Planning for exclusion in Abuja

Rigid planning and development controls in Abuja, Nigeria's modern capital, have served to exclude population groups deemed 'unworldy' from the city-proper.

Ifeoma Ebo
23 May 2013

This article is co-published with

Nigeria, a nation deeply scarred by colonialism and years of civil war, took the decision in 1991 to build a new capital city at the country's centre.

In an 1983 interview, the Minister of the Federal Capital Development Authority, Alhaji Iro Dan Musa claimed that the government wanted a capital city which “belonged to all Nigerians” best achieved by “starting afresh in Abuja"[i].

Abuja is Africa's first modernist capital and follows in the tradition of other planned cities across the world, from Brasilia (Brazil), to Washington D.C. (USA) to Chandigarh (India). In contrast to Lagos the former capital of Nigeria, Abuja has been carefully planned to project a particular aesthetic to a global audience, inclusive of manicured lawns, un-congested roads, and buildings infused with a nouveau African-centeredness. In Abuja, the Nigerian government intended to build an African utopia, one which would represent a unified, independent Nigeria for the country's fractured, inequal social groups. Yet despite grand, utopian plans for a new and modern capital, in planning and building Abuja an all too familiar pattern of exclusion and disparity has emerged.


Informal neighbourhood in Abuja's periphery. Ifeoma Ebo, all rights reserved.

Colonial legacies

Lagos, Abuja’s predecessor, was under colonial rule violently divided between areas for rulers and those for subjects; a division which served to enforce control over the Nigerian population by their colonial officers. And yet these same tactics of divide and rule are deployed in present day Nigeria, utilised by the Nigerian elite to distance themselves from the urban working poor, creating stark spatial divisions between the included and excluded in contemporary Nigerian society.  Indeed it was the continuation of social and spatial stratification and a deepening of inequality, difference and division in Lagos, which paved the way to the forming of a new capital in a fresh, “neutral territory”[iii] .

Indeed despite the contrast between realities and intentions, the creation and design of Abuja was intended to allow Nigeria to rid itself of its colonial past and of “undoing everything the colonials had done wrong in Lagos”[iv]. Although the territory was equidistant from all edges of the country in theory establishing its location as “neutral”, in reality it was located in the northern part of the country which is heavily influenced by Islamic culture.

Rights and access to the city

Physical and economic exclusion are however an ever-present reality in Abuja; the average citizen simply cannot afford the privileges of inner city living due to unaffordable rents and a lack of access to affordable transport, and is thus physically separated from the inner spaces of the city. The majority of  the city's wealthy residents live in the centre where there are paved roads with street lamps, regular power supply, adequate water supply, infrastructure and amenities. While more than 70% of Abuja’s working population live in dilapidated satellite towns, owing to their inability to pay the high cost of accommodation in the city centre[ii].

Everyday exclusion is not unique to Abuja, yet the city does serve as a microcosm of a fraughtly contested politics of exclusion which affects the entire nation. A politics which manifests in a number of forms across everyday life in the city.

"Illegal" developments and the master plan  

From its very inception the key challenge in governing Abuja, has been to deal with the illegal development of residential and/or commercial properties near the centre of the city. Illegal developments in the city centre violate planning control laws and for the most part are slated for demolition. Indeed in 2003 El-Rufai – the former Minister of the Federal Capital Territory reiterated his desire to rid the city of illegal developments, and deliver a city defined by controlled growth and the promotion of foreign investment [v].  El-Rufai’s tenure led to the demolition of more than 200 buildings in the FCT and thousands in the satellite towns [vi]. This strict enforcement of policy left many poor families stranded and unable to regain a foothold in the city, and further served to violently demonstrate which population groups had the right to lay claim to Abuja’s built environment, and which did not.    

The original master plan for Abuja states that the development authority must “develop a housing policy and program tailored to the needs of the Capital’s population”[vii]. In reality affordable housing in Abuja is only accessible to the middle to upper classes. The location of luxury homes close to the National Assembly and away from ordinary city neighborhoods is demonstrative of the master plan's advocacy of residential segregation by income. Indeed, one could claim that the master plan aims to craft an environment of cyclical exploitation by using the urban poor for cheap labor to run and service the city (janitorial, drivers, sanitation etc) and yet physically keeping them at distance, unable to benefit from nor participate in the city.

Exclusion and division also form a central part of state planning policy at Abuja's peripheries. For example, several satellite towns around Abuja were built specifically to house the employees of various multinational companies including Shell, and Julius Berger. Despite the fact that the conditions in these towns are poor, only the employees of these companies are provided housing while those without employment must deal with “self-help” initiatives.

