Not such a capital idea after all

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South Sudan wants to build a new seat of government, but it should learn from the mistakes of others, warns Simon Akam

Last month, a landslide referendum confirmed that South Sudan will gain its independence and become Africa's newest country. Now leaders of the embryonic state – which will secede from Khartoum's rule in July – are considering building a new seat of government away from the current capital, Juba.

But the new state should learn a lesson from countries that have already carried through grandiose plans to build cities from scratch. A tour of purpose-built capitals around the world – from St Petersburg in the 18th century to Burma's new capital, Naypyidaw – reveals a litany of woes: surreal vanity projects that have emptied state coffers; paranoid military rulers provoking international ridicule with retreats into the jungle; civil servants chaffing at having to move to half-finished cities; pesky natural hazards hampering grand urban planning schemes.

In South Sudan, peace accords in 2005 brought to an end 21 years of civil war with the north. Since then Juba, on the banks of the White Nile, has grown rapidly but haphazardly, with converted shipping containers often standing in for housing.

"Juba was designed for about 300,000 people. Now its population probably exceeds one million," said Anne Itto, deputy secretary general of the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement (SPLM). "Now that Southern Sudan is going to be an independent country it is important to develop a capital befitting the new status of the country," she added.

Many question the wisdom of moving away from Juba, whose international airport and good connections to neighbouring Uganda make it well developed by local standards. Southern Sudan as a whole is desperately short of infrastructure: an area the size of France is served by less than 100km of paved roads.

Southern administrators emphasise they are also considering further construction in Juba itself, but they are adamant that the current situation is untenable. If the government does vacate Juba, it will join a select club of African nations that shifted their capitals after independence.

The proposal is not the first grandiose scheme to be mooted by Southern Sudan. Last year officials unveiled plans to redraw Juba's outline in the shape of a rhinoceros and remodel the second city, Wau, as a giraffe. The cost was five times Southern Sudan's annual budget. Perhaps conscious of the scepticism the animal scheme attracted, officials now insist any move to a new capital will not happen overnight. "Juba is the capital for now," said Pagan Amum, secretary general of the SPLM. "It is a project of not less than a decade."

Astana, Kazakhstan

Its streets lined with palaces and gleaming high-rises, Astana has gradually taken shape in the arid Kazakh steppe over like a surreal mirage. The cranes are still working, as the capital of oil- and gas-rich Kazakhstan goes from strength to strength. Last year, the British architect Lord Foster opened a vast tent-like structure containing gardens and an indoor beach in the city, yet another piece in the strange jigsaw that is Astana.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the five Central Asian "Stans" found themselves as independent countries; their regional centres now capital cities. In vast Kazakhstan, the Soviet-era capital and biggest city was Almaty, nestled in the far south-east of the country. Keen to ensure that Russia got no ideas about trying to claim the vast swaths of steppe mostly populated by ethnic Russian towns, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev ordered that a new capital be created, hundreds of miles away on the site of a small, dusty town called Akmolinsk, which was renamed Astana – Kazakh for "capital". It gained official status in 1997, and government employees and diplomats had to move gradually from the pleasant and leafy Almaty to the new capital – where temperatures can hit 40C in summer and minus 40C in winter. To this day, thousands of Kazakhs commute to Astana for the working week but prefer to keep their main residences in Almaty.

Shaun Walker

St Petersburg, Russia

When Peter the Great took over the throne of Russia in the late 17th century, he decided the country needed to be propelled from its isolated backwardness into a modern European state. So he ordered a new capital – to replace Moscow – be built several hundred miles north in what was then a deserted, freezing swamp.

Founded in 1703, the city became Russia's capital in 1712, but not before thousands of peasants toiling without pay died to create Peter's grand vision. St Petersburg developed according to a plan by foreign architects, with the streets intersected by a grid of canals. The city grew grander during the 18th century. The river embankments and canal fronts were adorned with more mansions and palaces, including the Winter Palace; it was designed by Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli and became the official residence of the Tsars. It would later be stormed in one of the most potent symbols of the Russian Revolution.

Moscow remained a busy metropolis and financial centre, but St Petersburg was the administrative and cultural capital of Russia, and its "Window on Europe". When the Bolsheviks took over the country, they moved the capital back to Moscow and gave the old Tsarist capital the new name of Leningrad. St Petersburg has not been Russia's capital for nearly a century, but people living there still believe they are more refined and cultured than Muscovites.

Shaun Walker

Naypyidaw, Burma

The Burmese junta's decision in 2005 to up sticks from the breezy portside capital Rangoon, and retreat into the barren, malarial scrubland of the interior provoked intense head-scratching. After years of secretive construction, civil servants were abruptly ordered to the surreal, half-built capital of Naypyidaw – meaning "Abode of Kings".

