Africa's Urban Realities - Professor Leke Oduwaye

INTERVIEW: “Cities and Urbanization in Africa”

Prof Oduwaye shares his view on the dynamics of cities and urbanization in Africa.

Prof. Leke  Oduwaye  is a Town Planner and Architect. A professor of Urban and Regional Planning, University of Lagos. He leads the African Urbanization Dynamics hub at the Centre of Excellence in Urbanization and Habitable Cities at the University of Lagos.  He  has researched extensively into pro-poor urban planning and governance with specific focus on the adoption of co-production processes and efficient spatial land use planning and this has resulted in publications in such highly reputable journals as the International Journal of Housing Markets Analysis, Journal of Regional Development Studies, the African Review of Economic and Finance and also, African Research Review.  Some of his researches are available here.


What are the intractable urbanization problems confronting African cities?

We have different school of thoughts about people having rights; city is not a place for everybody, if you don’t have what it takes to survive in a city it is unfortunate that it is not a place for you. Cities are not casinos where you try your luck, you need to have what it takes in terms of skills, and ethnicity at times plays a role. In Africa, our cities are rarely planned from the scratch, our city just grow naturally. So, some people have natural rights to be/live in a city, they are called land owners because they have rights to stay there as first settlers. In a culture where cities are planned (like Abuja, Nigeria) the city is meant to locate where its economic and social class can afford.

There can’t be equality in cities because cities are like products, if you try to force yourself into an area where you don’t belong, there will be some harsh economic, social and cultural consequences. There are certain places in Lagos that are high-brow areas but have squatter settlements surrounding them, there might be need for those squatters to offer some services but that doesn’t mean they have (legal) rights or to develop houses in those areas. These are the major problems of Africa countries. All these might not sound sympathetic but that is the reality of an advance urban system, people are meant to settle in the right location where they can afford and people should equip themselves in order to fit into the city.

City has a way of structuring itself and this has to be respected, these are peculiarities of the African urban reality and spatial configuration. The issue of land in Africa is a very critical thing as there are different land tenure systems in Africa, apart from the economic system, what really configure the city is the land tenure system, how people have access to ownership of land is what transforms into the urban landscape. In Nigeria, people have been probing that the land use law be removed from the constitution but the procedure is so tight and cumbersome. If indigenes are allowed to hold on to land the land use problem would have been worse but that doesn’t mean that the land law was able to resolve the land issues (it was set up for).

“Investigation should be made into the issue of land ownership”


Land laws should be dynamic such that parliament can easily legislate on them and make them amenable to socio-economic realities. The tenure system is what we see as the result of our cityscape, our cityscape is so much fragmented, people developing land on small plots and these have economic consequence on the prospect of the city. In Lagos, for example; in 15years time the cityscape of Lagos would have changed because the master plan is really trying to correct so many things, over time, the structure of Lagos will change. The structure of a city structure and infrastructure should translate into what government is making as revenue. In Ghana, the issue of land is so terrible and turbulent than what we have in Nigeria; therefore, investigation should be made into these issues. A win-win game can be adopted because people like ownership (of land).

What has been the response of African leaders to these problems?

“The City is a flexible, dynamic organic thing; it is not a casino but a location for prosperity”


This is more of a management issue, we have so many people that are of the school of thought  that the city is an organic system and should be allowed to express itself but set up a management system to guide it. The wide growth of human being depends on the type of education, religion, social mix or environments which are what influences the prospect of each family and this is how City also behaves.

Some people belong to the school of thoughts that we don’t need to plan for a city because we can’t achieve the plan but I am of the school of thought that a worse plan is better than no plan. Political election can change the structure of the city because of the city’s dynamism, each political leader have their own priority as they come to rule and this change in priority affects the structure of the city. Economic structure can change the face of a city, oil price for example is affecting the land use structure of Lagos, when there was oil boom people were building filling station but the drop in the price of oil’s profit margin has made some filling stations close down. Therefore, the city is such a dynamic flexible organic thing that for us to even use management we have to be on top of the game, that is, there has to be a management system that will be moving along with the changes, this is possible if we have the right governance structure on how to manage a city.

“.....Planning should change


Most African cities now build new towns, like we have Abuja, Eko Atlantic cities in Nigeria but our existing towns are so much reluctant to change. A professor in South Africa that I worked with called these cities ‘Africa fantasies’ because they are not really in tune with the African reality, they are too much and we need to ask if Africans can afford such an high profile cities. To build and make cities, one has to be a crazy dreamer, one has to think out of the box and be realistic if it is something achievable. A city should be planned in such a way that it will be in consonance with the reality of the economic capacity of its people and I think that is where the real gap is.

Who should be responsible for carrying out the economic development that will help people fit into city, is it the government or the people’s responsibility?

Cities are regions for prosperity and I am of the school of thought that we should urbanize as much as possible and I think we should develop our skills, we should develop good products such that people will know Africa cities, these products can now be used to attract human resources and people will make more money. City is not a casino and yet it is a location for prosperity, this is like a paradox. The raw energy does not matter in cities; it is the skill one can contribute. The summary is that cities should identify their strengths, build on these strengths, and build human capacity in those strength areas then there will be more money to provide services, make technologies and this is how our cities should look like not what we have now that our cities are so informal, the activities there are so informal. If this is the reality of the African cities, let us make sure to make the best use of our reality, since our cities are informal and the activities there also, how do we now  tap into the informal sector to find a way to really formalize it and that is what the economy can provide for now. We are in the era of competition, probably we are not getting it right in our educational system, whether it is our orientation that isn’t right that we don’t just have the skill to produce products and compete with the world, it is not just there and the Chinese are producing things for us at cheaper rate and if we can import at lesser cost than producing, why produce? I think it is the skills matter, the skills  are not just there so we have to import and when we import our industries collapse and when our industries collapse there will be unemployment and people will have to survive. Then  people start thinking out of the box to make products that has (negative) health consequences leading to informal production. Professionals are one of the major problems of the city structure, because as a professional, you run into the danger of not solving the problem but making your own money.

How do we solve these problems?

To solve these problems, there is need for collaboration in all fields in order to see the big picture of what the problem is. We shouldn’t work in compartment or silos. Most government looks at the economic and social aspect of urbanization because when you fix the economic aspect you are likely to solve the social problem like insecurity. The incubation period of environmental problem takes a little longer time unlike economic and social problem. Many governments do not embrace the culture of planning and this might be that they understand the value. Planning has to change with time and we should stop trying to achieve expired plan. The urban governance structure is not using the right model; once we don’t have the right model the problem will remain unresolved.

“To solve urbanization problems in Africa; there is need for collaboration in all fields”


 There should be a central point of control in every state and that is the Mayor of the city so that take the economic possession of each place and tidy them up, there is need to have a person that we look at the city as one piece and will be able to tap into the economy of the city, generate revenue from it, as well as know the priority areas so that our city can be competitive and attractive. We need to brand our cities and whatever we are branding needs to be authentic and this has to obey the rule of law because people want to see justice. To package the city for global competiveness, we need a wide array of people that can brainstorm so that we will know how to really synchronise the economic prosperity of the city.

Citation: Oduwaye, L. (2018, February 12). Personal Interview. Available at

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this interview are those of the respondent and do not   necessarily represent the position of the Centre of Housing Studies.


Interview conducted by Dr. Basirat Oyalowo and Oluwayemisi Soneye






Post Reply