Sunday, November 6, 2011

Abuja: The Quintessential Apartheid City

Abuja, the capital city of Nigeria, is the quintessential apartheid city! It is the biggest achievement of the country's ruling elite and the biggest illustration of its folly. Eager to recreate the look of their favorite cities in Europe and America, they decided to build something of their own to mimic their masters. So they built Abuja, the apartheid city, from where the poor will be banished and the thieving oppressor won't be tormented by the sight of of the effect he wrought  - the hordes of the hungry thronging after their sleek cars, or shanties standing next to their mansions and detracting from their concrete beauty. That was the mistake of Lagos that won't be repeated in Abuja.

A view of Maitama, a favorite perch of Abuja's rich
So in Abuja, workers pour in every morning from the various satellite towns that ring the city, do their bit and troop out at dusk.  As they leave every evening, the wide, tree-lined streets of the central district look even more empty, lined by huge, silent buildings. It is estimated by an official, who seems to know, that more than 60 percent of the buildings in the city are vacant. The workers who take leave of the beautiful city at the end of everyday, make their way towards Mararaba, Nyanya, Keffi, Kubwa, Zuba, Suleja, Mpape, in crowded, rickety buses, taxis, motorbikes, covered in a cloud of exhaust fumes, all potential candidates for the daily carnage of accidents on the city roads.

Where the minority government in apartheid South Africa took the trouble to build relatively decent houses in the satellite towns, with covered drains, regular power supply and reliable transportation (often trains) to the cities where they worked, the Nigerian rulers have gone a step further. They've saved the money that should've gone into all that and put it into the cost of governance. That's money spent maintaining officials, their advisers, special assistants, assistants to special assistants, assistants to advisers, their secretaries, office assistants, and providing all these officials with officials cars, official housing, foreign travel  and other privileges of office. The result is that currently, 75 percent of the national budget (more than 80 percent of which comes from crude oil exports) is spent on maintaining the government and bureaucracy.
This has been the steady trend of these past several years of civilian-guided plunder of national resources.

Even where money is voted for capital projects, such as roads, or even investments in health, education and other basic social services, the bureaucracy has in recent years found a way to subvert them. Such projects are simply not implemented, and monies voted for them are simply shared among officials in the concerned ministries, agencies or departments. Or where it can't be shared, the money is returned to the treasury, or rather a show is made of returning the funds to the treasury, from where it is put back in the pipeline for the next budget process, until it's flow is diverted to irrigate private pockets, estates and libidos. Awash with cash, government officials have created Abuja's artificial economy, where prices have no bearing to the legitimate income of the participants in that market, but is propelled by its abundance in the pocket of government officials (their wives or concubines) who have lost their heads at the sheer amount of money within their reach.
Mpape, a satellite of Maitama.

So while Abuja's streets are among the cleanest, widest and most beautiful in the world,  while its hotels and nightclubs are brimming with revelers and prostitutes, there's no decent road connecting the city to any other part of Nigeria. Any visitor to Abuja will no doubt be impressed by the eight-lane highway running from the airport into the city. But it will take only a few kilometers drive beyond the airport on the way out, to realize that the main road linking the administrative capital to the country's entire south, including the economic capital of Lagos, is a snaky  two-lane highway, dotted  liberally with craters and potholes, bumps of warped tarmac and sandy portions where the tar was washed away by rain. Indeed there's no road built to link Nigeria's economic capital with its political capital. But why should the ruling elite care, when the very road that evacuates their massive imports of luxury goods from the ports of Lagos have failed completely in the past decade and have been abandoned in perverse neglect?

Franz Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth that every generation must, out of relative obscurity, realize its mission, fulfill it or betray it. The Nigerian ruling elite, out of relative clarity, chose obscurantism, enthroned greed as a guiding principle and betrayed its mission to advance the liberation of the African continent from a 500-year-old grip of invaders and plunderers.  While the Afrikaners in South Africa, having seized political power and the commanding heights of the economy felt a dire need to justify it ,and invented apartheid, the ruling elite in Nigeria doesn't feel obliged to to think, except when applying cunning to thievery. They just show power,  and are keen to make it brutal to make the point.