Government workers live in pastel tower blocks in the Residential Zone, colour-coded according to where they work in the Ministry Zone. The Military Zone remains out of bounds to mere civilians. In the Hotel Zone, plush holiday bungalows with huge televisions and rainforest showers cater to rich businesspeople who come to the isolated capital 250 miles north of Rangoon.

Officially one of the poorest countries in the world with decrepit road networks and an antiquated power supply, Naypyidaw nonetheless boasts eight-lane highways and fairy lights that illuminate the grand ministries.

Many theories abound about why the generals decided to relocate. Analysts speculated that the generals wanted to insulate themselves from protests.

More far-fetched theories were that the military leaders were following the advice of an astrologer, or were paranoid about the United States, one of the regime's harshest critics, launching an attack-by-sea.

Charlotte McDonald-Gibson

Abuja, Nigeria

Nigeria's leader, General Murtala Mohammed, hoped that moving the capital from Yoruba-dominated Lagos to neutral Abuja in 1975 would mend ethnic divisions that had threatened to tear Nigeria apart since independence in 1960. But within six months, the general was assassinated, and his pet project became a byword for corruption, taking 15 years to complete and helping to topple a government.

Flush with oil wealth, Nigeria spent vast sums on the construction of Abuja. Mismanagement was rife. "Contracts for buildings were handed out to political cronies who handed kickbacks to politicians," explained Matthew Heaton, co-author of a history of modern Nigeria. "The term 'Abuja contracts' became a synonym for corruption."

When a coup toppled Shehu Shagari's government in 1983, the Abuja debacle was used as one of the justifications.

Construction of the city was meant to take 10 years, but it was not until 1990 that the government moved there.

The capital's distance from more fractious Lagos continues to underpin the security of the present-day government. "The kind of thing that happened in Egypt, it's going to be very difficult to do that," said the Nigerian historian Toyin Falola. "The centre of protest and the centre of power were disconnected."

Some Nigerians are proud of Abuja. Others view it as a monument to the kleptocracy of their ruling elites, who squandered fortunes on a shining city while the vast majority of the population live in poverty.

Simon Akam

Brasilia, Brazil

The idea of robbing Rio de Janeiro of its status as Brazil's capital began to germinate as far back as 1823 when a bill was submitted to parliament calling for the creation of a new metropolis deep inside the wild interior. It was President Juscelino Kubitscshek in 1956, however, who ordained that Brasilia be built from scratch in just five years, never mind that the chosen site in the high desert was 350 miles from the nearest paved road and 115 miles from an airport.

Construction began that same year, and on 21 April 1960 the city was inaugurated, even if it wasn't entirely finished. It was an instant sensation with urban planners, who marvelled at the layout – when viewed from the air, the heart of the city designed by Lucio Costa is like a bird in flight – while the cathedral, monuments and government buildings were conceived by the Modernist Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer.

Almost no detail was left to chance.In a quest for egalitarianism, Costa designed a series of self-contained residential blocks, each with its own shops and public facilities. He even stipulated uniform designs for the bus drivers and colours for the taxis.

Today, Brasilia is far larger than was originally anticipated, with satellite towns now surrounding the original core. And debate rages over whether Brasilia was a stroke of urban-planning genius or a wildly misconceivedboondoggle. As a canvas for Modernist architecture, it surely succeeds. But as a place to live – nothing is walkable, the monuments are overwhelming – it almost assuredly does not.

David Usborne

Putrajaya, Malaysia

The overcrowded and chronically congested Kuala Lumpur remains the official capital of Malaysia, but in 1997 the government decided to shift the seat of power to a purpose-built city about 15 miles away. The pet project of the long-serving former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad hit hurdles almost immediately as the Asian Financial Crisis struck. Not to be deterred, they scaled back the plans a little and Putrajaya was officially open for business in 1999, emerging from the rows of palm oil tree plantations that dominate the vista in this part of Malaysia. In Putrajaya, seven bridges in eclectic styles span a purpose-built lake, where the occasional curious tourist chugs past the grandiose ministries. Adjoining the seat of government is Cyberjaya, a city with aspirations to be the Silicon Valley of South-east Asia.

The two cities are lagging. The dot-com bubble burst almost as soon as Cyberjaya opened for business. There are vacant lots in Putrajaya where embassies were meant to stand, because most foreign missions are keen to stay in Kuala Lumpur. Construction problems plagued many of the government buildings, while the Islamic-style architecture dominating the city irked many in a country with significant non-Muslim Chinese and Tamil populations.

Many civil servants commute from Kuala Lumpur, but more are moving as the years pass, lured by new shopping centres and cinemas springing up.

Charlotte McDonald-Gibson

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