It’s time to enhance the look and feel of our cities (1), by Gbenga Onabanjo

The urban environment influences our lives considerably and plays a very important role in our wellbeing generally. That is why the urban equation needs to be delicately balanced between the quest to drive economic development that delivers many public services such as education, healthcare, transportation and housing, and prevent or reduce urban degradation and pollution.

A beautiful, clean, orderly and healthy city is an attraction for people to live, work, relax and visit. This is the area of any urban thinker, and it is the philosophy that birthed the creation of Dubai.

Nigeria’s economic and human development capital ratings just before independence were quite high. So also was the quality of our lives and the infrastructure of our major cities, when compared with some developed cities in Europe and Asia at that time. The cities had unique characters that attracted lots of tourists from all over the world.

The city of Ibadan boasted of Cocoa House, the University of Ibadan, the Western Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation House and a number of tourist sites. The groundnut pyramids of Kano were a sight to behold. The Garden City of Port Harcourt, the Confluence Town of Lokoja, the Rock City of Abeokuta, the Rolling Hills of Idanre, the Coal City of Enugu, to mention a few, were all centres of attraction.

We had very rich culture and tradition, as well as world-class human resources, which made Nigeria a choice destination to so many foreigners. Of course, we had quite a number of world-class hotels, notable amongst them were the Nigeria Hotel Chain, comprising Central Hotels, Kano; Hamdallah Hotel, Kaduna; Hill Station Hotel, Jos; Confluence Hotels, Lokoja; Metropolitan Hotel, Calabar; Premier Hotel, Ibadan; and Ikoyi Hotel, Bristol Hotel and Federal Palace Hotel (all in Lagos).

With rapid urbanization, interruption of the civil rule, successive military regimes, the Nigerian civil war and the Nigerian indigenization decree, the standards for maintaining the facilities in these cities declined and the projected growth and continuation of the provision of infrastructure and services also took a nosedive.

After the creation of states in 1967, and the oil boom of the early 70s, the cities, particularly Lagos, witnessed rapid transformation with the erection of iconic structures like the National Arts Theatre, the National Stadium, the international airports and a network of bridges and highways of international standards.

The decline in the provision of infrastructure and slow development of our cities began in the late 70s and 80s after the civil service structure was dislocated with the reforms carried out by the late General Murtala Mohammed.

The institutions were weakened due to lack of security as seasoned professionals and administrators were prematurely retired. The civil service was never the same again all over the nation. It got pretty worse with the economic downturn when the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) was introduced by the General Ibrahim Babangida administration. A number of services were cut down to save cost.

The Gideon Orka failed coup during the Babangida regime forced the government to prematurely relocate the capital of the country from Lagos to Abuja. The phased relocation earlier planned was jettisoned and unplanned resources were pumped into the building of Abuja City, leaving most of the other states cash-strapped.

There was a lot of drift from the rural areas to the cities for better living conditions. The rural-urban migration was not put in check and a lot of the infrastructure provided in these cities became overburdened. Lagos in particular was most affected and the infrastructure could not withstand the volume of migrants into the city.

It now became a common sight to see people thronging the streets uncontrollably as sidewalks were no longer adequate, the road networks were not improved and provisions were not made for commercial activities. Residential areas were converted to commercial purposes. New neighbourhoods were not provided for the increasing population. Most of our urban centres sprawled uncontrollably into urban slums. This phenomenon, which began in Lagos, gradually spread to other cities, and so began the decay and decline of most of our cities.

The officers monitoring developments were overwhelmed and compromised to the extent that the hitherto lovely cities became a shadow of themselves. New attitudes and unwelcome habits developed. Every house frontage turned into markets. Street trading became the order of the day. There were problems with waste management. Traffic was chaotic. Everything that could go wrong went wrong. These scenarios were replicated in every major city in the country, except Abuja, the purpose-built capital city of Nigeria.

In 1999, democracy was restored. The euphoria created a bit of traction. The city of Abuja was sanitized under Nasir el-Rufai, who served under Obasanjo as the federal capital territory minister. Calabar city and few other cities witnessed massive infrastructural renewal. Lagos was starved of funds. Things degenerated badly in some states. Cost of governance generally was high, leaving little or nothing for capital expenditure. States are not autonomous; their governors go cap in hand at the end of the month to Abuja for allocations. This led to much of the decay seen in most cities in the country.

Now, it is time to put a stop to the chaos and reorder our lives by strengthening our institutions, carry out reforms and make a deliberate effort to reverse the trend and chart a new course that will bring order, health, beauty and cleanliness to our cities.
In the second part of this article, I will look at areas that need urgent attention and suggest what can and should be done.