Amina Salihu, Development Sector Specialist, Civil Society

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Subjects of Interest

  • Governance
  • Sustainable Development

Abuja original inhabitants on World’s Indigenous Peoples Day 18 Sep 2022

People are the world’s most important resources. Even with the abundance of natural resources on our home planet Earth, people have to extract the non-human assets, add value to them, and put them into productive uses. Countries are built on the labour and sacrifices of people. The hope is that when people ‘invest’ their lives in their countries, they will be rewarded with honour and dignity, acknowledgement of their sacrifice, and protection of their livelihoods. This is the social contract between the State and citizens.

Events have shown that this is not a given. Some people give their best socio-economic and cultural assets and receive nothing – or next to nothing – as rewards for their sacrifices. One such social category of people is the indigenous people of Abuja, otherwise known as the Original Inhabitants of the Federal Capital Territory of Nigeria or Abuja Original Inhabitants (AOIs).

The United Nations aims to assuage the plight of people who were the first known settlers on land that they have now lost to higher powers. Under the auspices of the global non-governmental organisation, every 9th of August is celebrated around the world as International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples. “Indigenous” people are citizens whose forebears and children were raised on land that they assumed to be their ancestral homes and birthright until by dint of law or sheer power, they lose that land to new owners who claim it as theirs in the public interest or as booty won fair and square in war and conquest.

These new lords sometimes claim to have 'discovered' what was always a known place, renaming it, re-apportioning it, and claiming it for their own bloodlines and allies. The first claimants who lose out bear the brunt of displacement. Everywhere, the growth of new cities and the progress of their residents are built on the backs of indigenous people in a zero-sum situation.

American Indians, Australian Aborigines, and the AOIs fall into this category. While the first two experienced conquest and plunder from non-natives, the AOIs chose to give their land to the federal government of Nigeria. Indigenous Abuja people were supporting the greater good of national unity. In exchange, they were promised new farm steads, plots of land in the new Federal Capital Territory (FCT), access to modern amenities, and better life generally.

The people indigenous to the FCT, who are recognised as the original inhabitants, are from nine ethnic collectives of Amwamwa, Bassa, Egbira, Gade, Ganagana, Gbagyi, Gbari, Gwandara, and Koro, whose parents were born before 1976 on the land now designated as Nigeria's Federal Capital Territory. In 1976, the then-military government of Nigeria decided to move the seat of government and the nation's capital city from the port city of Lagos in the Southwest, to Abuja - the centre of Nigeria, or part of what is now designated as North-Central.

Before 1976, Abuja did not exist. The FCT was carved out of Kaduna, Kogi, Kwara,  Nasarawa, and Niger States. It sits on 250 square kilometres (km2) of the 8,000 km2 of land designated and renamed Nigeria's Federal Capital Territory.

In 1978, the department of geography of the University of Ibadan conducted a verification exercise that put the indigenous population of the FCT at 450,000 households. The 2006 census put the population at 1.45 million. Going by population growth projections, the FCT administration estimated that the population had grown to approximately 6 million people in 2015.  

Under the FCT Act of 1976, Abuja’s indigenous groups should have been compensated for the acquisition of their land. But over time, the policy changed from resettlement to integration, which meant keeping their existing structures and ways of life. This is not implausible, after all they are also citizens and can choose to live anywhere in Nigeria. However, none of these policies was fully implemented, with the result that AOIs are very much excluded from the wider national governance structures.

While the idea of Abuja as a Federal Capital City and where any citizen can aspire to live is laudable, there are human rights and identity issues unearthed and left unresolved in a bid to solve some others. The problem Abuja needs to solve, apart from having a planned new capital city much like Putrajaya in Malaysia, Canberra in Australia, and Brasilia in Brazil, is citizenship.

In Nigeria, the concept of indigeneity has become a political problem. Our citizenship is more assured internationally by virtue of the green-back passport we carry outside the shores of Nigeria, but contentious within the country. The notion of indigeneity means that one's biological father must be deemed to be a bona fide member of one Nigeria’s current 36 states – known as the state of origin – before they qualify to be regarded as a member of that state. It does not matter where one's mother comes from.

Composed of patrilineal nations, indigeneity status is derived from the male parent. What happens to women who marry outside their father's state of origin? It means they cannot claim their father's state as they have been 'married out'. Their marital states also remind them that their fathers were not of the states of their spouses. So they technically are ‘state-less'. There are women who have broken this indigeneity barrier, but they remain the exception.

With the Abuja residency policy, anyone can claim to be a resident after living in the territory for five years and demonstrating fealty through payment of taxes and other civic duties. So, while Nigerians originally from other parts of the country can treat Abuja and the FCT as home and access opportunities, many AOIs are hardly able to do so, because of policy somersaults and lack of empowerment.

The constitution does not recognise the AOIs under the Federal Character Act which has each state of the federation produce at least a minister. Unlike the states, Abuja does not have its own legislature. A committee each in the Senate and House of Representatives serves as the lawmaking body for the FCT. Abuja’s representation in the National Assembly is limited to one senator and two members in the House of Representatives, compared with states of the federation which have three senators and between 5 – 24 representatives each. The FCT does not have a governor or a mayor: appointees of the President serve as its ministers. The FCT’s budget is based on 1% of the consolidated revenue of the federation and other revenues it may generate.   

There is low-level of educational awareness in the FCT due in part to the absence of quality educational institutions there. There was no single public secondary school in the area before 1976. Subsequently, although there is a standing policy of 1% equity in civil service appointments and recruitments for AOIs, many do not have the educational foundation required to take up the slots.

No doubt AOIs are held back by some cultural norms and practices. For example, twins are still killed in the Kuje Area Council of the FCT to this day, same for a child whose mother dies giving birth to him or her. It is also considered an abomination in certain parts of the AOI communities for a child to grow its first teeth in the top-row gum as against the bottom row.  

On 9 August 2022, the Centre for Human Rights and Civic Education (CHRICED) held the climax of a month-long series of events to focus on the plight of AOIs, under a MacArthur Foundation funded project on the rights of AOI. Several issues were raised, including the right to land, livelihood, and essential social services and amenities – especially quality education and health.

Also lamented was the unequal representation of AOIs in government and governance structures. The people are affected by the rising spate of insecurity and fear going to their farms, the erosion of their right to culture (some of their ancestral burial places are violated and converted to sites of modern high rises), and other issues. They worry about the psycho-social effects of exclusion on their youth, including the abuse of drugs. AOIs also highlighted their peace-loving nature but ominously warned that injustice could only be borne for so long.

Amina Salihu, PhD, is a development sector specialist.