When you choose the wrong thing, at least do it right

I had the pleasure of spending a couple of days in Dodoma last week. My trip was made possible by an organisation that runs the Regent University Business Development Centre (BDC) in Tanzania. I was invited to facilitate the final round of its 20-week entrepreneurship programme, possibly one of the best in Tanzania.

As pleased as I was to participate in the programme, I was more excited to visit Dodoma after a long absence. I have been paying close attention to happenings in Dodoma since the government decided to invest over Sh10 trillion there. I was vehemently opposed to such waste, the point that I made in a number of articles.

Regardless of how solid one’s research is, critiquing an idea widely accepted by others is usually risky. By opposing Dodoma, I was exposing myself to ridicule. Tanzanians didn’t disappoint—I went on Facebook and saw people having a good time at my expense. I guess that comes with the job – if you choose to be a critic, you should be ready to take a few jabs directly on the chin, wrong?

Last year, a friend organised a discussion where I was put in a “hot seat” over my Dodoma objections. Dr Anthony Diallo, a former minister and prominent leader within CCM, was present. It’s always intriguing to hear Dr Diallo talk since that is when his extensive experience in Tanzanian politics shows through. Dr Diallo recalled his conversation with Nyerere in 1997, during which Nyerere conceded that, given the developments in information technology at the time, the Dodoma plan had no utility.

But you can never trust politicians to do the right thing. When leaders have the audacity to rush into fields where even angels dread to tread, you are a subject of pity.

The central Tanzanian regions are quite poor compared to those at the peripheries. History didn’t favour those regions, nor did climate and nature. So when the government chooses to do something about that problem, that is a good thing indeed, but if such was the government’s aim, I disagreed with how it approached it. If you want to eliminate poverty, invest in people, not things.

Dodoma, for example, is ideal for growing grapes and sunflowers. While the potential of those crops is enormous, farmers still struggle with basic issues in value chains. Investing in grape and sunflower value chains would have uplifted the lives of millions, leading to growth and development. The government, though, began at the wrong end. If you don’t start with increased productivity, the economy becomes essentially consumerist, and the region’s economic activities eventually favour the elites, not the poor.

Nevertheless, Dodoma has made great strides. Many new residential and office buildings are coming up. Of course, it helps if the government instructs all its institutions to relocate their headquarters to the new capital. If you made the mistake of concentrating all government institutions in Dar in the past, you can always fix that by relocating them all to another region. That is Tanzania, marching confidently from one blunder to the next, never learning, never changing.

There are a couple of things that I liked about the new Dodoma, though.

First, there is evidence of design, indicating that the government does exist there. New roads, traffic lights, and streetlights have been installed. The city is enormous, but not in Dar’s freakish sense. For example, the new seat of government in Magufuli City is 23 kilometres from the city centre. According to one BDC participant, this presents many prospects for growth.

Second, there are many decent places for locals to dine. I had the pleasure of visiting a number of them and seeing many others. Even if you don’t frequent those places every day, it is good to know that they are there.

Moreover, Dodoma demonstrates how powerful the government is as an agent of development. When the government decides to do something great, something great will be done. Dodoma is a testimony to that power. All of what is visible in Dodoma today is the result of government money. If only the government would be that proactive everywhere.

On the other hand, while Dodoma’s hardware is expanding, evidence shows that the software remains Tanzanian in every aspect, with its usual glitches. Nyerere Square has a nice landscape but is suffering from remarkably poor maintenance. The city appears to be well-planned, but it is depressingly devoid of green and public spaces.

The government appears to be just concerned with ticking boxes. The question is: is there anyone considering making Dodoma a city that works for human beings? Are modern public schools, for example, being built alongside all of these structures? Are BRT and trams being developed as mass rapid transit solutions? Are broadband facilities in place to link every home in the city?

I published a number of articles six years ago advising the government to make Dodoma a smart city. I was encouraged when some friends emailed me a presentation from a senior Ikulu official, suggesting that they had picked up the idea. It looks like we are back to the “same old, same old” approach again.

Dodoma presents fantastic opportunities for incorporating the finest standards in modern city design into its development. As I showed in my 2016 articles, IT is crucial to achieving that, but smart thinking is even more important. Smart cities are more about smart solutions rather than smart technologies.

Dodoma is a marvellous opportunity for transforming how we do cities and life in Tanzania. What a tragedy it will be to merely check boxes without learning anything or changing the way we run our communities in other places.

If we choose to do the wrong thing, we should at least do it the right way.