Thursday, June 21, 2012

Zekepa: Liberia's Abuja?

Although the passage of an Act to establish a new capital city for Liberia came and went in late 2009 with plenty of blustering announcements and chatter there followed absolutely no details and even less action for more than a year. Then, during President Sirleaf's annual state of the union address in January 2011, once again the outline of the fabled city appeared on the horizon. From a press report of later that January [emphasis mine]:

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has unveiled plans for the relocation of Liberia’s capital Monrovia to Zekepa where Grand Bassa, Bong and Nimba Counties converge.Delivering her sixth state of the nation address Monday, President Sirleaf said there was need to relocate the capital city due to the effects of climate change and expectation that rising sea levels could threaten coastal cities.She said plans were being concluded for a new capital city at Zekepa, but warned that it would take time to realize this dream.“The vision I have outlined is a collective vision but we should be under no illusions about how difficult this will be to achieve. There is a long road ahead of us, and that road will not be smooth. We will need great courage and determination to get to our destination,” the liberia leader said.Liberia’s 20th President, William R. Tolbert, Jr. who was assassinated during the  1980 military coup d’etat, planned to relocate the Liberian capital to Gbarnga, Bong County in central Liberia.Meanwhile, President Johnson Sirleaf has disclosed that Liberia is on the verge of becoming a petroleum exporting country in the coming decade.She however said that before the country exports a drop of oil, her government will put in place policies that will dictate how oil wealth will be used for development, stability and poverty reduction.She said if properly managed,  resources from oil could be invested to transform Liberia. Currently, oil exploration is taking place off the coast of Liberia.Monday’s state of the nation address to the national legislature was the president’s  last in her first term as president of Liberia.

Firstly, Zekepa, a place that hardly exists any more than Brasilia did in 1950s Brazil, Abuja did in 1970s Nigeria, or Yamoussoukro did before President Houphouët-Boingy's reign. The Google Earth images above pinpoint Zekepa (not to be confused with the mining site Yekepa) which does indeed rest in a small nook of south-central Nimba County near the border with Bong and Grand Bassa Counties, and as can be seen not particularly far, as the pepperbird flies, from northeasternmost Margibi County nor for that matter Monrovia itself. Yet despite its verdant locale, it is by the few accounts that exist a tiny hamlet, and no matter how geographically proximate it may be, there are no roads to the place, nor really any suitable modern transportation options of any sort nearby.

In placing this proposal in a global context of the the movement of capital cities, this bears resemblance to several, including Brasilia but also Dodoma in Tanzania but most especially Abuja, Nigeria's capital which was explicitly moved away colonial coastal city dominated by one group to more neutral territory near the geographic center of the country and at a intercultural crossroads.

Secondly, its rather remarkable that President Sirleaf's pronouncement listed climate change and sea erosion as the primary drivers behind moving away from the coast. Its on the one hand interesting to see any head of state refer to climate change openly, much less one from a less developed country with a less educated electorate. More curious than that is the idea that the country's current capital, and by far its largest city, with a metropolitan area home to about one in three Liberians, is in danger of being swallowed into the ocean, and therefore the government will vacate the sinking city, leaving the populace behind.

The final aspect of the report to note is the mention of the oil. This is hardly a nonsequitur. From the beginning of the Sirleaf-era talk on capital relocation, the undertaking has been consistently linked to the new revenue stream of oil, often explicitly proposing that a very worthwhile use of the additional funds would be to build a new capital city. This begins to bring to mind Abuja again, which despite the legitimate arguments for its construction in the name of national unity and a break with the past, was without question an orgy of corruption during its establishment, and since that time has served as a comparatively luxurious retreat, hidden away from the teeming cities and the majority of the country's population, where the country's rulers control its revenues and wield power to their own benefit, out of easy reach or sight of much of the population. Its easy to imagine that this has appeal among Liberia's public servants also.

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