by Charles Lavery
A man is guarding the carcass of a goat as his business partners, the local butchers, sharpen their knives in the shadow of Abuja’s newly built £70 million national stadium.
The man standing guard has an AK-47 assault rifle. He holds it like he is about to use it. It is not slung casually over his shoulder, it is at waist height, has no shoulder strap, and is ready to be levelled. I ask him why he has it. “Safety,” he says. His own safety.
The starving walk for miles to buy skinny slices of the goat he and his Russian made weapon guard.
He stands not five miles from the centre of Abuja, the jewel in the crown of Nigeria, its new capital city, built at the expense of its own people. The queues for oils and petrol snake around the city.
Tourists do not see this, cocooned as they are within the guarded walls of hotel complexes where locals fear to tread. This spine of skyscrapers was built for the oil executives and businessmen of the west, and the bars dotted along the backbone of a nation are populated by girls so accustomed to joining businessmen in their rooms the concierge searches them on the way up and on the way out.
Directly across from the guarded entrance to the Abuja Hilton is a petrol station, not unlike the type you might see in any rural part of the United Kingdom, with those antiquated fuel pumps where you could stand and watch those black on white numerals clicking round until your tank had its fill.
Only here, in the fourth richest oil state in the world, you can’t. Not when you first arrive anyway. Westerners, businessmen and the various politicos who make up the ruling elite can drive in, fill up and drive off just like you and I. As they do so, Nigerian people unfortunate enough to be born outwith the grace or favour of the ruling classes spend up to two days sleeping in their cars just to fill their tanks with petrol.
This is a country where less than 200 people control an oil wealth in the billions. When I was there a police commander walked out of a police station in Abuja with over $10 million dollars in cash from the safe. He had arranged his own private army to ensure he got it out safely. The story made page 4 of the next day’s paper, and even then it was a wing column.
As I sat in the foyer of the Abuja Hilton I watched small men with tribal scars on their faces exit from heavily armoured Humvee jeeps, as their coterie of boy soldier bodyguards surrounded them armed with assault rifles. These small men paraded through the foyer wearing top hats cocked at a jaunty angle. They swaggered along towards the bar tap-tap-tapping silver tipped canes on the marble floor, marking the rhythm of their wealthy lives.
These men are Nigeria’s elected politicans.
A few miles outside the city gates, families lived in makeshift mud huts 20 years after they were forced from the city centre to make way for the exclusive new developments these boy soldiers and oiligarchs now inhabited.
Some went from the very land on which the 60,000-seat national stadium – centrepiece of this shiny new metropolis – now stands.
The displaced masses of the Bwari tribe were promised new homes and compensation – which never came.
Today they live in mud huts and have to steal water from a nearby reservoir which supplies the city they once called home.
The Abuja Games bid cost more than £250million but the government will still not stretch to the £10,000 cost of a borehole which would give the tribe the water they need.
Girls as young as four carry buckets of scorching sand on their heads to the village so their parents can make the bricks that will give shelter from the sun.
The searing hot grains smear their faces and leave scars and rivulets on their foreheads.
His Royal Highness Alhaji Mohammabu Baba, chief of the Bwari people, wants the world to know what has happened.
And he was desperate that the authorities who displaced his people would not benefit from the lucrative kudos the Games would bring.
In a baking hot room in the centre of a “village” with no roads, sanitation or running water, peeling photocopied pictures of a meeting he held with Bill Clinton in 2000 were pinned to a wall.
The then US President was on a whistlestop tour of Africa and had personally requested a meeting.
Chief Baba wanted the committee judging the Commonwealth Games bids to see the plight of his people – not just the shiny new wealth of Abuja.
He said at the time: “They are spending millions of pounds on the bid for these games while the people here go without water.
“”Tell the world what has happened to my people.
“Please tell everyone. They want to bring the games to Abuja. It is our land and we were moved with no compensation – nothing. We have lived like this ever since.
“President Clinton came here and promised to help. We are told he sent money but it never got here.
“Clinton demanded to speak to the chief of Abuja and they had to bring him to me.
“I am the chief of Abuja and the people who lived there. We have no water – nothing. We are forgotten.
“Our people have no food, water, money.
“Tell everyone to come and see how we live.”
At least 300,000 Bwari tribespeople were forcibly removed in the early 1980s as Nigeria sought to build a modern capital.
They now have nothing and no means to improve their circumstances. They ask for money but also for pens and notebooks.
At that time, just one kilometre away, a British company, Biwater, were extending a massive dam to hold water for the oil rich residents 10 kilometres away.
Ushafa villagers knew they could be shot on sight by private security guards for going there to take water. A request to fund a borehole was sent to every single listed director of the company. It fell on deaf ears.
But these people are determined to stay on their own land and have their native Bwari rights affirmed by the Nigerian state.
Abuja city centre boasts the same multimillion-pound shopping malls seen in US and European cities.
On offer are the latest Spider-Man DVD and the new Beyonce album.
But these are confined to the super rich and shoppers browse under the gaze of gun-wielding security guards.
The people of the village have never heard of Beyonce and are not allowed near these malls.
Their daily lives are about the struggle to get enough water and food.
John Tierney, head of the Commonwealth Games Bid Evaluation Commission, and other delegates, spent a week in Abuja and stayed in the Hilton Hotel.
They were taken on a carefully stage-managed tour of Abuja, with no chance to see the real conditions in country.
As they were touring the proposed venues for the games, the displaced were kept well away.
The Abuja bid team shrugged off the scandal of the problems faced by Nigeria’s poor but admit they kept delegates away from Ashafa, the mud hut collective of a displaced tribe.
A spokesman at the time said: “The situation with the Bwari people has been adequately addressed by the administration.
“These things take time.
“These people are expecting to get money but it has to go through a process. They made way for the city and there has now been a change in administration. So maybe now they will get their money.
“The government is going to do something about this. The process to get them resettled and compensated is ongoing but yes, it is taking some time.”
They are still waiting.
*Original reporting during a visit to Nigeria ahead of Abuja’s bid to host the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Updated for this version.