“You see where the Federal Secretariat is located? That was my uncle’s farm. It was taken over by the federal government without any compensation paid to him," Ezekiel Dalhatu, the assistant coordinator, Coalition of FCT Indigenous Groups Association tells Pulse.
Abuja natives and the tale of marginalization
For the natives of Abuja, it's been over forty years of marginalization.
Like Dalhatu’s uncle, most natives of Abuja have been ‘chased’ from their ancestral home to pave way for the creation of Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory (FCT) – a decision which has led to the ‘near-extinction’ of their culture and tradition.
An idea initially welcomed by the natives has become their biggest regret today.
History of Abuja, FCT and the ‘marginalized’ natives
While several accounts exist concerning the origin of the name ‘Abuja’, the most popular tells of a certain ruler in Zaria named Muhammed Makau whose son Abubakar Ja (meaning ‘Abubakar the fair one’) escaped in 1800’s when Zaria fell to Fulani invaders.
as it was then called, soon became a commercial nerve center with lots of economic activities in the area.
In the early 70s, Lagos state, then capital of Nigeria, was fast becoming overpopulated and ‘unfit’ for such status.
In 1976, then administration of Late General Muritala Muhammed constituted a committee saddled with the responsibility of selecting a suitable capital city for Nigeria within the 33 states at the time.
Abuja was considered the most suitable by the Late Justice Akinlola Aguda-led committee due to its centrality, conducive climate, land availability and use, security, physical planning convenience and ethnic accord.
But, long before Abuja was chosen as Nigeria’s capital city, the area was inhabited by nine tribes - Amwamwa, Bassa, Egbira, Gade, Ganagana, Gbagyi (Gwari), Gbari, Gwandara and Koro – with the Gbagyis as the major ethnic group.
Predominantly farmers, the Gbagyis are hospitable and peace loving people with unique cultural heritage who have been in Abuja for over 500 years.
Excited by the development of their land by the federal government, the natives welcomed the plan for the movement of Nigeria’s capital from Lagos to Abuja.
8000sqkm was then carved out of four states – Old Kwara state (Kogi), Old Plateau state (Nasarawa), Niger and Kaduna state to make up 8000sqkm – the needed land area for Nigeria’s capital territory. The Abuja Master Plan was thereafter, developed.
“On Tuesday, February 3, 1976, Late General Mohammed promulgated a decree that ‘the virgin land’ should become the FCT,” said Sumner Shagari Sambo, the media adviser, Original Inhabitants Development Association of Abuja (OIDA).
“Paradoxically, he (Gen. Muritala) then said that a few inhabitants of the area will be evacuated. That was where the problem began. How can it be a virgin land when there are inhabitants in the area?” Shagari wondered.
The federal government then began a pilot study on how to evacuate the natives. Unfortunately, General Muritala died exactly 10 days after the declaration of Abuja as Nigeria’s capital territory.
“Unfortunately, General Muritala who had the real vision of what the FCT should look like and a plan for the natives died exactly ten days later – February 13, 1976. He was shot dead. If Muritala was alive today, perhaps, the situation would have been far better than this,” Sambo said.
Modeled after Canberra - the capital of Australia - the federal government was faced with the challenge of relocating, compensating and resettling the natives of Abuja.
The amount required to resettle all Abuja natives as at 1978 was about N2.8 billion. Nigeria’s budget then was about N300 – N400 million annually.
Another committee was set up to find an alternative solution to the issue and they recommended that the federal government should begin the development of an area and resettle the inhabitants at that particular location.
The committee was set up by Senator Ahmad Rufai.
Corruption found its way into the process and the natives were relocated to new areas which lacked access to basic amenities like schools, hospitals, water supply etc.
Also, some of the houses provided were considered unsuitable by the natives.
“A man who had three wives and 16 children was given one-bedroom flat. Where will he keep his children? So the people rejected the houses for instance in some places like New Karu in Nasarawa state,” Sambo said.
The Rufai-led committee also suggested a dual system of government for Abuja; the federal government and another in Gwagwalada that would exist to serve the natives. This was to be headed by a sole administrator while the FCT minister is in charge of the city.
This recommendation and many others have been thrown in the trash can by those considered to have an ‘interest’ in Abuja.
The failed amendment of the FCT Act has left the indigenes of Abuja in a state which they consider a breach to their rights and privileges as Nigerian citizens.
“The highest political office I can vie for as a Nigerian is that of a Senator. While those in other states can contest for the position of Governors,” Sambo said.
“Until we cried out, the was not considering our children when they write Abuja as their states of origin. Is that fair?
“When it comes to collecting monthly allocations, Abuja is considered a state. But when it comes to addressing issues such as amending the Act that made Abuja Nigeria’s capital, Abuja is not regarded as a state.
“When it is time for elections, everyone will run to their villages to elect their Governors. If the constitutions states that Abuja should be treated as a state, why can’t we be allowed to elect our own Governors?
“Other states have House of Assembly but according to the Act, the National Assembly is supposed to serve that same purpose. But, while other states have three Senators and Rep members of at least three, Abuja has only one Senator and two Rep members. How many people can they represent?” he added.
Senator Philip Tanimu Aduda, the lawmaker representing Abuja, tabled a bill for an elected Mayoral System of administration for the Federal Capital Territory. The bill was ‘killed’ by legislators in 2013.
‘Marginalization of FCT Natives is a ticking time-bomb’
Dalhatu tells that the continuous marginalization of Abuja natives is a ticking time-bomb.
“Abuja natives have not only been marginalized but dehumanized,” Dalhatu said.
