The elite, Wike and the battle to restore Abuja to its place of pride
By Solomon Onyilo
Among President Bola Ahmed Tinubu's new ministers, none has attracted more public attention - for good or for ill - in their first week in office than Nyesom Wike, the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) minister who had just served eight years as the Rivers State Governor.
This is attributable to a blend of factors. One of them is that Wike's past no-nonsense antecedents as Rivers State Governor are seen as a threat to those who indulge in land racketeering, tax evasion and other unwholesome activities. But more important is the fact that his partisan political loyalty at the moment is indeterminate. The man came into the the All Progressives Congress (APC)-led government of President Tinubu with a background steeped in the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). He was Local Government Chairman, Federal Minister, two-term state Governor and a formadable Presidential aspirant, all on the platform of PDP. To boot, he was (and probably is) a generous giver who almost single-handedly funded PDP for eight years when it fell from power to opposition. When this background is weighed against the fact of his taking over management of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, Nigeria's political headquarters and heartbeat, it becomes clear why Wike's ministerial appointment has generated such instantaneous and wild public interest - positively or negatively - among both the political class across the country and residents of the city.
Whatever the reasons are: hope, fear, curiosity and more - the reality is that Wike has assumed office as the new minister of FCT and will be confronted by a lot of challenges ranging from dark streets, bad roads, dirty environment, perennial flooding, poor transportation system to deteriorating security. As characteristic of him - he says it straight and bluntly - the new minister has left no one in doubt about what Nigerians should expect. He told FCT residents and Nigerians clearly: 'I will step on toes' to restore the dreams of the founding fathers. Those familiar with the changing faces of Nigeria's Federal capital understand what he meant, even if from different perspectives: Abuja is fast becoming a city in search of identity.
The ex-Governor of Rivers State said members of the elite are the “major lawbreakers” in the FCT that have distorted the master plan by encroaching on the green areas and promised to go after them to restore Abuja's place of pride.
When he officially assumed duties last week, Wike vowed to “ensure that Abuja gets the best. You will see projects upon projects; projects that will be completed and not abandoned.
“I am not a party to abandoned projects. I start a project when there is money, as such we will look into our finances before we begin any project.
“I believe in the renewed hope of President Bola Tinubu, and Nigerians will see the difference in no distant time.”
Wike's antecedents and administrative style as Governor of River State have marked him out as a man of action and willpower in anything he is convinced about. He awarded, constructed and commissioned projects, including roads, bridges, electricity, housing, etc, across the state until he left office on May 29. This point to the fact that his promise about projects in Abuja cannot be waved aside as a political or idle talk.
However, analysts and observers have argued that Wike's zeal could be thwarted by political colleagues in authority - National Assembly, Federal Cabinet and the Presidency - whose vested interests may clash with his devastatingly. The fear arises from the fact that even though the position of the FCT minister is of equal status with that of a state Governor, which Wike vacated only recently, FCT does not have its own legislature or cabinet. The minister must rely on the National Assembly and the Federal Executive Council to fill these roles. To achieve meaningful results from these bodies, a boisterous character like Wike must master the art of navigating delicate political relationships - an art in which he is learning the ropes as a PDP minister in an APC-controlled non-unity government.
Fortunately for Wike, his principal has hinted that he would give him a free hand to work and deliver the dividends of democracy through the provision and delivery of projects to Abuja residents. The President described Wike as the “landlord of Abuja.” He told the minister: “I want to ride on your metroline. If I ask for free land, do not give me, but deliver the metroline for the good of the greatest number of Nigerians."
However, despite the president's direct intervention, watchers of the emerging dispensation in FCT fear that other interest groups would have course to retwist the determination of the new Abuja landlord to restore the lost glory of the city.
Daniel Bwala, an aide to Atiku Abubakar, PDP candidate and first runner-up in the February 25, 2023 Presidential election, has suggested that President Tinubu may sacrifice Wike if the minister goes ahead with his planned demolition of structures in the FCT. Reacting to the threat in a tweet on Monday, Bwala charged the minister to learn humility while on his job.
