Tunji Lardner,

Tunji Lardner,

A weeklong electronic journal.
July 2 1998 3:30 AM

Tunji Lardner,

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       ABUJA, Nigeria--For me, flying into Abuja is like flying into a foreign country. The flights are fairly decent and unusually punctual by Nigerian standards. The passengers are a mixed bag of business types and government and international bureaucrats all making the pilgrimage to the nation's political capital and the seat of government.
       About 25 years ago, the military government, buoyed by billions of petronaira, decided the capital city, Lagos, was too gritty, grimy, and congested, not worthy of "the giant of Africa." And so it was decided that a spanking new capital would be built, quite literally smack in the geographic center of Nigeria.
       A couple of decades later, Lagos remains gritty, grimy, and congested, and it is still Nigeria's economic powerhouse, with over half of the nation's industrial capacity and commerce hustling to be heard above the hubbub of 8 million rugged citizens. "New York without the lights," as a friend once described it. Lately, it has also become the hotbed of opposition to the military government.
       Abuja, by contrast, is a government town, designed and built by government, run by government and, until recently, owned by Abacha ... government, same thing. It is a contrived city, designed and built to be a non-Lagos: wide, sweeping boulevards; quirky geometric-shaped buildings; traffic lights that work; and horror of horrors, no open drains in sight.
       However, in spite of its sensible urban planning, the city, having no animation of its own, exists only because the government's bureaucracy needs people to run it. In addition, because the public sector (read: government) is the greatest source of wealth creation in the land, the daily pilgrimage mostly from Lagos ensures proper obeisance to Aso Rock, the bunkered villa that is our White House.
       Under Babangida (the penultimate dictator) and more so under Abacha, the city was further animated by a 3,000-man strong praetorian guard and perhaps a dozen other security agencies and sundry spooks, instantly recognizable because of their dark eyewear, bulging breast pockets, and those ubiquitous lapel buttons.
       On previous trips, I had concluded that the dark shades were a sartorial nod to their boss, always hiding behind dark Ray-Bans, his face in miniature pasted on their chests, visible upon closer inspection of the buttons.
       Today not a lapel button was in sight, and the malevolent and ubiquitous presence of his notorious secret police seems to have melted into the mists enveloping the beautiful hills surrounding the city. Instead, the place was abuzz with the presence of two secretaries-general, Kofi Annan and Emeka Anyaoku, respectively of the United Nations and the Commonwealth, both there to hold talks with the new head of state, Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar. And would you believe it, the Yanks are expected next week, too. U.S. Undersecretary [of State] Thomas Pickering heads a delegation that includes Assistant Secretary of State Susan Rice and representatives of the National Security Council and other executive agencies, all scheduled to meet with Abubakar.
       All this was unthinkable just a month ago, when personal paranoia was public and foreign policy. Abacha's hidebound persona translated into an obnoxious diplomatic offensive that was really a cover for weak, vicious, and incompetent governance.
       For me the absence of those lapel buttons, worn not only as a fashion statement but as a pledge of fealty to the "beautiful leader" Sani Abacha, is the surest sign that things are changing in Abuja. Changes that I'm sure the North Koreans would have had a hard time relating to.

Tunji Lardner is a Nigerian journalist who lives in New York and writes for West Africa magazine. He is a consultant for the United Nations on the Internet and the media, and an adjunct professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism's Center for New Media.