South Sudan and the lure of a gleaming new capital

From the United States to Kazakhstan, many newly independent nations have built capital cities from scratch as a way to forge a new national identity. As Africa is finding out, it doesn't always work as intended.

Andreea Campeanu/Reuters/
Traditional dancers take part in celebrations marking the third anniversary of South Sudan's independence, in the capital, Juba, in 2014. Now, the nation is considering building a new capital 130 miles to the north.

When Morocco’s king visited South Sudan earlier this month, he inked a thick stack of “cooperation agreements” with the young country, promising the two nations would soon work together on everything from mining to fisheries to vocational training. 

But nestled among the typical diplomatic agreements was a more unusual one. Morocco agreed to fork over $5 million to help the world’s youngest country decide whether it should build itself a brand new capital city.

In particular, the South Sudanese wanted to know if it was feasible to pick up their current national government in Juba and transport it about 130 miles north to a sparsely inhabited, swampy patch of land in the geographical center of the country called Ramciel.

That may be a tough sell at the moment in a country wracked by violent conflict, and where famine has been declared in certain areas. But the concept of a new country building itself a new capital from scratch is a powerful one, and not just in South Sudan. Across the globe, from Kazakhstan to Nigeria to the United States, many countries have concocted new capital cities soon after independence as a way of quite literally constructing a new national identity – brick by brick. And in South Sudan, where ethnic tensions have threatened the country’s existence almost from its first day of life, a new capital could be a “blueprint for national unity,” says Jok Madut Jok, a political analyst and lecturer of social anthropology at the University of Juba who has also served as an undersecretary in South Sudan's Ministry of Culture and Heritage.

The logic of the made-from-scratch capital city is simple: What better way to smooth over old social divisions than by creating a new and neutral center of political gravity, untouched by old histories and old divisions? Such a place, American founder James Madison wrote in Federalist Paper 43, would “satisfy every jealousy” because it would belong to no one – and so to everyone all at once. (His advice soon led to the construction of America’s “federal district” on the Potomac River between Virginia and Maryland).

In Africa in particular, inventing a capital city has often been seen as a useful tool for resetting a painful past, allowing new independent countries to cast off antique colonial cities as outdated as the imperial ideologies that created them. 

Over the last 50 years – and with widely varying degrees of success – the continent has spawned a half-dozen of these purpose built cities. They range from Botswana’s tidy and functional Gaborone, to the sprawling excesses of Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast – home to the world’s largest church, a ghostly Catholic basilica that rambles along the city’s outskirts  – and the perpetually half-finished Dodoma, Tanzania.

In South Sudan, the idea of moving the capital away from Juba – an increasingly overcrowded boom-town on the banks of the White Nile – had been around for at least a decade before the country’s 2011 independence. Proponents said that Juba, which sits in the country’s far south, was inaccessible to much of the country’s population, while locals in the area complained that the city’s growing sprawl is nibbling into their herding and farming land.

Ramciel, on the other hand, sits at the intersection of South Sudan’s three main regions, and was quickly hailed as “neutral” ground by many of its proponents.

The long arm of politics

But if the history of other new capitals is any guide, there’s really no such thing as a city site untouched by politics, says Alan Mabin, a specialist in African cities at the University of Pretoria.

“There’s this claim often made that building a new capital is an apolitical act, when it nearly always comes with a political agenda,” he says.

Take Abuja, the wide-avenued, high modernist capital Nigeria’s military dictatorship constructed in the center of the country in the 1970s and ‘80s.

At the time, Nigeria’s capital was Lagos, an overcrowded coastal city backing into the ocean in the country’s Christian south. Nigeria’s government argued that a well-planned city farther north could ease the strain on creaky Lagos while also helping smooth over some of the social divisions that had hung low over Nigeria since its independence a decade earlier. 

But it was no coincidence that the military dictator who originally spearheaded the project to shove the capital northward, Gen. Murtala Ramat Muhammed, was himself a northerner, or that the city, which sits in a Muslim region of Nigeria, came to have a distinctly “northern” character.

In South Sudan, too, “there are no neutral locations,” says Becu Thomas, South Sudan program officer at the Rift Valley Institute, a think tank founded in Sudan. Ramciel, for instance, already has inhabitants, a group called the Aliab-Dinka, and they claim they never gave permission for a new city to be built in their territory. “There’s no reason to believe that ethnic conflicts won’t occur there, too,” Mr. Thomas says.

If you build it, will they come?

But perhaps a bigger problem with new capital cities is that they often remain haunted by the very history they were built to transcend.

Most capital cities built in the second half of the 20th century, for instance, have been meticulously planned, their blueprints conceived by the world’s brightest scholars of city planning. But most of those plans have also failed utterly to keep up with who actually lives there.

When Brazil began constructing its new capital Brasilia in the 1950s, for example, it didn’t bargain on the fact that the most vibrant parts of its elegantly planned capital, with its sweeping plazas and neatly gridded, tree-lined streets, would soon be the unplanned shack settlements on its fringes where the city’s construction workers lived.

And in several countries in Africa and elsewhere, the political and social elite haven’t bothered to tag along with the government to their new capital, preferring to carry on their business in established centers like Lagos, Abidjan, Dar es Salaam, or Rio. 

“It’s hard to wipe concentrated centers of political and social power off the map, and you certainly don’t do it just by relocating the capital city,” Mr. Mabin says.

In South Sudan, Mr. Jok, the social anthropologist, says he worries the most dangerous element of the government’s pledge to build a new capital is how easily its symbolism as a center of national unity could warp into something far darker.

“It could give politicians something to point to in order to show they are making headway on the country’s ethnic troubles, and ordinary people a measure of hope that the country and its leaders are actually working,” he says. “But my worry is that it’s a way to divert people from the complaints they currently have about good governance and access to services and so on.”

“For a country in the midst of conflict that is scarcely able to build roads or clinics in the cities it already has, this is not something one can imagine happening now,” he adds. “It’s an exciting idea, but I’m afraid for now that’s all it is – an idea.”

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