I hereby take the liberty to speak on behalf of all Gambians: “we want a better Banjul and a Banjul that works!” Whether you have lived, never lived or currently live in Banjul, I’m certain you will all agree with me on this. Banjul is the capital of The Gambia and the city should reflect that. It does not have to be the “Dubai” of the region, but it should be functional and relatively clean; not depressing, desolate and environmentally challenged. A capital city is supposed to be a hub and buzzing with activities; full of culture, history, innovation and ambiance, especially if it’s a port city. Proper city management, decent cafes, restaurants, parks and ample night life are essential to making a city come alive. They define a city and help make it unique, vibrant and functional. What Banjul lacked in architecture, it had in character and charm, but not anymore. Banjul is now on life support and the ventilator is constantly running out of power supply, thanks to NAWEC!
It is no doubt that Banjul has continued to deteriorate over the years, but all is not lost. There is still hope for Banjul. My goal in starting the Banjul series was to highlight the plight of the city due to mismanagement, poor planning, and constant neglect. Moreover, I wanted to start a conversation about Banjul in the hope that the powers that be will act accordingly, to make Banjul whole again. It would also be lovely to bring back the lost glory and the character the city once had. Since Banjul is one of the smallest capital cities in the world (households 6,744, population around 35,000), it should have been easily managed and immaculately run. As a deeply rooted and proud son of Banjul, I can’t help but advocate for the city, not only for myself, but for every Waa Banjul in particular, and Gambian in general. I’m not sure if I will ever live in Banjul again, but I would still want to see the city flourish. I have a mountain of memories there, and will not be very happy if they get washed away by the flood waters.
Before I go any further, I want to touch back on the previous parts of the series. I’m not going to bore you with any details, just a quick recap. In part I of the series, I underscored the gutter stagnation problems and the breeding ground it created for “The Banjul Mosquitoes”. In part II, I explored the perfunctory job executed by SOBEA (the French connection) in constructing the sewage system and how it added to Banjul’s continuing environmental troubles. Sidi Sanneh generously contributed part III while my head was buried in other things, reminding us that the current government will not do anything to revive the city, and urged residents to start a gentrification movement of their own to save the city. And in part IV, I gave “The Banjul Mosquitoes” their own story, deservingly so too. They’ve earned their rightful place in Banjul’s history and deserve to be in the books. My focus in this piece (part V and the final chapter), is on ideas on how to take Banjul off life support and provide it with a chance for a healthy and productive future. In writing this piece, I must not come across as suggesting, even remotely, that I’m an expert in urban planning or have all the answers for Banjul; nonetheless, I do have some ideas I would like to share.
For any city to excel, appropriate management is required. As far as I can remember, Banjul has always been poorly managed. Poor management is one of the main reasons that cities fail. Ask Detroit! I don’t believe any of Banjul’s Mayors and City Council Members (both past and present) have ever had a credible strategic plan of action or a blue print for how they envision Banjul to look like in five, ten, or fifteen years. Lack of vision and long term planning has immensely contributed to the city’s decline. I have always considered Banjul Mayors and City Council members as tokens, especially in recent years. The last Mayor of Banjul, Samba Faal, posted a video on YouTube in August 2011, discussing plans to construct new drains in Banjul and clean existing ones with a goal of creating passages for the heavy rains. Not sure if that plan materialized or not, and if it did, it was imaginary. As of this rainy season, the floods waters in Banjul have reached higher heights; and the gutters are still stagnant and full of debris. By the way, does the city still employ health inspectors? But above all, the biggest problem in terms of infrastructure relates to inadequate electricity supply. Power outages are chronic and widespread.
