Engaging Local Leaders in Africa

By: Colin Geraghty

Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images via USA Today

Kouoptam is a city of about 68,000 in Western Cameroon that’s reached by driving 45 minutes along bumpy dirt that’s more path than road. During the rainy season, the road becomes nigh-impassible. The mayor is an engaging man, elected in 2013 against a party that had been in power for the previous 22 years. Despite being a decent-sized city in Cameroon’s most prosperous region, many inhabitants still lack electricity, and basic infrastructure needs for roads and water go unmet. The rapid growth of his city’s population has placed further strains on civic services, making the mayor the critical figure in efforts to improve the lives of Kouoptam residents.

I spent several months in West and Central Africa this summer on a grant from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. I stayed in large cities and rural areas, living with a native family, working with a local research foundation, and helping a solar company install panels. I saw similar patterns in other cities and towns; Kouoptam’s situation is representative of a larger trend that will play a great role in shaping African countries’ future trajectories. As African countries face parallel phenomena of rapid demographic growth and accelerating urbanization, mayors and other local leaders are increasingly the most visible face of government authority.[i]

One year ago, President Obama convened the first US-Africa Leadership Summit[ii] to encourage greater ties with Africa, and encourage responsible, sustainable growth in African countries. To engage leaders effectively, and build on this presidential initiative, the United States should encourage Americans interested in Africa’s economic and political future to engage these emerging African leaders.

In 1960, when it gained independence, Senegal’s entire population was approximately 3.18 million[iii]; a 2013 census indicated 3.14 million people lived in metropolitan Dakar,[iv] a number expected to reach almost 5 million by 2025[v] – a growth rate of over 50% in the next 10 years. Overall, by 2040, over half the population of the traditionally rural continent is projected to live in cities. Now is the time to focus on urban governance and develop best practices adapted to local contexts, before cities grow too big and problems become entrenched.

Indeed, engaging local leaders today to help implement proactive policies that will ease the stress of such growth would not only improve the quality of life of millions of people, but serve the national security interests of the United States as well. In Dakar, an advisor to the Prime Minister of Senegal for counter-radicalization invited me to his house to break the Ramadan fast one evening. We discussed the impact of the rural exodus on radicalization in Senegal. Sitting in his living room, he shared his concerns that mass movements of young people to urban environments might erode traditional ties to Sufi marabouts, who traditionally constitute a great source of power and religious moderation in rural Senegal, and are viewed as a firewall of sorts against outside radicalization,[vi] given the focus in Sufi brotherhoods on the inner experience of Islam as opposed to external behavior.[vii] As we gazed out from his balcony at the city stretching before us, he visualized the many ways its apparent peacefulness might give way to more radical movements should urban growth not be managed properly and for instance disrupt traditional ties between individual men and their marabout by placing young men in an alien urban environment.[viii]

It is conventional wisdom among American observers of Africa that national governments are often ineffective or worse. Working with local leaders could yield rapid and visible results that would make government a positive force in the lives of Africans. By helping offset the prevailing view of government as an entity to be dealt with, sidestepped, or bribed, such engagement could promote the image of government as a provider of valuable public services.

Mayors in America have pursued innovative strategies to encourage growth, cope with urban tensions, and promote resiliency initiatives; their expertise would benefit their African counterparts and their cities immensely in the coming years. They could also help them prepare to cope with the strains of climate change the Department of Defense expects to be a significant source of tension for developing nations.[ix] Thus, Tucson, Arizona, has begun a program focusing on the effects of climate on its water supply and how to create new water policies to mitigate rising temperatures and growing risks of drought.[x] Similarly, Mayor Marty Walsh of Boston has directed that the city include climate resiliency when reviewing new construction projects in the city.[xi] Foundations such as Bloomberg Philanthropies[xii] and the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities[xiii] are directing funds to support innovative urban solutions: there may even be funding available to develop pioneering mayor-to-mayor partnerships without relying on federal aid, bypassing interactions with national-level officials and focusing directly on solving problems in key communities and urban areas. As part of efforts to engage local leaders in Africa, the United States government should therefore encourage U.S. mayors to play a direct role and lend their insights in urban management to African counterparts.

