Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A New Capital for Liberia

In posting on Yamoussoukro, I realized that I've never posted about Liberia's dreams of a planned capital. Although plans are still rather vague, there have been some interesting proposals over the last few years. Rather than one long post, I'll detail the sporadic developments in several shorter posts.

Talk of having the government vacate Monrovia stretch back at least to the Tolbert years, when President Tolbert openly desired to move the capital city from Monrovia to Bensonville, his hometown in north-central Montserrado county, which he had rechristened Bentol. He was not successful in moving the national capital, but he did decree that Montserrado County relocate its administrative center to Bentol, where it is today. He was also mostly able, up until his assassination, to construct a sort of Americo Versailles in Bentol.

President Doe may have talked about moving the Liberian capital, but I have seen no evidence of any plans for this. While Charles Taylor operated the capital of his "Greater Liberia" out of Gbarnga, Bong County for years, Monrovia and its Executive Mansion were always the prize for him (as they have been for every Liberian Presidential hopeful before and since).

But during the recent reconstruction era of the Sirleaf Administration, at least as early as 2009, mention of moving Liberia's capital from Monrovia was made again. The first notice of it that I saw was in the local papers, when the Liberian legislature passed a resolution to move Liberia's capital, much before there had been any public discussion of it (or demand from constituents). From an editorial published in the In Profile Daily on 2 September 2009, titled, A New Capital, Not the Time [bolding is mine]:

The Plenary of the House of Representatives recently passed a bill seeking to create a new political capital in Central Liberia. The Act, according to the Joint Committee’s report, was scrutinized and thoroughly studied before bringing it to plenary for passage. Montserrado County Representative Moses Tandanpolie who crafted the bill cited infrastructural Destruction during the 14 years of civil conflict, in conjunction with population explosion and the influx of people as some underlining reasons for building a new capital. 

Honorable Tandanpolie said the influx of people into Monrovia has rendered Monrovia vulnerable to vice and social ills and that the cost of repairing Monrovia will be more costly than initiating a plan to establish a new, well-planned and laid out city. The Montserrado Representative asserted that such city must be centrally located and meets international standards. Representative Tandapolie envisions a Municipal styled government that would consist of a Mayor and a City Council. To all of this, we say bravo to the Honorable for his farsightedness, although this is not a revolutionary thinking, it’s been said before by both Tolbert and Doe. 

What is interesting about this one at this time is the approach and the amount of work and money that needs to go into its planning process alone. 

Liberia is just surfacing from a self imposed civil conflict that left deep scars on everyone and everything. In light of this, there are greater and more pertinent questions that need to be asked; in what should we invest, a new capital city, several school buildings, better salaries for public school teachers, a network of farm to market roads, agriculture projects or better transportation system? While the Honorable Body was thinking in the right direction to have passed the bill as submitted by the plenary, we think they are putting the cart before the horse on this one; We are of the mindset that it should have been the other way around; 

A Technical Committee comprising of Engineers, Aeronautical Planners and Engineers, City Planners, Financial Experts, Environmentalists, Specialists, Legislators, Civic Organizations, International Partners/Donors and others should have preceded the passage of the bill. Such Technical Committee if it were would have done detail feasibility studies of several mitigating factors that go into building a modern city. Now that a bill has been introduced, studied and passed, what would happen if the committee determines that central Liberia as proposed is not ideal or too expensive a location? 

We therefore call on the Senate to do the right thing by putting the horse before the cart and not follow the example of the Lower House when it put the cart before the horse. We think most, if not all Liberians agree that there’s a need for a newer, cleaner, well planned and laid out city that would make us all proud. But doing it the haphazard or LIB way is not the way forward. For once, let’s focus, and do it right this time, maybe for a population of ten million people.

There wasn't much more detail at the time, such as a location, but there did seem to be a number slapped to the project from the only contemporaneous report: US$10 billion, which at the time was easily ten times the country's GDP (and roughly still is).

So it was an astounding, absurd proposal, far outweighing the nation's resources for an entire decade and put forth without public or technical consultation.

Most interestingly, I think are two points: one that Monrovia's post-conflict condition left the government no choice but to flee its putrid streets, deplorable halls of administration, and unsightly, overcrowded slums. This is of course a remarkably self-serving priority. How this phrasing echoes much of the arguments for abandoning America's industrial cities for their suburbs in the mid-20th century is both academically intriguing and pragmatically exasperating.

Its important to underscore that Monrovia's condition in 2009, as detestable a state as it unquestionably was, was much more comfortable than everywhere else in Liberia, and the dire conditions of the city and its people should be a major focus of the public servants' efforts. Instead, the new capital is plainly described as a scheme to abandon the mess of Monrovia for some sort of brand-new Abuja, which would surely include air-conditioned villas and apartments for all the honorables, which despite a lack of plans, drawings, and technical specifications was without a doubt the sugar-plums that were dancing in the legislators' minds when they rushed to passed this meaningless act.

The furtive progress that this quixotic campaign has made since that sudden blip suggests  that, while not the only reason for such an undertaking, the entire plan evinces the deep division between the governing class, who remain in control of the country's few resources, and the governed, who enjoy neither access nor consideration.

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