Sunday, September 8, 2013

Banjul is dead, Long Live the Port City of Banjul

The sight of only little kids coming out to greet Yaya Jammeh as he pretends to be touring the devastation that is the city of Banjul is further reminder that the dictator has lost all credibility, and with it, support of the people of Banjul and the Gambian people as well.  One look at the state of Banjul should prove the devastation of its infrastructure, and with it the city's moral and spiritual fabric.  Although the people of Banjul have finally started blaming Jammeh for their predicament, the slide into the current deplorable state started well before Jammeh seized power.

Unlike the Jawara who attempted to address the urban decay with roads and sewerage projects, Jammeh in fact accelerated the deterioration by focusing an inordinate attention and state resources to the far-flung village hamlet of Kanilai, his home town.  Capital cities generally contribute significantly not only to national incomes, but to the political, social, cultural life of countries.  Kanilai does just the opposite.  It drains resources away from the national treasury, and into wasteful and idle endeavors like the "Futamgpang" and women wrestling matches which, some have argued, have contributed to the promiscuous behavior of our young men and women folk.  Kanilai is not all play.  It has a good and well-maintained access road leading to the village.  Its infrastructure is far superior to Banjul's.

Banjul is a dead city.  Like the city of Detroit, once the pride of America and the home of Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, Banjul has been abandoned by the very people who once profited from its strategic location as the seat of government and the hub of commerce.  The decline of Detroit was slow and painful but avoidable.  And so is the decline of Banjul.  Some urban planners suggest that the decline of the Motor City started in 1967 with the worst race riot in U.S. history which saw 42 people killed, mainly African-Americans by National Guard troops.  This led to White flight to the neighboring suburbs thus depriving the city of tax base necessary to provide services and the maintenance of the city's infrastructure.  The decline in the share the world market which started with the competition from Japanese autos led to the bankruptcy of GM and Chrysler.  The financial melt-down provided the coup de grace until the Obama administration stepped in to save two of the Big Three.  .

If a similar inflection point in Banjul's good fortunes is to be suggested, I'd venture to say it is the advent of Gambian tourism of the mid-60s which quickly accelerated in the 70's and 80's.  What was once the outback of the Kombos soon was dotted with tourist hotels and other amenities, including access roads, never seen before were springing up everywhere from Cape Point to Kotu and beyond.  City dwellers who did not venture much outside the city limits, except for an occasional Sunday trip, were now venturing out to enjoy the night life that the tourism paradise around the Cape Point, Fajara and Kotu corridor had on offer.  Night club operators in Banjul moved to the Kombos to cater for the tourists.  Other businesses along Wellington Street followed suit.  Then you have Pipeline, a once residential street soon turned into the business center of the Kombos.  Fuelling all of this was the land use policies of the Jawara era which is a separate subject of interest.

Banjulians abandoned the city in droves for the Kombos.  In heading for the hills ( some have argued that the legendary Banjul mosquitoes contributed to the exodus ), they deprived the city of much needed revenue.  Instead of an expanding tax base, Banjul city administration was also collecting less in rates, some of the money found their way into the notoriously corrupt rate collectors.  For the first time in the city's history, entire compounds, some even of historic significant ( especially those along Clarkson Street ) were being abandoned as well. These newly-transformed 'Kombongkas', including yours truly, did not only deprived the city much needed revenue, they also posed another problem for not only the city but for central government as well.  They clung on to their "kerr chosan" even when offered compensation to make way for the Port Expansion Project.  They eventually succumed but not before the right of eminent domain was likely to be applied by the State which would have abrogated their right to negotiate for a fair market price.  

Jammeh's contribution to the acceleration of Banjul's decline is what Daniel Patrick Moynihan would refer to as "benign neglect".   Banjulians supported the coup and Jammeh.  In return, he engaged the Banjulians in frequent 'celebrations' at the July 22nd Square and beach parties and barbeques in the beach front of the State House.  The support for Jammeh was founded on the basis that the Jawara regime neglected the city in spite of the numerous externally funded projects with 10% contribution from government.  There were more urban development-related projects under Jawara than under the current regime.  The drawback to the efforts were that some of these projects were poorly designed as well as poorly implemented.  The SOGEA sewage project comes to mind.  Some of the current pollution problems relating to the raw sewage that has been found in the flood waters in Banjul is partly attributable to this project because a good number of the toilets in compounds were not connected to the system for various reasons, but primarily financial and technical ones.

The devastation did not start with the floods.  It only aggravated it and spot-lighted the plight of those trapped inside what can only be described as a hell-hole.  Bond Road, the ring road connecting Half-Die to the main road out of Banjul is impassable.  The Pumping Station or "Pa Bokis" that pumps the water to keep Banjulians from drawing in flood waters has been out of commission for years.  The gutters along Albion Place that empties into the Box Bar stream are caked because of solid waste, and as a resident of the city told me the other day is that the cutters are so caked in the dry season that you can skate on them.  Now, I am told there is/are crocodile(s) inhabiting those gutters suggesting, in a horrifying way, that the drainage system has completely broken down.  Banjulians will not have to contend not only with the legendary Banjul mosquito but they are like likely to be eaten by crocodiles right in the middle of the capital city.

Drastic decline requires equally drastic measures.  Whereas the problems of the two cities i.e. Detroit and Banjul share some similarities, the solution that I am suggesting for Banjul is different.  I will not suggest that Banjul be under an Emergency Manager or receivership which I oppose in the case of Detroit.  Instead, I am suggesting that Banjul be transformed into a Port City which would require that almost the entire city be leveled.  Of course, it doesn't mean that bulldozers descend on the city tomorrow and start levelling everything in site.  The feasibility of it should be carefully studied.  It may turn out that a better option is to have half of the city, say up to Allen Street, be converted into an industrial complex relating to port operations and other industrial activities.  A site for a new political capital would have to be considered as well.  Which ever option is finally opted for will take massive investment which I envisage will come from private capital.  However, you cannot attract private capital with a corrupt and incompetent government.