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Why relocating capital city won't solve Nairobi's mess

Skyline of the city of Nairobi, Kenya [David Njaaga, Standard]

In the last 100 years, 30 countries have moved or decided to relocate their capital cities. As Wilson James writes in a 2020 case study of Indonesia, which recently moved its capital from Jakarta to Nusantara, the thinking behind such decisions ranges from cementing authority to overpopulation.

Nairobi, according to the Economic Survey 2022, has a population of 4.3 million. Of these city dwellers, 2.7 million are lifetime migrants - representing 62 per cent of the city’s population.

Additionally, of the 1.6 million migrants in Kenya, 48 per cent moved to Nairobi.

The report shows there were 641,817 recent in-migrants compared to 411,790 out migrants.

This leaves Nairobi with 230,200 more people as migrants, the highest net of the 47 counties. This population burst has been a challenge to the State in offering services such as housing and sanitation.

Some experts have been suggesting relocation of the capital to ease such pressure. The challenge for many countries toying with this idea is whether they should build a new city or reconfigure the existing one.

Egypt, one of the African countries which announced in 2015 that it is building a new capital city, estimated a budget of Sh6.7 trillion ($58 billion) for this activity. This is more than double Kenya’s 2022/23 budget.

A new capital city may mean a new international airport, referral or specialist hospital, schools and a possible State lodge or parliament offices going by Egypt’s plan hence the high cost.

Egypt wants to have a bigger airport than Heathrow and a new presidential palace

“It is hoped that the creation of this new capital will be a solution for the pollution, congestion and soaring rents faced by residents of Cairo,” reads the study published by wilsonjames.co.uk.

But is this the only solution? If it is, will it solve the current crisis?

Constant Cap, an urban planning expert points out that the solution does not lie in new infrastructure. “New infrastructure or spaces will not change that without tackling the ‘soft’ challenges - informality and other challenges will simply follow it,” he said.

He cites the culture of land grabbing and poor plan implementation as some of the challenges that have to be dealt with. “Moving is also similar to admitting failure, with the assumption that starting afresh will be easier.”

He explained that in some cases, relocating the capital may be a necessary move and gave an example of Indonesia. The Asian country has not only been forced by a population burst of 30 million people but also the scientific evidence that the city is sinking due to over drilling of boreholes in search of freshwater.

The country also has a traffic congestion problem and almost every government official has to be escorted to meetings with police chase cars.

Mr Cap notes that in countries that have highly dominant primate cities, national governments will always want a part to play.

This is for political and economic reasons.

He cites the Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS) in Kenya which stretches the city outside Nairobi to include parts of Machakos, Kiambu and Kajiado counties.

“In city-states, there is much less room for local government for example Hong Kong and Singapore. And in countries with many strong cities or metropolitan areas, cities have a lot more power and flexibility for example in the US and Germany,” he said.

Considering some companies and businesses are already escaping from the Central Business District (CBD) in search of a more appropriate environment, this may be the time for the government and stakeholders to explore reconfiguration of the CBD to accommodate this changing environment.

Mr Cap noted that as businesses move, the city centre should continue serving the needs of the capital.

“That ultimately means a process of renewal. When you look at the UK’s London - the London Docklands and South Africa’s Johannesburg downtowns where they had the original offices, people left for other neighbourhoods. Then came the question of what to do with the remaining spaces. This is where you get a process of renewal and repurposing,” he explained.

Mr Cap says whenever the question of relocating a capital arises, a few issues have to be laid out.

For example, what is the intention and what functions are being moved? “In countries that do not have primate cities like South Africa, it is easy to distribute functions in different cities without much tension,” he said.

However, in countries with primate cities, it is different as one would have to be keen on what functions are being distributed. Is it the executive or the legislature?

“If one is moving their capital to avoid the chaos in the current city, then that is a complete waste of time. Most of all of the chaos they tend to talk about is caused by human beings due to poor policy implementation, bad laws and economic discrepancies,” said Mr Cap.

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