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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

Africities is here, let's strategise for Africa's cities

Africities 9 provides another opportunity to re-imagine urban governance strategies for Africa’s cities. When 8,000 local government leaders, urban community organisers and citizens flock to the lakeside city of Kisumu next month, a handful of Nairobi residents may just have some tips to offer them.

The people and government of Kisumu host the Africities conference between 17-21 May. Urbanisation experts, elected officials, city planners, youth, women, and community organisers from across the continent are expected. The timing couldn’t be better. Two years of the pandemic, economic recession, over-indebtedness, and climate change has left several layers of bankruptcies, opportunities, and challenges. A strategic rethink of urban governance, resources and policies is not only important but necessary now.

1.2 billion of the world’s 9.6 billion people will live on African soil within the next thirty years. About two thirds of them will be living in intermediate cities, cities of 500,000 – 1,000,000 residents. Put another way, 2 in every 3 people will be living in cities between the current sizes of Nakuru and Mombasa. Kenya has seventy of such cities. In varying degrees, they are already challenged by effective spatial planning, road, bus, and rail integration and providing basic rights to water, health, food, housing, and safety.

Sadly, the future does not look any brighter. Last week, analysts warned debt repayment (Sh 1.34 trillion) will soon outstrip government recurrent expenditure (Sh 1.27 trillion) and double national government expenditure on development services and projects (Sh 730 billion). Three generations of administrations serving under Chapter 6 have not stopped governors from securing huge imprests for non-official or non-existent foreign trips or family members raiding constituency development funds, relief food and procurement tenders. Future leaders will have to govern smarter and protect the preciously little public finance available. It will be impossible to do this without active citizens, public participation, and oversight.

This week, Nairobi residents living three kilometres from State House stared down Alina Valley Company Ltd and won. Alina Valley plan to construct 272 units in three blocks of 17 storey buildings on a one-acre plot along Likoni Lane. All developers are required by law to hold a public participation baraza, consult neighbours and complete an Environmental Impact Assessment before securing approval from the Nairobi Metropolitan Services, National Environmental Management Authority among others.

On Wednesday, the company delivered containers, cranes and heavy construction machinery in huge trucks and trailers. Residents watched in horror as the trucks and trailers damaged their road. When demands for statutory licences or approvals went unanswered, the residents peacefully blocked the road with their personal cars, messaged Mulika 988 and the Kilimani Project Foundation. Immobilised for twelve hours, the company was forced to withdraw their equipment and repair the public road.

The constitution, Urban Areas and Cities Act (2011) and Urban Development Policy (2018) empower citizens to actively intervene in the affairs of their city. Kiambu Government learnt this the hard way. In 2014, a single resident stopped the Kiambu Finance Act by proving no public participation had taken place. Having learnt this costly lesson, the government introduced the Citizen Petition and Participation Act and created the Office of Citizen’s petitions. The Kiambu story repeats across several counties including Makueni and Nandi that have SMS, phone, email, and website feedback mechanisms as well as complaint reporting templates.

Citizens want listening governments. Public participation requires time and financial investment, but the costs of ignoring citizens is much more expensive. Unresponsive governments in ivory towers will find their operations impeded by litigation and civic activism. The benefits are obvious. They are include reduced litigations, protests and demonstrations, efficient and effective service delivery, high public trust levels, reduced corruption, and improved staff performance.

If the fourteen functions are the hardware of devolution, active citizenship and public participation is the software needed across our 47 counties and 1,450 wards. Without effective public communication and accountability loops, the next generation of 47+1 administrations may not survive their first terms.

This opinion was also published in the Saturday Standard, 9 April 2022.

Also worth reading

County experiences with citizens engagement strategies

Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission quarterly county corruption reports

On Council of Governments documents and reports

On the victory of the Likoni Lane residents and Alina Valley Company Ltd


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