Nigeria moves its capital out of the swamps

Abuja, Nigeria's new capital, is a symbol of national unity in a country split by tribal and religious differences. Rising out of a remote, attractive plain in the center of the country, it is in an ethnically neutral area between the major northern Muslim and southern Christian tribes.

Its central location makes it more accessible than Lagos, the former capital, which is on the coast and in the heartland of the Yorubas, one of Nigeria's three main tribes.

Abuja's 1,000-foot altitude makes it much drier than the coastal swamps of Lagos.

A distant ring of huge granite hills gives Abuja a picturesque setting, compared to Lagos's featureless and anarchic urban sprawl. It should not be hard to persuade Nigerians and foreign diplomats to leave the humidity and congestion of Lagos.

''Here there is abundant space to plan the infrastructure for a city of 3 million people,'' said a senior official of the Federal Capital Development Authority (FCDA) in Abuja.

The federal capital territory is 2 1/2 times the size of the Lagos state but has less than one-tenth the population. Abuja's new airport is 27 miles from the city center, which leaves room for urban expansion.

Lagos, an hour's flight to the southwest, has been choked by its rapid, sprawling growth. After it was named the nation's capital in 1914, its population zoomed to nearly 5 million from 100,000. It continues to grow at the rate of 33 people an hour and could reach 20 million by the year 2,000 if unchecked.

Construction and maintenance of the city's infrastructure have not kept pace with its growth. Most of the poorer suburbs lack piped drinking water, sewer systems, and electricity. People live in flimsy, crowded shacks made of scrap wood and boxes.

However, Lagos Gov. Alhaji Lateef Jakande believes the city's image as one of the world's most dangerous and expensive urban areas is ''unfair.''

''Is violence and crime any worse here than in New York?'' he asked. He noted that the crime rate dropped following the expulsion of close to 1 million illegal aliens, mostly Ghanaian, earlier this year.

During his four-year term of office, Governor Jakande has used the city's limited funds to make Lagos more livable.

Shantytowns are being demolished and replaced by 20,000 low-cost homes a year. Efforts have been made to ease the city's chronic traffic congestion.

At this writing, Jakande, a member of the opposition Unity Party of Nigeria, was expected to win re-election easily in this past weekend's vote for state governors. Results should be known later this week.

The UPN, whose power base is in the Yoruba-speaking southwest, is reportedly reluctant to see the capital moved out of its sphere of influence. Not so Jakande, who likens Abuja to Washington and Lagos to New York. ''Lagos will remain the commercial capital,'' he stressed.

The symbolic transfer was made in October 1982 on the country's 22nd independence anniversary, and the final transfer is scheduled for 1987. But construction of the capital, which began in February 1980, has slowed down greatly in the past 18 months as part of the austerity program introduced after the country's crash in oil income.

''Spending has been streamlined according to national priorities and resources,'' an FCDA official said. The federal goverment has already spent $1 billion on Abuja. Another $3.5 billion was planned by 1985 on one of the world's largest construction projects.

''Four years ago there was nothing but shrubs and grassland. Now there are two residential districts and 10,000 inhabitants. Work has slowed because of the recession, but there is no turning back whatever the results of the elections,'' the official said.

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