The beauty and serenity that are synonymous with Abuja are fast being eroded by have converted available under bridge spaces crisscrossing the city to their businesses premises. However, the illegal conversion of underground spaces to business centres has brought with it a new regime of unintended consequences now staring the city on its face.
Deputy Editor Soni Daniel, Fred Itua and Oiboh Peter unveil the Abuja underground businessmen and the havoc they are wreaking on the city and its residents. Welcome to a session with Abuja underground businessmen.
Motorists are flying at top speed across the Utako/Mabushi Bridge, apparently oblivious of what goes on under it. But beneath the massive concrete structure, a flurry of activities flourishes. Sundry itinerant businesses have perched like birds on the basement, angling for customers. Some of them are using bells to draw the attention of their potential patrons, others are shouting at the top of their voice while many others are moving from one point to the other all in their desperate bid to gain the attention of their ever-increasing customers. And the businesses are a legion: vulcanizers, food vendors, block moulders, hairdressers, carpenters, car washers, water vendors and illicit drug hawkers struggle daily to eke out a living under the bridge.
But that is not the only point in the capital that the same set of Nigerians, particularly artisans are pitching their tents and trying their hands on whatever can sustain them in a city that was not cut out for the poor. Judging by its avant-garde design, it is obvious that the founding fathers of the capital city did not have the middle class in mind when they were planning Abuja and the present system does not also have a place for them. Having a comfortable office space to do business in the city therefore, is a pricey affair that only the rich and the powerful can do and still smile. It is therefore not surprising why the artisans swoop on any available space beneath the bridges that dot the capital city.
However, the gradual and unrestrained take-over of the underbelly of the spiralling bridges by hoodlums, which would have enhanced the city’s splendour and niche, has triggered an infamy, which the administration did not envisage. It is certain from the look of things that if the emerging menace is not checked at once, residents of Abuja will soon pay dearly for the new wave of criminality that is fast springing up from the uncontrolled occupation of bridge spaces by the good, the bad and the ugly all in the name of doing business in the capital city. Judging by the boldness with which the operators of the illegal businesses are carrying on with their work, it is clear that they have either compromised officials of the FCTA and law enforcement agencies or the officials have failed the people woefully by turning a blind eye to an eyesore that has the potential to sting the populace and leave some scars in the process.
Already, the allure that nature has festooned on Abuja, and the sense of safety that the residents once savoured, are being seriously threatened by the rising profile of crime-related professions under the bridges.
The irony of all this is that most of these businesses are being carried out under the watchful eyes of the police and officials of the Federal Capital Territory Administration and the Abuja Municipal Area Council, a negligence that emboldens the businessmen and their clients to march on with zeal.
Orozo, an indigene of Edo State who operates a car wash business under one of the bridges in Wuse 2, admits that he has no licence to do his work but that he pays regularly to the officials of the FCTA and the police in order to survive.
“I have been doing this business here with my boys for more than two years now,” he said. “We did not get any legal licence from the FCTA to operate here, but members of FCTA and AMAC taskforce come around occasionally to extort money from us,” Orozo complained.
But a supervisor in one of the numerous block-moulding ‘factories’ operating under the Jabi/ Bridge claims that the owner of the factory got a licence from the appropriate authority and pays his levies annually.
“We do not operate here illegally. We have secured an operating licence from the FCTA. Sometimes, members of the taskforce come here to harass and extort money from us,” he said. When asked about the environmental implications of the cement factory at the heart of the city, he admitted it was wrong, but insisted that FCTA gave them the licence to operate there.
Similarly, a food seller there said she was forced to do business under the bridge because of her inability to secure space anywhere else in the city. “If I do not operate this business, how will I cater for my family?” she asked. “I once operated a shop in Utako, but the shop had been demolished by the FCTA. I must provide for my family. Until we are chased out of here, I have to earn a living,” she added.
In Wuse District of Abuja, another underground business booms. The popular City Park in Wuse 2 district of Abuja is another breeding place for criminal activities. A visit to the park revealed that all kinds of illegal businesses thrive under the bridge. Some respondents who spoke to LEADERSHIP WEEKEND on the condition of anonymity admitted that the bridge space serves as a foster home for more than 50 homeless people. There is a thriving barbing salon, carpentry workshops, restaurants as well as wholesale and retail Marijuana joints. The operators there do not seem to be in a hurry to leave their comfort zone as the darkly lit alley has given them protection from security men over the years.
They have enough reason to believe that they are secured from prying eyes. Having barricaded the entrance with bamboo trunks, the ‘businessmen’ there have carved the space into living rooms, restaurants, carpentry workshops and short-time brothels.
