What Nairobi flooding, Ebola, and South African xenophobia have in common

Making cities work is a much tougher job than cutting through bush to build a road, and reviving a tourism industry is not like growing maize

IN the last seven days, three stories have emerged out of Africa, and though at first glance they seem unrelated, they hint to a changing Africa, and why it the politics of rewarding illiterate cronies and hangers-on with public jobs may finally be on its last legs.

In Nairobi, heavy rains precipitated extensive flooding on major roads and a citywide traffic snarl-up Monday and Tuesday night.

Dramatic photos from around the city show cars submerged, homes flooded with knee-high water and some residents were getting home at 5am after being in an 11-hour traffic jam.

Liberia celebrated the official defeat of the deadly Ebola virus, which had killed 4,716 people in the country and infected more than 10,000; it’s a remarkable turnaround for a country that was almost being written off last year.

And the World Economic Forum released its annual Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report, in which this year’s rankings has highest-ranked South Africa as the continent’s most “tourism-ready” country, but is now facing a slump in the tourism sector following xenophobic attacks in the country last month, with several countries issuing advisories cautioning visitors against travel unless they have a sound reason to do so.

All three stories suggest that African countries – and, especially cities – are slowly but perceptibly shifting, and what is needed now is a more sophisticated, clever, data-driven and evidence-based type of leadership.

In the first few decades after independence, the brute approach of simply building physical infrastructure like roads, schools and hospitals could get you extensive political mileage, simply because they weren’t there before.

Changing nations and cities

But Africa is quickly urbanising – today, 40% of Africans live in cities, and by 2030, more Africans will live in towns than in rural areas.

Making cities work is a much tougher job than cutting through bush to build a road.

In Nairobi’s case, numerous buildings have come up along riparian reserves, often with collusion from the city authorities to illegally allocate riverbanks to private developers. In many cases, the flooded roads are simply rivers taking their natural course.

Conclusively fixing Nairobi’s notorious drainage problems will require some painful decisions.

Solving the legendary traffic jams in cities like Dar es Salaam, Kampala and Lagos also require more thoughtful and innovative ideas.

For example, you might think that expanding a road would ease traffic jams, as a dual carriageway will, in theory, carry twice as many cars as a single-lane road.

But studies have shown that in many cases, expanding the road eases the gridlock only temporarily.

The expansion opens up the road to more cars, and for a while it seems the traffic problem is “solved”. But it also means more people are likely to rush and move to the area thanks to its improved infrastructure, and in the end, the traffic is as bad as before.

Brute strategy

Last month, Nairobi governor Evans Kidero attempted to tackle the traffic problem with another “brute” strategy, which involved closing off right turns off the city’s main thoroughfare with big concrete drums. But it failed disastrously, and he was forced to concede defeat and carry off the “Kidero Drums”.

The concrete drums christened “Kidero Drums” line Nairobi’s main thoroughfare, Uhuru Highway. The traffic project cost $4.1million - and it failed miserably. (Photo: @SheiMasinde).

The sophisticated approach is what saved Liberia from Ebola.

Ebola is perhaps the archetypal disease whose management totally runs counter to the traditional ways of handling emergencies in African societies.

When faced with a crisis, African communities pull together in solidarity – villagers will come and cook and help with the chores for a family that has been bereaved, for example.

But village solidarity was the very thing that caused the virus to spread like wildfire. Containing Ebola required protective gear and isolation wards, but more importantly, it required tracing, surveilling and quarantining people who had been exposed to the virus.

Something as simple as a street/ physical address system could have made it all the easier to find contacts and stop the spread of the disease – but even that is a rarity in many African cities.

HIV Aids had presented a similar crisis that required a more elaborate and systematic method of containment.

Giving people anti-retroviral drugs is not like lining them up for a vaccination jab – it requires follow-up, home visits to ensure the patient is taking the medication faithfully, and educating patients on the importance of a good diet and what constitutes proper nutrition.

Terrorism headache

The problem of terrorism facing many African countries is another tricky one, which requires a clear-eyed, lucid conceptualisation of the nature of terrorism itself.

Terrorists rely on provoking a heavy-handed response from their victim to achieve some political goal. So when victim countries clamp down hard on the marginalised group perceived to be “hiding” the terrorists, it only  entrenches anger and resentment in the marginalised community– which is exactly what the terrorists want, a kind of political jujitsu in which the weaker group tricks the stronger group into using its own power against itself, as this seminal essay by David Fromkin explains.

This is why rounding up and garrisoning thousands of Somalis in Nairobi in the wake of the 2013 Westgate attack was doomed to fail as an anti-terror strategy; it simply played right into the extremists’ hands.

Tourism not like gardening

And reviving a tourism industry – as South Africa might soon learn – is not like growing maize; you can’t throw seeds and fertiliser at the problem, sit back and wait for it to grow.

Tourism is a notoriously fickle industry, where subjective perceptions of insecurity often have a far more adverse impact than the actual situation.

Tourists throng a beach party at a past Tourism Indaba in Durban, South Africa. This year, Mozambique refused to participate in the Durban Indaba in protest at xenophobic killings in South Africa. (Photo: South African Tourism)

Negative images of a tourist destination can persist for years and affect a whole country, even if the political instability was contained in a small region.

To re-emerge from such subjective negative perceptions requires unorthodox methods, says the WEF report. For example, it could call for active “perception management” where negative publicity about a destination is limited, and countries can even put a positive spin on political events that have devalued a country’s currency, making it cheaper for tourists to visit the destination.

For example, Bali in Indonesia used the drastic devaluation of the rupiah in the aftermath of the 2005 bombings in a marketing campaign with the slogan “Our loss is your gain!”

WEF even suggests “crisis-immune product offerings” which will involve physically insulating touristic places from areas facing political unrest.

This strategy has been successful in Egypt, where isolated resorts and enclave cities have been developed along the Red Sea, and across the Caribbean—the isolated peninsular resort of Labadee in Haiti, for example, is fenced, heavily guarded and completely closed off for locals except for the resort personnel.

It may not work in all situations, but Africa sorely needs a more thoughtful, original and innovative ideas to make its cities – and countries – work. The old ways are almost running their course. If you are a president, appointing your relative, party supporter, or clansman is increasingly becoming useless—-they probably don’t have the new age skills  needed to made your government succeed.


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