Framing the City: Bringing Indigenous Values to Africa’s Urban Society


When one says that a city is alive, this statement is not an overused metaphor. Examining the anatomy of a city reveals a striking similarity to that of the human body and tends to operate in analogous fashion. In cities, buildings represent the skeletal frame of the human body. The streets, highways, and bridges serve as the vascular system. The people who occupy and move throughout the city are the lifeblood. The institutions that delegate what municipal services are to be carried out are the organs. To illustrate this further the sanitation department is comparable to the kidneys whose primary function is to rid the body of waste or the criminal justice system whose purpose is to uphold social control. Deterring and mitigating crime parallels the function of antibodies response to antigens that attempts to disrupt the normal function of the body. The body’s vitality and maximum output is compromised whenever it ceases to operate according to its own natural orientation. This generally occurs when disease is present. Similarly, a compromised city fails to deliver, maintain, and produce basic services and infrastructural requirements for its citizenry when the natural orientation of its citizenry is not honored.

Many African countries resemble Nigeria, whose display of venality and corruption has contributed to its arrested development. Much of the problems in Nigeria stems from the lack of investment in the basic infrastructure that enables a city to function. Both civilian and military have enriched themselves on earnings from the country’s vast oil and gas reserves, leaving the majority of the country’s 140 million residents to struggle in poverty. Lagos is Nigeria’s former capital and currently its most densely populated city and arguably the most economically important state of the country. Lagos has a crumbling infrastructure that is a major problem for all the city’s residents. A poorly developed central grid subjects Lagosians to an unreliable supply of electricity. Those who can afford to, buy their own generators to provide 24-hour power. However, the majorities go without, having their homes and work places plunged into stifling darkness in the middle of the afternoon. In addition to electricity problems, the city does not have potable water. Most of Lagos’s residents must buy water from street sellers or line up and collect it from shared stand-taps. Nine out of 10 Lagosians live in slums, according to the U.N., and less than 1 percent has flushing toilets. Cell phones are the main means of communication, as there are few working landlines. The postal service barely functions. Zip codes and a system for residential delivery has never been developed. An African city like Lagos has become the standard across the continent. Under these circumstances, few actually ‘Live the City’; most simply survive it.

In response to this deprivation Lagos State Governor, Mr. Babatune Fashola in conjunction with international institutions like the World Bank has developed initiatives to tackle the systemic challenges. From this union the World Bank Board of Executive Directors approved a US$200 Million credit toward the Lagos Metropolitan Development and Governance Project. Under this project, the aim was to target infrastructure, water supply and sanitation, rehabilitate neighborhood roads, public finance reform, and the strengthening of overall good governance. Given the current climate of international aid distribution to developing nations, along with the recent fanfare and tidal wave of celebrity style attention toward African affairs, such as Oprah in South Africa, George Clooney in Sudan and Madonna in Malawi it would appear at first glance that the realities of Africans are changing for the better. However, that is up for debate. Historically, aid packages have generally failed to meet the needs and demands of the people and have yet to produce sustainable results. Despotic African elites are typically the deliberate recipients of funding in exchange for ideological and material resources. This has stifled real growth especially during the Cold War as both the United States and Soviet Union lured African elites to their respective camps of either capitalism or communism with virtual blank checks in the form of aid. These funds would then find their way to offshore accounts, general lavish spending, and military hardware to neutralize dissenters with state sanctioned violence. Consequently, this creates an environment of fear and underdevelopment. Typically, when aid is appropriated and construction of infrastructure projects are underway, general labor tends to be accompanied by imported labor, equipment, and specialization. This means less employment and no technical training for native workers, which pose a grave problem when it comes time for maintenance and repairs. As a result, the local economy is not empowered and human capital is not fully utilized. What is left is infrastructure that cannot be maintained and the debt incurred by its implementation.

The origins of modern urban policy for African cities lie in the European points of cultural reference. The colonial planners of African cities largely ignored the indigenous historical, geographical, cultural and social context and precedents before beginning the design process. The primary emphasis was placed on the extraction of natural resources. Re-systematization of African cities was relegated to the physical infrastructure and indigenous political frameworks that would later guarantee the successful execution of this process. It was these transformations that conventionally reoriented Africans themselves and the optimum function of public and private institutions.

Presently Mr. Yacoob Abiodun, an urban planner and former secretary of the Housing Policy Council in Lagos, has pointed out the knowledge gap in specialized planning and policy analysis at both the state and federal levels. He further emphasized the need for specializations like urban design, transportation, housing, community development, and urban renewal/rejuvenation. Additionally he recommended these disciplines be taught in institutions of higher learning for the purposes of producing a trained cadre of specific-purpose planners. Although accurate in his assessment of the gap, the historical relationship between Africa and the West, which has been primarily based on the extraction of resources, must be considered. Despite advancements in modern urban planning, it still follows in the same legacy. To create a national training program based on the same framework is likely to produce more of the same inefficiencies, disorganization, and ineffectiveness that is so commonplace in Africa today.

