In 1976, Nigeria’s military ruler declared the nation's capital would move from Lagos to Abuja. With the fastest growth rate in Africa, Lagos was becoming overcrowded and difficult to manage.
Abuja, a quiet and obscure place in central Nigeria, was known as a no-man’s land. But thousands of people lived there, belonging to about nine different ethnic groups with different languages. When construction of the new capital began, many were forced off their lands by the Nigerian government or pressured to sell to private citizens and businesses.
Today, many Nigerians still believe there were no people in the federal capital territory, the FCT, before it was created.
“Somebody ask you where you from, you say, 'From FCT,' " Sani Yahaya said. "They say, 'FCT, no man’s land. It is disgusting.' So where do I come from?”
Yahaya's ancestors lived in the land occupied by the capital. He has joined a campaign to demand that the government stop taking the land that belonged to residents' forefathers.
'It baffles me'
“Why can someone be struggling for what is his?" Yahaya asked. "It baffles me. ... We are not asking for much. We are asking for what belongs to us. Give us what belongs to us.”
Abuja is a sprawling landscape with million-dollar homes, multistory office buildings and miles of wide roads. But as the city continues to expand, the original occupants of the land are being displaced and forced into slums with bad roads and poor services.
Yunusa Yusuf, spokesperson for the Coalition of FCT Indigenous Groups, an association of the nine tribes that claim Abuja as their ancestral home, said, "We have continued to comply, even at the expense of our ancestral land. Even at the expense at the poverty that our people suffer over the years.”
Among coalition demands is that Abuja be given more political power. It has only one senator and two representatives in parliament, numbers far out of line with the territory’s population. The coalition also wants a governor, which is disallowed by the constitution.
In June, Yusuf made a surprising declaration to the federal government:
“We, the indigenous people of the FCT, are not cowards. We can as well decide to carry arms, if that will be the only remedy for us to be dialogued with.”
In 2014, the Nigerian government demolished some homes belonging to Abuja natives. The community protested, blocking a major highway for six hours. Yunusa was arrested and detained in prison for more than a month.
Yunusa and other indigenous people accuse the Nigerian government of trying to silence them.
Kamal Shuaib vows he will no longer be silent. He said his grandfather was forced to give up his land in 1989 after a businessman moved to Abuja and lobbied the government to allocate land to him. Shuaib had to buy back his grandfather’s land in 2001.
“It is so sad," he said. "I bought my grandfather’s land myself. What belongs to you, buying it from another person. You know how bitter it is. Your birthright. Just because it was allocated on paper.”
On paper, the indigenous people of Abuja no longer own the land, but in their hearts, Abuja is still their homeland.