Can the charter city model offer an alternative to Africa’s urban development challenges?

African cities are a complex combination of social, economic, and political landscapes with specific urban planning and management needs to keep up with the process of urbanisation. Government at both national and local levels, the process of decentralisation, investment, and the development of infrastructure, as well as new technologies, play an instrumental role in addressing the specific needs of these urban areas. Governments rely on many African urban cities, which share the mantle of being economic hubs of their respective countries or capital cities or both, for foreign investments whether through foreign direct investments (FDI) or through trade relations. Urban cities in Africa are the base for multinational corporations, serve as political nuclei by hosting the headquarters of continental and regional bodies, and act as diplomatic hubs by hosting foreign embassies and facilitating foreign relations.

Furthermore, they fit the recently coined description of “cities as international actors” in the sense that they participate in a number of relations with cities in other regions of the world. More importantly, these cities have relations with cities despite their respective countries, at national level and foreign policy level, not having established official relations with each other. In one way or another, this shapes transformation in the continent.

For instance, Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa (noted as the continental capital) is home to the African Union (AU) headquarters, making it a de facto international actor and a role player in discussing the development of the continent. Research on the role of certain urban cities (like Juba, Goma, or Bujumbura) in urban conflict has shaped the security agenda at the continental level and even at the UN Security Council level. On the economic spectrum, capital and metropolitan cities (such as Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg in South Africa), have displayed a growing importance in the operations of their countries’ economic diplomacy.

Lastly, the abovementioned cities, along with other urban cities such as Cairo, Lagos, Accra, Nairobi, Luanda and Casablanca are the economic hubs of the continent, integral to the region’s economic trajectory and affairs on the international stage. Thus, in this sense, they move beyond being ‘global connectors’ to becoming global actors.


Although Sub-Saharan Africa’s (SSA) urban cities are considered to have the fastest global urban growth rate, a large proportion of the population in the region is excluded from the urbanisation process. Urban cities across the continent also face serious challenges. The most common is dense populations: Africa’s urban cities comprise 472 million citizens, almost 50% of the continent’s population. Rapid urban migration will see this figure double in just two and a half decades. Population growth in the largest cities comes at 3.5% annually. Other challenges they face include overcrowded city spaces, congestion, crime, rundown buildings, and high youth unemployment, poor and inadequate service delivery because cities cannot keep pace with rapidly increasing populations, and persistent graft and looting of city funds by city officials. Lastly, governance issues, more than population density, are at the core of Africa’s inability to keep up with the urban migration phenomenon that has become the norm across the continent.

Having begun in the early 1980s, the decentralisation process has declined, leaving African cities with little to no authority or autonomy to accommodate the rapidly increasing rates of urbanisation. This in part due to the rigidity of the laws in those countries, the slow rate at which process decentralisation occurs, as well as the lack trade liberalisation and openness of the markets that would likely take most control away from the government. This raises the question of how African cities can continue to develop economically if authority is centralised. From the late 1980s, the process of decentralisation gained traction within African states and 50% of municipal assemblies and executives in Africa were elected rather than appointed by the central government. This had declined to 25% by 2017, with the share of countries with elected assemblies and appointed executives also falling from 23% to 16%.

Moreover, questions such as “how can city officials ensure that this development will trickle down to common citizens who have flocked city centres? Is there an alternative to conventional urban African cities, and if so, what is it?” warrant inquiry. The answers to these questions are not simple, even when new concepts such as charter cities are thrown into the mix as possible solutions. Conventional cities across the globe are stuck in limbo because they are poorly governed. Experts note that with urbanisation occurring at an increasingly fast pace in Africa, new urban spaces are required.

“Africa’s urban cities do not possess the special jurisdiction and autonomy necessary to execute on the tasks needed to accommodate the highest urbanisation rates in the world.”

Charter cities may offer a solution, as they would be cities constructed with the main emphasis of generating wealth and contributing to the development process on the continent. They have potential to spearhead “growth-boosting economic reforms” and are unencumbered by administrative bottlenecks that cities are subjected to. They are able to implement governance reforms and create various economic activities, as well as provide housing, recreation, and services for large populations. Urban researcher at the Charter Cities Institute, Heba Elhanafy, explains that “the perfect charter city – or the modern charter city – is usually at least two hours away from a major city or airport. It will still be connected to the existing metropolis, minimising costly investment in infrastructure while retaining access to the labour market of the nearby city. Its distance will allow it to have sufficient land to scale and develop a sustainable internal economy.”