In compliance with sections 193 and 194 of the Constitution, The Gambia adopted a policy on decentralization of the local government system. Currently, local government legislation provides for the self-administration of local governments by an elected City Council. Banjul City Council (BCC) is the decentralized city government system headed by a mayor and deputy mayor, and composed of the councilors elected from Banjul’s nine wards. Since a city council is the legislative body that governs a city, the structure in which they conduct business should reflect their status. The Banjul City Council office needs to be in a more physically attractive structure, not the lackluster building they currently reside in. I would highly recommend that the city council either relocate to a more attractive building or renovate the present one they occupy, if they want to reflect their status. As the city’s main authority, it is vital that the city council conducts business in an environment that is presentable and elicits pride. What the city also desperately needs is committed city council members and a visionary mayor – a mayor who is able to independently govern the city without any outside influences. Since the election of Banjul’s current independent mayor, Abdoulie Bah, he’s yet to reveal the official short term/long term visionary plans he has for the city. And if he did, I missed it and would like a copy. I hope he’s willing and ready to fight for the city and deliver his campaign promises. If not, he risks the same faith as the last mayor, Samba Faal, and every mayor before him. In March of this year, Lord Mayor Bah (never knew they call him “Lord”) unveiled major infrastructure projects for Banjul that include the following: New Council Complex, Concrete Roads for Banjul, Center of Excellence for youths, a new Car Park, and a new Abattoir (slaughterhouse). Have any of these projects broken ground yet or will they be yet another perfunctory job? After all, Lord Mayor Faal did discuss a plan to construct new drains in Banjul and clean the existing ones back in 2011. To serve as a city mayor with no achievements to show for at the end of your team is truly a disaster, by any standard. Being a mayor is more than just working around Banjul wearing a suit or kaftan and being called Mr. Mayor. The City Council and Mayor’s primary role is the management and provision of basic urban services, but there is hardly any in Banjul. Is Mayor Bah still independent or dependent?
Solid Waste Management
I’m certain Banjul has environmental policies (the NEA exists after all!!); nonetheless, their implementation is almost nonexistent due to the lack of proper and regular overseeing of the implementation process. The environmental issues are evident. There is garbage all over the place and empty plastic bags and newspapers flying everywhere, especially on windy days, racking up frequent flyer miles they will never be able to redeem. There is no reliable solid waste system to speak of, not from the Banjul City Council or the private sector. This has now forced the desperate and irresponsible to dump their solid waste into the gutters and at the “Tan” (where the gutters around the city are supposed to empty into), thereby causing even more gutter blockage issues. A good number of the gutters have also collapsed with others missing covers. Banjul’s drainage system was constructed during the colonial days and linked to three pumping machines which aided the evacuation of storm waters during the rainy season. But due to poor or lack of maintenance, these machines are no longer effectively functional, and the pumping system is dilapidated. Unless the city gets flooding after a heavy rain to wash away the debris, the gutters are almost always stagnant. Mosquitoes lay their eggs in water that is stagnant, shallow and high in organic matter. They complete three stages of their life cycle in the water (egg, lava and pupa) in about 4 to 14 days. As a result, water must remain stagnant for a minimum of four days in order to support the mosquito’s life cycle, and you can find that in abundance in Banjul. No wonder the city is a Mosquito breeding heaven! The Banjul sewage system has had issues for decades due to the lack of regular maintenance. The solid waste materials that found its way into the system have caused frequent blockage and overflow of sewage into the streets. Just by the lack of proper maintenance after all these decades, I am convinced that the system has also suffered some serious structural damage and some of the pipes may have stopped working years ago. Banjul sewage and gutter systems are an essential component of the city’s infrastructure, so it is critical to have a comprehensive inspection, maintenance, and repair program. For any city to remain habitable, maintaining a healthy sewage and gutter system is paramount!
Ask any Gambian who grew up in Banjul or frequented the city about “Tan” and they are likely to have been there or heard of it. It used to be a fighting arena where students sometimes go after school to settle their disputes in a fist fight during the dry season. Still? I was never involved in a fight there but I remember watching a couple. It is the piece of wetland located behind the Lasso Wharf Market and extends all the way to Bund Road. Tanbi’s importance to Banjul’s ecological system is immeasurable, but it is now under serious threat because of the neglect and solid waste dumping. There is also massive encroachment taking place, with people building makeshift houses (mbarrs) at the “Tan” with no government control. There is serious illegal dumping of waste on both sides of Bund Road, with evidence of waste burning, including discarded tires. With Bund Road being a vital part of Banjul’s infrastructure, it needs to be protected. It serves as a flood control levee for the city and it is the main road for commercial trucks heading in and out of the Banjul Port Area. Regardless of its urban surroundings Banjul has a number of areas that are of importance to preserving the country’s ecological diversity, and Tanbi is one of them. Banjul’s extensive mangrove swamps and mudflats make suitable breeding and resting estates for a large number of Palearctic migrant bird species. If you like bird-watching and live in or frequent Banjul, then Tanbi is your spot. It is very accessible and attracts a large number of birds. A bird-watching heaven! So it is crucial for Tanbi to be preserved and government should crack down on illegal solid waste dumping and the massive encroachment taking place there. It is important to note that Banjul is already below sea level and is at risk of going under water as sea levels rise as a result of climate change; so it is acute to preserve the mangrove forest and swampy areas that are very much a part of Banjul’s ecosystem.
