Review: The arts of citizenship in African cities

Editor(s) Mamadou Diouf & Rosalind Fredericks
Publisher Palgrave Macmillan
Year 2015

Cities of the South are growing rapidly. In the case of Africa a near majority of Africans live in cities, yet this growth has been accompanied by a persistent dominant framing of cities in the Global South as fundamentally dysfunctional and in need of external intervention. In response, a growing body of scholarship has sought to develop theory from the South seeking both to contribute to a reconceptualization of the ‘city’ and to decolonize urban theory (Connell, 2007; Edensor & Jayne, 2012; Robinson, 2002; Simone; 2004, 2008, 2010; Mbembe & Nuttall, 2004; Pieterse, 2008; Parnell & Oldfield, 2014, Myers, 2011; Roy, 2011).

It is within this larger intervention that this collection of essays, The Arts of Citizenship in African Cities is located. Building on this growing body of work, widely referred to as Southern Urbanism, the essays each aim to contribute to an interrogation of the conventional narrative of the non-western city as dysfunctional and disorderly, focusing specifically on Africa. As a counter to simplistic narratives, the essays offer nuanced ethnographic analyses of everyday politics and the contested paths through which citizenship claims to the city are performed. At the same time, the collection endorses Roy & Ong’s (2011) analysis of a theoretical impasse defining mainstream work on non-western cities, which either reduces the urban condition to the product of global capitalism or subaltern resistance (following postcolonial theory), arguing instead for an ‘ethnographic turn’ as a third way in making sense of the urban condition. As such the collection “privileges the below-the-radar, ordinary, and daily negotiations through which emergent configurations of citizenship are being forged, without neglecting ‘the impositions of global forces of capitalism…’ or waxing ‘romantic about the difficulties of putting new citizenships into practice’ (Holston, 2010: 9)” (Diouf & Fredericks, 2015: 5).

The essays are concerned with exploring the experimental and negotiated dimensions of citizenship, employing the term the ‘arts of citizenship’ to capture this fluid conception of making claims to the rights to the city. Furthermore, this examination is located specifically at the intersection of two key themes: infrastructures and spaces of belonging. Beginning with the former, the collection aims to contribute to considering contestations surrounding infrastructures, how technologies of rule are materialised in the built form, and the everyday practices engaged in transforming these. With respect to the latter, the essays tend toward a relational understanding of the production of spaces of belonging, by both paying attention to the emergence of cities within global uneven relations and emphasising ongoing multiple contestations of the materialities and representations of space.

AbdouMaliq Simone’s chapter contributes to his larger oeuvre concerned with the possibilities and productive relationships that materialize through the everyday practices of urban residents. Specifically through mapping out the cartographies of contestation, connection and exchange directed toward the mobilization of resources, he argues that cities in the South can be seen to perform the role of laboratories for nation-building. The challenge for Simone is not to oppose these urban practices but to find ways to incorporate these within formal spheres of governance.

The importance of Rosalind Fredricks’ contribution is to offer a view into the place of art in the practice of democratic politics. Specifically she explores why rap emerged as a medium of youth protest during the 2012 elections in Senegal, through tracing the strategies and politics of the Y’en a Marre youth movement. She argues that hip hop was enrolled by urban youth as an instrument through which to make new claims on the city and nation, through challenging geographies of exclusion and forging alternative geographies of citizenship.

Whilst historical in its focus, Remy Bazenguissa-Ganga’s essay operates within a similar register to Fredericks, by examining the embodiment of spaces and practices of belonging. Specifically, he examines the ways in which social practices of beautification are reflective of arts of citizenship. Through chronicling beautification practices – of houses and bodies – during both the revolutionary and democratic phases of the postcolonial period in Congo Brazzaville, he shows the evolution and interconnection between economic landscapes and beautification.

Concerned also with notions of the production of spaces of belonging, Jinny Prais’ chapter offers a historical study of the ways in which an urban professional elite in Accra Ghana, during the colonial interwar years, worked toward reworking colonial imagery. Prais documents the writing practices of this group, specifically their contribution to urban newspapers on popular culture especially on dance and nightlife. He argues that these editorials reflected efforts to form an alternative vision of the city, in defiance of the ethnicity-based mapping of the city associated with indirect rule, contributing instead to a mapping of the city according to markers of class and social status.

The chapter by Christine Ludl builds further on developing a complex understanding of belonging through focusing on Malian and Senegalese migrants in inner-city Johannesburg. In asking questions about mobility, diversity and the city she resists a depiction of migrants as either transnationals connected to their country of origin or cosmopolitans adapting to diverse cultures. Instead Ludl shows the ambiguities of practices of belonging and community for each of these groups.

Hannah Appel’s chapter is particularly powerful in examining the relationship between oil capital, the state and emergent infrastructure in Malabo, capital of Equatorial Guinea. She examines the production of infrastructural enclaves and the socio-economic relations essential to the support of the extractive oil industry, specifically exceptional practices and arrangements between oil capital and state interests. She goes further by highlighting the ways in which these necessary relationships are also scripted out of the dominant narrative in order to support its continuation.

