In the context of African cities, do the governance debates adequately engage with urban statecraft? And do such engagements provide the necessary foundation for imagining alternative urban state configurations?

The governance debates in Africa have rightly expanded our understanding of who is involved in governing. They have shown the wide diversity of actors involved in regulating, controlling, administering, financing, and developing Africa’s diverse and contested geographies. This expansion, from government to governance, has also filtered into urban research and scholarship. African urban governance debates have foregrounded the plethora of actors – from street committees to water cartels – involved in governing African cities, wielding power, and manufacturing legitimacy in a variety of ways. This work unpacks the complex configurations, regular negotiations, and precarious (political) settlements that infuse Africa’s urban governance.

Notwithstanding this generous expansion, the focus on how ‘other actors’ govern has left the crafting of urban government – what might be called city statecraft – underexplored. There is considerable value in understanding the multiple, yet discernible, ways in which state actors are configured to govern at the urban scale.

In this orientation, ‘the urban state’ is not a single entity with territorialized control over a clearly defined urban area. It cannot simply be conflated with terms that work to describe urban local governments, such as the municipality (South Africa), commune (Senegal), or county (Kenya). Instead, the urban state is the product of its relationships – configured through institutional and material interactions. The nature of these relationships substantiates the characteristics of the urban state.

A revenue office in Kisumu, Kenya. Photo: Liza Rose Cirolia, 2019.

This orientation – a recentring of theoretical and practical engagement with the state in Africa – contributes conceptually to conversations about state rescaling and urban governance. It challenges flattening clichés which fail to disaggregate state formations and specificities in and among diverse and peripheral geographies. At the same time, it has practical utility. Not only are donors and lenders clamouring to provide programmes aimed at city capacitation, urban academics are increasingly compelled to produce ‘impactful’ or ‘policy-relevant’ work. This can rarely be done without meaningful engagement with the urban state. In the following sections I unpack and contextualize three important relationships.

Fractured decentralisation: the relationship between actors within the state

A starting place for understanding the urban state in Africa is understanding the relationship between urban local governments and other levels of government. Within multi-level government systems, Africa’s local governments hold limited powers and fiscal resources. The historical contextualisation of this contemporary reality is worth rehearsing: part of wider national building projects, most African states emerged from decolonial struggles highly centralized. Decentralisation reforms, however, formed part of the suite of ‘structural adjustments’ imposed on African nations by global financial actors. Almost every country in Africa underwent systemic processes of fiscal, political, and administrative decentralisation between the late 1980s and the mid-2000s. These reforms reflected a catalogue of different logics (neoclassical economic theories of resource distribution, neo-liberal calls for privatisation, critiques of top-down interventionism within development studies, and concerns with regional variation within countries). They sought to move powers and functions away from the centre through privatisation, corporatisation, and the assignment of functions to sub-national governments.

Ministry building in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo: Liza Rose Cirolia, 2019.

Theoretical and policy discourses claim that decentralisation reforms empower city authorities. In reality, their de facto implementation has often fragmented urban control, creating fractious relationships between levels of government and associated agencies. Through all manner of manoeuvres – including creating new metropolitan agencies, blocking sub-national revenue reforms, and refusing to release fiscal transfers – central governments have resisted relinquishing responsibilities for key urban functions. The contested relationship between the Nairobi City County and the newly established Nairobi Metropolitan Services is a useful example of metropolitan consolidation and rescaling. Sector-specific reforms have further scattered urban responsibilities. From road authorities, to managing fuel levies, to water utility companies, at various lengths from the state sector reforms have supported a proliferation of agencies and authorities – each with their own scalar logic, planning processes, prioritisations, and relationship to local authorities. Notably, state crafting is evident as much where relationships between institutions exist as where they are absent. For example, the near non-existent relationship between the Kampala Capital City Authority and the utility company with concessional rights to manage the energy network provides deep insights into how the state is (de)constructed in Uganda.

The empty halls of a local government office building in Harare, Zimbabwe. Photo: Liza Rose Cirolia, 2022.

Today, the many vestiges and institutions of the state intersect at the urban scale, competing over budgets, ignoring each other’s priorities, and infrequently working in harmony. The gaps, fissures, redundancies, and alignments provide valuable insights into how cities work.

Hybrid service configurations: the relationship between state actors and service providers 

A second critical site is the relationship between state actors who hold the mandate for urban infrastructure (such as water, energy, land etc.), and the plethora of actors involved in urban service delivery. These are precisely the actors that the wider urban governance debates have foregrounded. I echo the importance of these players, but draw attention to their interface with state actors.

