Nana Ocran, editor of Time Out Abuja, hangs out in Nigeria’s capital city, the calmer cousin to bustling Lagos
Photography George Osodi
The Milton Keynes of Africa’ is one well-known tag for Abuja, which took the mantle as Federal Capital Territory (FCT) from consistently congested Lagos in 1991. Considering its relative youth as the seat of government, it’s no surprise that the city hasn’t yet established a strong sense of heritage. For a sense of its general vibe, think London’s Westminster as a standalone metropolis and you might get something of a picture of this planned West African community. Strategically positioned between the Muslim north and the Christian south, Abuja’s two symbolic landmarks are the Nigerian National Mosque and the National Christian Centre, which face each other on opposite ends of Independence Avenue in the Central Business District. At just over two decades as a high-status city, Abuja is proving to be a popular choice as a place to live, work or visit. Although more in tune with, say, a Washington DC than a cutting-edge metropolis like New York, Abuja may still be ripe for a dedicated arts scene, underground musical movement or the last word in what’s fashion-forward. But as the town where most of the country’s embassies have relocated, it’s better known as being Nigeria’s wealthiest, and therefore most expensive city; albeit with pockets of heritage-fuelled interest, new constructions and a series of interesting back stories.
Abuja by Area
The main point of reference in this city is Aso Rock, a 400-metre monolith that was left by water erosion. Much of the town, including the Presidential Complex, the Supreme Court and the National Assembly extend to the south of the rock. There’s also Zuma Rock, which sits 725 metres above its surroundings, and is an equally impressive monument sitting just north of the city, along the main road to Kaduna.
The thing to remember about Abuja is that it’s a city that’s split into five main areas. The Central District is the business hub where the government offices are found. Well-heeled Maitama, to the northeast of the city centre is where the international embassies and landmarks including Eagle Square, a venue for the National Day Parade, the Presidential swearing-in-ceremony, live gigs and other events are located. Over to the northwest, Wuse – which is split into areas Wuse 1 and 2 – is a commercial area, where the huge sprawl of Wuse Market is based. To the south of the city, Asokoro has a similar character to Maitama in that it has some quiet and upmarket residential streets. There’s a distinct lack of banks there – aside from the private ones – and it’s the chosen location for the Presidential Villa. Further south, the Garki District is subdivided into areas from 1 to 11, each with their own character. Area 2 is fairly residential, while area 7 is where you’ll find banks and commercial buildings.
Further out, you’ll find satellite towns and suburbs. Buses and taxis are the main public transport options. The green-and-white-striped commercial cars may not be as frequent as the familiar yellow taxis in Lagos, but you can usually pick them up from most areas, and haggle for a good price.
To be fair, Abuja can’t yet claim to have a mainstream arts scene. Even the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in the residential Utako District serves as an administrative headquarters for its director general rather than a venue for displaying exquisite artefacts. There is, however, a decent spread of gallery spaces and craft villages throughout the city, some more authentic than others, and most owned by independent artists.
One personal favourite is the Thought Pyramid Art Gallery (62 Parakou Crescent, Wuse II, 0803 332 2885) a space with an ethos of assisting artists looking to reach their creative potential. An exhibition hall, a training centre and yearly education programmes are all on offer. Over in Maitama, the swanky and mega-sized Transcorp Hilton Hotel (1 Aguiyi Ironsi Street, Shehu Shagari Way, Maitama, 09 461 3000), has installed a ‘traditional’ village on its grounds, where local artists can be seen making ceramics, pottery and woven crafts – all of which are for sale.
The Bwari Pottery Village (Old Suleja Road, Bwari, 0803 452 8805) produces beautiful pottery and also has a successful enterprise in training women in ethical soap and shea butter production. Close by, the Ladi Kwali Pottery Studio (Old Suleja Road, Bwari, no phone) showcases the work of local artists, whose traditional and western dishes, bowls, paintings and pots are for sale at reasonable prices. Perhaps the most enterprising arts space is the Nike Art Village (Abuja Airport Road, 0802 313 1067). With additional arts hubs in Lagos, Oshogbo and Ogidi, owner and batik designer Nike Okundaye has created a replica African village in this Abuja space, complete with stone statues, carvings, an exhibition and sale space, African-drumming workshops and individually tailored art classes.
You’d think that the explosion of Nollywood throughout Nigeria and beyond would mean the automatic construction of numerous cinemas throughout the country, but no. Of course there are some, and Silverbird, which has cornered the movie-showing market in both Nigeria and Ghana, opened its huge Abuja-based Silverbird Entertainment Centre (Plot 1161, Memorial Drive, Central Business District, 09 290 6368) almost three years ago. With 12 screens, arcade games and a huge shopping mall, it eclipsed its older, smaller venue inside the Ceddi Plaza shopping mall in the same Central Business area.
