Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 3, 2018
Nnamdi Elleh Architecture and Politics in Nigeria: The Study of a Late Twentieth-Century Enlightenment-Inspired Modernism at Abuja, 1900–2016 New York: Routledge, 2017. 350 pp.; 214 b/w ills. Hardcover $165.00 (9781472465290)

Abuja, Nigeria—the capital city of Africa’s most populous nation—was master planned from the ground up in the last forty years in the shadow of a gigantic rock outcrop (Aso Rock) near the geographic center of the country. Other than these scant details, few in or outside of Nigeria know much else about what is one of the continent’s most powerful cities. Nnamdi Elleh has begun to address this long-overlooked space, in this work on the city’s architecture. The result is a book packed with material, but one organized in such a way that readers may struggle to sort through it.

The scarcity of information around Abuja is perhaps intentional, at least in the cynical view of the city as the brainchild of elites attempting to flee oversight, accountability, and obligations by decamping to an isolated plateau hundreds of miles from Nigeria’s major regional cities—Lagos (the former capital), Kano, and Port Harcourt. In the opening pages of the book, Elleh sets this skeptical take in tension with a more charitable (and officially fostered) reading of the city as a center for democracy and unity in a country without a long history of either. Officially declared by a military government after the Nigerian Civil War (1967–70), the new capital city offered a chance to put into stone and steel the country’s “national character,” literally “edifying” Nigeria. What character was laid out beneath Aso Rock and how has it changed over time? What can Abuja’s architecture tell us about the city’s relationship to Nigeria, its leaders’ aspirations, and the success of their visions? How does Abuja’s design and corresponding ideology draw on and differ from other famous planned capitals like Washington, DC, Brasília, Chandigarh, and Dodoma?

To date there has been little serious inquiry into these questions partly because of the difficulties, and even dangers, in accessing information on Abuja as Elleh’s research narrative—at times challenging in itself to follow—makes clear. He spent decades working on the project (which was the subject of his dissertation at Northwestern University), flying as far as Japan for sources, being detained by suspicious policemen in Abuja, and wading through disputes and misrepresentations stemming from architectural squabbles over who should receive intellectual credit for the city’s design. His endeavors have produced a book that begins to point to answers on Abuja by setting down in one place important dates, facts, and figures, but it is not so much an architectural history of Abuja as it is a history of one academic’s attempts to chase down information on the city. The book’s style often reads like pages straight out of a research journal. These stretches of long quotes and author’s notes are the points at which the book is at its best, when Elleh’s prose is almost conversationally frank about the process of conducting interviews and grappling with the meanings of the city from his own perspective, having grown up in 1970s Nigeria. Here is an excerpt from chapter 4, for example:

“You mean you went all the way from America to Japan to look for me?” [E. A. D. Nsiegbe, the Nigerian architect who worked on Abuja as part of Kenzo Tange’s firm (KTU)] he pressed.

“Erm . . . , no, yes sir,” I switched in the middle of the sentence.

“What are you trying to say?” he queried, teasing me again. “Am I not important enough for you to travel to Japan to look for me?” he pushed.

“Yes sir, you are sir,” I repeated, at which point, he broke the joke, and by then we were seated and some soft drinks had been served on the table.

Nsiegbe had retired from active practice and was already building up his filtered water bottling business when I met him. Our conversation was informal. He reminded me to take note that Abuja was planned when Nigeria was undergoing national restructuring exercises and it was not the only master plan prepared then. . . .  While he was pulling out the master plans, I asked him if they intended to use Abuja to invigorate African architecture.

“There is nothing cultural about such monumental projects,” he said. “They should be for functional purposes,” he stated affirmatively.

. . . He did, however, give me one insight I had not considered: The Abuja project was also part of the political pacification for different constituencies in the country.

. . . From that point, Nsiegbe mentioned how corruption had taken over the project and the country was having difficulties determining how much it had spent since it was initiated. (87–8)

The book’s argument and theoretical discussions (chapters 1–2) are more strained, shifting from observations that the city’s designs have “enlightenment” influences (which can be said for any capital city built in the last two hundred years) to suggestions that Jürgen Habermas’s idea of the “public sphere” is the conceptual framework for the study—a vision of Abuja that appears more aspirational than historical as the book progresses. When Elleh leaves behind abstraction and hits the ground to pursue the actual historical record, the book finds more of a stride.