The first president of Tanzania Julius Nyerere answered the call for new governance frameworks. In 1974, he attempted to resolve the issue of capitalist encroachment, which he saw as an expression of Western imperialism by creating a synthesis between indigenous knowledge and communism. Through Nyerere’s pan-Africanist lens, he maintained a romantic view of pre-colonial Africa where no man served as subjects of labor for the exclusive purposes of another man’s accumulation of wealth. Everyone worked in the interest of the community on a non-hierarchical basis where no one ever went without. For Nyerere this egalitarian perspective inherent within pre-colonial African culture was the common denominator with socialism. The intertwining of the two brought forth African socialism. Inspired by social engineering models utilized by the Soviet Union and China, Nyerere adopted similar schemes. The ujamaa village campaign from 1973 to 1976 was a massive attempt to resettle most of the country’s population into planned villages in an effort to harness the labor of the peasant farmer for maximum agricultural output under the guise of modernization. The execution of this scheme undertook massive resettlement programs under “Operation Dodoma,” “Operation Sogeza,” “Operation Kigoma,” and many others to create “communal villages.”These villages were planned according to grid block patterns, accompanied by streamlined farming techniques.

In spite of Nyerere’s good intentions for Tanzania, empowered by an economic scheme that is solely based on the premise of output without considerations for human capital is destined for failure not development. In a country where the overwhelming majority of the nation’s population resides in the rural sector of an agriculturally based economy it is economic suicide to embark on a rural resettlement scheme without seeking the consultation of the farmers. This is because they are the custodians of vital agricultural knowledge. As a result, the Tanzanian government spent 1.2 billion Shilling on food imports to feed its population, because agricultural production in the new village settlement area was not suitable for sandy soil, relied too heavily on mechanization and the chaos of the move itself and the slow process of adapting to a new ecological setting meant further disruption of production. The Nyerere administration favoring an imported rural design and agricultural techniques over the indigenous one revealed the shallowness of African socialism. The rural planning was a grid design whereby each family lived in linear formations with the rectangular plots behind their living quarters. The village settlements all ran parallel long the roadway. Crops also had to be planted along the same geometric pattern to mirror order. The flaw in this scheme was that the administration emphasized aesthetics over functionality and efficiency. Rural farmers were forced into a regimented living space where the intent within the design was to restrict movement and direct energy towards output. This was diametrically against the peasants existing rural practice, which included shifting cultivation and pastoralism. Both farming techniques involved migratory and cyclical methods that required not living near roadways while movement for space was crucial for successful production. The bureaucratic enclosures also impeded their enclosed natural orientation for social engagement and cultural practice, as assembly and movement outside of the village was highly discouraged by the state and closely monitored. Ultimately, rural planning along Euclidian lines gave way to chaos and disorder as resistance from the peasants invited various acts of coercion by the administration. The imposition of growing crops along a standardized formation was also met with disastrous results as this technique yielded crops well below expectation. Meanwhile, polycropping as traditionally practiced by the rural peasantry proved far more ecologically and economically sound. The exaltation of African socialism by Nyerere himself and other top officials stemmed from a prevailing bias against indigenous cultural practice, presentation and knowledge while favoring stylized frameworks, which proved inconsistent with the natural rhythm of the people.

The inevitability of African urbanization is readily apparent. Africa’s urban populations are exploding, and will continue to do so in the near future. Thus, a final key opportunity presents itself in the growing realization by governments in the region that rapid urbanization is here to stay. Responsive leaders realize that the demands of growing urban populations must be met and new approaches to development, including expansion of public-private partnerships, are both inevitable and desirable.

With this in mind, it is important to observe the fact that urbanization ideas were not grafted on to Africa from modern Europe. Africa has a historical reservoir of urban settlements templates from all regions. For example, lle-lfe is an ancient Yoruba city in southwestern Nigeria. Evidence of urbanization at the site has been discovered to date back to roughly 500 AD. It is located in present day Osun State, with a population of 501,952. By examining the relationships between economic systems, family and political institutions as well as religious beliefs, within pre-colonial African cities, we can unearth the guiding principles for new urban policy frameworks to ultimately create sustainable living environments. The research should particularly investigate key features of urban planning and management from both functional and aesthetical perspectives as it resonates with the overall orientation of the citizenry. As I have illustrated, the degree of deprivation in African cities like Lagos and Tanzania have been brought on by the neglect of indigenous point of reference. The advent of urbanization will not only offer an insightful anatomy of the evolution of cities but it may usher in a paradigm shift whereby penetrating interventions and innovations are developed and aligned to galvanize human capital so that citizens will advance from surviving the city to living it.