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Douala Heads For Modernity

The first impressions a visitor has of a country on arrival begins with the airport comfort and infrastructure, the quality of welcome, and so on. But quite often, it is also the state of the physical infrastructure like roads, bridges, buildings and the level of urban planning. These features generally give a first-time visitor an idea of the level of economic and social development of a country. These are veritable beacons, more than even the high per capita income which sometimes does not match the level of investments put at the disposal of all citizens.

Douala has been described, and rightly so, as the nation’s economic hub. It is a destination for all citizens in search of the Golden Fleece. To citizens, its status as the main centre of economic activity is also added to the fact that it is the main gateway into the country. Douala hosts the nation’s main ports which handles over 90 per cent of all imports. In the same vein, the city hosts the most vibrant of the three international airports in the country with its privileged geographical and strategic position which makes it an unavoidable hub for air traffic within the Central and West African regions.

One can imagine the volume of business done in Douala, but above all, the number of people who come into the country to do business through Douala. One would wonder if, objectively, Douala provides all the services, attractions and comfort of a city endowed with such responsibilities. Years of neglect, but also insufficient financing blamed on an extended economic crisis, have left Douala to grow into an unsightly mass of human settlement which blossomed as armies of unemployed youths fled their villages in the hope of a better life in the city.

Certainly overwhelmed by a massive influx, even the most ungrudging city managers could not hold back the tides. The results were not difficult in coming: overcrowded neighbourhoods, promiscuity, poor and rickety housing and the generalised inadequacy of such basic amenities as sanitary installations, access roads, health infrastructure, street and private lighting, schools…

Even in its cash-strapped posture, government could not sit down arms-folded to watch the situation compound. With its meagre resources, government started opening up new layouts with minimum acceptable facilities in the city’s outskirts, the best-known of such projects being the Bonamoussadi-Akwa Nord housing projects. With the attainment of the completion point of the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative in May 2006, new flows of cash were open, enabling the authorities to engage in the rehabilitation of the main streets in the city centre under the C2D programme. Through this programme, the roads and pavements in the city centre that had suffered years of neglect and abandonment were rehabilitated. Today, the commercial districts of Douala suffer no complexes and can stand elbow-to-elbow with any modern agglomeration around the world.

But some more good news came last week when the city’s development master plan till 2025 was unveiled during a visit by Jean Claude Mbwentchou, the new Minister for Housing and Urban Development. The plan envisages the mobilisation of a whopping FCFA 1,400 billion. The priorities in the master plan include the building of world class business centres deserving of Douala’s status, opening up of roads, building of gutters, provision of street lights, institution of a city mass transit system by bus and a mastery of housing plans.

The master plan was being unveiled shortly after the announcement that the “Douala Beach” project, an ambitious housing and urban development project in Douala, which had been at abeyance for some time now, was being revived as the new Minister had sought to be sufficiently briefed on the situation.

The volume and scope of the various initiatives to leapfrog Douala may leave a weak mind in quandary. But one good argument is the political backing the face-lifting of Douala has.

From Douala on October 7, 2011 when he spoke on the last lap of his campaign tour before the October 9, 2011 elections, President Paul Biya took the commitment before thousands of Douala city dwellers to modernise their city and make it a deserving entry point to Cameroon which it is.

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