Senator Bala Abdulkadir Mohammed was the Senator representing Bauchi South Senatorial District in Nigeria’s National Assembly from where he was appointed Minister of the Federal Capital Territory by President Goodluck Jonathan in 2010. Since his appointment, he has shown uncommon doggedness and determination in the delivery of his mandate. He sat down for an evening of discussion with African Leadership Magazine team of Kingsley Okeke, Sam Hart and Sam Agaji to talk about the work he is doing and how he is surmounting the challenges of his office. Excerpts:
Successive FCT Ministers have placed so much emphasis on restoring and abiding by the Abuja Masterplan. How well has your administration fared in the pursuit of this goal?
Definitely we have fared very well. It is a heritage that was handed down to us by successive administrations. We are the only city in Nigeria that is well structured and backed with a very robust geographic information system therefore our Masterplan is well established comparable to the best global practice and our land uses, corridors, phases mind you the city is divided into phases. 8,000 square kilometers and 250,000 (This figure needs to be verified) square kilometers embedded city masterplan. And so everything about the city is provided for in the Masterplan. These include the sewer lines, the road corridors, the transportation masterplan, the health masterplan, the seismic data, the water reticulation, the housing structures, the green areas, everything you can think of that a standard city ought to have. You can see Abuja developing just like Europe so it is nothing different from what you have in the city of London. Abuja is not different from what you will find in Washington so we have to go by the approved masterplan. Admittedly, there have been variations to the masterplan because you can see obviously unapproved settlements springing up here and there because of our peculiar challenges and sometimes ignorance so you see people coming into the city and establishing unapproved settlements. We are not sitting idly by. We demolish these illegal settlements as soon as we discover them but note that our own demolition is not arbitrary. We employ persuasion and dialogue to enable the owners of the buildings appreciate the reason why we are demolishing their buildings. Note also that our peculiar socio-cultural orientation as Africans sometimes come in conflict with the masterplan. We believe every available space is for habitation and we do not respect green areas, parks, recreational gardens and the likes because of our peculiar predilections. We don’t have the culture of separating residential areas from commercial areas or mixed use areas. We must appreciate that there is a unity of existence between buildings, spaces and the people. Here in Abuja, we have a masterplan that have clearly spelt all these things out and we are striving, despite constant collisions with the people, to ensure that we follow its tenets. Note also that we are guided by the Land Use Act which domiciles the entire land in the Federal Capital Territory under the authority of the Minister albeit in delegated capacity. The land belongs to the Federal Government under the leadership of the President who then gives the Minister of the FCT the responsibility to administer the land.
How are you dealing with the obvious overstretching of the facilities available in the city in the light of the obvious overpopulation in the city of Abuja?
You cannot talk about the Abuja masterplan without talking about the ratio of infrastructure per number of people. The city is structured in such a way that we are supposed to have 79 Districts with 9 major commercial areas which we call Sector Areas. So 96 in all. So far, we have developed only 11 Districts with only 1 Sector Area which is what you know as the Central Business District. The city is attractive and it is attracting people from all walks of life. This is a country of 170 million people with a Regional polulation of 350 Million for West and Central Africa. Abuja is therefore a Regional Hub. You know most people gravitate to places where they are assured of security and basic amenities. Abuja is the only city where you will see facilities, infrastructure and services that are near to what you will find in Europe therefore people are naturally attracted to Abuja. Those who are posted to Abuja to work or who came as Federal Legislators, by the time they retire or by the time their tenure ends, they do not return to their original domicile. They stay put in Abuja. Even African Diplomats who were posted to Abuja to serve. By the time they retire, they still come to Abuja to take up residence. We have many of them. Another factor leading to the massive influx is the special status of Abuja as everybody’s land. I am careful not to say it is a no man’s land because that would be uncharitable to the aboriginal owners but the designation of Abuja is such that it is home to every Nigerian. Everybody that comes into Abuja is free to claim citizenship of Abuja. There is no inhibition in terms of state of origin. Everybody can contest an election to represent Abuja and everybody can expect equal service in Abuja irrespective of original origin. A combination of that air of freedom and liberty and the beauty and aesthetics in terms of infrastructure gives Abuja an edge. Note also that all the Ministries, Departments and Agencies statutorily have their Head Offices in Abuja. Most big corporations who deal with government are following suit too because your Head Office should be where you do your interface and do most of your documentation so Abuja is a haven for employment seekers. Most importantly, FCT is one place the system works in Nigeria. This is where contractors can come and be assured of contracts not only in the FCT Administration but even in the Area Councils where they have full autonomy with their funds. The truth is that right now, going by the available services and infrastructure, we have the capacity to cater for only 1 million people but available data shows that we are accommodating 7 million people so that explains to you why our facilities are overstretched. This challenge on the other hand presents a huge opportunity for investors to come in and provide the services that will cater for the huge number of people and bridge the infrastructure deficit gap that exists in terms of roads, hospitals, schools, etcetera. I make bold to say that Abuja has the highest GDP per capita in Nigeria inspite of our challenges and investors are assured of huge returns on their investments.
