In 2009 around 40 percent of Africa’s population lived in urban areas – a number that is projected to triple to more than 60 percent of Africans (1.2 billion) by 2050. African urban enthusiasts have been questioning the continent’s archaic urban laws for years. Authored by African Centre for Cities, in collaboration with UN-Habitat, Cities Alliance and Urban LandMark, a practical guide titled “Reforming Urban Laws in Africa” aims to help African cities navigate challenges like the proliferation of slums and legal restrictions on land ownership. Where the guide aims to “create and strengthen” law-making processes, it does not promise to address all the problems of African cities.

One of the foremost challenges for African cities is that urban laws that continue to govern them today were created by European colonialist governments before Africa’s independence. Many of these laws tailored policies to keep cities confined to a particular category of people and offer jobs for only those who are urban residents. That these laws are still in place has created a great classist segregation. The African Development Bank Group (AfDB) says that the diversification of economic activities through the creation of new economic hubs oriented towards high sustainability and value-added production and exportation should go hand-in-hand with the development of new laws to accommodate today’s needs. These reforms should be more inclusive to ensure that all categories of citizens, regardless of age, race, gender, ethnicity, or socio-economic conditions, have equal access to adequate housing, basic infrastructure and services and equal job opportunities.

urban laws

CC: Ninara

Informal settlements and informality in general are some of the most significant challenges faced by African cities; the two million residents in the Malian capital of Bamako do not have access to basic urban services and facilities like clean water, housing, or even jobs. “There are no sewer lines for the disposal of wastewater from the neighborhood. The only line that existed has been blocked by the inhabitants of the Cité du Niger neighborhood nearby,” says Adama Coulibaly, advisor to the neighborhood chief.

According to AfDB, upgrading informal settlements should be done through the provision of integrated infrastructures and services that target the marginalized groups, including the poor, youth, women, and elderly. Governments should also act proactively to ensure orderly urban development by defining and implementing clear urban development strategies.

“[I wonder if] the problem of the effectiveness of law in Africa and the issue of the gap between formal and informal law can be solved through written law or if it is time to find solutions that take account of the fact that the African experience is unique and quite different from the experience in other parts of the world,” asks Salvatore Mancuso, a law professor at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. The guide’s authors build up on Mancuso’s hypothetical question saying that any law that fails to consider “underground” law will not achieve satisfactory urban legal outcomes.

The AfDB continues to suggest that cities to mobilize urban financing from local and foreign investors, because these resources should be efficiently and adequately allocated between central and local governments’ urban projects and should encourage strengthening the role of municipalities.

“Difficulties arise when laws are developed — often by outside advisors — without properly considering the relevant context,” the guide reads, referring to the divisiveness of laws carried over from the continent’s colonialist legacy. “The most effective urban laws are those that are developed where they are to be applied, by the people that will abide by and enforce them.”