Meet Africa's best mayors—they are behind the transformation of the continent's fast expanding cities

They hold the keys to the continent's burgeoning metropolises, a job that comes with its own unique set of challenges.

THE ROLES of Africa’s mayors vary greatly according to country. They could be responsible for providing basic environmental, planning, public health, roads and waste services, or may just perform delegated functions as stated by the council. 

Some are elected for a defined length of time whilst others are appointed for indefinite periods. But generally, a city’s mayor is meant to be the guarantor of services, the public good and citizens’ participation in local life. 

Today, Africa has the highest rate of urbanisation in the world and, with the share of Africans living in urban areas projected to grow from 36% in 2010 to 50% by 2030 Africa’s mayors have a big task. Additionally, they have to deal with a great deal of constraints in terms of a limited ability to affect change, small budgets, and urban violence.  

While how best to develop the continent’s cities is explored, there are mayors who are helping set the standard. So, who are these? 

In a bid to get more recognition for Africa’s mayors, the “José Eduardo dos Santos African Mayor Awards” were launched last year—it is an initiative that is supported by the Government of Angola, the UN-Habitat, IC Publications Group as well as United Cities and Local Governments of Africa (UCLG Africa). 

Three winners each took away a cash prize that would go towards specific local initiatives. The amount of $50,000 went to José Ulisses Correia e Silva and the city of Praia in Cape Verde (small city category), $100,000 went to Yusuph Mwenda and Kinondoni in Tanzania (medium city) and Alfred Oko Vanderpuije of Accra, Ghana (large city), received $200,000. 

Whilst the prize-givers didn’t provide further details as to why these individuals merited the award, Mail & Guardian Africa did some research and discovered a few notable achievements that support their wins. 

New investment

Mayors generally have some influence on the form of the city’s current and future development, including its success in attracting new investment. This was something that Praia’s mayor, Ulisses Correia e Silva, was able to achieve. 

The city of Praia is the capital and most populated city (25.6%) of Cape Verde. Since Mayor Silva was elected in 2008, he has flown several times to China to court Chinese investment and signed a “Sister-City” agreement to build on and strengthen the existing economic, cultural and educational relationships between the cities of Boston, in the US, and Praia. He has also overseen the opening up of flights, courtesy of Binter Cabo Verde, between the Canaries and Cape Verde and, in a bid to encourage more business travel, flagged off the beginning of construction of Hilton Praia. The hotel, located just six kilometres from the Nelson Mandela International Airport (RAI) and the Port of Praia, will have 201 guest rooms and will offer meeting and event facilities. 

Ulisses Correia e Silva has ensured Praia has international visibility, encouraged investment there and is positioning the city as a key business destination in West Africa. 

It’s all about the people

Before there was Tanzania’s indefatigable president John Magufuli, there was Kinondoni municipality mayor Yusuph Mwenda, and he wasn’t afraid to act in the public interest either. In 2014 for example his municipal council sacked nine officials for misusing their positions in public office and for absenteeism.

As mayor he was a strong advocate for the strength of municipalities and their role in interacting with the citizenry and was a strong proponent for the use of fresh produce markets to promote local agricultural development, putting his weight behind the the East Africa Farmers Market initiative. 

Mayors have considerable importance for the nature of the government’s relations with the urban poor, and those whose needs are given inadequate attention, including women, youth or children. Mwenda was one of these mayors, putting his money where his mouth was, supporting small projects such as a campaign in 2014 that raised cash and equipment to enable students with various forms of disability access to quality education. His office contributed an eighth of the amount needed and asked all workers to make personal contributions towards it too.    

City transformation

Since being appointed by John Evans Atta Mills in 2009, mayor of Accra Alfred Oko Vanderpuije has sought to tackle the big developmental issues, receiving international attention for his ambitions to transform the city. 

Vanderpuije is known for his “red line” where he and his staffers went out and painted a red line to stop traders near the central marketplace in Accra from increasingly encroaching from the sidewalks into the street, making for a chaotic mix of vehicular, pedestrian, and market traffic.

Aside from his concerted efforts in redesigning city streetscapes, he has also overseen the end of the shift school system in Accra—a system where pupils attended classes by alternating either in the mornings or afternoon, as a way of increasing the number of students that can be taught without having to build another building. In its place the Accra Metropolitan Assembly, in collaboration with the United States Agency for International Development, started the construction of 14 Millennium City school projects. Such infrastructure is not only thought to provide a conducive environment for teaching and learning but also encourage students to come to school regularly. 

Since Vanderpuije took the helm, Accra has also successfully attracted international support and investment for various large-scale projects. The city was selected as part of the 100 Resilient Cities by the Rockefeller Foundation and will now receive technical support and resources to develop and implement a resilience strategy. It is also one of the 10 cities in the world that will benefit from the Bloomberg initiative for Global Road Safety programme which will work with cities to implement proven road safety interventions. 

But these mayors are certainly not the only ones that deserve recognition for their efforts. 

Job creation

Monrovia’s Mayor, Clara Mvogo, has worked hard at supporting the informal sector of Liberia’s capital city. In Monrovia, petty street traders make up half of those doing business in informal sectors, so he negotiated a memorandum of understanding with the National Petty Traders’ Union of Liberia. Specific zones and streets, at certain hours, are given to informal sectors to avoid police harassment. The traders are also members who pay taxes, giving them a voice and recognition.

Transport Links

A special mention goes to Diriba Kuma, the mayor of the ever-expanding Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia. He is charged with oversight of major housing projects aimed at fulfilling the housing demands of millions of residents.

This is not to mention the successful negotiation of some of the challenges provided by flagship projects, such as the city’s new light railway system which has a capacity of 60,000 passengers per hours. 


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