The political opportunities and obstacles associated with Africa’s urban challenges

Jul 9, 2021

By Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael, research associate at The University of Manchester

“Forget planning, politics first.”

– Shuaib Lwasa
Urban Action Lab, Uganda

As part of the Development Studies Association Annual Conference, the African Cities Research Consortium (ACRC) hosted a roundtable discussion exploring ‘The political opportunities and obstacles associated with Africa’s urban challenges’.

Bringing together the expertise and perspectives of grassroots social movement leaders and academics, the discussion strongly emphasised the need to rethink the conventional African urban development trajectories of imposing infrastructures and urban models that do not address the needs of the majority African urban citizens. Instead, the panellists advanced the necessity of working with the informal settlement residents, informal/popular economic actors and the natural environment to address African urban challenges.

The panellists identified that African cities are faced with housing, transport, education, health, food security and employment related challenges. Joseph Muturi provided an example of Mukuru informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya, which has only two legally recognised schools serving more than half a million people. He also noted that they found hundreds of informal schools and health centres staffed with unqualified professionals in their assessment of the settlement.

In most parts of Africa, development priorities and policy responses to urban challenges are shaped by city managers, urban professionals, politicians and developers, with urban development planning mostly focused on infrastructural expansion with minimal input from, or benefit to the majority urban poor. For example, Shuaib Lwasa of Urban Action Lab stated how many African urban governments invest heavily in motorised transport infrastructure, which mainly serves less than 10% of city dwellers.

The panellists highlighted political exclusion as the major obstacle to addressing urban challenges in African cities. One such group facing persistent political exclusion is refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs), who are considered transient residents despite their permanent resident status. As a result, tens of thousands of refugees and IDPs live in African cities – mostly in informal settlements – without the necessary support or full citizenship rights. Lucy Earle of IIED stated that in Mogadishu, Somalia, for example, IDPs are denied voting and other citizenship rights, which exposes them to forced eviction as land value increases.

Political competition to control urban rents for personal enrichment and patronage was discussed as another key barrier to addressing African urban challenges. Many African politicians consider urban services, infrastructures and land as private or group asset accumulation sources. This has led to intense political competition to control these resources, resulting in poor service delivery and skewed resource allocation.

Even democratic multiparty electoral competition has limited effect in ensuring accountability of politicians, the panellists noted, due to entrenched identity-based political mobilisation of the majority illiterate electorate. Notably, the representatives of social movements on the panel expressed that the tendency of some politicians to prioritise personal enrichment from every project has made it difficult for them to build long-lasting partnerships with authorities to address the needs of the urban poor.

The roundtable also highlighted the increased recognition among many African governments of the role that urban centres and urbanisation play in their national development plans. For example, Abdul-Gafaru Abdulai of the University of Ghana Business School talked about the increased political significance of urban centres, especially Accra and Kumasi, in Ghanian party politics, national development planning and resource allocation.

However, the panellists also identified four significant limitations with this increased emphasis on urbanisation in Africa. Firstly, most national development plans view urban and rural areas as distinct spatial categories and fail to consider the particular features of peri-urban spaces.

Secondly, there is a tendency to focus on large and capital cities at the expense of secondary cities and smaller towns, which are rapidly urbanising.

Thirdly, in most parts of Africa, urban local governments are constrained from allocating resources based on local priorities, due to limited fiscal decentralisation. Patience Mudimu, director of Dialogue on Shelter, noted that limited fiscal decentralisation in cities administered by an opposition party tends to exacerbate the discord between the city and national government, with significant adverse impact on service delivery, citing Harare, Zimbabwe as an example.

Finally, most African national development plans heavily emphasise flagship infrastructure-led development without considering the needs of the majority of urban residents living in informal settlements. Accordingly, the panellists suggested rethinking how urban development is integrated into national policy formulation and development planning.  

The panellists underlined the necessity of doing urban development differently by shifting the focus from infrastructure-led to people-centred development, and capitalising on the creativity and improvisational skills of the majority urban poor. People-centred development involves bringing excluded segments of the urban population (such as slum dwellers, refugees and IDPs) to the table, to set the development agenda for their settlement and cities.

However, inclusive development and participatory planning should not be done as a box-ticking exercise, by inviting a few community leaders into five-star hotels for photo opportunities. Instead, the urban poor need to be in charge of collecting and analysing information about their communities and prioritising their development needs. Joseph Muturi shared his experience of the Mukuru Special Planning Area (SPA) in Nairobi, Kenya, to demonstrate the potential of informal settlement residents and their grassroots organisations in planning the largest informal settlement upgrading projects ever in collaboration with multiple development partners.

Crucially, with the advent of Covid-19 health emergencies and climate change impacts, the panellists also emphasised how urban development planning also needs to be geared towards building the environmental and socio-economic resilience of communities.

Overall, the roundtable enabled the panellists to talk about the key urban challenges facing African cities, share their own experiences of addressing them, and provide ACRC with examples of avenues to do urban development differently. Perhaps the most important takeaway from the panel is that African urban socio-economic problems are political, and so the solutions must also be political



> Patience Mudimu (Director, Dialogue on Shelter, Harare)
> Joseph Muturi (grassroots leader from Kenya, chairperson of Slum/Shack Dwellers International)
> Shuaib Lwasa (Urban Action Lab, Makerere University, Global Adaptation Centre)
> Lucy Earle (IIED)
> Abdul-Gafaru Abdulai (University of Ghana Business School)


> Diana Mitlin (Professor of Global Urbanism, The University of Manchester and CEO, African Cities Research Consortium)

Photo credit: Muungano wa Wanavijiji / Know Your City TV. Ongoing removal of housing structures located on roads by residents to pave way for construction of road network at Mukuru Kwa Reuben.

Note: This article presents the views of the author featured and does not necessarily represent the views of the African Cities Research Consortium as a whole.

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