Facing the challenge of rapid urbanisation in Africa


Picture of Jean Pierre Elong Mbassi
Jean Pierre Elong Mbassi

Jean Pierre Elong Mbassi is the Secretary General at the UCLG Africa

Africa is urbanising at a high pace, unprecedented in recent human history. For example, Paris took 100 years, between 1810 and 1910, to move from a population of 500,000 to one million; Nigeria’s biggest city, Lagos, took 25 years from 1950 to 1975 to complete the same journey.

Since 2015, Lagos has become home to 500,000 new residents each year, a trend which is barely manageable. With the ongoing trend of urbanisation, Africa is witnessing its most important change in demographic and settlement patterns, whereby cities are compelled to become the drivers of the structural transformation of African economies. In other words, the economic performances of African countries are more and more dependent on the economic efficacy and performance of their cities and territories.

Whether we like it or not, the future of Africa will increasingly be linked to the way cities are governed and managed, the way they will be inclusive or discriminatory and the way they will safeguard or destroy African values and cultures. It will depend on the extent to which they will create economic activities and jobs or follow the unsustainable trend in economic growth observed so far, and whether they will choose to contribute to Africa’s integration and unity or work and develop in isolation within national boundaries.

For African cities to fulfil their promise, leaders and decision-makers need first and foremost to address years of misleading conceptions about the role of cities in development. They must challenge ineffective urban planning and under-investment in cities, particularly in the medium-sized and small cities that host two-thirds of the African urban population. They must urgently master the planning and design of urban spaces, and recognise that local and regional governments are on the front line when addressing the challenge of rapid urbanisation and deepening institutional and fiscal decentralisation.

With the current ecological crisis, African cities will have to make critical choices about models of production and consumption

It is also necessary to fill the financial gap that led to such a huge under-investment in infrastructure and services, making most African cities the least attractive in the world for living or conducting business. Experts estimate the urban investment needs of sub-Saharan Africa alone at around US$90bn a year for the next 20 years, including $30bn for maintenance. These amounts should be compared with the $45bn mobilised each year by African countries and the $10bn provided by development partners. This leaves a financial gap of around $35m in urban investment to effectively cope with the challenge of rapid urbanisation.

With the current ecological crisis, African cities will have to make critical choices about models of production and consumption, centralised or decentralised technological responses for service delivery and the carbon cost and ecological footprint of human activities. It is imperative to reflect on how urban sprawl will be curved and urban density enhanced. This requires low-carbon pathways to urban economic growth and development, which implies drastic revisions in the way we approach the provision of water, energy, housing, mobility services, urban infrastructure planning, design and implementation, and social services.

The challenge ahead is huge, since within the coming 30 years Africa’s cities will have to host one billion people, the equivalent of the continent’s present population. African city-dwellers have the right to quality of life, young people have a right to earn a living, and women have the right to equality and empowerment. This ideal is far for being the case.

There is also an urgent need to embark on a strategy for more socially inclusive cities. African cities are among the most segregated in the world. They are witnessing growing divides, with gated communities for the better-off bordering ghettos for the poor without any real contact between them. Neighbourhoods are defined more with respect to the symbolic space and less by geography; for example symbolically there is more proximity between the City in London, UK, and the business district of Sandton in Johannesburg, South Africa, than between the latter and the township of Alexandra located geographically less than one mile away. Large sectors of society are victims of widespread social injustice and the downsides of globalisation: migrants who experience xenophobia and intolerance; young people, whose aspirations are undermined by growing unemployment and job insecurity; and vulnerable populations (including retirees, single women and people with disabilities) who are perceived as burdens in urban societies, where economic returns take precedence.

Will African cities be able to recover the values of sharing and solidarity that characterise traditional African societies?

To what extent will African cities be able to recover the values of sharing and solidarity that characterise traditional African societies, in which caring for all members of society is a cardinal virtue? How will African cities make sure they can be agreeable living spaces for all, rich or poor, women and men, young and old, able-bodied and people with disabilities? There is only one obvious response: leaders and citizens must reject all forms of discrimination and exclusion. Social inclusion and rebuilding social ties are urgent priorities if African cities want to avoid becoming spaces of dehumanisation and social disintegration.

There is a growing understanding that local government as a distinct and autonomous sphere of government is complementary to national government, rather than a competitor, and that both levels are in the same boat when it comes to building trust between government and the people and reinforcing the legitimacy of public authorities. Therefore local governments successful in service delivery, local economic development and resilience are necessary for the success of national public policies, including urban policies. These policies are inspired and defined by the concerns and wants of people at the grassroots level, whose demands are channelled through their elected local representatives. Successful local governments are also key to the implementation of global agendas, be it the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, the African Union Agenda 2063, the Paris Agenda on climate change, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on financing for development or the New Urban Agenda.

The good news is that Africa is making headway in creating an enabling environment for cities and local governments to be able to cope with the urban challenge. Many countries are implementing decentralisation policies as a way to improve public governance. At their Conference held in June 2014 in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, the African Union’s heads of state and government put the issue of decentralisation high on the continent’s agenda by adopting the African Charter on Values and Principles of Decentralization, Local Governance and Local Development, and creating the High Council of Local Authorities as a consultative organ.

The bad news is that since June 2014 only 11 countries have signed the Charter, only three have ratified it and only one has deposited the instruments at the African Union Commission. And we know that the Charter will become an African Union instrument only if at least 15 members have both signed and ratified it, and these instruments are deposited at the African Union Commission. It is therefore urgent that these countries expedite the signing, ratification and deposit process of the Charter, to give local governments the power to forge ahead with measures that will make African cities economically successful, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive spaces.

This article was first published in Europe’s World print issue number 35. Read more on the issue and order your copy here.

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