Peter Elias, University of Lagos, Nigeria


There is a serious dilemma in African cities where urban governance is hardly able to meet the demand for infrastructure. The failure of urban governance to provide adequate infrastructure both in quantity and quality is creating infrastructure deficit which falls below the expectations of urban sustainability. According to UN-HABITAT (2000), urban governance:

must enable women and men to access the benefits of urban citizenship. Good urban governance, based on the principle of urban citizenship, affirms that no man, woman or child can be denied access to the necessities of urban life, including adequate shelter, security of tenure, safe water, sanitation, a clean environment, health, education and nutrition, employment and public safety and mobility. Through good urban governance, citizens are provided with the platform which will allow them to use their talents to the full to improve their social and economic conditions.”

Citizens of African cities are unable to aspire to improved productivity, poverty reduction and well-being due to inadequate physical and social infrastructures. This situation is even more worrisome considering the pattern of urbanisation in Africa. These are the issues that form the thrust of this paper which is organised in two parts. The first examines Africa’s urbanisation and dilemmas of urban governance and the second takes a look at the nature of infrastructure deficit and demand in Africa. The conclusion suggests what should be done to remedy the situation.

Part 1 – Africa’s Urbanisation and Dilemmas of Urban Governance

The world’s population and economic opportunities are increasingly shifting to the cities. Over 70 per cent of the people in North America, Latin America and Europe already live in cities. Africa’s 2014 population with an average growth rate of two per cent is estimated at 1.069 billion, about 15% of world population, extends over 30 million square kilometres (WPR, 2014). It is also estimated that by 2030, more than half of this number will be living in urban centers. Therefore, global attention has been drawn to the pace, process and pattern of urbanization in Africa. In a bid to explain the rapid urbanization in Africa, recent urban studies have attempted to distinguish between urbanization and urban growth which are driven by different factors with different characteristics and implications in the context of urban governance and infrastructure deficit (Potts, 2012; Muggah, 2012; Fox, 2011). Some fundamental and proximate factors explain the emerging pace, process and pattern of urbanization and urban growth in Africa which includes population dynamics, economic growth, government policies, increasing densities as well as the advancing large urban agglomerations such as Lagos, Cairo and Kinshasa that are spreading to form urban corridors (Lwasa, 2014).

While several factors have been identified to explain the phenomenon of urbanization, there seems to be no consensus about which one is the most dominant but it is however generally agreed that the trend is indeed frightening. There are two perspectives to the concern for an urbanizing Africa; the first is the pace of urbanization and urban growth which is high compared to other regions (Table 1) and, the second is the challenge of infrastructure deficit which is creating a vicious cycle of poverty and inequality.

Table 1: Demographic and economic trends in selected Regions

Regions Level of Urbanisation(1960) Population Growth Rate (1975-2005) Urban growth rate(1975-2005) Urbanisation rate(1975-2005) GDP Growth Rate(1975-2005)
Sub-Sahara Africa 14.75 2.69 4.59 1.66 0.59
East Asia & Pacific 16.75 1.64 3.66 2.10 5.03
South Asia 16.56 2.14 3.35 1.20 3.65
Middle East & North Africa 33.97 2.56 3.69 0.92 1.20
Latin America& Caribbean 49.02 2.08 3.10 0.84 1.58

Source: Sean Fox (2011) & (2012)

Presently, there are both high level optimism and pessimism about urbanization scales, trends, features and drivers in the region (Potts, 2012). According to the optimist, urbanization could benefit from economies of scale, accelerate provision of infrastructure and growth of industries, industries could benefit from concentration of suppliers and consumers with big and diverse labour market which ultimately create centers of innovation, commerce, and administration. The pessimism associated with urbanization relates largely to the deficit of urban infrastructure which is critical to the liveability, employability, manageability and serviceability of these cities. According to Abbot (1996), the four facets of infrastructure delivery (i.e. legitimacy, affordability, institutional capacity and use convenience) either as a technical or social service are under serious pressure in Africa. It is disturbing how many governments in Africa possess the political will, fiscal resources and professional capacity to provide the rapidly growing urban populations with adequate urban infrastructures and services.

