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«Straddling the Divides: Remaking Associational Life in the Informal African City ABDOUMALIQ SIMONE Introduction The past decade has witnessed marked ...»

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International Journal of Urban and Regional Research Volume 25.1 March 2001

Straddling the Divides: Remaking

Associational Life in the Informal

African City



The past decade has witnessed marked changes in the nature of African urban economies.

There have been substantial changes in the role and operation of public sectors, a

redeployment of resources and priorities, and an intensification of labor-intensive strategies for securing livelihood (Rogerson, 1997; Farvacque-Vitkovic and Godin, 1998; Economic Commission for Africa, 1999). With these changes have also come significant shifts in the configuration of urban associational life (Bangura, 1994; Kastir, 1998). New, formalized vehicles of association, most often in the form of community-based and non-governmental organizations, have proliferated (Tandon, 1995; Fox, 1996; Hoogvelt, 1997; Cleaver, 1999).

These associations have taken advantage of a generally more open climate of expression and for self-initiated organization in the context of increasing democratization (Sandbrook, 1996). On the other hand, the attrition of public sectors from service provision under the regimes of economic restructuration is also seen as responsible for the growth of new associations. Urban neighborhoods in many instances must now practice a kind of self-management if improvements in living conditions are to take place (UNCHS, 1996; Rakodi, 1997; Mitullah and Kibwana, 1998; Werna, 1998). The exigencies of such self-management have given rise to a variety of more loose-knit, ephemeral social formations. In this article, I wish to highlight how such social formations in three African urban settings serve as important sites for rehearsing capacities related to such selfmanagement. Here, I emphasize capacities related to balancing divergent trajectories of what is entailed in ‘making do’ in urban Africa today.

My intention is to delineate the factors which contribute to these divergent trajectories. Following this sketch, I present three examples of such ephemeral social formations in different cities in which I have worked. I will then provide a brief analysis about what I think these formations accomplish, and conclude with remarks about how these formations might be further situated in terms of some emergent trends related to urban governance.

Trajectories of urbanization The conditions which have been relied upon to sustain dynamic and stable urban quarters, fraught though most have been with major problems concerning urban services, ineffective management etc., are becoming increasingly strained (Dey and Westendorff, 1996; Monga, 1996; Tripp, 1997). These strains are sometimes political as quarters are ß Joint Editors and Blackwell Publishers Ltd 2001. Published by Blackwell Publishers, 108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JF, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.


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given more official responsibility to manage different urban services (Brett, 1996). This responsibility generates new modalities of collaboration, but also intensifies competition (Schubeler, 1996). In some instances, communities have become polarized along lines of ¨ social stratification that were more open-ended in the past (Al-Kenz, 1995; Devisch, 1995; Nyamnjoh and Rowlands, 1998; Douma, 1999; Diouf et al., 1999).

The strains are also economic in that employment of any kind — formal, informal, self-employment — is increasingly difficult to access (Sethuraman, 1997; Collier and Gunning, 1998; ILO, 1998). As a result, formerly well-elaborated extended family and residential support systems find themselves overburdened (Kanji, 1995; Harts-Broekhuis, 1997; Robertson, 1997). It is estimated that roughly 75% of basic needs are provided informally in the majority of African cities, and that processes of informalization are expanding across discrete sectors and domains of urban life (van Arkadie, 1995; King, 1996). Whereas unemployment has long been a persistent reality for African cities, available compensations now require more drastic action (Lugalla, 1995; Emizet, 1998;

Reno, 1998; Roitman, 1998). Floods of cheap imports made possible through trade liberalization shrink local production systems (Aryeetey and Nissanke, 1998; Mkandawire and Soludo, 1998). At the same time, various components of economic rationalization have opened up possibilities for the appropriation of formerly public assets — land, enterprises, services — by private interests, particularly for the emerging elite who are well-positioned in the apparatuses managing structural adjustment (Elbadawi and Ndulu, 1996; Phillips, 1999).

The convergence of structural adjustment, globalization, political change and trade liberalization has also extended and intensified unconventional cross-border trade throughout the continent. Here, often substantial amounts of capital and capacity are deployed to elaborate alternative practices and circuits for the movement of raw materials and processed consumables. Such activities bring together a melange of characters, including well-off formal businesspersons, soldiers and militias, middlemen of various nationalities and petty traders. Unconventional trade is most elaborated in states where chronic political crisis has undermined regulatory systems and where formal institutions increasingly function and retain some level of authority through their participation in such unconventional trading regimes (Dongala, 1993; Ellis and MacGaffey, 1996).

Power in African cities has largely centered on the capacity to mobilize low-cost labor and compliance, while cultivating loyalty on the basis of servicing the interests and opportunities of given clients (Bayart, 1992; Ekeh, 1994; Cooper, 1996). As the capacity of patrons to ‘produce the goods’ wanes, religious and ethnic obligations are reasserted (Young, 1994). As African cities have been long-term sites for dialogues or ‘arguments’ about how various components of tradition are to be valued and used, these arguments are getting shriller and in some sense less discursive (De Boeck, 1998; Watts, 1999; Bernault, 2000). In other words, the politics of claims and negotiation are becoming more narrow and violent.

