Former residents of Nigeria’s current capital say they were forcibly removed without proper compensation.
Nigeria’s capital Abuja is a planned city with expansive roads lined with trees. Unlike Lagos – the commercial centre – traffic jams are rare.
Nigerian politicians are proud of Abuja and tout it as an example of what a modern African city should be.
It was not always the capital of Africa’s most populous country. Lagos used to hold that title. But in the 1970s and ’80s, Lagos experienced a population boom not seen before. The city became overcrowded and living conditions poor.
The government, armed with petrodollars, decided to intervene and move the capital to another part of the country.
Abuja was chosen as the ideal place as it is located in the centre of the nation. Because of Nigeria’s ethnic and religious makeup, the government deemed the then-sleepy area a neutral place for all groups and persuasions.
On December 21, 1991, the city officially became the country’s political capital. But the move came at a huge cost to local inhabitants.
One of Africa’s wealthiest cities, Abuja now has an estimated population of more than 2.4 million, up from about 800,000 people in 2006 when the last census was taken.
Chawandana Kauran is 102-years old and lives in the poor district of Kubwa – one of the many impoverished areas on the outskirts of the city. He remembers life before the capital took over.
“We had farms and tended to our farms every morning without issues. We were not consulted. Thousands of families used to be there. It was our ancestral land,” a dejected Kauran told Al Jazeera as chickens pecked for food near his feet.
The move from Lagos to Abuja happened under the then-military ruler General Ibrahim Babangida. There was not much discussion about it, locals say.
“Government people came to us and told us we were moving. Then the next morning military trucks came to us and brought us here,” Kauran said, pointing to the dusty ground beneath his feet.
“To this day, I will never forget how they treated us. They did that to us because they knew we had no one to turn to. We went to court and our case has not been heard yet. More than 30 years and we are still waiting,” he added.
There were more than 800 villages where the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) stands today. At first, the villagers thought they would benefit from their land becoming the government’s main centre in the oil-rich country.
A 20-minute walk to the south of Kauran’s home, a group of old men sit under the shade of a mango tree. They gathered to witness a marriage and all appear happy as hugs abound and laughter rings out in the air.
Gvemanayi Dakoyi, a former resident of what is now Abuja, is happy to be attending the wedding of his friends’ granddaughter. But deep down he is unhappy – still struggling to come to terms with what happened to him and the hundreds that used to live in his village.
“Where the National Stadium is located is where our beautiful village used to be. Life was good. We used to grow yam, corn, rice and soya beans. Food was aplenty,” the father of 11 children and grandfather of 30 said.
“They gave us 1,000 naira [$2] and took our land. They moved us to this place with no water and no land to farm. They promised us water, electricity and schools but that was all lies,” he added, anger palpable in his deep voice.
‘Clean our tears’
Kubwa district is nothing like Abuja. There are no road signs and the handful of schools are overcrowded. Water taps run dry and electricity a luxury that does not exist.
“When I see the bright lights, tall buildings and tarmac roads where my village used to be, I feel very unhappy,” Vizafilo Zezhiwo, a village elder of Kukwaba – one of the demolished villages – told Al Jazeera.
“The government needs to come and clean our tears. To correct the injustice it did to us, the government should give us back our land,” the husband of three wives said.
The government says no one was removed from their land without adequate consultation and care. Most of the land that Abuja currently occupies was uninhabited, according to officials.
“There were pockets of settlements which were inhabited. It was not a case of forced eviction. It was a case of population resettlement because of developmental purposes,” Baba Kura Umar, director of resettlement and compensation at the ministry of land, told Al Jazeera.
“The original inhabitants were given the option of going to any state of their choice or remain. Those who opted to remain, resettlement sites were chosen for them and developed by the government and they were moved there.”
The only hope left for the thousands of people who made a way out for the new city is to have their day in court.
“I’m sure we will win if the case is heard. That is the only hope left for us. We will not give up until that day comes,” Kauran, the 102-year-old elder, said.
By Hamza Mohamed. This piece first appeared on Al Jazeera.