Poor People Weren’t Part of the Plan for Abuja
In Nigeria’s carefully designed capital, urban enforcers harass ordinary citizens.
By the side of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city, is a sign that reads, “No Parking. No Loitering. No Waiting.” That doesn’t stop the drivers of Abuja’s communal cabs (known as "along" because they go along fixed routes) from constantly dropping off and picking up passengers at what has effectively become, by rule of unspoken agreement, a bus stop. It’s a convenient location, right in the center of the city.
By the side of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city, is a sign that reads, “No Parking. No Loitering. No Waiting.” That doesn’t stop the drivers of Abuja’s communal cabs (known as “along” because they go along fixed routes) from constantly dropping off and picking up passengers at what has effectively become, by rule of unspoken agreement, a bus stop. It’s a convenient location, right in the center of the city.
On Aug. 10, however, things were different. As cabs stopped outside the ministry building, un-uniformed men jumped in and forcefully pulled keys from the ignition while dragging drivers out by their collars. Armed members of the Nigeria Police Force and the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps stood a few paces away, silently observing the harassment.
“You have no right to treat people in this manner,” a commuter waiting for a cab, who asked for anonymity, said.
“We keep telling all of you that this place is not a bus stop,” one of the un-uniformed men said. “Look at the sign.”
“But you have provided no alternative. Where do you want people to wait for cabs?” the commuter asked. I had just started to record the incident when the officer walked toward me and attempted to grab my phone—even as I pointed out that I was a lawyer and knew my rights.
It was a typical operation by the Abuja Environmental Protection Board task force: a display of brute force suddenly enforcing long-forgotten or ignored rules.
The Abuja Environmental Protection Board (AEPB), established in 1997, is charged with the responsibility of protecting and managing the Federal Capital Territory’s environment, the enforcement of all environmental legislation, and the abatement of all forms of environmental degradation and nuisance. But in practice, the board and its associated task force have become synonymous with reports of harassment, brutality, extortion, and oppression, especially among the urban poor. Environmental degradation has become synonymous with the presence of the poor.
That’s a problem throughout the developing world, whether it’s enforced by Russian militias or China’s chengguan (urban enforcers). The images of metropolises in the heads of the men (and occasionally women) who run them are startlingly different from the reality needed to make the cities work—especially for the poor.
In Abuja, for instance, the space given over to private parking in the city’s center is far greater than that for public transportation—in a country where the minimum wage is 30,000 naira (around $75) monthly, and the vast majority of workers don’t drive. Bus stops are scattered on the edge of the city center, leaving low-income workers with a long walk to work. The city would rather retain its image of grandeur than provide comfort for its workers.
Abuja was chosen as Nigeria’s new capital in 1976, and it was constructed in the 1980s according to a grand master plan designed by the Japanese architect Kenzo Tange. Abuja was supposed to replace a crowded and chaotic Lagos. Instead of a packed metropolis, it would be a planned, controlled, modern city. According to the plan, the development of the city was to come in four phases—with a slow injection of population at each phase until it reached its estimated population peak of 3 million—about the same size as Lagos at the time.
However, as more people flocked into the city for the economic opportunities that it provided, Abuja’s population started to grow steadily. And as the Boko Haram insurgency ravaged the country’s northeast, the city became home to refugees fleeing the terrorist attacks there, with over 19 settlements hosting thousands of people who have been internally displaced by the conflict. Between 2009 and 2020, the capital’s population grew by around 6 percent a year, and a city that was designed for, at most, 3 million people is now home to 3.4 million and counting. That’s still a fraction of Lagos, which has grown to over 14 million—but it has brought home the contrast between top-down ambitions and the realities of the poor.
The newcomers tend to live in the shanty towns that sprawl on the edge of the city, where housing is cheaper and standard of living a little bit more affordable. But Abuja’s design plan concentrates its business hub—which houses ministries, government agencies, private organizations, malls, and shopping complexes—in the city center. To survive, workers need to carve out a space for themselves there. Inside the gilded heart of the city, with its skyscrapers and beautifully designed corporate headquarters and hotels, their very presence is considered a contravention of the Abuja master plan, a stain on the city’s white walls.
“Urban poverty is not considered an issue, because a large percentage of residents in urban areas are insulated from it,” said Ummi Bukar, the program director of the Participatory Communication for Gender Development Initiative, “The urban poor experience everything on a more intense scale—from health care to education to environmentalism. They live in shacks because they cannot afford houses, and here, they have to mostly live in front of and in between clogged gutters and waste because there is no waste disposal facility available to them.”
In Abuja, Bukar observes, every area is zoned for a very specific use: “This is a city that is home to messengers, drivers, cleaners, and other menial workers who cannot afford to rent homes in the city center. This is a city that needs these people to do these jobs, yet there are no provisions made for them.”
In July, the Participatory Communication for Gender Development Initiative premiered four documentary short films produced by women, each of these films aimed at highlighting injustices faced by Nigerian women in various aspects of their lives. In one of these films—Constrained—Talatu, a street hawker, chronicles her struggle for survival amid oppression by the AEPB’s task force.
“My original plan was to shoot on issues concerning domestic violence, not environmental legislation. What I met on set was entirely different from what I had planned, but I realized this was also a story that was worth telling, because it meant so much to them,” director Oluwatobi Ahmed said. “Even though these women stated that they had been emotionally and financially abused by their spouses, they considered the AEPB’s oppression to be an even more pressing issue and wanted to talk about that instead.”