Can you throw more light on the Abuja Centenary City? What is it all about and how will it be funded?
The Nigerian Centenary City is a Landmark legacy project which President Goodluck Jonathan wants to bequeath to Nigerians to symbolize our attainment of 100 years as a nation since the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorate in 1914 to form the nation Nigeria. We need to have something that speaks to and deepens that Landmark. 1,500 Hecters of land has been earmarked for this project that is going to be truly special. It will have a special immigration status, it will have some iconic and landmark structures, it will also have an area that will create cadastrals for all the States of the Federation to stamp their own culture and tradition so that it will become a unique manifestation of our Nigerianness. It is a completely private sector-driven initiative. It is not being built by the Federal Government so we cannot place a figure on what it would cost to build but we have no doubt that it will bring in investments of more than $20 billion into the FCT. Our only involvement is via our landswap arrangement which we have for investors in the FCT wherewith we use land as a resource and give it to investors as our equity. The investors will then develop the land by way of provision of basic infrastructure in the allocated area. They will then parcellate the lands and sell to interested buyers to recoup their investment in infrastructure. This system eliminates the need to rely on normal budgetary processes for provision of infrastructure in the FCT.
First of all, I must thank President Goodluck Jonathan for living up to his promise to assist us make Abuja very safe and secure. Flowing from there, I also wish to thank all the security agencies that are domiciled in Abuja for their untiring efforts in making sure that Abuja is safe and secure. We have established a very sound and vibrant security framework where we ensure round the clock surveillance, patrol, monitoring and evaluation of all known and perceived blackspots to make sure that residents of Abuja sleep comfortably. Abuja is not attractive to criminals and troublemakers because they know that they will be caught. I will admit that we have had a few unpleasant situations in the form of the World Bank Headquarters Bombing, Force Headquarters Bombing and Thisday Bombing but we considered those to be wake up calls and since then, we have taken extra measures to ensure that they do not recur. I will not disclose the measures we have put in place in other not to alert the criminals to our tactics but I assure you that we have leveraged on our infrastructure in terms of sewage channels and other ducts to install fibre-optic communication and surveillance systems that compliment security in the FCT. But suffice it to say that the security infrastructure we have installed underground far outweighs whatever you see on the surface including all the security vehicles and surface surveillance equipments. I assure you that Abuja is very safe and secure.
The world is placing more emphasis on Private Sector Led efforts to provide services as opposed to government agencies. How has the FCT Administration under you leveraged on this trend to support Public Private Partnership Initiatives in the FCT?
