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Building Cities for and by the People: The Right to the City in Africa



The right to the city is an emerging concept in activist discussions which questions the failing, ultra-liberal urban policies implemented throughout the world. It has arisen on the basis of a pleonasm: that citizens, simply by existing as such, should have the freedom to exercise their citizenship, without fulfilling any other conditions. However, history has been accelerated by many different conjectures, distancing the citizen from their dignity, to the point that new methods and logics must be developed in order to allow citizens to exercise their urban citizenship. In other words, adaptive devices must be created to allow them to take ownership of their city and to transform it as they see fit in order to benefit equally from its resources. The city is not just a chaotic, monstrous, life-crushing machine with a will of its own. It is and should be overflowing with potential, where wealth is expressed in terms of infrastructure, social networks and economy: opportunities for integration and self realization that should be within reach of every citizen, thanks to the correct functioning of institutions.

From this point of view, raising the issue of the right to the city also means discussing the right to life. In effect, beyond its purely speculative and regulatory aspect, the right to the city aims to ensure that every citizen is able to exercise their basic biological functions such as eating, drinking, breathing, and defecating all with the utmost dignity, and that they have the freedom to inhabit and become one with the city.

In the following essay, we strive to explore the conditions of articulation and emergence of the right to the city and to present the challenges and issues that it raises in the global context of urban governance in African cities. While the discussion is intended for Africa in general, most of the examples will be provided from Cameroon.

An Urbanization Split into Fractions, Foreclosures (1) and Exclusions

In observing the urbanization of a number of African states, specifically in sub-Saharan Africa, what jumps out is the exponential development of areas of foreclosure: places, practices and processes that legally and psychologically condition citizens towards a certain discomfort. A convivial atmosphere is no longer the norm. The psychological security that once eased relationships between citizens and their city has been shattered. This materializes not only in the risk of forced evacuations and demolitions but also by red tape indicating no parking zones, reserved or paid parking lots, etc. In other words, we are experiencing a proliferation of forbidden zones which threaten to place conditions on or endanger the satisfaction of the abovementioned biological functions.

This signage highlighting communal bans indicates the spatial shrinking and the urban confiscation that African citizens are experiencing, particularly the poorest of them. In a city like Yaoundé, it is shocking to observe the contrast between on the one hand, the construction of paid parking lots and the expansion of roads and highways, and on the other hand, the prosperity of capitalist centres of accumulation and exchanges compared with less-marketable areas (poor neighborhoods). These are marginalized spaces where the living conditions do not interest neoliberal capitalists, because of the predominance of knowledgebased activity (social networking) over marketable wealth. We must note that this urban planning is accompanied by a repressive system equaling the one seen in South Africa during the time of the apartheid.

This dynamic, largely supported at the highest level of the state, sets the stage to generate and reinforce urban fragmentation between increasingly radicalized groups confronting situations with a high potential of violence and conflict. For example, during the “hunger riots” in February of 2008, we observed that the urban fractions that were attacked the most were the rich neighborhoods. The very famous play “Le Don du Propriétaire” (“The Landowner’s gift”, 2003) by Cameroonian filmmaker Wakeu Fogaing, recently produced for the screen by fellow Cameroonian director Serge Alain Noah, had already foreshadowed such a vision. In the play, Mr. Vartan, a rich man in a contemporary African capital city, catches his neighbor’s son at his wife’s window in the middle of the night.

He thinks his wife is cheating on him. The robber then confesses that he was only trying to carve himself out a share of the arrogant wealth allowing the rich to live handsomely while those around them starve to death. The poor’s struggle for survival is intimately linked to the hatred of the rich, to the desire to dispossess them of their wealth through robbery, whether real or symbolic. In this way, certain acts of vandalism must be considered not as acts of dispossession, but as a way of challenging the social order.

In addition to this progressive fragmentation, a fringe group of the population is growing that could be considered as “urban scum,” specifically, those that hold no interest from the point of view of the capitalist system. For several years in Yaoundé, the government delegate to the urban community has been overseeing construction with the explicit objective of “modernizing” the city by improving traffic lanes and “cleaning up” the neighborhoods deemed unfit to inhabit. A closer look at these projects nonetheless shows that they are denying access to the city to its poorest residents. Thus ostracized, these inhabitants are pushed further and further towards the margins where they survive, barely getting by, in often inhumane conditions. Reclaiming the right to the city and reclaiming the right to life are therefore the same issue.

