Abu) Makau, who was said to be ‘red’ (fair) in complexion. When, in 1976, Nigeria chose that site as its new capital, it gave it no name – it was just FCT. But by 1978, it had become absurd that a country’s federal capital would be without a name. A committee was asked to recommend a name; it suggested Gurara (after River Gurara). The recommendation was rejected by the government which decided to snatch the name of the nearby Abuja emirate that contributed 80 percent of the FCT land. Would the Federal Capital Territory then be sharing a name with an emirate? The Olusegun Obasanjo military government said no, the virgin FCT must not be betrothed to any ‘tribe or tongue’. The government proceeded to force the then reigning emir of Abuja, Alhaji Suleiman Bara, to drop the name of his domain and coin a new one. The new one is today’s Suleja (Sule + ja) – the Sule in the name being coined from ‘Suleiman’ the fair complexioned emir. Now, why did Nigeria build a new Federal Capital?

In a 1984 article, Jonathan Moore of the Centre for International Affairs at Harvard University, United States, noted that “the removal of the seat of government from Lagos was a volatile issue throughout the period of British rule.” Lord Lugard and his successor, Hugh Clifford, clashed over it. Before Lugard, there was Sir Ralph Moore who was the High Commissioner of the Niger Coast Protectorate and Sir Henry Edward McCallum, Governor of Lagos (1897-1899). Both grappled with the location issue. Indeed, Moore continues, “each administrator who followed Clifford until Nigeria’s independence had to deal with the exigencies of the capital’s location.” Before and after independence, the issue of where the capital should be was one of the potent threats to the unity of the country. The Action Group and its leadership clashed several times with the NCNC and its Northern Peoples Congress over Lagos and where it should be. The war over Lagos and its status was a back and forth struggle. The matter remained alive throughout the first republic and in the life of the succeeding military governments. There were concerns of inadequate infrastructure, lack of land for expansion and what the system called “the dominance of a single tribe” in Lagos. (see ‘The Political History of Nigeria’s New Capital’ by Jonathan Moore in the Journal of Modern African Studies, 22, 1 (1984) page 167-175).

The fate of Lagos as the capital was finally decided by the Murtala-Obasanjo regime in February 1976. It felt Nigeria needed a new capital city and went for it. On August 7, 1975, less than three months after he took over, General Murtala Mohammed set up the Justice Akinola Aguda Panel and charged it with the duty of locating a suitable place as the Federal Capital Territory of Nigeria. On the Aguda panel were Chief E.E. Nsefik, Dr. Tai Solarin, Professor O. K. Ogan, Alhaji Muhammed Musa Isma, Chief Owen Fiebai, Dr. Ajato Candonu and Colonel Monsignor Pedro Martins.

The Aguda panel submitted its report in December 1975 recommending that: “1. The city of Lagos is incapable of functioning as both a federal capital and state capital, due to the problem of inadequate land space for development commensurate with its status as the capital of Nigeria. 2. Lagos is identified with predominantly one ethnic group, and a new capital is needed in a location that would provide equal access to Nigeria’s great diversity of cultural groups. 3. A new capital is desirable that would be secure, ethnically neutral, centrally accessible, comfortable and healthful, and possess adequate land and natural resources to provide a promising base for urban development. 4. A new capital is needed as a symbol of Nigeria’s aspirations for unity and greatness” (see page XII of Akinola Arabambi’s ‘A critique of the Planning of Abuja, The New Federal Capital of Nigeria’, an unpublished thesis submitted to the California Polytechnic State University in October 1980).

The Murtala Mohammed government accepted the recommendations and on February 5, 1976, it promulgated Decree 6 giving legal teeth to its white paper on the Aguda panel’s report. The law carved out 8,000 square kilometers from states in an area in the Middle Belt part of Nigeria. It stated that “as from the promulgation of the decree (the FCT land) ceases to be portion of the states concerned and would henceforth be governed and administered by or under the control of the Federal Government of Nigeria. No other person or authority was permitted to continue to exercise control over the entire area of the new Federal Capital Territory besides the Federal Government of Nigeria. Similarly, ownership of the lands comprised in the territory was vested in the Federal Government of Nigeria,” (see Unumen and Adepoju, 2019: 54). That law and all assurances given by Murtala Mohammed and the safety valves subsequently put in place by the succeeding military government of Obasanjo were wantonly subverted by the contradiction called Nigeria.

Abuja has had sixteen substantive ministers, fifteen of them came from the North. The exception is the incumbent. When you consider the pan-Nigerian character of the Aguda panel, the patriotic tone of its terms of reference and the nationalist innocence of its recommendations, you would feel sad at the great betrayal that Abuja has turned out to become. You would be ashamed of those who today think Abuja is their inheritance. It is on record that Dr Akinola Aguda, jurist without blemish, died regretting doing the duty of getting Abuja for Nigeria as Federal Capital. He lived to see a succession of governments at the federal level as they worked very hard to make Abuja another northern city/state. Aguda died 22 years ago but not before he wrote a piece for The Guardian with the title: ‘My Regret about Abuja’. Dr Aguda’s son, Olumuyiwa, an oba in Akureland, Ondo State, reinforced his dad’s feeling of being used for parochial causes. In an interview published by the New Telegraph newspaper two months ago, the younger Aguda said his father was disappointed that “Abuja became more like (the) capital of the North.”

Nigeria is built on a foundation of subversion of all things noble, and of iniquity and unfairness. But, I think on Abuja, a needle has fallen off the leper’s hands. With Wike’s appointment, a jinx of insults is broken. Today, the FCT belongs to all of Nigeria; it is no longer somebody’s inheritance. God is great.