City upon a hollow

How countries change capitals


A woman walks past the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in the capital Yamoussoukro, Ivory
Coast October 11, 2015. REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon


Crowded residential buildings seen in Cairo, Egypt, November 11, 2016. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

As Indonesia mulls over plans to move its capital away from Jakarta, it’s worth taking a look at how similar experiments have unfolded in the past.

The 20th century was a momentous time for administrative democracy, as nascent republics the world over up and moved their capitals to align with new political orders.

As longstanding empires crumbled overnight and republics sprung up to replace them, capitals were relocated for two chief reasons: heightened security and closer proximity to the people (which often, but not always, go hand in hand).

Indeed, if precarious new popularly sovereign states were to stand on their own two feet, they’d have to be both free from foreign invasion and closer to the people they governed—figuratively, administratively, emotionally, and militarily.

At times this meant getting back to the land or proverbial ‘heart’ of the country, which, curiously, often meant reversion to an older more centrally-located pre-modern capital.

If you build it…

Even countries not faced with the prospect of founding a new ideological order or fending off invaders and warring factions felt compelled to relocate their seat of power in the interest of ’rounding out’ their young nations.

In 1927, Canberra was inaugurated from scratch inland and midway between Sydney and Melbourne, then the provisional capital, when Australians judiciously decided not to over-concentrate power or people in either.

33 years later, in 1960, Brasilia was conjured up by Oscar Niemeyer to take over from Rio de Janeiro, the capital since 1763, in an effort to tame the jungle and develop the interior of Brazil’s vast unknown hinterland.

Less than two decades after gaining independence from Britain (1947), Pakistan made a similar move to increase security and centralize its power base.

By moving its capital from Karachi on the Indian Ocean to the newly created Islamabad in the northern foothills of the Hindu Kush, the new center of the country was placed just 42 miles from the frantically sought-after region of Kashmir, but also halfway between the cultural capital of Lahore on the Indian border and the Pashtun outpost of Peshawar on the Afghanistani one.

… they will come.

This logic remained in vogue throughout the 21st century: the past three decades alone have seen the creation of new capital cities in Nigeria (Abuja, 1991), Tanzania (Dodoma, 1996), Kazakhstan (Astana, 1997), and Myanmar (Naypyidaw, 2005)—some of the most important emerging markets in West and East Africa, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia today.

In each of their cases, greater centralization and centrality were the chief motives.

But dammit if it didn’t also feel good to thumb one’s nose at the old coastal colonial capitals of Lagos, Dar es Salaam, Abidjan, and Rangoon for the virgin inland sites of Abuja, Dodoma, Yamoussoukro, and Naypyidaw.

Often vanity projects to solidify the reign of new ruling elites, the new capitals of the late 20th and early 21st centuries ultimately faced the same conundrum as Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams: if you build it, will people actually come?

In most cases, as the casual pedestrian of Astana, Abuja, or Naypyidaw will contest, they didn’t, and the traditional hubs of Almaty, Lagos, and Yangon continued to dominate their respective countries’ cultural, economic, and often even political life.

La conquista del desierto

This brings us to the third and final stage of capital-building since the dawn of the 20th century: the need to take pressure off hyper-congested megacities such as Jakarta and Cairo.

As we have seen, the first wave of capital relocations were driven by security and ideology: Moscow, New Delhi, Ankara, and Islamabad were all to embody new and improved ideologies of statecraft far from the troubled waters of a more colonial-maritime-interconnected yesteryear.

The second wave of new capitals focused more on “conquering the desert,” as the genocidal Argentine euphemism once put it.

Outposts and emissaries of new national projects, they were to spearhead the development of vast uncultivated interiors and get closer to the state’s most isolated new citizens.

But the problem now facing 21st century capital-relocations is more social and humanitarian than political: how can booming states such as Indonesia and Egypt take the edge off the gridlock and daily grind of their vastly overpopulated seats of government?

