Nairobi is bursting at the seams, is it time to move capital?

An aerial view of the Nairobi skyline [Davdi Njaaga, Standard]

Earlier this year, Indonesia announced Nusantara as its new capital after the country’s parliament approved a bill to relocate the capital from Jakarta.

One of the reasons for the relocation of the capital, as several studies show, is that Jakarta is sinking due to numerous boreholes in search of fresh water. The city is also densely populated with around 30 million people. These traffic jams are designed to disrupt government functions, with nearly every officer needing a police escort to navigate traffic smoothly and get to important meetings on time.

While back home there are no plans to move the capital out of Nairobi, there are growing signs from almost every sector that Kenya‘s largest city can no longer accommodate its population. The traffic nightmare on many city streets has become unbearable, even though the government has built numerous new roads and upgraded old ones.

The incessant lockdowns have caused some businesses to relocate from the Central Business District (CBD). One such company is Tier One lender I&M Bank, which moved its headquarters from the CBD to Parklands in 2019. Managing director Kihara Maina says that something has to give.

“How do you make sure we don’t focus too much on one city? How do we make sure we have opportunities to invest in multiple cities?” he poses.

“If people were living in their homes in the countryside and just commuting to a nearby town that has sprung up, that really helps solve some problems.”

Mr. Kihara says this will solve problems related to rural-urban migration, decentralize the economy and thereby create more growth opportunities.

“It reduces the problem of ‘slumification,'” he says, which is due to a city growing faster than it can provide affordable housing.

dr Njau Gitu, a policy and strategy consultant, once suggested Laikipia, Samburu and Isiolo counties as possible destinations for the capital’s relocation. When asked why the cities of Nakuru, Kisumu and Mombasa have not resolved Nairobi’s challenges, Dr. Gitu the infrastructure as a major challenge.

“Devolution should address these concerns. Unfortunately it fell short. You find that most officers in the decentralized units spend a lot of time in Nairobi and you wonder when they will be able to serve their districts,” he says. “We need to shift focus away from Nairobi.”

Several countries have moved their capitals, including Tanzania, which moved its capital from Dar es Salaam to Dodoma in 2019, and Nigeria, which moved its capital from Lagos to Abuja in 1991. South Africa has three capital cities – Pretoria, Bloemfontein and Cape Town. According to the government’s official website, in the City of Cape Town, Western Cape metropolitan area, Cape Town is the country’s legislative capital and seat of parliament.

Bloemfontein, in the Mangaung metropolitan area of ​​the Free State, is the judicial capital and seat of the Supreme Court of Appeals. Pretoria, in the City of Tshwane, Gauteng metropolitan area, is the country’s administrative capital and ultimate capital. It houses the Union Buildings and much of the public service. dr Gitu notes that moving capital offers room for expansion and access to services and amenities.

Sometimes population density is not the only reason for moving the capital. In the case of Nigeria, for example, the move to Abuja was purely historical. While Lagos borders the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Guinea, Abuja is central Nigeria and is more cosmopolitan in a country highly polarized along ethnic and religious lines. Closer to home, Laikipia County moved its headquarters from Nanyuki to Rumuruti in January this year, arguing that the latter is centrally located.

Nairobi faces population problems and is unable to provide the population with basic needs such as water and affordable housing, as detailed in the Kenya country report on progress in implementing the New Urban Agenda (NUA). The report lists high demand for housing with limited supply, rapid urbanization and high land costs as some of the challenges facing affordable housing.

A statement titled Isiolo: The Case for Relocating Kenya’s Capital City, published on April 30, 2022 on the online platform The Elephant, specifically cites high land costs as one of the challenges holding back Nairobi’s growth.

“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 in Nairobi,” it said.

“Sooner or later the demand for a new administrative capital away from saturated Nairobi will accelerate Nairobi’s conversion to a purely commercial and transit city.”

According to a 2019 study published by the Macrothink Institute, titled Determinants in Relocation of Capital Cities, high density and uncontrolled population cause various problems in the city.

“The problems caused by high population density include declining quality of life, slum formation, environmental degradation, high prices and economic inequality,” the study says.

Apart from Nairobi, Kisumu, Mombasa and recently Nakuru are the only cities in Kenya.

Nairobi had a population of 4.3 million according to the 2020 Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS).

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