Talatu, who had fled her home village in northern Nigeria because of kidnapping and banditry, lives in Ojuelegba, a shanty behind the rich and vast enclosed estate of Gwarinpa, and sells cooked food. She explains that there are days when the AEPB task force raids areas where street vendors hawk their goods, detaining them and confiscating their wares, while demanding they pay a bribe of 7,000 naira (about $17) to be released—and another 7,000 to have their goods returned
“My entire [daily] earnings are about two to four thousand naira [$4-10],” Talatu tells the filmmaker. “Where would I find money for bail?”
“The task force,” she says, “sometimes employ the services of thugs who, at the promise of money, humiliate and beat us up. And if we are not strong enough to resist arrest, they force us into their vans and take us to their office at Area 1. There, they lock us up like animals until we pay for bail.” The AEPB also burns items seized from these street hawkers, she says.
“The AEPB burning wares which they have seized violates the very law they seek to protect,” Ridwan Oke, a lawyer, said. The National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency Act expressly prohibits indiscriminate burning, because it is harmful to the environment.
Talatu and others like her also face the AEPB at home, which for her and other inhabitants of Ojuelegba is a shanty built of wood, zinc sheets, and sacks. This place, however, is not safe from the task force’s reach, as it demolishes these makeshift homes at will, putting residents out onto the streets. The shanties violate the city’s building codes and are often unsafe—but without any alternative housing, the residents have little choice. Once the AEPB leaves, they rebuild—even knowing their homes could be torn down again at any moment.
“In the village, we face threats of armed robbery and kidnappings. Here, we face the hassle of the task force and demolitions,” Talatu said.
“The Abuja Environmental Protection Board conducts raids only based on reports,” said John (a pseudonym), an AEPB officer, who worked at the Enforcement Unit of the board. “Usually, residents of a particular suburb send complaints to the board about the presence of abaters.” (The term “abaters” comes from the legal terminology used to justify the AEPB’s actions, “abatement of nuisance.”) “The AEPB then issues a warning to these people before raiding said place,” he said. “But no system is perfect. Even though men of the enforcement team who conduct these raids have been cautioned to only use reasonable force, they sometimes go above board [overboard].” John left the Enforcement Unit barely three months after he joined, because he could not stomach the activities of the unit.
Raiding and the resultant destruction of street hawkers’ wares, John said, is intended to serve as deterrence. “The logic is simple: If a vendor incurs loss, they will avoid the same situation so they don’t incur even more loss,” he said.
This logic, unfortunately, doesn’t work. The demand for the goods is there—as is the economic need of the hawkers. All the cycle of destruction does is force vendors to be more creative—and less profitable, costing them opportunities to escape poverty.
A lot of activism and goodwill targeted at the urban poor in Nigeria is centered on supposedly lifting them out of poverty through microfinance measures by giving out cash amounts that start as small as 5,000 naira (about $12) and encouraging them to start a business. For example, TraderMoni, a scheme designed by the Nigerian government, is aimed at enabling self-employed Nigerians to access interest-free loans without collateral in the range of 10,000 naira (about $24) to 300,000 naira (about $730). Yet it is almost impossible to find an accessible space to conduct business at that price, meaning vendors have little choice but to sell on the streets.
“The cost of renting space for a shop is too high. It is almost double the entire cost of my business,” said Deborah, a street hawker in Nyanya, a suburb in Abuja, who asked to use only her first name due to fear of retaliation. “Nobody prefers hawking to sitting in a shop. I have to walk over 30 kilometers [19 miles] every day to make sales.”
Street hawkers, according to John, are encouraged to apply to the AEPB for allocation of space to trade that would not constitute nuisance or be an eyesore. The board then reviews the application and decides on whether to allocate said space.
But for people like Deborah, this is a daunting process. “It is not enough that you are in a shop,” she said. “The shop has to be in a place strategic enough for you to make sales. I have attempted to get a shop allocated, but I was told to pay.” To avoid having her entire stock destroyed by the AEPB, Deborah stores goods in the safest location she can find and brings only a small portion of it with her on the street at a time.
The AEPB and the Office of the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, where the board gets its orders, continue to treat the poor like collateral damage as they bid for the dream of a modern metropolis.
Perhaps the AEPB Act did not envisage that four decades after it had passed, Nigeria would become the poverty capital of the world. But laws—and enforcement—need to change to meet real needs.
And the lack of provision for the poor’s needs, combined with constant harassment and oppression, all point to a pattern of trying to use the law to erase Abuja’s poor.
“Laws apply to the poor differently in Nigeria, more so in Abuja, which is a classist city,” said Ogonna Anyaji, a sociologist. “Law enforcement treat poorer people even more harshly, more brutal, than they do the rich.”
Yet, the city needs its poor to function. The same people who sneer at the presence of the poor are deeply dependent upon them. Government ministries and agencies need messengers for their errands and cleaners for their offices, upper-class residents need cooks for their homes and gardeners for their gardens, shopping complexes and malls need shop attendants, and lawyers and accountants need to take the shared cabs known as along to work or to buy a quick lunch. The Federal Capital Territory needs to shelve its classism and grand illusions of a master plan that does not reflect the country’s economic state and instead create laws for the city that allows the poor to live and work with dignity and in peace.
Zainab Onuh-Yahaya is a journalist and law grad. She writes from Abuja, Nigeria. Her work has featured in Business Insider, the Republic Journal, Huck Magazine, Teen Vogue, and elsewhere.
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