A 21st century Berlin Conference on Africa

This post was contributed by Professor Patrick McAuslan, from Birkbeck’s School of Law.

In July I went to the Rockefeller Centre in Bellagio on Lake Como to discuss with 19 other panjandrums the issue of why planning law reform in Africa is so difficult to achieve. Most of the experts were from Africa which certainly made a change from the Berlin Conference of 1885 but seven were, like myself, non-African although with varying degrees of ‘expertise’ in planning issues in Africa. To state the fact of the workshop however is to invite some critical reflections. Why Bellagio? If we had wanted to puzzle out why planning law reform is so difficult to achieve in Africa, wouldn’t it have been better to be somewhere in Africa – preferably in a less salubrious part of a city in Africa – than in a palatial mansion set in some 37 acres of grounds in Lake Como in north Italy? What was our authority to issue a pompous communique to the world at the end of our deliberations saying that urgent action was needed on planning law reform in Africa? Who will pay any attention to us and our proposals to divide up countries and cities in Africa as of old, via planning laws and zoning codes?

After all, as I pointed out in my introductory paper to the workshop, UN-Habitat has been based in Nairobi in Africa for over 30 years, had an excellent African Executive Director of the agency for 10 years yet when planning law reform was actually undertaken by several states in the very region where Habitat is based, not a blind bit of notice was taken of the precepts it has been urging on governments, ever since the UN City Summit of 1996, of the need for a more inclusive, open and participative planning system: the same old centralised, top-down, semi-authoritarian planning systems were provided for, which the colonial powers had introduced some 50 or more years ago. It may be, as was urged upon us at the workshop, that it is a little too facile to see the issue purely as one of the elites v the masses, as elites are not by any means all of one mind, have different interests and may differ from each other quite sharply. Nor can the masses be seen as united in their misery but such a blunt analysis is, in my view, likely to be more relevant than an over-sophisticated approach to the problem. Fear of the urban masses lay behind colonial urban planning and government: that same fear permeates the thinking of the elites that have taken over the upper income salubrious areas of cities in Africa now.

I can give one absolutely classic illustration of this. When I first went to Dar es Saalam in 1961, Selander Bridge divided the African and Asian areas of the city from the European area in Oyster Bay and was an effective barrier to movement from the former areas to the latter area. The bridge was very narrow; sea was on one side, swamp was on the other. There was talk then of the need to widen the bridge. There were no impediments in the way; no housing to remove; no people to relocate. 51 years on, nothing has changed; the old narrow bridge is still in place and still provides a bottleneck and impediment to movement from the African low-income areas of the city to the African high-income areas. Selander Bridge performs the same function today as it did all those years ago. The elites in their cars may complain about the traffic jams, the delays in commuting but if they were serious on the need to do something about the problem, the bridge would have been widened two or three decades ago. But they don’t want it widened: Oyster Bay and the newly developed areas towards the University of Dar es Salaam are in effect a gated high income community with Selander Bridge acting as the gate.

Ultimately, what’s needed is not workshops of the elite in a palace in Italy but an African urban spring with the masses coming out to dismantle the system and set about developing a fairer system of urban governance catering to the needs of the majority.

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