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Poor people were not part of the plan for Abuja

Next to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, there is a sign that reads “No Parking. No loitering. No waiting. ”That doesn't stop the drivers of Abuja's municipal taxis (known as“ along ”because they travel on fixed routes) from continually dropping off and picking up passengers at a bus stop that has become effective through unspoken agreements. It is convenient location, right in the center of town.

However, on August 10th it was different. When taxis stopped in front of the Ministry building, uniformed men jumped in and forcibly removed the keys from the ignition while they yanked the drivers by their collars. Armed members of the Nigerian Police and the Nigerian Security and Civil Protection Corps stood a few steps away and watched the harassment in silence.

“You have no right to treat people like that,” said a commuter waiting for a taxi, who asked for anonymity.

“We keep telling you all that this place is not a bus stop,” said one of the uniformed men. "Look at the sign."

“But you offered no alternative. Where should people wait for taxis? ”Asked the commuter. I had just started recording the incident when the officer came up to me and tried to grab my phone – despite pointing out that I am a lawyer and know my rights.

It was a typical operation by the Abuja Environmental Protection Board task force: a demonstration of brute force that suddenly enforces long-forgotten or ignored rules.

The Abuja Environmental Protection Board (AEPB), founded in 1997, is responsible for protecting and managing the environment of the federal capital territory, enforcing all environmental laws and combating all forms of environmental degradation and nuisance. But in practice, the board and 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.

This is a problem in all developing countries, whether enforced by Russian militias or China's Chengguan (urban enforcers). The images of metropolises in the minds of the men (and occasionally women) who run them are startlingly different from the reality needed to make cities work – especially for the poor.

In Abuja, for example, there is far more space for private parking in the city center than for public transport – in a country where the minimum wage is 30,000 naira (around $ 75) a month and the vast majority of workers don't drive. Bus stops are dotted around the edge of the city center, so low-income workers have a long commute to work. The city would rather maintain its image of size than provide comfort to its workers.

Abuja was elected the new capital of Nigeria in 1976 and was built in the 1980s according to a large master plan by the Japanese architect Kenzo Tange. Abuja was supposed to replace a crowded and chaotic Lagos. Instead of a crowded metropolis, it would be a planned, controlled, modern city. According to the plan, the city would develop in four phases – with slowly increasing population in each phase until it reached its estimated peak population of 3 million – about the size of Lagos at the time.

However, as more people flocked to the city to take advantage of the economic opportunities it offered, Abuja's population began to grow steadily. And when the Boko Haram uprising devastated the north-east of the country, the city became home to refugees fleeing the terrorist attacks, with over 19 settlements housing thousands of people displaced by the conflict within the country. Between 2009 and 2020, the capital's population grew by around 6 percent per year, and a city that was designed for a maximum of 3 million people now has 3.4 million inhabitants, and the trend is rising. That's still a fraction of Lagos, which has grown to over 14 million – but it has highlighted the contrast between top-down ambitions and the reality of the poor.

The newcomers mostly live in the slums on the outskirts, where living space is cheaper and the standard of living is slightly lower. But Abuja's design plan focuses its business center – which houses ministries, government agencies, private organizations, shopping malls, and shopping complexes – in the city center. In order to survive, the workers have to make a place for themselves there. In the gilded heart of the city with its skyscrapers and beautifully designed corporate headquarters and hotels, their mere presence is seen as a violation of the Abuja master plan, as a stain on the white walls of the city.

"Urban poverty is not seen as an issue because a large proportion of the residents in urban areas are isolated from it," says Ummi Bukar, program director of the Participatory Communication for Gender Development Initiative up to environmental protection. They live in barracks because they cannot afford houses, and here they usually have to live in front of and between clogged gutters and garbage because there is no garbage disposal available to them. "

In Abuja, says Bukar, each area is divided into zones for a very specific use: “This is a city where messengers, drivers, cleaners and other assistants live who cannot afford to rent houses in the city center. This is a city that needs these people to do these jobs, but there is no provision for them. "

A member of a citizens' group against violence speaks about the case of an eight-year-old mother who was killed by a member of the Abuja Environmental Protection Board task force when she urged Nigeria's Police Inspector General Solomon Arase to take action against police violence in Abuja on September 18, 2015.Afolabi Sotunde / REUTERS

In July, the Participatory Communication for Gender Development Initiative premiered four short documentaries produced by women, each of which aims to highlight injustices Nigerian women face in various aspects of their lives. In one of these films – Constrained – Talatu, a street vendor, tells of her struggle for survival amid the repression by the AEPB's task force.

“My original plan was to shoot about domestic violence, not environmental legislation. What I met on set was completely different than planned, but I realized that it is also a story worth telling because it means so much to them, ”said director Oluwatobi Ahmed. "Although these women said they had been emotionally and financially abused by their spouses, they felt the AEPB's repression was an even more pressing issue and wanted to talk about it instead."

