Thoughts on Banjul


I have been thinking a lot lately about Banjul, our capital city. I wanted to provide ideas for our national government hoping the ideas find some receptive ears.
Banjul needs attention for it has been in a stationary or regressing state for a long time. If, as an anecdote, we were to revive the last colonial governor of The Gambia and drive him through Banjul and through Serekunda and its suburbs, he will likely be able to recognise Banjul but not Serekunda and its suburbs.


The point of this colourful anecdote is that Banjul has changed so little or even become a lot worse, because of neglect and population pressure. It needs development attention. Michael Lipton developed the concept of “urban bias” in development policy, but I would argue that Banjul suffers from “urban snub”. Successive governments have bypassed it for the hinterland, and this is not good policy if the country’s development is to be accelerated and balanced.


Banjul has elected a new mayor, and it is a woman. This is wonderful news! I think male leadership has failed the African continent so miserably, except for a few outliers, that it is perhaps time to try female leadership.
I have a new challenge for our new capital city mayor: she should make a major push, working with the political and economic leadership of the country, to modernise Banjul. I make this point because I do not know of any country that has modernised itself without modernising its capital city. Even forgetting countries like China’s Beijing or Brazil’s Brasilia (for these are large countries), let’s think of small, modernising African countries like Rwanda (with its capital, Kigali) or Botswana (with its capital, Gabarone). These countries have invested heavily in road infrastructure, buildings, electricity, water and proper sewage and waste disposal and other modern services to make their capital cities functional and modern.

So let me hazard a hypothesis: a country cannot modernise without modernising its capital city. This is because capital cities are the first showcases of a government’s level of seriousness. A well-run, modern capital city is a positive signaling device to attract greater investments. When investors come and see Banjul, the first impression they have is that a country with such a run-down capital city, as is present day Banjul, is one that cannot be taken seriously. For who would want to put investments in the rest of a country that cannot even modernise and manage its capital? (Let me provide a tangential example: Why do banks appear neat? Because they handle money. If banks were to appear dirty and shabby, they will not convey a good and serious impression, and no one, except the foolhardy, will risk placing their savings with them. As with a bank, so is a capital city; the state of a country’s capital city is the first signaling of the investment climate of a country).

I recognise there are other magnets to attracting investments to a country such as improving overall the investment climate and reducing the costs of doing business. (This involves making sure that: (1) one has a stable legal and regulatory environment and effective enforcement of laws (including of contracts); (2) good infrastructure by way of reliable water and electricity and good roads and ports; (3) competent human capital by way of skilled labour;(4) business friendly fiscal environment; and (5) a business friendly and streamlined business licensing environment. These, of course, are the run of the mill conventional wisdom of what attracts investments to a country. I would add to these: making a big push to modernise one’s capital city.
The Barrow government has a real opportunity to be different from its failed predecessors. It can decide to make a major pitch to support the new mayor to help modernise Banjul, something that successive previous governments (under Jawara and Jammeh) have failed to do for the country. If these investments in Banjul’s transformation happens, the Barrow government will go down in history as one of the most visionary that The Gambia has ever had.

Now what should happen with Banjul? There should be a vision, a strategy and a plan working with infrastructure and real estate developers to transform it into a modern city.
Modernising Banjul has several challenges. The first is fiscal. Where would the money come from, given government coffers are severely limited and the needs to develop the country are huge? One option would be to float a municipal bond with some reasonable interest rate that investors can buy and this will be used to provide term financing for Banjul’s modernisation. This can also attract Gambian diaspora capital. The other is to prepare a city modernisation project and borrow money to finance the investments from multilateral financial institutions like the World Bank, African Development Bank, Islamic Development Bank, and so forth. A third option is to approach private investors to do a public private partnership, where the government can borrow to finance the public infrastructure aspects and the private investors will finance the private goods (like buildings, and so forth). Any borrowing could be financed over time from levying taxes and fees from those who will be using the services and infrastructure of a modernised Banjul. This requires serious thinking and planning, and the government should assemble a team of capable multi-skilled Gambians, including some wealthy Gambians, to help think about crafting a vision, strategy and plan and options on how to finance the modernization of Banjul.

The second challenge is social. How does one deal with the population of current residents in Banjul and the decaying buildings and kirinting houses that have been there for generations? Once there is a vision, strategy and plan, social workers should be mobilised (with pre-designed tactical messages) to engage in focus discussion groups with different segments of Banjul to signal government intention and there would be a voluntary resettlement programme to the Kombos put in place so that the old buildings would be demolished and modern buildings and infrastructure built. (Some old buildings, such as churches, mosques and schools and similar historic relics may need to be preserved as cultural heritage, but the rest can be demolished). Of course, before this can be done, government must invest in some public housing in the Kombos where these populations can move and they can be given compensation deals for giving up on their properties in Banjul.


This is likely to be met with resistance. (But, all change of this type everywhere meets with resistance). The panacea would be the social consultation process put in place. The population would have to be sensitised and the principle of eminent domain applied that government has the higher authority to seize property if individuals living in Banjul are not voluntarily going to cooperate. (This would be the most difficult problem and government would need to employ community leaders like the imam of Banjul and the Catholic and Anglican bishops to sensitive their communities about the need for the country to go on the path of city modernisation to pave the path for the rest of the country’s modernisation and to grow the economy. The media – radio and television – and social media would also have to be broadly engaged to sensitise the Gambian public.


The third challenge is human capital. The Gambia has a repository of social scientists, engineers, lawyers, environmental specialists, and public administrators (some of these are also overseas) who could help with the several challenges that would come in the way of modernisation – some of which I mentioned and others I may have missed. There is a lesson to be learned from some African capital cities which were run-down but which have recently embarked on an aggressive path to modernise their capitals (for example, Rwanda’s Kigali or Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa). The Gambia government could send members of this planning team for the modernisation to go on a South-South Africa-Africa study tour to learn about how these countries did their city transformation.

The fourth challenge would be the environmental and ecological challenges of Banjul. Absenting the current run-down infrastructure, Banjul is a beautifully located small city. Many modernised cities would have been happy to trade their unattractive land-locked location for Banjul’s privileged island status. Banjul, however, is in an ecologically fragile setting. As an island, it is prone to flooding and, with rising sea levels and climate change, there is a need for an ecological plan of land protection and wetland management. Mangroves which served as effective buffers against water intrusion and stabilised soils, have been cut in surrounding areas of Banjul and houses erected and this has made matters worse. Government needs to bring in environment specialists as well engineers into the planning and implementation of zoning laws, building codes and land protection works around Banjul. (The Netherlands has had great successes with managing lands surrounded by water and some learning or expertise should perhaps be drawn from there).

These are just some of my thoughts on the need to modernise Banjul. I think it is important to have a constructive and informed debate about the modernisation of Banjul. I have long reflected on The Gambia’s modernisation, but I cannot see how that can be done without government giving serious attention to major investments in modernising its capital city. I hope the new mayor works with the government to move along with this task. The positive pay-offs to the country would be incalculable.