Despite the concerted efforts at municipal restructuring and institution-building that have taken place over the last decade, many processes of city politics and administration have become increasingly informalized (Mabogunje, 1994). Many formal institutions now exist simply as a context in which a wide range of informal business and activity can be pursued (Mbembe and Roitman, 1996; Joseph, 1997; Ayittey, 1998). Thus, institutions lose the capacity they might have had to facilitate a shared public interest. Through the state’s arbitrary actions, in terms of how decisions are made, resources applied and formalities distributed (licenses, permits, authorizations etc.), the uncertainty which already characterizes much of everyday urban life is intensified. African societies tend to combine an intermixing of heavily calcified social structures, networks of personal relations assuming varying but substantial roles in the elaboration of politics and accumulation, and highly mobile, varying relations among these structures and networks which are usually difficult to pin-down and specify (Bayart et al., 1999).

ß Joint Editors and Blackwell Publishers Ltd 2001 104 AbdouMaliq Simone While a vital energy is mobilized to make do, the insides of associations, households and institutions seem now to live with a nearly constant sense of edginess. The sense of generosity and moral responsibility evinced in African cities remains substantial. But, at the same time, corruption too is massive, as is the sense that anyone can pretty much get away with anything. These extremes of culpability make it difficult for ordinary citizens to get a handle on what is going on, to commit themselves to particular courses of action, or invest in aspirations, livelihoods or projects which require progressive, step-by-step planning and evolution. One is increasingly forced to move among various, and usually contradictory, modalities of getting things done (Chabal and Daloz, 1999).

Ensuring the suitability and sustenance of collective efforts, as well as deterring debilitating conflicts within important networks of social relations, becomes critical but also highly labor-intensive. The scope for independent action is potentially constrained in favor of maintaining ways of cooperating that are functional for the largest numbers of related persons. While this process doesn’t rule out the capacity for innovation, changes can be subject to complex negotiations. These negotiations can themselves act as a deterrent for more dynamic or militant forms of collective action (Berry, 1995).

Ephemeral social formations Given these conditions, this article explores a broad range of tactics and social formations being used to access livelihood opportunities in precarious urban situations. Now, more often than not, these opportunities are to be found outside life in the immediate community (World Bank, 1999). Tactics must be pursued which attempt to mitigate the potentially fragmenting and divisive impacts that such external orientations might have.

If African cities are increasingly informalized, how do urban residents from different walks of life acquire the capacities to deal with these informalities? How do residents with limited means use informality to expand their access to resources, opportunity and autonomous action? How do they rehearse a capacity to balance increasingly competing needs for social cohesion and access to opportunity? What kinds of sites or ‘venues’ are put together for these tasks? These are the questions that will be taken up here.

The notion of capacity-building I use here is a very specific one: it is a capacity to negotiate trajectories of urbanization which simultaneously move in two directions. On the one hand, the ‘undoing’ of the modernist trappings of many African cities throws many urban residents ‘back’ onto reinvented traditions of social cohesion (Comaroff and Comaroff, 1993; Geschiere, 1997). This ‘undoing’ reflects the combined effects of economic structural adjustment and the difficulties entailed in relying upon nascent industrialization as a means to spur economic growth in an era of globalization (Bloom and Sachs, 1998). It also reflects urban Africa’s increasing lack of confidence in modernization (Monga, 1996). On the other hand, these trajectories render such traditions problematic, as the pressures increase on residents to seek out new opportunities to make a living in a lot of different places where they will probably reside only temporarily (CINERGIE, 1995).

My contention here is that various ephemeral social formations are put together and used as sites for rehearsing a capacity to effectively deal with these divergent trajectories.

These formations incorporate large measures of fluidity and malleability. But they also attempt to generate regularized practices of getting things done, of lending a measure of stability and confidence to precarious environments. Specifically, these ephemeral social formations attempt to balance the need for more exterior orientations, in terms of accessing greater opportunities for livelihood, while preserving experiences of local solidarity.

The ephemeral social formations do not necessarily replace the need for or belie the fact that substantial developments in formal institution-building and municipal governance are taking place. Nor do they necessarily compensate for the limitations of these developments. These more informal means of collaboration run parallel to, and sometimes intersect with, various aspects of municipal reform.

ß Joint Editors and Blackwell Publishers Ltd 2001 Remaking associational life in the informal African city 105 Before presenting several examples of these formations, I want to emphasize that I employ a limited use of the notion ‘African’ cities. I do not want to establish a geographical specificity, or a particularly ‘African’ modality of urbanization. The impacts of different pre-colonial forms of urbanization, colonial logic and administration, and postcolonial development on African cities make them heterogeneous in their character.

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