Since the announcement of the referendum results in favour of the newly proposed regions, a ubiquitous wave of euphoria can be observed among natives of the earmarked geographical areas as they anxiously look forward to what prospects regional autonomy will deliver in terms of the development of their areas. One region where such expectations emerged strongly was the North East Region (NER), where the outcome of the referendum held on 27th December 2018 saw residents overwhelmingly endorse their wish to have the region with a 99.8% ‘Yes’ vote.
Well, whether the creation of the new region will subsequently translate into the expected developmental outcomes remains to be seen. I personally hold the view that its merit will be determined by how transparent consultations on key decision-making processes are. Interestingly, most pessimists of the initiative have largely focused their arguments on development flowing from the central government. Yet there are several ways being a region brings about developmental rewards aside direct projects emanating from and facilitated by the state.
In this brief essay, I focus on the NER and I argue that decisions as vital as where the regional capital of the region will be sited are fundamental to fostering collective support from residents and traditional authorities alike. The location of the regional capital has the potential to either confirm or reject the pessimists’ view since it will have dire developmental consequences that could derail developmental prospects. Failure to secure such community and grassroots support threatens to undermine any destination chosen as a regional capital since it will fail to command the needed legitimacy required to function as an administrative capital, as well as ensure it does not lag behind other newly created regions in terms of accelerated development.
The question that arises then is, which town in the NER should be considered by government and policymakers as the most suitable location for the regional capital? Before answering that question, it is worth stressing that the carving out of the NER from the current Northern region marks a critical juncture for the people of that topographical area. First, it marks an important milestone for inhabitants who have long been sandwiched between the Northern and Upper East regions while competing for their share of development allocations. Second, it presents an opportunity for key towns and tourist destinations in that region to receive their adequate measure of policy attention necessary to enhance the wellbeing of inhabitants.
It is in view of this that I advance three key reasons why Gambaga is the best fit for the capital of the NER. I believe that when these guidelines are adhered to, government and policy makers will forestall any controversies involving sectoral grievances of unmet expectations and other forms of social agitation that could delay the smooth running of the new region.
First, the standard practice in development policy planning is that government, policy makers and technocrats should consider new regional creations as an extension of existing structures of government bureaucratic machinery or local government structures. Based on this, the first eligibility criteria for a town to be evaluated and considered as a regional capital should be the existence of effective government administrative structures which could easily be expanded. In the newly created NER, the Gambaga Municipal Assembly with Gambaga town as the administrative capital city where all the municipal administrative structures and local government bureaucracies are headquartered, perfectly meets this criterion.
In fact, aside the fact that the Gambaga Municipality is centrally located within the geographical boundaries of the NER and has in the past effectively acted as the mother municipality of almost all the districts under the NER until the other districts were carved out, the Gambaga town once served as the regional capital of the Northern Territory during the colonial period until the colonial masters decided to relocate the headquarters to Tamale in 1907. All these left vibrant, accessible and operational administrative structures in the Gambaga town which could easily be upgraded to match up with other existing regional capitals.
Second, it is of uttermost importance for government and policymakers to avoid being entangled in parochial vested interests by lobbyists that may result in reinventing the wheel. Rather than yielding to sectoral pressures and turning such critical planning allocations to avenues to dabble in political trade-offs, the decision must meet the value for money test. This is another benefit of citing the NER capital in Gambaga. With its already existing local administrative offices, physical infrastructure and being a once vibrant administrative capital, upgrading it to a regional capital status would be a good bargain in terms of value for money. On the contrary, locating or siting the capital in a town without the requisite existing infrastructure does not only pose a huge cost to government, but also retrogresses development and leads to a situation where the NER fails to match other newly created regions in terms of development, hence militating against the set objectives for the region.
Third, cosmopolitanism and heterogeneity are also critical in considering the location of the capital city. Government and policymakers should consider towns that are cosmopolitan in nature or that have the potential to be developed as cosmopolitan towns. There is evidence that suggests that cosmopolitanism, heterogeneity and diversity increase wealth creation through business innovation and employment opportunities which could facilitate development in the region. In the newly created NER, Gambaga is the main cosmopolitan town with a significant representation of almost all the ethnic groups in the NER and even beyond. This might be attributed partly to the fact that it has ever hosted the regional headquarters of the colonial administration which attracted a lot of groups across the region and other parts of Ghana. In this regard, Gambaga serves much more as a melting pot for almost all the groups in the region which reflects the unity and peaceful coexistence that exist in the NER. In fact, across the globe, there is evidence to suggest that siting of capitals, even national capitals, are influential factors in national cohesion/unity and most importantly development. The purpose for moving the capital of Nigeria from Lagos to Abuja, and probably from Bonn to Berlin are only a few cases to illustrate this point.
Notwithstanding these salient reasons why Gambaga has the potential of a capital city that will translate the set developmental objectives of the NER into a giant competitive region, there seems to be some sort of contentious competition brewing from Nalerigu. I think that when we take our time to critically and carefully evaluate the facts on the ground, this sort of contention is unnecessary and avoidable. Why? As I pointed out earlier, whilst Gambaga is the municipal administrative capital, Nalerigu is the traditional capital of Mamprugu where the paramount chief, the Nayiri, is located. It, however, appears that the contentious agitation of Nalerigu stems from some sort of historical distortions of facts in the past by some unscrupulous and dishonest politicians who make it look like Nalerigu is the administrative capital. Such historical distortions have created a misrepresentation of Gambaga and there is an attempt to deny Gambaga of its local administrative relevance.
From an African context, policymakers are encouraged to avoid possible friction between traditional authorities and local government administrative process. Siting the regional capital in traditional capital cities might lead to meddling or turf wars which might lead to a lack of autonomy in government administration. There is a success case in this regard which could be duplicated. The model of Tamale as a regional capital and Yendi as a traditional capital in the northern region is a source of inspiration. In this case, Gambaga as the regional capital of NER and Nalerigu as the traditional capital could be a perfect model. In doing this, the suzerainty of the Nayiri will still be maintained whilst government businesses and bureaucracy successfully unfold in the region with Gambaga as the capital city.
To this end, the creation of the current regions by the Akufo-Addo administration is a unique opportunity to accelerate the development prospects of the new regions. While the mere creation of regions and the location of their capital towns does not make development outcomes self-evident, the decision making and series of grassroots consultations are key interventions to bring such expectations to life.
Hence, government and policymakers should be guided by these reflections which, when properly adhered to, will foster a climate of trust and enhance peaceful co-existence in the NER.
By Ghadafi Saibu| a PhD candidate of African Politics and Development Policy| University of Bayreuth, Germany