A spoonful of medicine, or to fire the doctor

Though the most immediate answer to improving life in places like Jakarta and Cairo is better infrastructure and much more public transport, leaders in Indonesia and Egypt have seized upon the not-so-novel idea: moving their capitals altogether.

Egypt is now working with Chinese state contractors to move its seat of government into a USD40 billion built-from-scratch desert city some 40km east of Cairo by 2035.

Working within a much more radical time-frame, Indonesian President Jokowi announced in July that his government would start moving the capital out of Jakarta as early as 2018.

While both cities are notorious for their interminable traffic and life-defying daily commutes, the “Jakarta jam” weighs heavier upon the lives of its inhabitants than anywhere else on earth.

A decade in limbo

Whether or not novelist Seno Gumira Ajidarma’s assessment that Indonesians “spend ten years of their lives in traffic” is accurate, his point is valid: each day Jakartans routinely spend four hours commuting across the world’s third-largest metropolitan area.

With an estimated 40m population by 2040, Jakarta is already the largest human conurbation on earth without a metro. And that’s not all; it’s thought to be sinking by 7.5cm a year, with 40% of the city already under sea level.

Though it got an efficient Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system in 2002 and is slated to unveil the first phase of an inaugural light-rail in 2018, an abundance of car-friendly policies such as plans for six new elevated toll highways and government schemes to increase “green car” ownership are only likely to exacerbate the “Jakarta jam.”

If you can’t fix it, fling it away

For a country with 4.5 million civil servants—one million too many in President Jokowi’s estimation—moving the administrative center of the country out of its suffocatingly sprawling megacity is not rocket science.

Yet for a move that’s slated to begin in 2018, the government is still dragging its feet on even where that will be. Tweeting that they were still in the “analysis stage” in September, Jokowi said the government is still weighing the pros and cons of various locations.

Chief among them so far has been the provincial city of Palangkaraya in Borneo, an island that Indonesia shares with Malaysia and Brunei. With city limits four times that of Jakarta, but merely 236,000 inhabitants, this is not the first time Palangkaraya has been considered for such an honor.

Barely a decade after the old Dutch East Indies capital of Batavia was renamed Jakarta (from the Sanskrit for “victorious deed”), Indonesia’s founding father President Sukarno was already mulling over the idea of moving the capital to Palangkaraya, a city built expressly for that purpose in 1957.

The idea was to take the pressure off Jakarta and the overpopulated island of Java, on the one hand, and help develop the interior of Kalimantan, as Indonesia’s territory on the island of Borneo is known, on the other.

The Palangkarayan bullet

More centrally located in the country’s vast and sprawling 5,000km archipelago than Java, Kalimantan is crucially also less prone to earthquakes. Though lacking sea access in a country of 17,500 islands seems somewhat amiss, the prevalence of air travel would somewhat mitigate this.

Rarely uttered, however, is the real challenge of convincing anyone but high-ranking civil servants to actually move there. Even provided several million people make their lives in the interior of central Borneo, nothing guarantees that Jakarta’s mad dash toward demographic overdose won’t continue all the same.

After all, if recent history is anything to go by, rarely have new capitals fulfilled their purpose of cooling down overheating hubs.

Though Rio was replaced by the Amazon’s Brasilia in 1960, its population still surged from 3.3 million that year to 12.3 million today. Lagos, replaced by inland Abuja in 1991, saw a similarly dramatic expansion, from 5.7 million that year to more than 21 million in 2016.

The list goes on.

As Indonesia forges ahead to create a new capital city essentially from scratch, its leaders and urban planners should remember the plight of Lagos and Rio. You can take the capital out of the city—and in the case of Astana, Abuja, and Naypyidaw, the city out of the capital—but you can’t stem the tide of global population growth.

For Jakarta to become a livable city, it must be governed, built, and provide transport like one first.

Or wait it out ’til commuters are taking the ferry to work.