Liza Rose Cirolia shares geopolitical implications on African urban areas and city governments.
African Cities and Geo-Political Worlding: Working with Fragments
There is now a resounding call for African cities to engage directly with geopolitical processes. The call is premised on the important acknowledgment that African cities are the economic powerhouses of the continent and that, as they continue to grow, they will need to form part not only of local and national debates in their respective countries, but global debates that transverse the world systems. In addressing this call, it is first important to consider what we mean by ‘African cities’ and what sorts of political maneuvering we are expecting of them.
In doing so, it is equally important to start by considering how multi-scalar and multi-territorial geopolitics already play out in and through African urban areas and city governments. In other words, from the hyper-local to the global—African cities are already key sites of the exercise of geopolitical control, claim-staking, and configuration. In reality, and depending on how the concept of geopolitical is used, this can take many forms.
My research, and that of others like Sylvia Croese, Andrea Pollio, Tom Goodfellow, shows how geopolitical power is animated through and with urban infrastructure. By geo-political, I mean power and politics as they play out across and among spaces that themselves have been fashioned by logics of territory, authority, and geography. By infrastructure, and specifically urban infrastructure, I am speaking about the many material systems which intersect with and shape urban areas. This is not just the infrastructure that is explicitly framed as city-scale, such as water, energy, or waste – but includes cloud infrastructures, social infrastructures, and even the financial infrastructures that shape urban life. The trans-African highway, for example, a network of highways connecting the entire continent, is very much framed as a pan-African project—however, it shapes cities large and small. Similarly, regional efforts to roll out broadband infrastructures across Africa are having an unprecedented impact on cities and nearly every effort of urban life and culture.
As Simon Bekker and Göran Therborn point out, power struggles over the urban, and particularly through infrastructure and space, are particularly apparent in Africa’s capital cities. As can be seen in cities such as Kampala, Harare, and Dakar, capital cities are where political tension bubbles. However, my work on smaller cities in Kenya, South Africa, and Senegal, suggests that secondary and non-capital cities also experience these geopolitical infrastructural tussles, sometimes by default as regional mega-projects come crashing through their jurisdictions (e.g. the trans-African highway in Kisumu), and sometimes by careful design (such as played out during the FIFA World Cup in South Africa).
From the colonial times to the present moment, city infrastructure has reflected a key site through which local, national, regional, and global power is negotiated. Overlapping claims play out, for example, in key mobility infrastructures or energy provision. More recently, the development of undersea and terrestrial cables – which provide broadband to Africa’s urban areas – as well as the pricing and taxing of data, has been shaped by geopolitical battles and has, in effect, also shaped the sorts of digital political constituencies which can form in and between city contexts. For example, in Kampala, additional daily taxes to use social media accounts have shaped online activism and political mobilization by making access more costly.
While there are many conjunctures that can help us understand how we have arrived at this hyper-(geo)politicization of urban infrastructure, I would like to suggest one narrative. Both the fragmented nature of urban infrastructure systems and the fractured nature of urban governance provide fertile ground for city infrastructure to become the site of power-battles.
Here it is important to provide context on Africa’s urban trajectory with a particular focus on cities as both places of economic material, infrastructure, and social agglomeration and density, and as institutional actors (such as communes, local governments, municipalities, etc.).
We can start with the question of the material. African cities today reflect a combination of on and off-grid, large and small, formal and informal, networked and distributed systems of service delivery. Water, energy, sanitation, mobility, and now broadband infrastructures are delivered through heterogeneous and hybrid configurations. This contemporary reality reflects a palimpsest of investment epochs—a colonial focus on settler towns, extractives, and logistics; a post-colonial focus on national-building mega-projects (such as new capital cities); modernization projects driven by multilateral donors and lenders; structural adjustment and urban austerity; and the contemporary ‘African frontierism’ where a plethora of lenders and donors now scramble invest in African cities, sometimes in search of profits, and others times hoping for long-term political alliance.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this frenzy of investments is rarely attentive to the other investments being made by global players, nor is it attuned to the potential which lies in the existing hybridized models. For example, bus rapid transit (BRT) and trains are shoved over effective mini-bus systems, and state-of-the-art sanitation treatments facilities are built when cities in fact rely on low-tech vacuum trucks and septic tanks. These new investments and projects might be fine if interoperable with existing systems and the debt conditions were favorable, but this is rarely the case.
At the interstices of this material fragmentation, exacerbated by decades of questionable mega-projects, is the fractured nature of urban governance and urban management. This brings us to the question of urban state-craft. The urban state in Africa is not reducible to the municipality or local government but is rather given effect through the relationships which form, over and through, the control of urban infrastructure.
Tracing this process back some ways, much of this dynamism (and confusion) over who has the mandate to build, manage, and regulate urban infrastructure systems stems from the very partial and imposed processes of decentralization implemented since the 1980s in Africa. Because of the limited subnational control and private sector involvement, the vast majority of investment in cities still takes place through and by national governments, often through ring-fenced agencies and utilities.
The urban experience of fractured fiscal authority and material fragmentations has been driven by geopolitics, historically and currently. But there is more. In fact, these arrangements become geopolitical, reflecting discourses, adjustments, demands, and incentives of actors both global and local. This geopolitical fragmentation has direct implications for responding to the call for cities to be part of geo-political processes. If cities are neither single material entities nor governed in ways that are legible and conscripted, how do cities – in all of their material and institutional messiness - engage in ongoing and, or emergent geopolitical fora? To begin with, this reality requires us to understand the urban state-craft as something which is not singular, but is by its nature relational—multi-actor and agency.
This essay was adapted from the workshop “Geopolitics and Urbanisation in Africa” held by the African Centre for Cities on May 7, 2021.
The Project is a collaboration of global leaders in international and urban affairs: the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House, the University of Melbourne’s Connected Cities Lab, the Argentine Council for International Relations (Consejo Argentino para las Relaciones Internacionales), the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB), and the African Centre for Cities.