February is “winter” in Abuja, Nigeria, even though temperatures go into the 30s by day. It’s very dry, and arrival felt a bit like getting to Jo’burg in winter. The city is permanently dimmed by enormous amounts of smoke in the air from the fires that people set to the bush, and the wood burnt for fuel. Most of the vegetation is dry and brown, with striking keynotes in bright green from tropical perennials. Abuja is a planned city that only became the Nigerian capital 20 years ago. The grand architecture of the central city is surrounded by illegal settlements which the state periodically tears down, so successfully that I did not see a single shack the whole time I was there. The country’s population, already 130 million, is rapidly expanding.
I was there for just two days, this last week, and the drive from the city to the airport on departure was a bit of a mindf**k. There are huge roadworks – the road is being substantially widened by Julius Berger construction. Shattered boulders and generator trucks running floodlights and huge trucks carrying earth line the highway. But there are no barriers between existing road and road under construction. And so, at rush hour, people use both, in a mad jostle of cars skirting around the hawkers that run between the lanes and lift-seekers lining the roadside. Motorcycles are banned from central Abuja, but in the periphery there are hundreds. Hardly anyone wears helmets.