Calls to relocate Kenya’s capital city go as far back as the mid-2000s, taking on a new level of urgency after the 2007/2008 post-election violence. The logistical and security nightmare that could be occasioned by an easy-to-shut-down city with just five major exits underscores a vulnerability with which our organically growing urban spaces present a risk to state agencies, citizens, the diplomatic community, and the wider urban society.
Presciently, in the months leading up to the 2007 clashes, Gideon Mulyungi, the then Architectural Association of Kenya (AAK) chair, had proposed the relocation of the capital as had University of Nairobi lecturer Dr Mumia Osaaji who argued that it was necessary for nation-state building. The proposal did not go far as the political class instead chose to prioritize bypasses as stop-gap solutions to supplement the five major trunk roads that serve this city of roughly four million people.
The AAK anchored their proposal on the fact that the master plan guiding the development of the city had expired, leading to poor and unplanned constructions. Consequently, both the Nairobi Integrated Urban Development Master Plan 2013, and the five-year Nairobi Counter-Integrated Development Plans (CIDP) provided for incremental attempts at updating the initial master plan.
Still, the reality is that a consolidation of political, social and economic assets domiciled within one city, Nairobi, stifles development at the outer edges of the country in terms of income, wealth and opportunity.
The capital has absorbed satellite towns amid the frenzied desire for land and home ownership among the city’s middle and working classes. Places far outside Nairobi like Isinya, Magadi and Kangundo have ended up becoming the central focus based on the belief that they will one day grow into big settlements where the middle and working classes can live as they work in Nairobi.
This claim, however, is one that Martin Tairo of AAK strongly disputes. “Well, not in your lifetime. It may not even in your children’s lifetime. The growth of Kitengela, Ngong, Ruiru, and others had been anticipated in the 1970s. It is only that the information was not in the public domain. This was due to the fact that the city was to grow and nearby metropolis had to come up to support the cities.”
By the mere fact that it controls 21 per cent of the country’s GDP, houses 10 per cent of the national population, and is the place of residence for two-thirds of the country’s millionaires, Nairobi portends a risky and wasteful concentration of national resources within a relatively dense county.
The high cost of land in the city, and the low return on investment for most new real estate projects, discourages further development and expansion within Nairobi. The centralization stifles our national creative imagination, and institutionalizes the exclusion of the rest of the country. Sooner or later the demand for a new administrative capital away from the saturated Nairobi will precipitate the repurposing of Nairobi as a purely trade and transit city.
With regards to sanitation, mobility, security, and effectiveness, Nairobi is creaking under the weight of an over-centralized space that is perpetually strangled by navigation issues. This adds to the persistent problems for the capital such as overpriced property, political centralization, economic inequality, congested roads, a 60 per cent poverty rate, high unemployment, and poor housing.
Sooner or later the demand for a new administrative capital away from the saturated Nairobi will precipitate the repurposing of Nairobi as a purely trade and transit city.
As a capital city, Nairobi occupies a complex and central space for Kenya’s diplomatic missions, political vitality, state agencies and economic activity. Its choice by the government as the central urbanizing locale has led to the city controlling over a fifth of Kenya’s GDP.
Multiple trackers of the overall health of the capital have identified the following challenges:
|Drinking water pollution and inaccessibility
|Dissatisfaction with garbage disposal
|Dirty and untidy
|Noise and light pollution
|Dissatisfaction with spending time
|Dissatisfaction with green and parks
|Drinking water quality
|Quality of green areas and parks
|Garbage disposal satisfaction
|Clean and tidy
|Serenity and night time lighting
An aggregated score of the above indices portrays a city barely able to manage its key health, social life and safety, liveability, and ecological pillars.
From a historical and functional perspective, the idea of a capital city as the commercial, legislative and political centre has often been subject to review. Between 1950 and 1990, some 13 countries worldwide moved their capitals. In Africa, Egypt, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Burundi and Tanzania have moved their capitals, as have Brazil, Indonesia, and Canada.
Scouting for alternatives
Eminent urban planning scholars give seven parameters that are critical to evaluating the proposal to relocate a capital: the objectives of the relocation; the transferred functions; and the condition of the former capital city after the relocation. Critical weight is also given to the geographical location of the new capital city; the distance between the former and the new capital city; the cost of the relocation; and the type of government at the time of relocation.
It can easily be argued that moving the capital to Isiolo, the preferred alternative, could help spur development in the whole northern corridor. A relocation generally offers better growth prospects nationally, mitigates the risk of widespread disasters, eases pressure on public services, and facilitates growth of otherwise neglected areas. In the immediate, a relocation would ease congestion, given the current capital’s high population density of 4,850 residents per square kilometre.
To evaluate the proposal to relocate the capital to Isiolo, a qualified reliance on an Inclusive Wealth (IW) model that includes human, geographical, natural and manufactured assets will be critical in taking into account the cumulative stock of the relocation, the shift in the national framing of the country’s spatial language, as well as the re-imagining of the nation’s power centres. The model also allows for the integration of non-linear behaviour of complex systems central to the relocation, their relations, emerging dialectics, and derivation of a new cumulative appraisal of the entire project.
Based on the above assessment, relocating the capital to Isiolo County would in all likelihood be a 10 to15-year project requiring wide consultations, and proper planning that might take years to properly frame, account for, and actualize. Thankfully, devolution has accelerated the pace of rural modernization in many parts of Isiolo, Marsabit and Wajir counties. The modernization in these counties provides a crucible for gauging the potential of Isiolo County to absorb the massive urban planning necessary for the establishment of a new capital.
