Barnabas Atiyaye is the Managing Director of Envicons Team Consultants Limited, a town planning firm based in Abuja. In this interview, he speaks on how government can reduce slums without necessarily demolishing structures.
Rural-urban migration is over stretching infrastructure in Nigeria, especially in the Federal Capital Territory. What should government do to accommodate people without overstressing infrastructure?
The most important thing we need to ask is why are people coming down to Abuja? Why are people leaving a particular urban centre to another? There are so many factors; the first factor is security. People feel that Abuja is more secure than any other place in the country. For instance, Maiduguri in Borno State is still volatile and some people feel the best place they can run to is where the security situation is stable, and Abuja appears to be one.
The second factor is that most governments have abandoned the issue of urban planning. If you want to attract investment to your state and you neglect urban planning, you are invariably depriving or driving away investors.
So, even indigenous Nigerians find it difficult to operate in such environments, how much more of people that are coming from outside. Therefore, foreign direct investment (FDI) will be absent. What we are saying is that the political will must be there, but unfortunately too, most of our political leaders want a quick win, meaning that within their tenure, they want to see results. That does not really happen when you want to do something that is sustainable. It has to have a base and a subsequent leadership can come and build from what you have done
Many planners have been engaged in preparing master plans and at the end of the day such master plans are just left on the shelves. Subsequent administrations will not go back to them. Meanwhile, the cities are decaying, infrastructure is not just there, access to economic activities are blocked, crime is on the increase and there is nothing to attract people to such places. This has resulted in some people trying to create new cities within their own environments. We don’t need that, all you need is to come up with very good urban renewal strategies, come out with good master plans that can be undertaken even if they are going to be in phases, and at the end people will be willing to be where they are.
The next is the ability to know the direction of growth of cities: each city has a direction of growth, either to the East, West or South, and there must be a favoured direction. Government should pay attention to such places, provide the infrastructure and all the services, and people will remain where they are.
I have seen areas where infrastructure and services have been provided and nobody is there. Meanwhile, areas where people are living are without any infrastructure. Therefore, the question is what happened? It is a misplaced priority as far as I am concerned. I have also discovered that those in executive positions don’t take advice from professional bodies. Assuming you want to establish something, you need to contact people that know about the terrain to professionally give you advice, but they will come with political correctness and they just think on their own and say “I want to do it here” even if you come with a superior argument.
Governments have said they always consulted and engaged professionals from the civil service before embarking on any project. Will this not make governments to easily emasculate them into their own political agenda?
There are two approaches to it: professionals in the civil service and also professionals outside have roles to play. There are certain things that professionals in the civil service don’t have the capacity to execute, and even if they do, the content of work is overwhelming that they may need to have people from outside to assist them. That apart, the truth is this, before government professionals are involved, in most cases, the authorities already determine what they want to do. In fact, people that dare to go against particular political decisions are either moved or sidelined or transferred. We have had so many instances. The Minister’s Hill for instance, that is being bastardised is supposed to be a green area. There was a reaction to it, and what happened? The executives eventually had their way and the civil servants had to cooperate. This is just one out of many.
What is the way out so that professionalism will reign supreme in project execution?
What always happens is that for professionals that know, they will put it into writing because there is a limit to which the professionals can go. If the minister or the governor decides to go the other way, that is left for him because the outcome of that can now be traced to the executives and not the professionals because the professionals must have given their professional advice.
Non civil service professionals have the capacity to tell the truth. However, unfortunately, because of the economy, professionals outside that are called by government to come and do a particular job become subservient in the sense that they feel it is an opportunity for them to get jobs, so they wouldn’t want to lose that opportunity because if they refuse to do it, another person is ready, so these are the critical issues we are being faced with and except we restore discipline we cannot get anything right. That is where I think institutions like Town Planners Registration Council of Nigeria (TOPREC) must come in.
Let’s go to the issue of demolition: what should lead to demolition in the first place?
Demolition can be done only on two to three environmental issues. Firstly, if the people are living in an area where it is dangerous to their lives, demolition can be carried out, government can go ahead. However, government should provide an alternative land because you cannot just go and throw them away just like that. If you know that where they are living is dangerous-such as river banks that are liable to flooding or areas prone to slides, they should be relocated.
Secondly, when they occupy a place that is meant for a project and government wants to use that place, government can remove them. The problem is that government allows people to stay in a place for too long without talking to them. Anybody who has stayed in a place for over 10 years has a right to that place and if you want to remove him, provide an alternative. That is why even demolished sites are still being inhabited. People have come back to stay there because the moment you leave it vacant they will surely come back.
I have come to realise that people that are living in slums, most of them don’t even own that place. The rich men in the city own the slums, and in fact it is like a business for them.
Even in Lugbe, a lot of them are not living in their own houses. Lugbe is a combination of indigenes and settlers. If government wants to demolish it, with the population it now has, it will really attract international outcry because a lot of people are going to be subjected to serious hardship.