In Nigeria, the ruling elite, bereft of any ideas, has been content to play the role of warrant chiefs, doing the bidding of their masters in London and Washington, hoping it would be enough to give them free rein to ride roughshod over their people. While Nigeria was under colonial rule, the British built  a railway and road network designed to aid the colonial enterprise. Two rail lines, one running from the northeast to the southeast, and another running from the northwest to the southeast, ensured that all goods meant for export got to their intended destination. Similarly, goods imported by the colonists used these  same transport arteries to reach their intended markets. However, under self-rule, little or no improvements have been made more than 50 years on.

What's more, a succession of military rulers starting from the military regime of Ibrahim Babangida in 1985, sabotaged the country's skeletal rail system in order to create road haulage contracts for friends and cronies. Sheer creativity, that is! Within a few years, all the goods and passengers that previously relied on the railways, now had to be transported by the roads. Trunk roads built around the country in the first oil boom years of the 1970s, rapidly failed, as everything including fuel, goods arriving the ports, farm produce moving from the countryside into the cities, now had to be hauled by road. At the same time the regimes in  power didn't care about investing in either maintaining the very roads now carrying the burden of the country's transportation or about building news ones.

The same fate befell the countries refineries. Four refineries with a capacity to process 445,000 barrels of crude oil daily had been completed during the first rush of oil money in the '70s and '80s. For many years they provided enough fuel for domestic use until the mid-80s under Babangida, when balance of payment difficulties (essentially importing more than you had foreign currency to pay for) resulted in the enforced devaluation of the naira under World Bank and International Monetary Fund economic prescriptions, essentially designed to retard Africa's development and reduce value of its people's labor value. Of course, being the top warrant chief of the time, Babangida heartily fed the nation the ugly, ineffective medicine. Then began the logic of petroleum subsidy, whereby fuel prices were raised periodically either to bring them in line with international prices or to discourage smuggling to neighboring countries where the prices were higher. By the time Sani Abacha took over  the plundering contraption called government in Nigeria, in the late '90s, all refineries in the country had stopped working, interminable amounts were being spent fixing the refineries without success, while fuel was being imported from refineries owned by top officials of the same government, including Abacha himself and his national security adviser, Ismaila Gwarzo, from neighboring West African countries including Sierra Leone.

What was true for the railways, roads and refineries, was also true for power supply. The country's last power stations were built in the early '80s. No new additions were made and the people lost hope when they saw that the government itself now depended on generators to run. Then everybody went for generators, thanks to Chinese manufacturers who built cheaper alternatives that became available to a wider number of people. Now the country is not only the greatest importer of power generators worldwide, but also own the highest number per capita, spurning its riches of natural gas, coal, biomass, wind and solar powering the rest of the world.

Unfazed by its monumental failings, the ruling elite, like an unrepentant prodigal, is ever seeking new ways to create the money to feed its rapacious greed, usually with the advice of their masters in London and Washington. The latest top warrant chief, Goodluck Jonathan, is now touting the failures of several administrations, including his own, as a basis to increase fuel prices. Having spent hundreds of billions every year to pay the difference between the international price of crude oil and the local cost of fuel, the government now wants to stop the payment in order to use the difference to build the country's infrastructure, officials say.

No mention is made of any plan to cut the bloated bureaucracy and government, with legislators that earn the highest pay among their peers in the world. There is no talk of rebuilding the refineries to ensure domestic processing of fuel and tackling the cartel the government admitted was controlling fuel importation and taking most of the fees paid as subsidy. There is no plan to rebuild the railways, to shift the burden of transportation from the roads and guarantee cheaper movement of goods and people, before thinking of increasing fuel prices. Even the government's plan to revive the power sector is now dependent on foreign investors, as if foreign investors built the functioning power infrastructure of the rest of the world. Roads and railways are now to be built through public-private partnerships, which means that the contract will be sold to companies in which they have interests. The only thing they won't seed the private sector and foreign investors are the armed forces and the police. They need armed protection to maintain their plunder. That's the game plan of the apartheid regime in Abuja.