While urban service delivery across most cities has some element of private sector provision, the African urban context is an extreme case. A long-lasting legacy of colonial investment patterns, in African cities most key urban infrastructures are not delivered through large centralized networks controlled by capacitated local authorities (as may have been the case in Western cities at some point). While these networks do exist, they only serve small parts of cities, such as older CBDs, wealthier suburbs, or industrial areas. Where they have been developed they are often patchy and over-extended, having been planned for much smaller populations and under-maintained over decades.

The limits of the central network have required supplemental provision, resulting in hybrid service-delivery configurations. Whole industries provide distributed services, with various degrees of formality, safety, affordability, and environmental impact. These hybrid service providers not only exist in informal settlements, but also in wealthy and middle-class areas. In energy, companies importing, installing, and maintaining inverters and home-solar energy systems are ubiquitous. In sanitation, septic tank providers and vacuum truck operators are indispensable. And in mobility, private bus companies, minibus operators, and two- and three-wheelers outstrip other modes of public transport and logistics.

A privately-owned minibus share taxi (matatu), in Mombasa, Kenya. Photo: Liza Rose Cirolia, 2022.

Addis Ababa, vacuum truck. Photo: Liza Rose Cirolia, 2019.

The relationship between urban service providers and state actors is a vital site of city statecraft. One of the most common ways this relationship is forged is through regulation. Refusing to regulate or deploying selective ignorance is an equally powerful regulatory practice, among others such as taxing, regulating, conceding, or adopting. It is through these practices that the interface between state and non-state service providers is animated and the urban state itself is substantiated.

Urban infrastructures: the relationship between state actors and urban materiality 

A final and vital relationship is the way in which the urban state is given effect through the material development of cities. The most obvious is through large infrastructure interventions becoming visible and discursive emblems of state power, capacity and priorities at the city scale. From urban highways to prepaid water meters, scholars have demonstrated the agency of technology in mediating the politics between citizens and states at the urban scale.

The Nairobi Expressway, a toll road in Kenya. Photo: Liza Rose Cirolia, 2022.

While infrastructural materialities consolidate state power, the porous boundaries of networks and systems also blur the boundaries of authority. Infrastructure networks – and indeed the urban development patterns of cities – do not fit neatly into the administrative boundaries of local authorities. For example, the networks that are essential to the development of city spaces are neither constrained by urban jurisdictions nor are they generally controlled by sub-national governments. At the same time, the formation of administrative territorial units has not aligned with the actual growth patterns of African cities, particularly in expanding metropolitan regions.

These long and disbursed value chains and contested urban peripheries become constant sites of reckoning on the relationships that constitute the urban state. They challenge the boundaries and borders of cities; indeed the very concept of urban infrastructure. It is here that questions of what makes a material composition urban – and by extension implicated in urban statecraft – can be interrogated.

Robust imaginaries of the future of the African urban state

The relationships which I have outlined above are not the only sites which animate and give substance to the urban state. Other relationships, such as between political parties, or plans and their implementers, are also important. However, they are critical sites that require deeper engagement and theorisation, particularly by urban scholars concerned with relationality, complexity, and indeed propositionality. It is with that that I turn to my final point: within urban studies there are limited imaginaries for the urban state. This lack of intellectual engagement has left ample space for the development sector to forge forward with circumspect programmes aimed at good governance and institution-building at the urban scale.

Speculative work on African urban futures is replete with images of buildings, infrastructures, and publics which reflect – at least to the speculator – transgressive aesthetic expressions. These sorts of images, across all manner of visual representation, are generative and necessary. Despite sometimes appearing utopian or even garish, they challenge us to think beyond what we can see and imagine as ways of being –social and political subjectivities – that not only challenge now dated development discourse, but also many of the limitations of urban theory at large.

The same sort of propositional intent (and even political boldness), is needed to develop new imaginaries for the urban state. It is not possible to develop propositional insights of utility for urban governance without a rich understanding of the urban state, the relationships which craft it, and the scope for reconfiguring these relationships.

Thank you to Andrea Pollio and James Christopher Mizes for reading earlier drafts of this essay.

Liza Rose Cirolia (Twitter) is a Senior Researcher at the African Centre for Cities. Her work focuses on infrastructure, sub-national finance, and governance in African cities. Liza’s work straddles theory, policy, and practice, aiming to be both critical and propositional. She is the co-convener of the Uta-Do African Urban Theory Workshop.


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