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Saturday, December 5, 2020

Letters: Kombo land: Demographics and basic economics

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Dear editor,

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The land problem in Kombo should have been foreseeable a long time ago. All the authorities needed to do was to simply look at population dynamics in the context of a country with a small overall land size. Within Africa, The Gambia’s population density of 208 per square km is only behind Rwanda, Burundi, and Nigeria. However, when we look at urban areas or Kombos in particular, the country’s overall population density massively understates the degree to which we have too many people tightly packed in a small area.

I will focus on only Kombo North and Kombo South for this discussion. Kombo North’s population went from about 81,000 in 1993, to about 168,000 in 2003 and 344,756 in 2013. Over the same time period, Kombo South’s population increased from 40,000 to about 62,000 and finally to 108,773 by 2013. This means that on average between 1993 and 2013, Kombo North’s population grew at an annual rate of about 8% while Kombo South’s grew at an annual rate of about 5% (note that the country as a whole was growing at an annual rate of about 3% of this time period).

Using those growth rates (which are very conservative because I made linear projections), Kombo North should have a population of roughly about 600,000 today, while Kombo South should have about 150,000. An actual population census today in these areas is most certainly bound to find a much larger population because growth has picked up significantly in recent years due to the high urbanisation rate. In terms of population density, Kombo North should have an approximate population density of about 3500 individuals per square km, while Kombo South should have about 528. By any metric, this is a lot of people packed in a given area.

What this means is that while Kombo’s population was growing rapidly (in other words, demand for land), the supply of land remains fixed. It is simple economics or reality that when demand is increasing and supply is either fixed or declining, the price must increase. We all see these terms of land prices or values skyrocketing in these areas. More importantly, the value of land (in other words the return to this particular asset) is not only higher than most assets in The Gambia but appreciating much faster. So with that reality and little regulation in place, we ended up having the perfect recipe for lots of unscrupulous actions. Consequently, those without the necessary political connections or economic power ended up on the losing side.

The land problems we are witnessing in parts of Kombo North and South occurred in Kombo St Mary (for example Bakau) decades ago since the latter reached those critical densities much earlier. Ask the people of Bakau where they used to farm. If the status quo remains, Kombo Central and Kombo East are next in line – if it hasn’t started already.
In the absence of adequate planning by authorities to manage this process, today’s land problems in Kombo were inevitable and predictable. Unfortunately, the root of the problem started under the Jawara regime (mainly but not exclusively through negligence), and got worse under Yahya Jammeh. The current government cannot be blamed for starting the problem but seems to have no interest so far in addressing it. There has always been empty talk of respecting traditional land tenure system but this was mainly officials regurgitating phrases rather than thinking concretely about implementable solutions. Or getting lost in process and losing sight of goals and outcomes.

Dr Ousman Gajigo

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