For the politically savvy, there was something unsettling about the closure of the Abuja Airport. Namely, the absence of any elected leader speaking on behalf of Abuja residents.
To put it another way, could the Federal Government have shut any of Lagos' airports against the wishes of Governor Ambode? If, even for a second, you think the answer to that question is 'no', then it raises the possibility of an electoral vacuum in Abuja.
This vacuum raises some issues. Who should be responsible for making critical decisions in Abuja? Would the situation have been handled differently if Abuja had elected leadership? Do Abuja residents have a voice, or, even worse, do their votes count?
Luckily, the UK gives us some perspective. In 2015, Boris Johnson opposed the new runway proposed at Heathrow Airport. In his capacity as London Mayor, he derailed government efforts. For the doubters, it reminds us that an elected Mayor can have an impact, and could have changed the outcome of the Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport debacle.
Abuja, the Blueprint
For all the initial promise of Abuja's Master Plan, issues still plague the capital. The original idea behind the Masterplan was to create a purpose-built city. Districts were to have specific purposes – Wuse for services, Asokoro for the government, Maitama for residences, etc. But the Master Plan has been neglected, and we see offices in housing districts, churches and mosques dotting residential areas, and assorted buildings springing up by the day.
Before the Master Plan, there is the Constitution. Section 301 of the Constitution makes President Buhari the Governor of the F.C.T. and Vice President Osinbajo the Deputy Governor. It also permits the President to appoint a Minister who exercises powers delegated by the President. In place since 1976, successive Presidents have utilised this power, notwithstanding its inherent flaws.
Abuja, direction or no direction?
Abuja's leaders have owed their mandate to the President, not to the people. Celebrated Nigerian Governors draw support for policies, taking direction from their electorate. Lagos under Fashola, Kano under Kwankwaso, Akwa Ibom under Akpabio, to name but a few. On the assumption that the governorship changes hands at every election, between 1999 and 2015, the average state could have had a maximum of 4 Governors. Yet, Abuja is on its 7th Minister. Two problems emerge from this.
Firstly, a lack of coordinated policies that can be attributed to any one Minister or official plan. Excluding Nasir El-Rufai and Bala Mohammed, no Minister has served for more than 18 months. Again, excluding El-Rufai, none of Abuja’s Ministers is credited with a popular policy achievement.
El-Rufai’s signature policy was to adhere to the Master Plan. However, subsequent Ministers have limited policy-making to land allocation and day to day administration, demonstrating a lack of vision for the city. The city’s advantage has always been that it was one of the first and most successful purpose-built cities in Africa. The lack of clear political direction puts that in jeopardy.
Abuja, who owns you?
Secondly, because the Minister owes her mandate to the President, the citizens of the state have little influence on policy. No Nigerian President has been from the F.C.T., with only Babangida and Abdulsalam originating from states that contributed to the present day capital territory. As such, none can claim to have an indigenous link to the state. This could be looked at from two viewpoints. The typical Nigerian perspective is that only indigenous citizens know what is needed in their regions. As such, leadership should be handled by 'sons of the soil'. In the case of Abuja, this may be difficult to apply because of the peculiarity of its population. People born in Abuja in 1984 when it first opened up are now able to run for the House of Representatives. It means there is a growing generation that will identify as being from Abuja and not their states of origin. But Abuja is not a 'state'.
Looking at traditional Nigerian dividing lines, of the 17 Ministers that Abuja has had from 1979, only one has been a 'Southerner'. The rest have all been 'Northerners'. While this isn’t another excuse to revisit the Federal Character principle, it casts doubt on the logic of Abuja as the capital for all Nigerians.
A more rational argument would state that only those with the required experience should be appointed to the role. What matters is your ability, not your origin. Cue El-Rufai, the only Nigerian to govern two 'states' in a democratic era. If anything, his recent controversies remind us that unlike Ministers, Governors have citizens who can take action through the ballot box.
Abuja, will change evade you like the rest of Nigeria?
Despite the arguments, is it likely a new political authority will emerge? Politicians have often warned about creating a ‘state administration at odds with the federal administration’. This argument is strange. Washington D.C., Cape Town, and London have elected Mayors from opposition parties and have experienced progress and mutual collaboration. All that is necessary is an adequate delineation of powers.
Perhaps, what politicians really mean is the 'Nigerian Factor'. Should the President have to deal with the political gridlock that comes with additional political players? We may even ask ourselves, do Nigerians want more elected officials? The answer might be 'no'.
Abuja deserves leadership that will reflect the young, ambitious, and scrappy nature of its growing electorate. One that will take into account the needs and desires of its citizens. Perhaps more crucially, a Mayor may stop Presidents from treating Abuja citizens with disregard. Unless, of course, Abuja contributes only 5% to the votes cast in the President's favour.