Yesterday I popped in for the first hour of a 90 minute discussion at SAIS titled “I Am Here Until Development Comes*: Displacement, Demolitions and Property Rights in Urbanizing Abuja” with Carl Levan of American University and Josiah Olubowale, a Nigerian and soon to be graduate of the University of the West Indies, Trinidad.
I have never been to Nigeria and know nothing about property rights, so I was very much out of my element here. I do not believe that I was completely alone in this regard.
LeVan is a political scientist who primarily follows security issues in Nigeria – he opposed the recent decision of the State Department to brand Boko Haram a Foreign Terrorist Organization. I understand that Olubowale is a cultural anthropologist – he will be speaking at American University on Wednesday on indigenous west African religious practices in Trinidad.
Olubowale and LeVan were discussing a paper that has recently been accepted for publication in the quarterly African Affairs next summer. As I understand it, their main aim is to show that housing problems in Abuja are a result of poor government policy rather than obstructions in the marketplace. As LeVan put it himself, Abuja has a ‘hugely inefficient formal land market’ where it is ‘virtually impossible’ to make a legal land transaction.
Olubowale set the tone for the PowerPoint presentation, noting that as a youth he knew little about the Federal Capital Territory. I was surprised to learn that it is the fastest growing city in west Africa. Levan took over for the meat of the remarks and he quickly grounded his analysis in his security background, noting that ‘Abuja looks like a formula for violence.’ Similar to Jos, Abuja’s populace is marked by ‘indigenes’ and ‘settlers’. Indigenes often receive government protection that settlers do not (a state of affairs that has facilitated corruption and graft). One neighborhood, Idu, was referenced as an area composed of Ibo ‘settlers’ that has experienced severe demolitions.
In their paper, LeVan and Olubowale also discuss neighborhood associations and grassroots activists supporting the rights of local citizens. I was again surprised to learn that some of these associations are quite developed. One, Federation of Urban Poor (FEDUP), is quite international and has contacts with similar groups as far afield as South Africa and India.
I got a little confused by the intricacies of their argument, but Abuja is one of Africa’s few planned post-colonial cities and I think the land/housing situation there requires further scrutiny. Perhaps such work can play a small part in preventing in Abuja the dastardly atrocities that characterize Jos and Plateau State.
* If anyone is interested in where the title came from, ask me (trying to generate more interactions with readers here).