Part 2 – The Nature of Infrastructure Deficit and Demand

It is argued that Africa lacks adequate social and physical infrastructures and services which constitute the key constraints to short- and medium-term poverty reduction in Africa (TMSA, 2012). Available facts (ADB, 2009) indicates that access to electricity is 30% of the population compared to rates ranging from 70 to 90% for other developing regions including Asia, Central America and the Caribbean, Middle-East and Latin America. Likewise, the same statistics shows that trans-boundary water resources constitute approximately 80% of Africa’s freshwater resources, yet current levels of water withdrawal are low with 3.8% of water resources developed for water supply, irrigation and hydropower use, and with only about 18% of the irrigation potential being exploited. Similarly, access to water and sanitation are for 65% and 38% respectively of the population compared to water access rates of 80% to 90% for the other developing regions (ADB, 2009).

In addition, Africa records a telecommunication’s penetration rate of about 6% compared to an average of 40% for the other developing regions, and a very low penetration rate for broadband services. Also, the same report observed that Africa has a road access rate of 34% compared to 50% for the other developing regions. Freight cost in Africa is equivalent to 10–25% of total value of imports in 2007 compared to a global average of 5.5% in 2007 (ADB, 2009).

The challenge of urban governance for infrastructure in Africa therefore is increasing urban poverty and inequality. This wide gap between urbanization and urban infrastructure delivery is because the population is growing faster than the available infrastructures. The surplus population, deficit infrastructures and the growing poverty in urban centers are in turn compounding urban dilemmas. Urbanization is pushing the demand for infrastructure beyond the resources of city administrators. First, there is pressure on the few available infrastructure leading to their deterioration as a result of overuse or abuse. Second, there is dearth of resources to carry out systematic stock up, routine maintenance or strategic replacement of damaged infrastructure or their accessories as it is the practice in more developed regions which account for infrastructure deficit. Third, consequently, the infrastructure deficit limits the productivity at the level of individuals, households, nations and regions. This low productivity therefore becomes the underlying factor for the high incidence of poverty and inequality in Africa which is intricately linked to unsatisfactory indices of well-being as reported in UN and World Bank statistics (WDI, 2014).

Indeed, infrastructure deficit has been found to contribute to Africa’s stunted growth and even a reduction of economic growth by 2% a year (ADB, 2009). The demand for infrastructure, both by consumers and by companies is much higher than the amount invested. In Africa, to reach the 7% annual growth calculated to be the requirement to meet the MDGs by 2015 for instance would require infrastructure investments of about fifteen percent of GDP, or around US$93 billion a year (ADB, 2009). In weaker regions, over thirty-seven percent of GDP would be required. According to African Development Bank (2009), in sub-Saharan Africa, the government spends around US$9.4 billion out of a total of US$24.9 billion. These efforts of government aside being inadequate in the context of the expanding populations are taking place within weak policies and institutions and paltry budgetary provisions for infrastructure. Recent global crisis including fluctuating global prices and unstable incomes for African nations are further exacerbating the situations which calls for proactive approach for sustainability.


Considering the critical role of infrastructure to the functioning of cities, productivity and poverty reduction in Africa, there is increasing need for new insights, deeper perspectives, and analytical discourse of the relationships between cities, infrastructure, productivity and poverty. This will lead to new ideas, local solutions and proactive measures for managing urbanization in Africa especially with insights into best practices of sustainability around the world. The aspiration to eradicate poverty and inequality from Africa should be clearly understood and articulated using radical, fundamental, structural and sustainable approaches of analysing urban dilemmas, urban governance and urban infrastructure. This should entail properly showing the linkages between cities, infrastructures and poverty/inequality especially as the world transit from MDGs to SDGs. In this way African cities and citizens can be transformed to fulfil the expectations of both those who live in them and those who have to depend on them for services and livelihoods.


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Author Biography

Peter EliasPeter Elias teaches and conducts researches at both the postgraduate and undergraduate levels in the Department of Geography, University of Lagos. His research interests include Urban and Regional Planning, Urbanization and Environment, Sustainable Transformation in Urbanized Contexts, Inclusive and Sustainable Urban Development, Landforms and Land Use Planning, Environmental Change and Climate Adaptation Planning. He obtained his doctoral degree in 2010 from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria specializing in Soils and Land Use Planning. He is a member of many international scientific research networks including UGEC, UCCRN, CITICON, CHANS-Net and PERN. He is a Fellow of START African GEC Research Programme. He was selected into the World Social Sciences Fellows Programme in 2014 and was nominated by International Social Sciences Council (ISSC) on the experts for Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) in 2015.

Contact email:  pelias@unilag.edu.ng or po_elias@yahoo.com


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Dialogues of sustainable urbanisation: Social science research and transitions to urban contexts Copyright © 2015 by Peter Elias, University of Lagos, Nigeria is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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