“Presently, some people are holding title deeds to lands belonging to Abuja natives. We’ve seen situations where you’ll just wake up and someone will ask you to vacate because he wants to develop his land The federal government has continued to shy away from our call for integration.
“Abuja issue now is like time bomb. If our grandparents did nothing about it, the children who have finished their Masters and PhDs; those who have traveled out of Nigeria and are conversant with world best practices, will not take it.
“The federal government is treating this issue with levity and it is a time-bomb. It will get to a time that it will consume everybody.
“Maitama, Asokoro, Wuse, Garki and others are people’s villages but the federal government has moved these people to the remote parts of Abuja.
“When they wanted to build the Presidential Villa, the natives were paid monies that cannot build a hut. At that time, our people were also not civilized or educated so the federal government took advantage of that and chased them out,” Dalhatu added.
According to the Resettlement Act, the natives are expected to be involved in the planning of the place. But the natives claim that the federal government has failed to act in accordance with this provision.
Most houses built by the federal government for resettlement purposes have allegedly been sold to non-indigenes.
“The natives are not carried along in the planning of these so called resettlement sites. The person should first accept the plan and design of the place. But they will just go and build anything they want and ask people to move in,” Dalhatu said.
“Apo resettlement has not been completed. Now, most of the houses have been sold and taken over by non-natives of the FCT. The natives did not even get the houses. In Shere, they have gone to build some kiosks there and asked people to move in, but they refused. I’m happy that people have become more aware of their rights.
“I grew up to meet my elders protesting about these same issues. Where the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) is located used to be somebody’s farmland. Recently, a family had to push for their wards to be sent to school by Sheraton Hotels because that was also their farm. These families now live in abject poverty.
Dalhatu also accused northern lawmakers of voting against bills which seek to benefit Abuja indigenes.
“In 2013, people (especially northern lawmakers) campaigned to vote against the bill seeking mayoral status for Abuja. It was southerners and easterners that supported that bill while the northerners stood against it. In fact, they are our number one enemies. Even at the FCTA, all the sensitive positions are occupied by the northerners.
“Posterity will judge us because God is watching us,” he added.
The former chairman of Bwari Area Council, Peter Yohanna Ushafa also advocated for an amendment of the enabling laws to create a governing and administrative council saddled with the responsibility of catering for the needs of the natives.
‘Buhari disappointed us’
Unlike in other states, no native of Abuja has been appointed minister in Nigeria – a narrative Muhammadu Buhari allegedly promised to change if elected President in 2015.
Over two years after taking over power, President Buhari is yet to fulfill his promise to the natives.
“Abuja natives are disappointed in the government of General Muhammadu Buhari,” Dalhatu tells .
“President Buhari promised and assured us that for the first time, an Abuja native would be made minister to represent us at the Federal Executive Council. We wanted to stage a protest when names of ministerial nominees were announced, but our stakeholders said we should hold on that Buhari would keep his word. Buhari promised that ‘we (FCT native) shall be shortlisted.’
“Our Senator (Philip Aduda) raised a point of order that the list would not be considered until a native is shortlisted. We wrote to the presidency and the National Assembly, protested and in the end, nobody from the FCT was shortlisted. This agitation will continue but in a peaceful manner but you cannot pre-empt the future,” he warned.
‘Their birthrights have been sold’
A staff of the Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA) who spoke to on condition of anonymity said ‘their forefathers have sold their birthrights.’
The source explained further that the indigenes were settled by the federal government before the implementation of the Master Plan.
“The issue of the natives of Abuja has been a recurring decimal but you cannot blame the Federal Government because their forefathers and stakeholders were settled before the Master Plan was designed or implemented. They sold their birthrights a long time ago,” the source said.
“The federal government has not abandoned them as they claim. When houses are built to resettle them, they’ll sell the houses and land for very meager amount of money and move to another area. Later, they’ll begin to carry placards from one place to the other.
“There have been instances where the federal government through the FCTA would build houses for the natives, they will reject it saying it is either too small or there is no land for them to farm. You can imagine!
“We have dealt with issues where this group will come and make demands, once their demands are met, they will disappear and another group will emerge. These are some of the things we have had to battle with at FCTA.
“All these agitations and protests were supposed to be carried out by their grandparents at the initial stage. How can you begin to protest after everywhere has been planned and taken over? All the land you see in Abuja now has been allocated, only a few places left.
“The truth is, even if you create another state for the natives of Abuja with their governors, they will still complain just like other states are doing now,” the source added.
‘Abuja will become a country’
In the wake of calls for secession, the natives of Abuja have disclosed their plans to seek for self-determination and an independent state.
President of OIDA, Danladi Jeji said the natives will seek an independent status by calling on the United Nations to govern the 8,000sq kilometers territory through a transitional arrangement until it can become an autonomous city-state with socio-political and economic sovereignty.
“We are minorities consisting of nine tribes and burgeoning residents who have a right to self-determination hence none of the majority regions or ethnicities should think that we will go with them,” he said
“We urge more peace and unity at the moment but should the Nigerian federation be dissolved; we shall have no choice than to seek an independent status from the northern or southern groups agitating for separate countries at the moment. Like Kosovo, we shall seek the United Nations’ administrative, civil and military support to declare an autonomous status of self-government,” he added.
Will an independent state meet the demands of the natives of Abuja? With a current population of over 1.5 million – according to the 2006 census – can the Federal Government resettle the natives of Abuja?
Experts have however advocated integration as means to solving this problem.
With Nigeria's dwindling economy, the resettlement, relocation and compensation of the natives of Abuja may be a mirage.
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