By Marlow, Jeffrey
Geographical , Vol. 83, No. 12
On 9 July 2011, several hundred thousand people gathered in a dusty public square in Juba, South Sudan, to witness the birth of the world's newest nation. Tribal dancers from all ten of the nascent country's states sang, ululated and danced to beating drums while international delegations watched from a covered platform, offering speeches of congratulations and encouragement. On 10 July, however, debris from the previous day's celebration blanketed the empty square, and the real work of nation building began.
The country faces enormous obstacles, from food shortages to infrastructure needs and continuing skirmishes along the new border with Sudan. But one of the most daunting challenges is one the government has created for itself: the construction and development of a brand new capital city for the fledgling Republic of South Sudan.
According to the government's plan, South Sudan's new capital city will be constructed over a five-year period and will provide a more visible, dignified seat of government befitting the world's 193rd nation. 'There are so many things that Juba doesn't have now in terms of services,' the minister of agriculture, Dr Anne Itto, told the Gurtong news outlet. The minister of information, Barnaba Marial Benjamin was more specific, telling This Day newspaper that 'there is no adequate land in Juba. The only area that could accommodate the new government in Juba is an area for the migration of animals.'
Planned, built-from-scratch capital cities aren't without precedent: Brasilia, Canberra, Islamabad, and even Washington, DC were all purpose-built to house national governments long after other population centres had been established. Historically, such cities have frequently been built to assuage tensions between rival sub-populations and offer a new start to a government that may have outgrown its more modest digs.
Perhaps the most appropriate parallel is the Nigerian government's 1991 move from Lagos--the country's largest city and commercial hub--to the brand new city of Abuja. The proposed site for Abuja was strategically positioned near the confluence of the Niger and Benue rivers, providing a reliable water supply and easy transport links.
Andy Lemer helped to design the city through his work with International Planning Associates (IPA). Lemer and his team spent three years drafting the blueprints for Abuja, working to incorporate geographical features and project 'a strong image of a capital city'. 'Lagos is identified with one of the major ethnic groups in Nigeria,' he says, 'so the thought was that moving the capital would help to provide a visual and Logistical unifier, as well as a neutral middle ground for government.'
Twenty years later, urban planners and development economists debate whether Abuja is a success, but to Lemer, the city's continued presence is no small achievement. 'Politically, I think you have to say that it has been worth it, because it's still there,' he says. 'It's a functioning administrative centre in a very volatile part of the world, and it isn't clear the same would have been true of Lagos.'
Abuja and other planned capitals occasionally attain political stability, but they often remain cultural and economic backwaters. Nigerian officials were planning for millions of residents when they commissioned IPA, but the population today hovers around 800,000, and Abuja has gained a reputation as a one-dimensional 'convention city'.
Michael Kevane, a professor of economics at Santa Clara University in California, thinks the problem lies in the assumption that economic growth will follow government buildings. 'You really have no idea where the private sector wants to concentrate its investments,' he says. 'The likelihood that you'll build a new capital in the wrong place is very high.'
Despite Abuja's mixed record, Lemer thinks a planned capital in South Sudan could work. …