Ports are known to function as important gateways of international trade and, therefore, they tend to be seen as major contributors to local economic development in the age of globalization. Established in 1972 and as Gambia’s one and only port, the Gambia Port Authority (GPA) is located in Banjul (latitude 13° degrees 27° North and longitude 16° degrees 34′ West), and there is no doubt that it is a vibrant component the country’s economy. Positioned at the mouth of the Gambia River, it is on one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. The port is the entry and exit point and accounts for almost 90% of the country’s import and export trade. In addition, the port also serves as a lynchpin and 60 or 70 percent of that freight goes on transit to landlocked neighboring countries by road. As a result, GPA’s has seen a steady revenue growth. According to the Observer News Paper, revenue grew from D748 in 2013 to D1.009 billion in 2014 (minus bribes). This amount represents a 35 percent revenue increase. Given this backdrop, it is reasonable to expect that Banjul (as the host city for the port) to tremendously benefiting from the economic impact generated by the port’s activities. But that’s not the case at all! According to Business Standard of India, Gambia was extended a line of credit by India to expand and upgrade the Banjul port’s infrastructure in 2014. This was in addition to a $45 million credit line The Gambia had already received; and prior to that a $38.58 million was extended by Export Import Bank of India for other projects. India had also extended a line of credit worth $16.88 million for the construction of the National Assembly Building Complex. While the port has been expanded over the years at various times and is now flourishing and relishing a greater revenue surge, Banjul (the city) has been left for dead in the dust for years. One can argue that the city itself has never really directly benefited from the port’s economic success over the years. Despite the port’s expansion, business growth, and subsequent revenue increase, Banjul still remains in the Intensive Care Unit. Three quarters of the roads in Banjul are unpaved and the paved ones are flimsily made. A good percentage of these roads were excavated in the mid 80’s during the laying of the sewage pipes and telecommunication cables. Since then very little road restoration or construction work has been done. It is also evident that the heavy rains and nonstop overflow of sewage water, coupled with traffic, has further accelerated the collapse of the roads. The eighteen wheeler trucks that transport cargo in and out of the port have also immensely contributed to the destruction of Banjul’s fragile roads. As it stands, Banjul City Council gets most of its revenue from the central government to add to the sporadic compound rates and taxes it collects, and government’s contribution has served as a control mechanism for Jammeh. “Vote for my party or else.” And Waa Banjul voted for his party and the city’s health is still failing. APRC holds all three Banjul parliamentary seats. Nothing but empty promises! As the host city for the port, I would argue that Banjul should instead get a percentage of the port’s revenue earmarked for the city’s gentrification and maintenance, and not rely on the central government for a contribution. This will prevent the total control the central government has over the city’s mayor and other elected officials. It is crucial for Banjul to be independent from total central government control, and the idea of the city directly receiving a percentage of the port’s revenue will act as a form of “separation of powers.” The city needs to have some level of autonomy because of its unique role as Gambia’s only port city accounting for almost 90% of the country’s import and export trade. Of course, the central government can then audit the city to ensure that there is transparency. Misappropriation of funds has always plagued the Banjul in particular and Gambia in general.
In sum, Banjul has come a long way since our independence on February 18, 1965, and sadly, not for the better. From a relatively clean and well maintained to a depressed, desolated and environmentally challenged city. The electricity was the first victim on November 1, 1977. Then the Department of Health (formerly the Board of Health) became more and more lax in their inspections and enforcement of the health codes, and that’s when Banjul’s decline began. Excavation of the roads in the mid 80’s to lay the sewage pipes and telecommunication cables and the issues caused by the perfunctory job done on these projects accelerated Banjul’s decay. To say that the city has been failed by both governments and mayor after mayor would be an understatement. Banjul is not just a city, it is the capital of the Gambia and deserves better; and for its size, it is hard to comprehend how the city degenerated to what it is today. 2011 was an election year and Banjul’s then mayor; Lord Mayor Faal, unveiled a plan to construct new drains in Banjul and clean the existing ones. 2016 is also an election year, and Lord Mayor Bah has also unveiled major infrastructure projects for Banjul. But regardless of what happens in these upcoming elections, gentrifying Banjul should be made a priority. The city needs a new lease on life. There is too much history in Banjul for the city to be persistently neglected and left for the dead.