Abuja does have other lower-key movie-watching outlets. The French Cultural Centre (52 Libreville Street, Wuse 2, 0805 947 8456) often lays on seasons of Gallic-themed films, and Salamander Café (5 Bujumbura Street, Wuse II, 0702 785 0932) hosts a weekly art-house film club, with independent docs and features from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
Music & Nightlife
This may be an administrative town, but Abujans know how to party. On any given night of the week, you’re spoilt for choice for sounds, rhythms and cocktail sipping. Aside from live bands that usually pitch up in hotel foyers and bars, there are prime spots including the open air Eden Gardens (Opposite Chida Hotel, Augustus Aikhomu Street, Utako, 0803 834 6716) where jazz, reggae, highlife and hip hop can be heard over the five hectares of grounds. A great spot for those with eclectic musical tastes is the all-encompassing Salamander Café (5 Bujumbura Street, Wuse II, 0702 785 0932) where live acts have featured old-school music in the ‘Faaji sessions’ that have been headlined by long-established crooners Fatai Rolling Dollar and Sina Ayinde Bakare. For newer DJ sounds the A-Lounge club (D’Bras Hotel, Aminu Kano Crescent, Wuse 2, 0803 787 7050) pulls in a good crowd, while the exclusive Eden VIP Lounge (Mediterranean Recreation Centre, Plot 1141, Kwame Nkrumah Crescent, Asokoro, 0802 080 5958) is a subterranean hotspot where weekly music sessions (anything from ’80s nights to House and Techno), private functions, fashion shows and album launches are regularly attended by crowds looking for something high-end away from the city centre.
Food & Drink
From beer gardens to swanky restaurants, Abuja can pretty much hold its own when it comes to arousing the appetites of its visitors and residents. Starting with the upper-end restaurants, there’s long been an assumption that it’s the hotels that win out with their in-house menus. In fact, the Hilton’s Bukka Restaurant offers a high end, and very tasty African buffet, but there are a number of excellent places for authentic Nigerian food. Jevinik Restaurant (Plot 494, Bangui Street, off Adetokunbo Ademola Road, Wuse II, 0803 451 6452) pulls in regular crowds, while outdoor stand-up-or-grab-a plastic-seat options like the simply-named Under Mango Tree (Behind Ceddi Plaza Mall in the Central Business District) is one of the best places for huge platters of hot and spice rice dishes and stews at refreshingly low prices. Abuja is a reasonably cosmopolitan town, so other good options are Spice Foods (Gwandu Street, opposite Bolton White Hotels, Garki, Area 11, 0803 450 0653) for North Indian food, or the Congolese-owned Chez Victor (20 Ganges Street, Minister Hill, Maitama, 0803 591 1997) for French-infused continental cuisine. Japanese and Asian dishes are available at Uptown Asian Cuisine and Lounge (176 Aminu Crescent, Wuse II, 09 783 1079), while the Burger Lounge (Entrance of Maitama Amusement Park, IBB Boulevard, Maitama, 09 780 5595) has given a traditional US staple an African flavour.
Abuja may follow the mall and plaza shopping models of many African cities, but there are pockets of individuality scattered about the town. From luxury brands to grassroots merchandise, you can take your pick of retail outlets. The mainstay of one-stop shopping is Ceddi Plaza (264 Tafawa Balewa Way, Central Business District, 09 461 9150) with around 50 shops spread over six floors. The Dunes Centre (44 Aguiyi Ironsi Way, Maitama, 09 413 1911) and the Omega Centre (Plot 527, Aminu Kanu Crescent, Wuse II, no phone) are equally good outlets for everything from fabrics to cosmetics, technical equipment and more, although the dominant Silverbird Entertainment Centre (Plot 1161, Memorial Drive, Central Business District, 09 290 6368), with its cinema, bars, restaurants, VIP balconies and spa centre have taken up much of the mall-going customers in the city. For old-school haggling, head to one of the city’s markets. Two favourites are the Abuja Farmer’s Market (Ibrahim Babangida Boulevard, Maitama, no phone), where ex-pats stock up on fresh fruit and veg. The Friday Muslim Market (Tafawa Balewa Way, Central Business District, no phone) is a must-see. Haggling is essential for clothes, food and textiles, otherwise you can just hang out and absorb the full-scale theatre of in or out-of-town traders converging on the area from noon to 5pm to pick up goods at some of the lowest prices in Abuja. One-off boutiques worth checking out are Momo Couture (1 Ontario Crescent, Maitama, 09 413 3077/9) a design house that has dressed the sylph-like frames of models Alek Wek, Liya Kebede and Nigeria’s own Oluchi. Fabrics as well as gorgeous ready-to-wear dresses are available here. Another, possibly more affordable outlet is d’Boutique (41 Jimmy Carter Street, Asokoro, 0805 768 8888). Branded T-shirts, skinny jeans, statement belts, jewellery and accessories can all be found here.