Every administration must be guided by a vision and you must bring out innovations to confront some peculiar challenges. Our challenges in the FCT are easy to pinpoint and I will narrow them down to Infrastructure and Service deficit vis a vis the paucity of funds within normal budgetary allocations. We equally discovered since we came on board that there have been some policy summersaults in successive administrations in terms of continuity and in terms of dynamism in governance where each Minister comes and does not continue from where his predecessor left off but tries to introduce new projects to make a name for himself. For most of the projects and programmes you see in Abuja today, we established a robust cash-flow channel based on available resources. You can see the concept of establishing a 10-lane superhighway around the city of Abuja to reduce the traffic gridlock. We started it and it is nearly 90% complete. That could only have been done via financial discipline and innovative means of freeing up other aspects we were hitherto involved in and allowing the private sector drive those aspects. When you allow the private sector drive aspects of service delivery, you free up funds that can then be channeled to the provision of very critical infrastructure which ordinarily you may not have been able to provide if you were chasing many small projects. Like I told you earlier on, we have created only 11 districts out of a provision for 95 districts and the 11 districts we created was intended to carter for 1 million people and we currently have 7 million and new people are coming in every day. we need to be creative in encouraging the private sector to provide the needed insfratructure to cater for the surplus. Our 10-lane superhighway, apart from making Abuja aesthetically appealing comparable to other world capitals, have equally opened up new vistas for people to now come in and develop hitherto virgin territories and provide needed services. I told you about the landswap initiative earlier on. With that, we intend to develop another 11 districts within the shortest possible time. We currently have 15 investors who have brought their seed money to the table ready to provide infrastructure to the tune of 500 million naira. We will allocate these districts to them and they will move in and provide the required infrastructure. When they are done, we will then sit down and look at how much they spent to provide the infrastructure then we will agree on what percentage of the entire land will go to them to enable them resell and recoup their investment and we will retain the balance of the land. It could be 60/40 or 70/30 for instance but that can only be computed by the time they are done and we know what they have spent commensurate to the value of land in the district. This is an initiative that has won us plaudits the world over because it is a novel concept that was home-grown to creatively overcome the infrastructure deficit in our locality.
What level of support have you received from President Goodluck Jonathan for the work that you are doing?
The most important support I have received from Mr. President is trust. He trusts us at the FCT Administration. He has never interfered in our work because he believes that whatever we are doing is in the public interest. As for me, because of the huge level of trust that he has reposed in me, it has put a burden on me to ensure that I do not act in any manner that will subject myself or any member of my family to any iota of distrust. Because we are all working in tandem with Mr. President’s vision, we understand the need to leave indelible marks in whatever we are doing. I understand the burden on me to create an enabling environment for businesses to thrive in the Federal Capital Territory. With the conscious understanding that no nation in the world develops without making its capital city the bedrock of its economic development. Think of Paris, think of London. Even during the medieval ages, the practice was to develop the capitals and then have that development cascade to other areas. Look at Istanbul, Constantinople, Rome, etcetera. Capitals are economic clusters where there are systems that will incubate and cascade down to the other cities. That is the vision that I have for the FCT. Anybody coming to Nigeria would ideally want to visit the capital and I want the Abuja to hold fond memories for whoever visits. We should leverage on this to bring development into Abuja. We should build world class hospitals and schools to forestall capital flight to other countries. I am happy to note that about 10 Universities have sprang up in Abuja since I came on board and there is room for more.
How would you want to be remembered long after you have left this office?
I want to be remembered as the man who provided critical infrastructure in Abuja. I want to be remembered as the man who came up with an innovative policy that reduced the infrastructural deficit in Abuja. I want to be remembered as the Minister who opened up all the corridors and reduced the time it takes to get from the city to the airport and neighbouring towns. I am proud of the 10-lane super-highway encircling Abuja which I built. I want to be remembered for attracting iconic and symbolic landmarks in the city of Abuja like the World Trade Centre which is nearing completion. I want to change the landscape of Abuja to be at par with other world capitals. I want to see condominiums and apartment buildings springing up. I want to see new districts emerging from hitherto bushes and forests and I want to see people coming to Abuja from every part of the world as the place where they are sure that things actually work. We are making good progress and with the support of every stakeholder, we will get there.