Informal trading

The criminalization of informal trading represents another form of the exclusion of working Nigerians from accessing the city. In most Nigerian cities street trading is the most common form of commercial activity.  In the unplanned use of public spaces, parks, streets and other prominent sections of the city, street traders redefine the limits of urban space. Street trading can be perceived as a characteristic example of informality and yet is absent in the context of Abuja’s master plan.

Every Friday near the National Mosque in the Abuja central area there is an informal “Friday market” established by the local Muslim community.  Merchants sell many items that are necessary for Muslims and any other Nigerian at an inexpensive price.  They lay their items on the sidewalk because there are no market stalls for this kind of activity.  According to the master plan, sidewalks (average 7’-12’), provide ample space for commercial activities to take place.  However, the zoning restrictions prohibit non-stationary commercial activities in the Federal Capital Territory. Thus, in mid 2012 illegal traders stationed around Banex Plaza in the heart of Abuja were forced by city-government to withdraw from the area and make way for access and smooth business operations for formalized commercial activity. While, informal street commerce remains an important part of the Nigerian urban productivity it simply does not feature in the structural or institutional plans for the Capital City.


Street activity in the Kubwa satellite town. Ifeoma Ebo, all rights reserved.Urban mobilityWhile restrictions in urban mobility also serve to exclude Abuja’s population from accessing and benefitting from the city. In the existing city transportation layout, the street grid and transportation networks create a physical barrier to the city. The Murtala Mohammed and Nnamdi Azikiwe boulevards, outer “ring roads” surrounding the city which were used as a planning tool to control urban growth, create a 4 lane barrier for residents of satellite towns who are attempting to enter the central city on foot. In effect, the transportation layout coupled with rigid enforcement of policy allows the FCTA to be selective in how and when the urban poor can enter the city.

In this manner in early 2012, the Federal Capital Territory Administration banned commercial motorcyclists and mini bus operations in Abuja. This suspension particularly affected transportation routes that enter the nation’s capital. This action was coupled with an introduction of a new public transportation system in the form of high capacity buses to replace the minibuses. The new transportation policy was implemented without clear citizen consultation and has been known to be unreliable and unaffordable for those that it is intended to serve. Inevitably, the ban posed a hardship on commuters from the satellite towns as they have to pay exorbitant transportation fees to get to work in the central city.


Roundabout off the Nnamdi Azikiwe ring road which surrounds Abuja city centre. Ifeoma Ebo, all rights reserved.

The case of Abuja poses an interesting point of departure to examine the challenges of urbanisation in contemporary Nigeria. On the one hand, existing Nigerian cities are heavily overpopulated, with inadequate urban infrastructure and an absence of forward thinking, inclusive urban strategies by city-governments. In spite of the challenges of urbanisation, Nigerian cities also stage and are produced by thriving informal economies which reflect the cultural and social diversity of its citizens in everyday urban life.

However, in attempting to compete with 'global' western cities, in planning and governing Abuja, Nigeria has effectively lost a part of its soul; in effect excluding the very people that it was conceived to represent. Modernist design and rigid development controls have created and preserved Abuja’s world class appearance, but simultaneously generated barriers of access for the majority of the population. While the strict enforcement of policy maintains a safe and controlled environment, it also creates hardships for the urban poor whose everyday lives and social practices necessarily contravene such policies. New models for design and development are necessary that address urban polarization and promote inclusive, cohesive Nigerian cities.

[i] Africa No 137; January issue ;“Abuja – Symbol of Unity”;1983: pg. 62

[ii] “Pushing Out the Poor: Forced Evictions Under the Abuja Master Plan”; Social and Economic rights Action Center (SERAC); November 2006)

[iii] Elleh, Nnamdi; African Architecture: Evolution and Transformation; Copyright 1997 by McGraw Hill

[iv] Elleh, Nnamdi; African Architecture: Evolution and Transformation; Copyright 1997 by McGraw Hill

[v] El-Rufai, M. Repositioning the Federal Capital Territory.  Presentation to the Presidential Retreat on Public Sector Reforms and the Public Private Partnership; 2005 Federal Capital Administration

[vi] “No regrets over Abuja demolitions – El Rufai” by Sonie Danie ; February 7, 2013: Vanguard

[vii] The Federal Capital Development Authority (FCDA); The Master Plan for Abuja, the New Federal Capital of Nigeria; Copyright 1979 by the Federal Capital Development Authority





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