By Jibrin Ibrahim
The Minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Bello Mohammed, is engaged in a battle to stop the sale of roasted fish and alcoholic drinks in parks and gardens in Abuja. Some persons might think there is no greater battle to fight in Abuja at this time in spite of the rapid degradation of infrastructure and rising insecurity in the city. That for me is misguided.
Tuesday was an important date. The advance convoy of the President was attacked enroute to Daura. That night, gunmen who later identified themselves as terrorists organised a commando attack on Kuje Correctional Facility with significant fire power and explosives where they broke in and released prisoners including detained terrorists. A total of 879 inmates “liberated” from the facility during the attack and just over half of them were recaptured by the next day. According to the defense minister, Bashir Magashi, were among those who escaped and were still at large. The attack took place with 38 military personnel on ground in addition to personnel of the Nigeria Police Force, Civil Defence, DSS and the armed squad of the correctional facility. What then was the strength of the attackers in personnel and fire power? With such serious challenges in the FCT as kidnappers start taking over the suburbs, one would think focusing the Minister’s attention on who is drinking beer in gardens and why they must be stopped should be his least worry.
It was Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, who, as minister of the FCT, brought to the consciousness of Nigerians the distortion of the original master-plan of the federal capital city. He had said that green areas were allocated to people to build houses, while sewage lines were blocked with buildings. To correct this anomaly, El-Rufai had set out to pull down structures erected where they should not. In his ‘operation restore Abuja master-plan,’ churches were destroyed as well as private buildings. Also, hotels and other sundry buildings were pulled down. With that, some green areas were restored, sewage lines were freed and Abuja started having a breath of fresh air. Those to who gardens were leased were required to landscape it, plant trees and flowers and make it beautiful to behold. That was the context in which Abuja’s fish garden culture developed and residents and visitors frequently visit the gardens for fresh air, roasted fish, small chops and some drinks. I am a stakeholder and frequently take my international visitors to such gardens and precisely because of the atmosphere, they have come to love Abuja. It is a great asset to the city and God bless Nasir El-Rufai for his insight.
However, since the exit of El-Rufai from the FCT Administration, Abuja is gradually returning to the old era where the master plan is ignored. Green areas and sewage lines appear to be giving way, again, to buildings. Indeed, structures are beginning to emerge in green areas. Mostly affected are private operators of gardens, who use the green areas, on the approval of the FCT administration, for recreational purpose. Successive Ministers have sought to close down the gardens and many think they are interested in allocating the land for new construction. The Aliero FCT administration in fact allotted some gardens for the issuance of certificate of occupancy (C of O). Indeed in 2009, Minister Aliero was taken to court for his ban on parks. He then argued that the parks had to be closed because robbers and prostitutes were flooding the places. I remember my response to him at that time was that the real robbers who steal billions from government coffers retain suites at Hilton Hotel, a well-known and notorious den of iniquity in Abuja. Why was the Hilton not closed down by Aliero at that time and why has the current Minister allowed Hilton serve alcohol for 24-hours each day?
I think Minister Bello of the FCT is too decent a person to seek to allocate the lands parks are situated in but it is clear he has been sold a dummy in terms of the moral argument that people should not be allowed to drink beer after 7pm. Abuja is a multi-cultural, and indeed international city and it is a great disservice to Nigeria to seek to impose provincial values on a cosmopolitan city. The parks and garden owners have sued the FCT Minister on the issue and he should not have imposed and implemented the early closure ban. The minister should uphold the rule of law and call his aides to order and stop the enforcement of the closure of parks and gardens by 7pm in the Federal Capital Territory.
The other moral crusade in Abuja is against so-called prostitutes but not their male customers, who are apparently considered as the moral pillars of contemporary Nigerian society. For decades, raids have been organised in different locations, leading to the arrest of hundreds of women by agents of the Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA) Joint Task Team. The team goes around night clubs and arrest all the women in them for prostitution. The task force has been systematically arresting women in the streets after 10 p.m. and any woman seen outside is assumed to be a criminal and prostitute, and treated as such. Independent Nigeria has therefore fully restored the colonial rule of arbitrarily arresting people in the streets for “loitering and wondering”, but this time the targets are exclusively female. This enforcement agency has made complete nonsense of our Constitution, which protects the human rights of all Nigerians, including the right to walk in the streets, day and night.
Over the years, concordant reports indicate that some of these women were sexually assaulted and released after the “moral policemen” had sex with them. Others paid bribes and were released and it was the few who refused to be blackmailed that were taken to court and charged with prostitution. It is really shameful that this would occur in the capital city of Nigeria. The charge of prostitution has become an instrument for committing terrible crimes against women. All the clubs had men and women in them but they pick on only the women, in a blatantly discriminatory approach. Some of the women were professionals, AND YES, RESPONSIBLE PROFESSIONAL WOMEN ALSO HAVE THE RIGHT TO GO AND ENJOY THEMSELVES IN CLUBS, JUST AS MEN DO. The women who resisted arrest and made the argument that they have the right to go to clubs are often thoroughly beaten up for daring to stand for their rights.
The Abuja authorities justify their war on women on the basis of the implementation of the Abuja Environmental Protection Board Act 1997, which is a statutory act applicable in the Federal Capital Territory. The law gives them powers to: “Keep owned or occupied tenements clean, neat, keep grass low and trim, cut and trim flowers; keep drainage running through the tenement free from blockage. Provide adequate dust bin and sanitary convenience … must not use residential premises for the sale of alcoholic drinks or as a restaurant or for other commercial activity.” Out of all these responsibilities, their only focus is to arrest women. No, Abuja does not need fake moral policing.