They operate without any hindrance. For them, the area is a better home than most of the shanties that have sprung up in the city. These are young men in their twenties who have no means of livelihood and can latch on any unfortunate ‘intruder’ especially when it is dark.
One worrisome phenomenon is that they do not intend to evacuate the premises anytime soon. For them, under the bridge in Abuja has provided a safe haven for them to ply their illegal trade in the city. LEADERSHIP WEEKEND out that some young fellows were walking out of the ‘premises’ with wraps of Marijuana. There are also tents that serve as restaurantS on the surface but are in fact joints for illicit drugs. The joints also provide bases for short-timers to satisfy their lust as some of the female hawkers who sell during the day, use them at night to curry favour from men at night.
The respondent alleged that police officers, AMAC and FCTA task force members occasionally come around and extort money from them. A motorist who patronises car washers under the bridge also said that prostitution booms under the bridge at night. According to him, some of the girls who hawk during the day transform into petty prostitutes at night and taxi drivers that cannot afford high society ladies find solace in them.
According to him, the prostitutes charge between N400 to N1000 per outing with men. With more awareness created, patronage is also increasing. The respondent also revealed that the business was growing everyday under the watchful eyes of the government and nothing was being done about it.
Lagos State was once noted for its beauty and boasted of its world class infrastructure. The architectural designs of the city gave it an awesome look. The same mistake that seemed to have ruined Lagos State many years ago is about to be replicated in the FCT.
Then in Lagos, Illicit businesses were permitted to thrive under the bridges in the city. New comers into the city who could not secure accommodations found solace under the bridges. In no time, crime escalated under the bridges and produced area boys who were almost above the law, wreaking havoc on all with mindless fixation
The atrocities of the underbelly boys are almost taking a painful toll on the city and its dwellers. Cases of car-snatching that were hitherto unheard of, are now rampant in the city. A journalist in one of the leading newspapers in Nigeria recently lost her car to hood looms that attacked her at gun point and snatched her Toyota Camry under the Utako Bridge. Valuables like mobile handsets, jewellery, money and laptops have also been regularly snatched from Abuja residents under some of these bridges.
Imoko, an Abuja-based journalist from one of the Northern states, will never forget his bitter experience in the hands of hoodlums who unleashed terror on him when he travelled late around the Area 1 Bridge in May this year. He and his girlfriend still have scars inflicted on them by the bad boys of the under bridge to show for what was to be a night to remember. Imoko had clutched her female friend alike a bag and had just settled down in one of the sprawling joints under the bridge when some ferocious elements descended on him and his female friend and ordered them to lie face down or regret ever coming to Abuja.
By the time the two lovers could open their eyes, the thugs had covered them with a big blanket and their valuables and money gone. “Don’t open your eyes and don’t move or call for help,” the gangsters kept yelling at the victims until they disappeared with their loot. The sad story is the same in Garki, Maitama, Area 10 and everywhere in the city that has a bridge passing through its domain.
But the invasion of the city by hoodlums posing as businessmen and perching on any available space under the guise fending for themselves, is not about to stop soon, as long as the FCTA is not in a hurry to provide living and business accommodation for even the genuine residents and businessmen who have no criminal tendency. With the continuous displacement of the middle class from the capital territory through skyrocketing rents and the hijack of available land by merciless speculators acting in concert with the FCDA under a deceptive ‘Mass Housing Scheme’ that has turned out to be very dear, the hope of the average Nigerian to be accommodated in the city for honest business is fast becoming a mirage.
The Director, Abuja Environmental Protection Board (AEPB) Mr. Isah Shuaibu, has described the activities of the roadside businessmen as a major challenge to his agency. Shuaibu said: “The major challenge we are facing in getting these people off the streets of Abuja is getting them to understand that what they are doing is wrong and against the law.”
The new director however stated more punitive measures were being put in place to ensure that hawkers and other road businessmen do not continue to flout its directives on street trading.
“I have actually given them a deadline of 5th November 2011 to vacate the streets after which we would go into stiff enforcement. We intend to impose stiffer sanctions to discourage them from hawking” he stated.
An official of the FCDA stated that the administration was fully aware of the menace of the underground elements and that they would soon be taken off the places. The source claimed that most of the places had already been raided and many items recovered as exhibits for the prosecution of the suspects arrested during the raids.
A senior police officer said that his men were now paying more attention to bridge space crimes and would not allow them to escalate. “That is why policemen are now posted to almost all the undergrounds in Abuja,” the senior police officer state.
It is left to be seen how far the deployment of the police officers would stem the tide of crimes under the bridges and reduce the business boom that is neither necessary nor permanent in the city. But for the smart businessmen, the struggle for survival continues either on the right or wrong side of the life.