By Fred Itua, Okwe Obi and Adanna Nnamani
Across the 36 states of the federation and Abuja, the nation’s capital territory, insecurity has reached a crescendo. Major highways have become death traps where daredevil kidnappers and bandits reign supreme.
Ransom payment is covertly becoming a norm and government at all levels has technically caved in. Citizens are now left to provide their own security. The new abnormal norm has not exempted Abuja, the seat of power, which also houses about 17 security-related agencies.
In Abuja, criminals now reign. From ‘one chance’ to kidnapping and ritual killings, the list is endless. The daredevil criminals, who have operated freely for years, have now taken their businesses to under the bridges, from where they launch attacks on harpless residents of the city.
For several decades, bridge basements and underpasses have sheltered criminals and vagabonds across Nigeria. But in Abuja, bridges are no longer the exclusive habitats of hoodlums. They are morphing into a residence of some sorts.
Communities are sprouting under these highway bridges, hosting an audience that includes drug addicts, prostitutes, beggars, the destitute and other members of the underworld.
It is not as if these small business owners occupy the bridges for free; they remit taxes to the Federal Capital Development Authority (FCDA). A visit to a bridge located at Zone 5, which is just a stone’s throw from the popular Wuse Market, fits the description of a mini market because of the plethora of businesses there.
The first point of attraction is the deafening sound of generators numbering over 30. Then little interlocking concrete track that leads under the bridge is sandwiched with clothes sellers, phone-charging operators, groundnut/bitter kola hawkers, wristwatch repairers, phone fixers and nail fixers numbering over 10.
Notable among these bridges is the one between the popular City Park Garden and Sunshine Park on Ahmadu Bello Way, Wuse 2. Under this bridge is an entire community of its own. There, you would find men and women of different shades and ethnicities, each nestled joyfully within a two feet square space. You would also spot various vocations operated there. There are children, married couples, pregnant women, old people, smoking urchins, sorcerers and more.
In there, you would find petty traders and artisans like carpenters, clothes menders, food vendors, mini grocers and others. At dusk, you would see scavengers sorting their picks after rummaging through piles of filth in far-flung neighbourhoods.
A visit to these bridges shows that some of them operate like a residential estate with a ‘chairman’. Daily Sun gathered that the chairman’s spot and other influential members of the community have mosquito nets, small mattresses and blankets to guarantee sound sleep. Others slug it out with the elements. Squatters pay a fee to lay their heads.
Others sleep in the open air, using wrappers to protect themselves from the harsh weather and insects. There are also those that use old zink sheets or tarpaulin to secure their space.
Occasionally, they run from law enforcement agents who trace criminals to the hideouts. The women sleep with at least two jeans trousers. It is same for the tops, all for additional security and protection from intoxicated criminal members who may want to rape them at night after consuming local alcoholic beverages.
One of the women, Laraba Amos, said she had lived under the bridge for five years. She said she started living there after her house in Karimo was demolished in 2016 and she could not afford another place. She said she cooked and sold food to sustain herself.
Another lady, who didn’t want her name mentioned, said she moved under the bridge when she could no longer afford to pay rent at her former place due to hardship. She said she was not happy living under the bridge and wished for the day she could afford decent accommodation for herself and her children.
“As you can see, it’s hardship that made us all come here. I do petty trading. But that can only put food on my table. I can’t pay rent with what I earn from my petty trading. As you know, housing in Abuja is quite expensive and I also have my kids to cater for,” she said.
Has she been sexually assaulted before? “No. Women gird their loins here before sleeping. I learnt there was a time one drunk man wanted to molest a woman but he was dealt with by other men,” she answered.
Mr. Ali Abubakar, a car loader, said he moved under the bridge after his landlord evicted him because he owed several months’ rent. He tried putting up with friends, but they later sent him away after a few months, claiming that they needed their privacy. He said he goes to load vehicles at the Wuse Market in the mornings and returns to lay his head under the bridge at dusk.
Not knowing the mission of the reporter, the less busy of them made cat calls directing you to their stands. They were not deterred by the weather because of two giant trees that provided shelter for the hustlers.
The main entrance under the bridge where businesses boom has a red gate dangling from a rusty back wire.
The first port of call was a noodle/fried egg seller, whose delicacies instantly whetted your appetite. The semi-market was dark in the passage but with properly lit shops. They were about 15 shops occupied by various business owners such as tailors, hair dressers, computer/business centres operators, electronics repairers, POS operators and cobblers, among others.
Daily Sun learnt that the majority of the shops were owned by officials of the FCDA. While some of the officials gave out their shops for rent, others established their family members to eke a living.
One of the tailors, Wasiu Abdulrrasheed, who was initially reluctant to speak to our reporter, said he had been doing business there for over five years.
Abdulrrasheed added that, despite the obscure location, he still smiled to the bank because of the numerous clients that need his services. He highlighted the free flow of flood during the rainy season as one nightmare that has come to stay.
“Ogbeni, I have been sewing clothes here for about five years without stress. Sometimes, officials of the FCDA threaten to dislodge us, if we foment trouble. It is not as if we do not pay shop rent, we do.
“Some people pay N200,000 while others pay N250,000 annually. It all depends on one’s bargaining power and connection,” he said.
Asked if he got clients, he said: “When you do a good job, people will always locate you. Most of my clients are people I have known for years. So, it is not a big deal. All of us must not rent shops in the plazas. The economy is not friendly at all. Let us make do with what we have.”
A food vendor, Onyinye Chukwuma, said most of her customers were people within the premises.
“Although my location is hidden, it is not a problem. People around here patronise me a lot. So, instead of hawking around the streets of Abuja, the bridge is benefiting for me,” she said.
For those with accomodation problems, their shop was their residence.
Johnson Odu, a phone repairer, said: “Brother, this is not the time for me to live a big life. I had accomodation problem with my landlord and instead of fighting and running away, I sleep in my shop. It is not only a shop but my house for now.
“Yes, mosquitoes deal with me daily but it is better than living in a big house without peace of mind,” he explained.