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Abuja's Lake Jabi - The answer to the lagoons of Lagos?

July 10, 2017
topic:Economic Inclusion
tags:#Abuja, #Jabi Lake, #Lagos, #National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA)
by:Kolawole Talabi
When the military dictator, General Ibrahim Babangida, hastily moved Nigeria’s capital from Lagos on the Atlantic coast to Abuja in the rugged hinterland a quarter of a century ago, the Nigerian government soon discovered one entity they couldn’t move: the lagoon.

Rather than bemoan this drawback, they came up with a solution ― Lake Jabi, an artificial reservoir. But then, can nurture achieve the same results as nature?

Every day before sunrise Abdullahi Wada leaves the shanty he calls home and heads to the reservoir in the Jabi district of Abuja, basket in hand. He casts his nets into the depths and paddles back to shore. When he returns to retrieve his nets, the sun is up in the sky. Abdullahi has been fishing to support his large household for decades. Originally from Kano, a dusty metropolis in the heart of Nigeria’s northern Hausa hinterland, Abdullahi came to Abuja in search of greener pastures. Since the creation of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) in the centre of Nigeria to replace Lagos as federal capital, millions of Nigerians have relocated to the new seat of government.

What was once an endless vista of wooded savannah, punctuated by rocky monoliths, has now given rise to one of the world’s youngest capitals! This neatly planned city is a pleasant relief from the chaos that Lagos evokes.

While Lagos ceased to be the nation’s capital in 1991, its dominance of Nigeria’s economy and society remains. Its ports, air and sea, are the largest in the country. Despite its apparent political demotion, there’s a major geographical advantage: Lagos is awash with lots of water. There are two large lagoons, the Atlantic Ocean, and many creeks and canals.

“Lagos is very strategic because it was the capital of Nigeria when the country obtained independence [from Great Britain],” says Professor Olusoji Ilori, chairman of the Institute of Maritime Studies at the University of Lagos. “A lot of resources were channeled to develop the city’s maritime location and that’s why Apapa and Tin Can ports are Nigeria’s largest.”

Abuja, on the other hand, is blessed with acreages of undulating plains and hilly outcrops. The master plan even allows for a more orderly expansion than would have been possible in the lacustrine mishmash of Lagos. But the new seat of government is situated hundreds of miles from the Atlantic coast. The nearest aquatic respites are rivers and reservoirs especially dams that were created when the federal capital was being built in anticipation of the massive influx of future residents. Once a freshwater pond, Jabi Lake is now a major reservoir that straddles a big shopping mall and residential estates a few miles from the city centre.

Abuja’s lake appears big on Google maps but when compared to the lagoons of Lagos, it is a mere drop in a bucket. The limit in scale reflects in the size of the fish caught by artisanal fishermen like Abdullahi.

In the company of his fishing partner, Abdullahi took me on a tour of the ‘fisherman’s village’ just a few yards from a police barrack and expensive condos. The dirt road on which we drove in soon narrowed into an alley flanked on either side by smelly fishmongers preparing to fry or dry Tilapia fingerlings. The fishy aroma attracts swarms of houseflies but the merchants weren’t bothered by those dirty insects. Hygiene is not a priority here. Further down the alley makeshift sheds provide shelter for members of the community. Finally, we arrived at the shore but I got a big surprise: there’s a large earthen pond being used to farm catfish.

“I make about 12,000 naira ($30) in a day if my catch is large,” Abdullahi says. “But on some very bad days, my fish sells for a mere 1,500 naira ($4).”

Along the major highways leading to the fisherman’s village, I’d seen fishmongers display giant Tilapias on several occasions especially in the evenings when commuters are returning from work. I’d always assumed the fish came from the lake but Abdullahi quickly disabused my opinion. Apparently, the earthen pond I saw earlier is being used by the community to supplement their meagre catches from the lake. This investment might have been ludicrous in coastal Lagos where fishermen have an almost limitless expanse of marine environments from which to catch a variety of seafood, not just Tilapia and catfish.

Anchored near the waterfront is a tour boat belonging to the National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA), a government agency mandated by Nigerian laws to manage the vast hydrological resources of the country’s hinterland. NIWA’s boat and the canoes of Abdullahi and his fellow fishermen are but the few sources of traffic on the lake. Last June, a boat club was billed to commence operations on the lake but its website has been ‘under construction’ for months. Other than the shopping mall which opened in late 2015, much of the lake’s prime waterfront estate is essentially unused. The lake seems to be another unsuccessful attempt to prettify nature.

But Ilori disagrees.

“Many countries have the need to create artificial lakes not just for commercial but also aesthetic reasons,” he explains. “Abuja is landlocked so I don’t think it’s a white elephant project.”

But such water developments don’t come without serious risks. I sighted swathes of water hyacinths on the shore of Jabi Lake. This is an aquatic weed that is commonly found in the coastal and lacustrine areas of Lagos from Badagry to the Lekki Peninsula. Hyacinth clogs canals, creeks, lagoons and lakes thus disrupting with human activities like transportation and irrigation. But the biggest danger is that these weeds take up the space that native plants and animals need for survival.

“The risk of invasive species is very high because moisture is so attractive to life,” says Adamu Tanko, professor of geography at the Bayero University. “If is built but not managed, that’s how crisis can come.”

Article written by:
Kolawole Talabi
Kolawole Talabi
Fisherman on Jabi Lake, Abuja FCT, Nigeria
In contrast: The everyday life - people seen around small street side shops in the outskirts of Nigeria's capital city, Abuja.
Lagos slums and logging processing area built on stilts in lagoon.
Along the city line of Abuja - A Nigerian fisherman trying to make a living of Jabi Lake.
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