I saw first-hand in Dakar how the exodus from countryside to city might encourage radicalization of populations. While the patriarch of the family I lived with was able to take in his brother’s children, he knew of many other young people less fortunate. As they arrive in cities, with little support in an unfamiliar environment, they are often subjected to abject poverty; in this context, they become easy targets for more radical preachers who use their ability to offer food as an opportunity to convince their young audience the Western notion of democracy is corrupt and working against them. Urban youths end up in neighborhoods on the outskirts of Dakar where slums have sprung up in recent years, while in the center of the city, Dakar University’s mosque is now run by Wahhabi students who broadcast radical speeches.

While reforming governance at a national level may seem beyond our reach, at least in the foreseeable future, helping local leaders improve municipal services can offer tangible results, and a foundation on which to build. A stronger municipal presence, able to deliver visible services, would help residents see government as a force for positive change, and help African cities manage their impending demographic explosion. There is a window of opportunity before many of these cities turn into megacities and become unmanageable. By engaging local leaders in Africa more effectively, the United States could build on President Obama’s initiative before the window closes and foster productive partnerships that can benefit African populations and serve U.S. interests.

Colin Geraghty is a graduate student in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, and was a visiting fellow with the West Africa Research Center in Dakar over the summer. He traveled to Senegal, Mali, and Cameroon on a grant from Georgetown University.

[i] Tracking Africa’s Progress in Figures, African Development Bank, 2014; http://www.afdb.org/en/knowledge/publications/tracking-africa%E2%80%99s-progress-in-figures/

[ii] The Obama administration organized the first-ever U.S.-Africa Leadership Summit, which took place in Washington, DC, in August 2014. https://www.whitehouse.gov/us-africa-leaders-summit

[iii] According to World Bank statistics: http://data.worldbank.org/country/senegal

[iv] Dakar: Situation économique et Sociale régionale 2013, Agence Nationale de la Statistique et de la Démographie (National Agency for Statistics and Demographics), April 2015, p. 18; http://www.ansd.sn/ressources/ses/SES-Dakar-2013.pdf

[v] In 2006, Senegal launched a modernization plan for metropolitan Dakar, called “Dakar Horizon 2025”, which estimated Dakar’s population would reach 5 million inhabitants by that time: Mamadou Guèye, “Dakar Horizon 2025: Un plan d’urbanisme pour 5 millions d’habitants,” Seneweb.com, September 27, 2006; http://www.seneweb.com/news/Societe/dakar-horizon-2025-un-plan-d-urbanisme-pour-5-millions-d-habitants_n_5635.html

[vi] For an overview of how in Senegal’s Sufi brotherhoods marabouts wield religious and political power simultaneously, cf. Rémi Carayol, “Sénégal: marabout power ou l’influence des confréries”, Jeune Afrique, March 6, 2012; http://www.jeuneafrique.com/142651/politique/s-n-gal-marabout-power-ou-l-influence-des-confr-ries/

[vii] Alexander Thurston offers another explanation for the lack to date of significant radicalization of Islam in Senegal, whether in Sufi brotherhoods or other Sunni movements that have emerged more recently in Dakar. He argues that “the state’s willingness to negotiate with and give these groups space” is the key variable explaining the absence of radicalized movements in Senegal. Alexander Thurston, “Why is Militant Islam a Weak Phenomenon in Senegal?” Northwestern University, Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa, Working Paper No. 09-005, March 2009; http://buffett.northwestern.edu/documents/working-papers/ISITA_09-005_Thurston.pdf

[viii] Many people I talked with in Senegal referred to their marabout as their “father” or “spiritual advisor,” someone to whom they turn constantly for advice on professional and personal decisions they face.

[ix] Report on National Security Implications of Climate-Related Risks and a Changing Climate, Department of Defense, July 2015; http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=129366

[x] Eric Holthaus, interview with Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, “The Thirsty West: Can Tucson Survive Climate Change?” Slate, March 11, 2014; http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2014/03/tucson_tries_to_reinvent_itself_in_the_face_of_a_drought.html

[xi] Boston Redevelopment Authority, “Climate Change Preparedness and Resiliency;”http://www.bostonredevelopmentauthority.org/planning/planning-initiatives/climate-change-preparedness-and-resiliency

[xii] Jessica Leber, “Inside Bloomberg’s Plan To Spread The Gospel Of Urban Innovation,” Fastcoexist.com, May 12, 2015; http://www.fastcoexist.com/3045343/inside-bloombergs-plan-to-spread-the-gospel-of-urban-innovation.

[xiii] Disclaimer: I was briefly employed as an outside consultant to analyze urban resiliency profiles for the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities challenge, in 2014.

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