He tweeted: “Hello sir, in case you need a refresher course, the basic needs of the residents of the FCT are: affordable healthcare facilities; access to good education facilities; clean sports and recreational centres; an affordable transport services system; efficient and workable street lighting in the city centre and the suburbs; and finally, security. You came with a bullish and vendetta spirit, venting fire and brimstone about demolition and revocation of titles. Abuja is not Port Harcourt."
As should be expected from sceptics, one of the minister's moves to curb the rising level of insecurity in Abuja drew the flak the moment it dropped from his lips. Having noted that criminals disguise as street traders to attack unsuspecting residents, Wike had expressed his desire to rejig and reorganize street trading on the streets of Abuja. He said he would sack corn sellers from the streets and faulted the indiscriminate waste management of the street sellers. “People selling corn will drop their waste indiscriminately and these are the things that cause insecurity. Criminals come to buy (corn) and use the opportunity to spy and give information to criminals. We must clear street hawkers.”
Some of his critics recall that Wike’s predecessors had serially sent the street traders away, confiscated their wares, and thrown them into misery. But they came back because Nigeria had no place for them outside the streets.
A worker with the Federal Capital Development Authority who spoke in confidence said the new minister's proposed action could lead to the empowerment of unscrupulous FCDA officers who would start distorting and exploiting the poor street traders.
But Wike insists he can make Abuja clean, safe and secure for all, including genuine traders. Wike said: "FCT is supposed to be the safest city in the country... We will provide security agencies with necessary tools and logistics and after that, we will not want to hear any excuses. What we want to see is results.”
Those who are favourably disposed to Wike have suggested that betting on his leadership integrity, firmness and commitment is not hazardous; that if he is encouraged he could replicate in Abuja, where there has been a desperate need for strong leadership, the feat he wrought in Rivers State as Governor. One of them, Joseph Ikpe, an estate agent, said the minister, by his nature, would not want the poor to suffer in his bid to restore the city to the dream of its founding fathers.
As part of his commitment to the plight of Abuja residents and environs, the new minister has promised to revamp the Abuja light rail to ameliorate challenges of transportation. He has promised to complete the project within a year.
By this promise, Wike has raised the hope that, at long last, the $823 million Abuja Light Rail project will not continue to remain a pipe dream. Designed to be the first of its kind in West Africa, city transport infrastructure has been idle for years. A part of the project was completed and open for use in 2018 but the service was later suspended. "The entire scheme has suffered neglect with little known about the government’s plans for its resuscitation," a Bloomberg report said.
According to the design of the rail, the project is to cover a total distance of 290km (180 miles) and is meant to be developed in six phases. The contract was awarded at the cost of $824 million, with 60 percent to be funded with loans from the Exim Bank of China.
The project was originally meant to solve the perennial transportation problem in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) and its adjoining towns and cities.
The light rail mass transit project consists of six lots covering a distance of approximately 285km.
The 42.5 km (26.4 mi) Lot 1, which has been completed, has two lines and 12 stations connecting the Abuja city centre with the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport via the Lagos–Kano standard gauge railway at Idu. It has stations at Abuja metro, stadium, Kukwaba 1, Kukwaba 11, Wupa, Idu, Bassanjiwa and the airport.
Lot 2 starts from Gwagwa via Transportation Centre (metro station) to Nyanya/Karu; Lot 4 is from Kuje to Karshi with the remaining legs of the transit-way line 2, while the Blue Line (Lot 3) is expected to pass through Idu to Kubwa, with stations in Idu, Gwagwa, Deidei, Kagini and Gbazango.
Lot 5 is expected to be from Kubwa via Bwari to Suleja, and Lot 6 from the airport via Kuje and Gwagwalada to Dobi. "If these are completed as promised, they will ease the transport problem," said observer.
"What is working for Wike," according to Moses Ojeba, a security expert, "is he has the backing of the indigenous people and ordinary citizens on the street knowing his level of commitment. "
The battle to give Abuja its pride of place may just have begun.