President Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique pledged his support for a new decentralisation drive by mayors across Africa so that rapidly growing towns and cities can get better service delivery of water, sanitation, electricity and other essential municipal services.
In a keynote address to the Third Africities Summit in Yaoundé, Cameroon, Mr. Chissano, who currently holds the rotating chairmanship of the African Union, proposed that African ministers of decentralisation and local government meet to discuss implementation of the urban agenda of the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD).
"Decentralisation is the best way forward for our countries," he told the gathering of an estimated 700 mayors and local government representatives. "It enables our populations to elect their own representatives and participate directly in the management of their local affairs."
Alluding to the fact that 70 per cent of urban Africa lives in slums, he said the implementation of NEPAD goals sprung from the idea of a new partnership among local communities, their municipalities, and governments.
"Taking the example of my own country, Mozambique, we observe that it is in the second biggest city (Beira), that we have the highest rate of AIDS cases. There are other problems such as a lack of water. When there is no water in the countryside, we can complain. But when there is no water in the cities, it is catastrophic," he said.
"If we must centre our attention on the population, we must, a priori, look for the means of organising the population to participate even at the sub-regional level, in the problems that directly concern them," Mr. Chissano said. He addressed the conference on Tuesday before departing to Abuja, Nigeria, for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.
The theme of the Africities summit this year, is on access to ensuring basic services in African towns and cities. Mr. Chissano said the Union could not work without integrating the municipal and local government elements of the Africities forum which meets every three years.
UN-HABITAT Executive Director, Mrs. Anna Tibaijuka, who also addressed the conference, said that the AU Decision on Promoting the Development of Sustainable Cities and Towns in Africa in June last year was a mandate from the top political body in Africa enabling UN-HABITAT to move its agenda forward in this context.
She told a news conference that she had been appalled at the conditions of poverty she found during a visit to the Yaoundé slum, Mvog-ada: "Mvog-ada says it all. It is characteristic, but perhaps not the worst. The United Nations does not believe that we should have neighbourhoods like Mvog-ada."
Saying it had taken half an hour to walk just a short distance through the narrow, muddy passageways between dwellings where more than 20,000 people live in overcrowded conditions on just 70 hectares of land, Mrs. Tibaijuka said that UN-HABITAT and the office of the United Nations Development Programme in Cameroon would launch a new project to help alleviate the situation.
But she said bringing better conditions in the neighbourhood would have to be a long-term project because it could not be done overnight. UN-HABITAT is tasked with coordinating action world-wide towards meeting the Millennium Development Goal of significantly improving the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by the year 2020. Bringing improvements in such areas was a "slow, painstaking process".
UN-HABITAT representatives presided at a series of workshops at the Africities Summit with mayors and other local government representatives on water and sanitation, safer cities and good urban governance. The conclusions drawn from some of these meetings, will be incorporated into a final declaration at the end of the of the 2-6 December deliberations.
In an impassioned address to the Africities conference earlier, Mrs. Tibaijuka said of slum conditions in Africa: "It is a disturbing fact that two out of five of these urban residents today live in circumstances deemed to be life and health threatening. Be it my home country, Tanzania, or our host country, Cameroon, the problems we confront here are quite similar."
Before winding up a three-day visit, Mrs. Tibaijuka also toured another poverty stricken neighbourhood, Nylon, in Douala.