Talatu, who fled her home village in northern Nigeria because of kidnappings and bandits, lives in Ojuelegba, a barrack behind the rich and sprawling estate of Gwarinpa, and sells cooked food. She explains that there are days when the AEPB Task Force searches areas where street vendors are selling their wares, arresting them, and confiscating their wares while demanding that they pay 7,000 naira (about $ 17) bribes, to be released – and another 7,000 for their returned goods

“My total (daily) income is around two to four thousand naira (US $ 4-10), Talatu tells the filmmaker. "Where would I find money for the bail?"

“The task force,” she says, “sometimes employs the services of thugs who humiliate and beat us for promises of money. And if we are not strong enough to withstand the arrest, they force us into their vans and take us to their office in Area 1. There they lock us up like animals until we pay the bail. ”The AEPB also burns objects, that were confiscated from these street vendors, she says.

"The distillery confiscated by the AEPB is against the law that they want to protect," said lawyer Ridwan Oke. The National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency Act specifically prohibits indiscriminate burning because it is environmentally harmful.

A man sits on a truck while smoke rises after the Abuja Environmental Task Force demolished illegal buildings in Utako district of Abuja on July 7, 2011. Afolabi Sotunde / REUTERS

Talatu and others like her also face the AEPB at home, which for them and other residents of Ojuelegba is a barrack made of wood, zinc sheet and sacks. However, this place is not safe from the reach of the task force as it is demolishing these makeshift homes at will and bringing residents to the streets. The barracks violate the city's building regulations and are often unsafe – but without alternative housing, the residents have little choice. As soon as the AEPB is gone, they rebuild – even knowing that their houses could be demolished at any time.

“We are threatened with armed robbery and kidnapping in the village. Here we are facing the anger of the task force and the demolitions, ”said Talatu.

"The Abuja Environmental Protection Board raids on reports only," said John (a pseudonym), an AEPB official who worked in the board's enforcement unit. "Usually the residents of a certain suburb send complaints to the board about the presence of robbers." (The term "but" comes from the legal terminology used to justify the AEPB's actions, "elimination of harassment.") "The AEPB then issues a warning to these people before searching this location," he said. “But no system is perfect. Although men on the enforcement team carrying out these raids were warned not to use appropriate force, they sometimes go overboard. ”John left the enforcement unit barely three months after joining because he could not stand the unit's activities.

Raids and the resulting destruction of street vendors' goods, John said, are intended to act as a deterrent. “The logic is simple: if a vendor suffers a loss, they will avoid the same situation so they don't suffer even more losses,” he said.

Unfortunately, this logic doesn't work. The demand for the goods is there – as is the economic needs of the traders. The cycle of destruction merely forces salespeople to be more creative – and less profitable, which costs them opportunities to escape poverty.

Taxi drivers protest against the joint task force in Abuja on November 8, 2017. Afolabi Sotunde / REUTERS

Much of the activism and goodwill directed at the urban poor in Nigeria is focused on allegedly lifting them out of poverty through microfinance measures by spending cash as small as 5,000 naira (approx. TraderMoni, for example, a program developed by the Nigerian government aims to provide self-employed Nigerians with access to interest-free, unsecured loans in the range of 10,000 naira (approximately US $ 24) to 300,000 naira (approximately US $ 730), but it is almost impossible to Finding an accessible space to do business at that price, meaning sellers have no choice but to sell on the street.

“The cost of renting space for a shop is too high. It's almost double the total cost of my business, ”said Deborah, a street vendor in Nyanya, a suburb of Abuja, who asked that only her first name be used in fear of retaliation. “Nobody prefers to haggle than to sit in a shop. I have to walk 30 kilometers every day to make sales. "

Street vendors, John said, are encouraged to apply to the AEPB to allocate space for trading that is neither a nuisance nor a thorn in the side. The board then examines the application and decides on the allocation of the space.

But for people like Deborah, this is a daunting process. "It's not enough that you're in a store," she said. “The store has to be strategic enough to make sales. I tried to get a store assigned, but I was told to pay. ”To avoid having her entire inventory destroyed by the AEPB, Deborah stores and only picks goods in the safest places she can find a small part of it on the street with.

The AEPB and the office of the minister of the federal capital area, in which the executive committee receives its mandates, continue to treat the poor as collateral damage when promoting the dream of a modern metropolis.

Perhaps the AEPB law did not provide that Nigeria would become the poverty capital of the world four decades after it was passed. But laws – and enforcements – need to be changed to meet real needs.

And the lack of provision for the needs of the poor, combined with constant harassment and oppression, all indicate that attempts are being made to use the law to wipe out Abuja's poor.

“In Nigeria, different laws apply to the poor, all the more so in Abuja, a classicist city,” says sociologist Ogonna Anyaji. "Law enforcement agencies treat poor people even harsher and more brutally than the rich."

But the city needs its poor to function. The same people who mock the presence of the poor are deeply dependent on them. Ministries and authorities need messengers for their errands and cleaning ladies for their offices, upper-class citizens need cooks for their homes and gardeners for their gardens, malls and malls need shop staff, and lawyers and accountants need to take the common taxis known as "go to work" or to buy a quick lunch. The federal capital territory must give up its classicism and its great illusions of a master plan that does not reflect the economic situation of the country and instead create laws for the city that enable the poor to live and work in dignity and peace.

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