Soldiers and warlords have become presidents in Africa, but rarely have mayors. What if we had more of them?

In Africa, there’s something particularly “toxic” about city politics that makes it difficult to transfer urban support to the national stage.

TANZANIA’S newly elected President John Magufuli has caused some waves by cancelling independence day celebrations.

So on Dec. 9, Magufuli has ordered a clean-up campaign instead.
It would be “shameful” to spend huge sums of money on the celebrations when “our people are dying of cholera”, he said, state media reported. Cholera has killed about 60 people in Tanzania in the last three months.  

This will be the first time in 54 years Tanzania will not hold celebrations to mark independence from British colonial rule. Many people were surprised, and presidents with a rather ordinary civilian background like Magufuli rarely take such positions. It’s the soldier presidents who do.

For there was a time in Africa when coups were the order of the day, and most African presidents were military men. The way to start off on your way to the highest office of the land was to join the army.

Today, some presidents – notably Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari, Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, DR Congo’s Joseph Kabila and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame – have their roots in the military or guerrilla movements, though the trend has been to “civilianise” and put away army fatigues.

Enter the politicians
With the return of multiparty politics, a more common route to the presidency is through Parliament and Cabinet. 

Magufuli is a former minister of works. Uhuru Kenyatta in Kenya is a former member of parliament, and was once the country’s finance minister.

Ghana’s John Dramani Mahama is a former MP and minister of communications, and Edgar Lungu in Zambia was the country’s defence minister before ascending the presidency.

But one route to the presidency that is not (yet) common in Africa - and therefore also the kind of presidential temperament the continent hasn’t witnessed - is through a city mayorship. Among current leaders, just Catherine Samba-Panza in the Central African Republic is a mayor-turned-president, having overseen the city of Bangui before being named the country’s transitional president.

And in recent memory there was Andry Rajoelina in Madagascar, the baby-faced former DJ and mayor of Antananarivo who took power with the help of the army in a 2009 coup.

This is unlike the rest of the world, where efficient, technocratic service delivery – epitomised through the kind of services a city government is supposed to provide – is a clear badge of accomplishment that will uncontestably improve your mileage on the national stage.

Around the world, mayors are increasingly becoming heads of state: Lee Myung-bak was mayor of Seoul, then president of South Korea; Recep Tayyip Erdogan was mayor of Istanbul then president of Turkey; Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was first Tehran’s leader, then Iran’s. It’s the same case for Matteo Renzi in Italy (Florence) and Francois Holland in France (Tulle).

Particularly toxic
Today, a number of prominent cities, including Nairobi, Kampala, Cape Town and Dakar are in the hands of the opposition. Africa is still majority rural, but there’s something particularly “toxic” about city politics that makes it difficult to transfer urban support to the national stage.

Many opposition parties across Africa garner their main support in the cities, where people are more politically aware of their rights, easier to mobilise, and are shorn of the sustenance of the land – thus have a more acute need for jobs and modern service delivery.

The anonymity of the city also means that the personal and social cost of being “anti-government” is lower, unlike in the villages where the local chief might come and have a stern word with your father if he spots you singing forbidden protest songs an opposition rally.

City politics
City politics in Africa, by necessity, is often aggressive, combative and divisive. That can alienate rural voters who gravitate more towards the charismatic, reassuring “father-leader” type of politician.

And if you are in a country where ethnicity is a salient factor in political mobilisation, a city candidate has to appeal to urban voters across ethnic lines. That can end up being a liability on the national stage, because they do not have an ethnic base to stand firmly on.

The best example is arguably Kenya’s Raila Odinga, a veteran opposition leader whose entire political career has been in the city of Nairobi – a rarity in a city that has a very high turnover of leaders.

Kenyan writer and blogger Morris Kiruga argues that though Odinga is hugely popular in his rural home area in the western part of the country (and so is assured of a ‘rural base’), his confrontational, agitating style of politics – born of the city – has made it easy to caricature him as an annoying rabble-rouser. That has cost him many swing votes nationally.

Divergent tracks
National political dynamics also shapes urban development outcomes in African cities. The best example is the divergent tracks between Kampala, Uganda of a few years ago, and Kigali, Rwanda.

Until recently, Kampala’s city affairs were routinely thwarted by direct intervention from President Yoweri Museveni. Projects were often delayed or cancelled at the behest of groups who promise to deliver votes in return, and efforts to regulate the informal transport sector – motorcycle taxis known as bodabodas – have been blocked as they are an important voting bloc.

But in 2011, the president appointed a city executive director, who took over the executive functions of the mayor’s office. It was seen as a move to clip the wings of mayor Erias Lukwago, a popular opposition politician who has had numerous run-ins with the president.

Jennifer Musisi, executive director of the Kampala City Council Authority, has made some real change in the four years she has been in office, the city is noticeably cleaner and better organised.

By contrast, Kigali’s development has proceeded swiftly in recent years in line with the city’s ambitious masterplan. Tough zoning and permit laws are followed to the letter, with the rich and poor held to equal standards, a recent report by UN-Habitat states.

The nature of governance in Rwanda is semi-authoritarian, and this arguably makes it possible to enforce compliance without a high political cost.

Though it has generated some controversy, and may ultimately prove unsustainable, the authoritarian regime means that Kigali’s pace of urban development has been impressive, earning the city a UN-Habitat Scroll of Honour Award in 2008.

Politically vulnerable
These different development trajectories are arguably as a result of divergent political priorities. In Kampala – at least before Musisi’s appointment – the government perceived itself to be politically vulnerable, thus securing votes in the city was paramount.

In Kigali, however, the memories of the country’s past violence remains strong, so stability and order is the priority, and nature of urban governance is a consequence of this.

Mayors come to power through varying routes in Africa: in Cape Town, each party nominates a candidate for mayor. The winning party of the local government elections then positions their chosen candidate as mayor. In Nairobi, executive functions of the city are in the hands of the governor, who is directly elected by the people.

In Dakar, the mayor is elected by the municipal council that is itself elected by the people, while the mayor of Accra is appointed by the president and approved by the Accra Metropolitan Assembly.

These different routes to power naturally represent varying political priorities, once the mayors are in office. But the lesson from Kampala and Kigali is clear. Where the political interests of national governments are at odds with the objectives and efforts of city authorities, urban development is retarded.

Where national governments offer support and autonomy to local authorities, rapid and significant change is possible.

Related Content


blog comments powered by Disqus