This process of derivation is such that many inhabitants of African cities live in their own cities like passengers in transit or even as if in refugee camps. They are there, without being truly present. The many frustrations, the insecurity in regards to access to land, the acceleration of history (2), reinforced by the development of technology, the long strides made by capitalism and mass consumption have little by little deprived them of a space of their own, echoing French architect and philosopher Paul Virilio’s concept of the “insecurity of territories.” These city dwellers have lost notions of proportions, dimensions and size and now live in an uncomfortable network of human and environmental relationships, in a trap blocked in by claustrophobia on one side and by agoraphobia on the other.

Urban Predators: Are our Cities for Sale?

This question was raised by a group of researchers (3) in light of the observation of substantial collusion between local authorities and the business world in African cities. Indeed, bus stations, popular markets and water conveyance — all spaces and resources that help the poorest sections of the population endure urban hardship and austerity — are progressively being privatized. This gradual withdrawal of the state corresponds to a weakening in the imposition of public authority, which is skillfully and maliciously turned into a weakening of public responsibility for the fate of its citizens. Yet this seems to be what the near future holds for urban societies of black African cities, where public-private collusion tends to favour private over public interests. This corruption or enslavement of the local authorities in regard to capitalism has generated a reversal of values and reference points, modifying and re-defining the relations between cities and villages, with consequences in terms of perception and managing of social itineraries.

In the 1960s in Cameroon, as in a number of central African countries, contentions between urban and rural areas and lifestyles translated in migratory trends focused on symbolic as well as economic accumulation of goods. Therefore, for many tribes such as the Bamilékés of Cameroon, the village was the quintessential place for valuing wealth and distinction whereas the city was considered as a type of secondary zone in the background, or a non-bourgeois space (4) for the collection and conquest of accumulated goods. The village could therefore be considered the centre and the city the periphery. This was the pattern our cities fit into before the emergence of total capitalism.

The introduction of capitalism into all relations of production has currently led to the opposite situation, thereby radicalizing the divides that the previous social systems constantly sought to bridge. It boils down to cities for the rich and villages for the poor. (5) Although it sounds like a slogan, this phrase is an accurate description of reality. Since the structural adjustment programs were implemented with the support of the Bretton Woods institutions (IMF and World Bank), the wave of privatization of public services has turned states into predators preying on their own citizens, especially the poorest. In fact, people’s access to justice and safety are constantly strained by bottlenecks that create great opportunity for corruption and political patronage. In Cameroon, for example, the case of access to economic rights for poor people is burdened by a prohibitive fiscal chain. In such a mechanical system, the poor become an element of the capitalist system, where they can be consumers and consumed at the same time. Consumers, because the “just-in-time, zero stock” (6) method must be maintained, favouring mass consumption even at the risk of using incentive measures like sales or lower bidding. Consumed, because fiscal capitalization which has been developed around these initiatives does not work for them, but against them. Consumed, because all of these initiatives are sucked up or swallowed by the capitalist octopus, whose tentacles penetrate even the most inconceivable spheres. All of these procedures and maneuvers combined, these plots and insults as a whole, are what we call urban predators. It is a kind of political sorcery and vampirism. How else could we interpret, for example, the dismantling of trade activities in the street under the pretext of cleaning up public spaces, while these informal trade activities represent close to 10% of urban tax collection?

Megapolization: A Trap for Urbanization in Africa

African megacities such as Lagos, Cairo and many others growing rapidly, pose a real challenge for the African citizens of tomorrow: how do we live, or rather how do we face living on such a giant scale? Nigerian novels in the 1970s and 80s (Buchi Emecheta’s “The Bride Price,” Nkem Nwanko’s “My Mercedes is Bigger than Yours”), as well as songs by Fela Anikulapo Kuti, provide an utterly relevant illustration of the tangles and turmoil with which citizens have faced, in that time, this great urban phenomenon that is the megacity. In these texts, Lagos is depicted as a “cruel city”: a jungle instead of a city, where culture and everything related to a civilized lifestyle looked more like a Hobbesian state of nature. It represents a situation where the culture of urgency is preeminent and where resourcefulness and approximation characterize all of citizens’ daily tasks.

