South Sudan: creating a new capital at Ramciel

But are centrally-located new capital cities typically successful? Other countries' experiences might provide an answer.

The geographic centre of South Sudan, a country with ten states, has been selected as the site of the new nation's federal capital. To be carved out of Lakes State, Ramciel will be a gleaming example of efficient modernity. Or will it? Other such projects were a mixed bag:

Abuja, Nigeria

A planned federal city, built in the 1980s and declared capital in 1991. Centrally and neutrally located, Abuja would be distant from Hausa-Fulani, Igbo or Yoruba power-bases. To that extent the new capital has been a success, growing at an average of 20-30% each year. Power has indeed shifted from overcrowded and overstretched Lagos as the new federal capital comes of age.

But teething problems include traffic gridlock resulting from painfully slow road construction: complaints include the use by CGC, a Chinese firm, of manual labour in preference to machinery to complete the road network. Abuja has around 776,000 people living in 713 sq km, at an urban density of 1,089 per sq km. With current rates of population growth, Abuja is set to become ever more congested.

Abuja is located within the Federal Capital Territory of Nigeria with an area of 7,315 sq km and some 1,405,000 people.

Brasilia, Brazil

In an attempt to populate the interior, it was decided in the 1950s to move the capital from Rio on the coast. Conceived in 1891, defined in 1922, planned in 1956 and quickly constructed, this new Brazilian city was declared federal capital in 1960. From the outset, Brasilia adopted the 1933 Athens Charter of urban planning devised by Le Corbusier with the intention of enabling smooth traffic flows, amongst other benefits. Lucio Costa was the chief planner and Oscar Niemeyer the principal architect.

Rapid growth necessitated numerous adjustments to original plans, however. Nevertheless, it's success as a city was confirmed by UNESCO in 1987, awarding it World Heritage status, the only 20th century city to have achieved this. Brasilia has about 2,563,000 people living in an area of 5,802 sq km, at an urban density of 442 per sq km.

The capital is supported by several satellite cities, all within the boundaries of the Federal District (FD). The Brazilian FD has an area of 7,315 sq km and a total of some 3,600,000 people.

Dodoma, Tanzania

In 1973, nine years after Tanganyika and Zanzibar merged to form the United Republic of Tanzania, it was decided that a new capital should be constructed in the centre, far from the coast and Dar es Salaam, the commercial hub and previous capital. 

Dodoma was selected as it was almost equidistant from Dar and Arusha, headquarters of the East African Community. Sponsored by the UN, an American architect named James Rossant was selected in 1986 to develop a master plan of the proposed city. 

Although connected by air and rail links to Dar and, since 2007, the location of two universities, Tanzanians have yet to build a modern airport at Dodoma. The current landing strip is short and accommodates only small planes. As a result, semi-arid Dodoma has so far failed to attract most government offices, despite the fact that the National Assembly was successfully relocated there in 1996.

Things appear to move tortuously slowly in Tanzania. Dodoma today sports a population of some 324,000 people. No doubt when a larger airport is finished and civil servants can realistically be relocated, the new capital will take shape. But its remote location might put many bureaucrats off the idea.

Yamoussoukro, Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast)

The centrally located agricultural Ivorian settlement of Yamoussoukro was a tiny village with a few hundred inhabitants when Félix Houphouët-Boigny became its local leader in 1939. 

After navigating his country to independence from France, he set about developing ambitious plans for the place and, in 1965, declared it his nation's capital. Abidjan was stunned, yet remains the commercial capital to this day. 

Grandiose schemes were hatched by Houphouët-Boigny, not least the construction of a new Yamoussoukro-Abidjan motorway, a huge Catholic cathedral called the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro (opened by Pope John Paul II in 1990), a protestant church, a mosque, an airport capable of accommodating Concorde, a polytechnic, an institute (the Félix Houphouët-Boigny Foundation) and a nearby dam.

Some 243,000 people now live in Yamoussoukro, and it is slowly being regarded as the nation's capital. But memories are long, and few forget that this remote place was a little village a few decades ago. Despite the vision of one man, intent on stamping his own legacy onto his country, no genuine national consensus or buy-in to the concept was achieved prior to its construction.


Other examples of planned capitals include:
Washington DC, America
Canberra, Australia
Putra Jaya, Malaysia - although this has so far only been designed to accommodate civil servants, the prime minister's and deputy prime minister's offices. The federal parliament and diplomatic missions remain in Kuala Lumpur. Interestingly, Cyberjaya town and science park and the rest of Malaysia's multimedia super corridor and KLIA, the country's main airport, are close to Putra Jaya.

Ramciel, South Sudan 

Juba, the present capital and largest city, was deemed inappropriate by national founding father the late John Garang. I suppose Juba was too far south for his liking, being close to the borders of Uganda, DR Congo and Kenya. 

Garang died in a helicopter crash in 2005 before he could steer South Sudan's independence from Sudan. A Dinka, he might have been inclined towards a Dinka location as his new country's capital, and Ramciel fits that criterion. This contrasts with multi-ethnic Juba. Garang's successor and first President of independent South Sudan, Salva Kiir Mayardit, is also a Dinka - by co-incidence - yet from a different clan. And unsurprisingly, Kiir has progressed Garang's ambition to site the new capital at Ramciel. It has to be said that the Dinka are South Sudan's largest ethnic group with some fifteen percent of the total, and that they are prevalent in the centre and north of the country.

There are sixty languages spoken throughout South Sudan, and English has been selected as the national tongue. Switching across to English after generations of Arabic dominance will take some time, clearly.

Plans will be concluded within three years or so, and construction of this new city will start after that. Oil revenues should be free-flowing into South Sudanese treasury coffers by then, so expect a gleaming, modern and ambitious result. 

How speedily the centre of gravity could move there, and how efficient the infrastructure might be, will depend on reduced tribal rivalry and clan infighting, contained corruption, political determination and the quality of the team of experts selected to see the project to fruition. These elements are seemingly rare on this continent.

It has to be hoped that Ramciel doesn't result in being a huge white African elephant. South Sudan deserves better.

Update December 7, 2011
Mariya Limited, SWECO, Pan-China Construction, Synohydro Corporation, Korea Land and Housing Corporation and Ofek Aerial Photography (1987) have been shortlisted to compete for the contract. Vermessung Angst, one of the seven German firms, withdrew from the bidding process after the South Sudanese housing and planning ministry refused to extend the contract deadline, according to

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