It may seem a bit of a way off but get ready for this epic street festival that showcases Nigeria’s tribes and culture over four wonderfully loud and colourful days in late November.
Abuja Field Days
The Nigerian Field Society (NFC) has been up and running since 1930. Still going strong, it has branches throughout Nigeria. Abuja members can take part in visits to the city’s rivers or further afield to Lokoja or Bida in Niger state and the Kingdom of Sukur in the Mandara mountains along the northern part of the Cameroon-Nigeria border. nigerianfield.org
The Abuja Writer’s Forum
This dynamic group organises workshops, talks and events in Abuja on a regular basis. Star speakers have featured Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie amongst others. Events take place at various venues including the Pen and Pages bookshop in Wuse 2. penandpages.com
First things first, Abuja is expensive. At least it is if you’re looking for somewhere to stay. In the main, hotels and guesthouses are of a high standard, and this being a city of business workers and diplomats flying in from Lagos and around the world means that available or budget-priced hotel rooms can be hard to find if booked at the last minute. By far the most popular (and pricy) option is the Transcorp Hilton (1 Aguiyi Ironsi Street, Maitama, 09 461 3000), which can look and feel like New York’s Grand Central Station at peak times. The Abuja Sheraton Hotel & Towers (Ladi Kwali Way, Maitama, 09 461 2100) with its 500-plus rooms is almost as large, but somehow maintains a sense of intimate staff service, while the boutique Mediterranean Hotel (42 Justice Mama Nasare Crescent, Asokoro, 09 314 8048) is a peaceful enclave with artefacts throughout, a small pool, and a shisha bar. Relatively new is the Bamboo House (3 Salt Lake, Off Usama Street, Maitama, 0807 525 5838). An eight-bedroom hotel, it’s a fine, modern and air-conditioned option for anyone opting for something more personalised than the more dominant mega-accommodation choices.
One of the major blessings of Abuja is the fact that its wide roads and pavements make it easy to walk around, despite the fact that it’s a city built for cars. The number of green spaces or additional beer gardens where punters converge for fried catfish or tilapia snacks or cold after-work drinks make this city particularly special. There’s quite a list of spaces, but depending on what you want from the great outdoors, some of the best choices include Millennium Park (Shehu Shagari Way, Central Business District, 0803 450 5951), a rolling stretch of land in the middle of town with a zoo, a playground and plenty of space for family picnics. Area 8 Wonderland Gardens (Illorin Street, Garki Area 8, no phone) is a hillside parkland with around 20 or more outdoor eating options, while Circles Garden (Aguiyi Ironsi Street, Maitama, 09 850 1894) is the largest open-air fish gardens, with cars lining up outside it on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturday nights. The National Park Nursery (Murtala Mohammed Expressway, Asokoro, no phone) sits at the entrance of the National Children’s Park and Zoo and is a perfect place for getting up close with nature, particularly as seedlings of all the country’s major species can
be bought here.
Did you know?
The original Abuja city was founded in 1828
and named after Abu Ja, King of the Hausa Kingdom of Zazzau.
In August 1975, the then-federal military government put together a panel of experts to consider whether or not Lagos should remain as the Federal Capital of Nigeria or if a new capital in Abuja should be developed.
In 2003, Abuja hosted the All-Africa games, which was an Olympic-associated continental tournament.
Once completed (and it has been a while), the Millennium Tower and Cultural Centre will be the tallest building in Abuja, at 560ft.
The New Abuja City Gate is set to connect Nnamdi Azikwe airport with the rest of the city. Construction by Californian-based Ehrlich Architects began in 2010. So far, the expressway is completed, but still to come are a public space, marketplace, playing fields and an amphitheatre for live gigs.
Abuja has sister-city relationships with Lusaka in Zambia, Brasilia, Detroit, Kanpur in India, and also has its sights on Mexico City.
US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton visited Abuja as part of a seven-nation tour of Africa on August 11, 2009.
Ladi Kwali MBE (1925-1984) was a renowned potter who exhibited her work in London, the US and Canada from the late 1950s. Her name is immortalised in the street where Abuja’s Sheraton Hotel stands, and her image also appears on the 20 Naira note.
Abuja has a thriving opera and classical music scene with organisations including the Abuja Metropolitan Music Society (AMEMUSO), and the Abuja Philharmonic Orchestra regularly performing concerts at venues in the city.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a look-but-don’t touch landmark where the city’s Brigade of Guards keeps 24-hour watch. They do offer a ceremonial marching practice for the public from time to time – perhaps as compensation for their stern ‘off-limits’ rules.
Okadas, the commercial taxi motorcycles that are so prevalent in Lagos, were banned in Abuja in 2006, although there is now talk of bringing them back