This begins in chapter 3, which describes the colonial history of Nigeria, a country of numerous ethnicities, religions, and languages amalgamated by the British in 1914. Despite various attempts to find a more central and less low-lying (malarial) location, the port city of Lagos remained the capital of Nigeria across independence (1960). In great detail, Elleh charts the various proposals for relocating the capital as well as for redrawing the administrative boundaries that gradually split the country into three, and then four regions (Eastern, Western, Midwestern, and Northern). When the Eastern Region seceded as the Republic of Biafra in 1967, Nigeria, under the military regime of General Gowon, fought a bloody war to wrangle Biafra back into the nation. The other regions quickly benefited from the fight as global prices for oil surged in the early 1970s, allowing enormous amounts of wealth to be made from the Eastern Region’s vast oil deposits. Lagos boomed but continued to face issues of overcrowding and complaints of regional bias (being in the heart of what was then the Western Region) at a time when postwar reconciliation was shaky. Oil wealth—the effects of which are discussed in chapter 5—allowed the military government to launch a lavishly funded process for finding and building a new capital.

Chapter 4 covers General Obasanjo’s regime’s steps to select Abuja’s location (1976) at the recommendation of the Committee for the Location of the Federal Capital of Nigeria (see also the prologue), to designate a Federal Capital Development Authority (FCDA) to oversee the project, to award the design contract for the city’s Monumental District to Thomas Todd and Kenzo Tange, and to approve the master plan for the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) prepared by Todd and Tange. The chapter includes four “insider’s perspectives,” including Nsiegbe’s, which help untangle the messy origins of Abuja that involved a myriad of actors and a hurried timeline to have the city completed by 1986 (the actual inauguration took place in 1991, an event described in chapter 2).

Students of architecture will likely be most interested in chapters 6–8, which probe the specific contributions and designs of Todd (chapter 6), Kenzo Tange & Urtec and Albert Speer Partners (chapter 7), and the Milton Keynes Development Corporation (MKDC) and Doxiadis Associates (chapter 8). These chapters cover the planning and construction of Abuja in roughly chronological order. Elleh details how Todd’s original plans for Abuja—its broad central mall emanating outward from Aso Hill toward a National Assembly complex—were inspired by Washington, DC. Todd’s firm (Wallace Roberts and Todd) had simultaneously worked on the 1981 master plan for the United States capitol, a largely unrealized project outlining the future of Capitol Hill and the National Mall. Much of chapters 6 and 7 are devoted to the controversy between Todd and Tange over architectural credit for Abuja. In 1979 Tange eventually won a messy and drawn out competition to design the project, but his blueprints incorporated most of the macro elements of Todd’s original plan, adding buildings inspired by Brasília and Chandigarh. This resulted in a unique fusion of two architectural visions—a modernist array of boldly geometric structures (Tange) planted on a baroque urban layout (Todd). Throughout the process, Nigerian politicians inserted their own alterations like the mosque-inspired dome that General Abacha insisted replace Tange’s pyramidal and mollusk schemes for the National Assembly. Eventually Tange was dropped from the project after a 1983 coup, and Albert Speer Partners and then MKDC and Doxiadis Associates added further layers and details to central Abuja and its surrounding satellite towns as it developed into a major region in its own right. These chapters and every chapter in the book include numerous photographs and blueprints, providing a thorough illustration of how plans for Abuja have been altered.

With Architecture and Politics in Nigeria, Elleh has broken ground on the serious architectural study of Abuja, laying a foundation that provides future researchers with much to build on and little to tear down. Two obvious routes for future research include a more detailed study of the historical conditions surrounding the actual construction of the project in the 1980s and 1990s and an ethnographic examination of how Nigerians have experienced and used the city and its spaces in practice. 

Mark Duerksen
PhD, African Studies, Harvard University