For many African countries, megacities are a pathological symptom rather than a sign of the success of urbanism. They certainly bring in enormous ressources on an economic level, but this is only profitable to the ultra-liberal capitalist system. Multinational corporations are interested in them only to have their capital flourish and to make the most profit possible. What about the inequalities and the environmental damages this causes? What is most concerning in this case is the gradual contraction of humans on their own surroundings, as human relations grow increasingly tense due to capitalist mediation. Inhabitants are in the process of falling behind the pace of their own city. They are becoming less and less sensitive to the heartbeat of their own city, caught up in a relentless and ever-growing urban trauma. Capitalist interference and free trade culture has made them lose control of their reality. The past and the future have been severed, leaving people trapped in a tumultuous present. The pace should be set by people and not by technology, by human values such as solidarity and not by capitalist will.

Building African Cities for and by the People

Reflections on the right to the city in Africa cannot ignore the necessity of conceiving the African city for and by people themselves. If this postulate is disregarded, the African city will eventually become a city of structures (capitalist, technological, etc.) and not a city of people (7). This is the perspective contained in the current evolution of urbanization on the continent.

This reflection is based on the idea of redistributing roles among the actors involved in urban development. It is in this respect that “many voices call for a development model based on the dynamics of the population and not on the long and costly urban planning processes decided on by international agencies or governments. In many countries, giving the responsibility to poor communities for developing collective savings systems and microcredit has proven to be effective.” (8)

In envisioning urban evolution in a perspective of co-production, the city becomes a shared value, as do its methods of production and appropriation. In the same way, the right to the city in Africa calls for a new socialization of African city dwellers in regards to themselves and their environment. How can we make the city inhabitable for its inhabitants? How do we let inhabitants find fulfillment in their own city, without being obligated to migrate elsewhere, where city living could be even more restrictive or compromising?

This habitability demanded by poor urban populations needs to progress from being solely a desire to being a categorical imperative. An entire international legal structure outlines the opportunity (9), and what remains is its revival using our creative capacities. We have an obligation to imagine, all we need to do now is put it into action.


1 ‘Foreclosure’ (from the French term, forclusion) is used here as the Lacanian term for a specific mechanism of psychosis, referring to the rejection of a fundamental significant element outside of the symbolic order of the subject, just as if it had never existed.
2 Mass consumption and the development of technology have clouded reference points to the extent that citizens lose touch with reality: “The real time of the immediate, of the instantaneous and ubiquities that construct history have made real space and geography disappear”, Paul Virilio on Radio France Internationale (Radio Show « Idées », May 17, 2009).
3 Bredeloup, Sylvie & Bertoncello, Brigitte and Lombard, Jerôme (Dir.) Dakar, Abidjan: des villes à vendre? Éditions l’Harmattan, Paris, 2008.
4 Bourgeois is used here in the sense of distinction, in other words, the practices and spaces of valuing wealth (ostentatious or not). Among the Bamilékés, for example, funerals take place in the village and not in the city where the deceased lived. Material and symbolic goods are displayed by all participants and very often generate waste and chaos.
5 The divide between the city and the countryside effectively intersects with the wealth/poverty duality. With the rise of capitalism, this tendency has been radicalizing.
6 According to Paul Virilio, this is the slogan of mass distribution. In other words, everything is for sale and everything can be bought. Social actors exist only to the extent that they are capable of fitting into the circuits of production and mass consumption.
7 Architect and professor Teolinda Bolívar Barreto and her team from Caracas Central University, published a report entitled “Ciudades de la gente” (Cities of People) in the years 1990-2000. It is obvious therefore that these truisms are still necessary!
8 Grégoire Allix, L’urbanisation comme moteur du développement ?, Le Monde| 22.07.09
9 Among which the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” and “The African Charter on

Human and Peoples’ Rights”, and the majority of national constitutions in Francophone Africa.

HIC (Habitat International Coalition) - General Secretariat / Ana Sugranyes Santiago Bueras 142, Of.22, Santiago, CHILI - Tel/fax: + 56-2-664 1393, + 56-2-664 9390 - Chili - - gs (@)

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