Isiolo, a strategically located, sleepy, dusty town 285 kilometres north of Nairobi in north-central Kenya, is often touted as the gateway to northern Kenya. Kenya’s recent development plans, have effectively placed Isiolo at the heart of Kenya’s Vision 2030 and the northern transport corridor, alongside Lamu and Turkana.
Why northern Kenya?
This central northern corridor around Laikipia, Marsabit, and most vitally Isiolo, offers the best prospects for a new capital. Besides the region’s geographical centrality, the area offers space for expansion, ease of access, prospects of economic boom, and space for real estate development. It is a failsafe chance to facilitate expansion outward and northwards, gut the Nairobi-centric focus of our public policies, and shore up mobility along the new Lapsset corridor.
Establishing the city on the corridor alone taps into the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport (Lapsset) Corridor, eastern Africa’s largest infrastructure project. However, concerns remain regarding the ecological impact and human-wildlife conflicts in the event of such a relocation to Isiolo.
Devolution has accelerated the pace of rural modernization in many parts of Isiolo, Marsabit and Wajir counties.
A case in point is the request by the Friends of Isiolo Game Reserves (FIGARE) who have proposed the relocation of the proposed Isiolo Resort City from Kipsing Gap in Isiolo North to Kulamawe in Isiolo South.
The lobby group says that the current location could restrict the movement of wild animals between Buffalo Springs and Shaba, the two main game reserves, concerns that are echoed elsewhere with regard to wildlife migratory corridors.
The generational dimension
The on-going Lapsset Corridor mega-projects, and the possible relocation of the capital, will have a critical role to play in how the country manages income, wealth, and opportunity across generations. The 1999-2014 boom not only fixed the economic fortunes of those born in 1960s and 70s after the stifling 90s, but it also provided critical socio-economic mobility for those born in the early 80s as they reached adulthood and entered the workforce.
A marginally lower rate of economic growth of 3 per cent from (2-5 per cent in the 2000s) precipitated a disproportionately higher drop in unemployment by 6 per cent from (15 per cent to 9 per cent), as the growth was focused on inclusive, people-centred economic sectors such as agriculture and hospitality. Available data shows that the economy increased steadily then plateaued after the 2005 referendum fallout, but continued to increase at a decreasing rate until 2014. In particular, the PEV debacle and the 2008 global recession slowed the economy, mainly for the lowest economic classes with a mini-recession in 2008, after which inflation averaged 40 per cent for the upper clusters and a staggering 70 per cent for the lowest economic classes.
These prospects, combined with a shifting focus from high jobs multiplier sectors such as hospitality and agriculture, and a refocus towards low jobs multiplier sectors such as construction, doomed the job prospects for those who graduated after 2012.
Despite a diversion of attention, cash, and policy focus from job creating and poverty reducing sectors such as education, agriculture and hospitality, the education sector stayed fairly steady and continued to churn out more trainees into the workforce.
The result has been a surge in unemployment rates, and a 15 per cent increase in poverty rates since 2014, to the current national average of 63 per cent, despite the cumulative KSh7 trillion debt created by the Jubilee regime. Kenya is staring at a massive gap in the absorption of a significant chunk of trained Kenyans who graduated between 2012 and 2021.
The urgency of a northward expansion through the relocation of the capital cannot be understated. Research on the economic prospects of those leaving school and entering the job market during an economic downturn, as we have experienced since 2014, is fairly depressing.
Research findings show that graduating and transitioning into adulthood under such a tough economic climate has negative consequences later in life with regards to social status, income, health, and mortality rates.
In particular, death rates are higher among those who graduate during a recession as this cohort is more likely to adopt an unhealthy lifestyle. This group is also at higher risk of dying from drug overdoses and other so-called “deaths of despair”. Dropouts and those graduating from high school under the current conservative economic policies face lower starting incomes and higher income losses which stunts their overall pay progression for up to 10-15 years.
A new capital along the Lapsset corridor would provide a critical rejig for our political-economy, a shift in economic fortunes for a sizable pool who have sunk into poverty, and those dented by the high cost of living in current urban set-ups. It will likely shore up job growth for those who have been affected by the mismatch between the education economy and the labour market returns between 2007 and 2016.
Kenya is staring at a massive gap in the absorption of a significant chunk of trained Kenyans who graduated between 2012 and 2021.
Of even more critical importance, the move will situate the capital within the pastoralist zone which has the highest job creating potential in the agricultural sector, specifically cattle and goat rearing.
But as natural resource and conflict expert Guyo Haro explains, a move towards the north along the ongoing mega-projects risks exacerbating latent ethnic, resource, and historical tensions.
Still, given the fact that six of the ten counties around Isiolo, fall into the bottom fourth of Kenya’s GDP per capita rankings, an integration of the next capital in the area will provide a lifeline for local populations, regional dynamics, and greater flexibility in national priorities for this century.
Alternatively Isiolo could become the commercial capital and Kisumu the logistical hub for the expanded East Africa (a role that it played until 1986), maintaining Nairobi as a political capital and transferring and building Mombasa as the cultural capital.
Such a diversification of the functions central to the designation of a capital, will spread income, wealth and opportunity across the country. Additionally, a multiplicity of capitals each taking up a decentralised function makes the country much more politically agile, economically steadier, and minimizes the pressure and focus on the centre. These variables will be critical as Kenya’s population increases, and resource demands rise steadily through this century.