Moreover, when it comes to governance, charter cities would have unique jurisdiction, and can overcome the many obstacles of graft, corruption, and bribery that normally confront centralised governance in development projects.


Politics, as always, is proving to be an uphill task for city development in Africa’s urban areas. According to the Charter Cities Institute (CCI), a non-profit organisation dedicated to creating the ecosystem for charter cities, only 10 out of 54 countries in Africa have cities with clearly defined constitutional, statutory, and regulatory responsibilities in their countries. A large majority of the rest are missing relevant pieces of legislation or regulation, and others must contend with inconsistent and conflicting legal frameworks, ambiguities that often lead to the arbitrary and extra-legal recentralisation of authority and control by the central government. South AfricaZambia and Zimbabwe are some of the countries with cities that enjoy full authority to determine their tax base and rates, to collect revenue and have access to the financial markets. Cities in most other countries are confronted with significant national government control over taxes and access to financial markets, limiting their ability to act independently in order to provide services and infrastructure.

Charter cities

Charter cities are defined as new cities endowed with new and unique authority designed to foster economic development. The purpose of this authority or special jurisdiction is to allow city officials to adopt the best practices for commercial governance. Unlike the initial description of charter cities which underscores that a high-income nation would act as a ‘guarantor for the new city in developing nation’, experts encourage a new understanding of charter cities as a public-private partnership between city developers and host countries. As Mark Lutter writes in City Journal, this would produce better results “by setting up a governance structure that doesn’t infringe on sovereignty but that still prioritizes economic and governance success.”

Moreover, when it comes to governance and regulatory issues, Elhanafy from the CII notes that the government should consider the type of regulatory governance that prioritises an open market and ensuring effective public goods delivery to cater to the needs of its residents. For this to work, decentralisation at the city level is necessary for the ability to respond to both residential and corporate needs without national government support. In Africa, three charter cities are currently under development: Enyimba and Talent cities in Nigeria, and Nkwashi city in Zambia.

Currently, about 60% of countries in Africa have democratically elected municipal assemblies and executives. The practice of transitioning to nominally local control of Africa’s cities, on the other hand, has proven to be a largely symbolic rather than substantive exercise. Africa’s urban cities do not possess the special jurisdiction and autonomy necessary to execute on the tasks needed to accommodate the highest urbanisation rates in the world.

More in-depth theoretical inquiry into the charter city model is needed, especially where it can be included in discussions around city diplomacy and cities as international actors. While the concept of a charter city is exciting, it should be noted that theoretical inquiry and knowledge on the subject, as well as guidelines for the practices and implementation of charter cities, are limited.

The way forward

The CCI recommends that if Africa’s urban cities seek to enjoy adequate provision of infrastructure and services, there needs to be complete decentralisation of government control, not only where and when it suits the government. The responsibility for delivering most infrastructure services to residents should lie with local governments. Furthermore, the decision-making authority of African urban cities, which includes the ability to raise revenue and not their technical capabilities, is the primary constraint to effectively providing service delivery. When local governments combine decision-making authority with revenue-raising authority, service delivery can be improved.

The CCI notes that urbanisation without the support of industrialisation has undermined the extent to which the process has assisted with poverty alleviation across Africa, as it did for China, Europe, and Europe’s former settler colonies. It will serve us well to keep track of just how much jurisdiction the three African charter cities currently being developed are endowed with, how much authority the central government imposes over them, and whether they will fit into discussions on cities as international actors, provided they attract significant foreign investment and are for the citizens of these respective countries.

More than this, one can only hope that, because charter cities are generally still within driving distance of megacities, they will draw more people away from urban cities so as to help alleviate congestion, urban decay, and urban population density, as well as youth unemployment. Whether or not the charter city alternative will pick up pace across the continent is a question that warrants full academic inquiry, but what is worth noting is that while they may provide an alternative to conventional urban African cities, charter cities are not an escape from the urban population crisis and economic stagnation that confronts the continent.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of ACSUS.