Emily Brownell’s essay explores discourse on waste and sanitation in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania through examining the master plans for the city from 1940 to 1979. Specifically, she explores the relationship between narratives of dirt and disorder and how these were enrolled in supporting forms of urban control. Similarly Giles Omezi examines master plans in the case of Lagos, Nigeria, from 1960 to 1980. Specifically, he explores the ways in which notions of modernity came to be reflected in the material form of the city through large-scale infrastructural interventions.

The chapters by Ruth Marshall and Adedamola Osinulu examine the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), a Pentecostal church in Nigeria. As a mega-church with its own extensive infrastructure, Marshall argues that the church contributes to a de-territorialisation of space through re-imagining the ties that bind people, shifting these beyond urban and rural to other scales and otherworldly arenas. For his part, Osinulu considers the ways in which the spatial dynamics of the city come to be reconstructed and intensified through the church, prompting him to question the role of the church in negotiating the relationship between the citizen and the state.

Related to Marshall’s interest in the spatial imaginings of the city and belonging, Peter Geschiere is also interested in citizens’ conceptions of belonging and community and explores this through the role of the funeral in Cameroon as a ritual of belonging that connects urbanites to their villages of origin. Interestingly, in reflecting on the future of village funerals Geschiere wonders about the role of the Pentecostal church in influencing forms of belonging and specifically how this may impact on burial practices in the future. That is, due to the “distrust of many Pentecostal groups of the village and the family as locations of the devil” (Geschiere, 2015: 63), he asks “Will this encourage new and more urban rituals of burying to confirm new religious forms of community and belonging?” (Geschiere, 2015:63).

As already explained, this collection is positioned within a larger project concerned with contributing to a “re-conceptualization of citizenship and ‘city-ness’ in Africa that offers insight toward recalibrating urban and political theory in general” (Diouf & Feredericks, 2015: 6). With respect to the latter goal of recalibrating urban and political theory in general, this is a lofty objective and a part of a larger longer term project. The feasibility of this and how it will take form still remains to be seen so I will not attempt to evaluate this particular contribution on this point.

On the goal of contributing to a reconceptualization of citizenship, the collection is commendable for offering detailed insights into the emergence of cities through the practices of city-dwellers, and exploring the contested and negotiated ways through which infrastructures and spaces of belonging materialise and are given form. In this exploration of what is termed arts of citizenship, the editors acknowledge that a number of the essays are reflective of what Bayat (2013) refers to as ‘quiet encroachment of the ordinary’. However it is noteworthy that Bayat’s work (2013) firstly clarifies ‘encroachment’ as being upon public goods and the power and property of elite groups. Secondly, he asks the question “how far [can] this quiet encroachment take these actors?” (Bayat, 1997: 64). In response, Bayat (2013) argues that, “The urban grass roots are unlikely to become a more effective player in a larger sense unless they become mobilized on a collective basis … Yet it is crucial to stress that until this is realized …quiet encroachment remains a most viable enabling strategy, which the urban disenfranchised pursue to cause change in their own lives, and in the domains of social policy, urban governance, and public order” (Bayat, 2013: 65). It is this explicit conceptualisation of goals, transformation and power relations that I believe is not sufficiently explored within this collection. The implication is that the idea of an enactment of politics, the attainment of citizenship, and the significance of ‘people as infrastructure’ within a project of emancipation is not sufficiently clarified and grappled with in a critical and reflective manner. Nonetheless, this view should not detract from the strengths of this excellent and thoughtful collection of works.

Suraya Scheba a post-doctoral research fellow at the African Centre for Cities (ACC) at the University of the Cape Town. She forms part of a research team concerned with exploring theories and practices of emancipatory change. Her empirical focus is on carrying out an ethnographic study on urban practices of informality in the low-income community of Delft, Cape Town.


Bayat, A. (1997). Street politics: poor people’s movements in Iran. Columbia University Press.

Bayat, A. (2013). Life as politics: How ordinary people change the Middle East. Stanford University Press.

Connell, R. (2007). Southern theory. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin.

 Edensor, T., & Jayne, M. (Eds.). (2012). Urban theory beyond the West: a world of cities. Routledge.

Holston, J. (2010). Insurgent citizenship: Disjunctions of democracy and modernity in Brazil. Princeton University Press.

Mbembé, J. A., & Nuttall, S. (2004). Writing the world from an African metropolis. Public culture, 16(3), 347-372.

Myers, G. A. (2011). African cities: alternative visions of urban theory and practice. Zed Books Limited.

Parnell, S., & Oldfield, S. (2014). The Routledge handbook on cities of the global south. Routledge.

Pieterse, E. A. (2008). City futures: Confronting the crisis of urban development. Zed Books.

Robinson, J. (2002). Global and world cities: a view from off the map. International journal of urban and regional research, 26(3), 531-554.

Roy, A. (2011). Slumdog cities: rethinking subaltern urbanism. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 35(2), 223-238.

Roy, A., & Ong, A. (Eds.). (2011). Worlding cities: Asian experiments and the art of being global (Vol. 42). John Wiley & Sons.

Simone, A. (2004). For the city yet to come: Changing African life in four cities. Duke University Press.

Simone, A. (2004). People as infrastructure: intersecting fragments in Johannesburg. Public culture, 16(3), 407-429.

Simone, A. (2010). City life from Jakarta to Dakar: movements at the crossroads. Routledge.




Read older posts from this section

Leave a Reply