The idea of Abuja as a new capital emerged in the early 1970s, shortly after the end of the Nigerian civil war. The new city should symbolize the country's unity, ensuring that every Nigerian has easy access to the capital and feels like a valued citizen. A master plan was approved in 1979 and was expected to be implemented in phases spanning over decades, starting during a time of relative wealth due to high oil revenues. However, dwindling government income in the 1980s stalled progress, leading to speculative investments that created vast empty plots of land.
This was followed by urban sprawl, characterised by rapid, unplanned, and uncoordinated development of housing, industry, business, and informal activities without the necessary infrastructure in place. In an attempt to control this development, consecutive city administrations have used the Abuja Master Plan as a justification not only for massive and violent evictions of communities over the past decades but also for the destruction of businesses and real estate investments, leaving the private sector and many communities in a state of uncertainty.
Comparing the current realities of the city with its initial vision of equal access, equal citizenship, environmental conservation, and rapid national economic growth raises important questions and calls for self-reflection on the way forward. This need for reflection has manifested itself in recent years through a call for the review of the Abuja Master Plan. In June 2023, the HipCity Innovation Centre and the Heinrich Böll Foundation Abuja office organized a two-day conference that brought together representatives from various government agencies, town planners, builders, as well as Original Inhabitants and People with Disabilities to understand the scope of such a review.
The discussions during the conference revealed that before undertaking the review of the master plan, political decision-makers, FCT civil servants, professional communities, civil society, and residents need to engage in a political discussion to arrive at commonly agreed principles and policies enabling an inclusive development of a city that caters to everyone's needs. This inclusive approach is crucial in ensuring that the original vision of equal access, citizenship, and environmental conservation is upheld while fostering sustainable economic growth. The following recommendations were made:
- Use an integration approach rather than a resettlement and relocation approach for developing communities with and for the Original Inhabitants.
- Develop a housing policy that focuses on low-income earners who currently find it difficult to afford to live in the expensive city.
- Streamline and coordinate government agencies more effectively.
- Strictly adhere to participatory planning and implementation processes, starting from a democratically elected government, rather than an appointed one, for a city that aims to be the avant-garde of democracy and the gateway to Africa.