Let’s talk about Urban Governance − Abidjan, Ivory Coast
By Alexis Gueu
There has been consent in international debates that implementing the SDGs requires approaching them from a local perspective. In this very personal account, Alexis Gueu talks about the challenges the city of Abidjan, Ivory Coast is facing – and the urgent need for the municipality to develop urban governance structures to tackle these problems.
Abidjan is among the largest cities of West Africa, with an area of 422 km² and a population close to six million. The city is facing various problems – and it is lacking functioning urban governance structures to support its citizens in their daily struggles with lack of services, corruption, and crime. It is true that the national and municipal governments are making some efforts – but a great deal remains to be done in order to meet the needs of Abidjan’s residents. Areas of concern are health services, housing, administration, basic services and public transport.
Let’s take a look at the hospitals of Abidjan. The situation is devastating. Not only is the service of poor quality, but the medical staff frequently abandons patients due to patients’ lack of money – thus knowingly shortening someone’s life because the person is poor. In major hospitals, patients are lying on the floor without care. When you bring a seriously ill person to the hospital, you have to make sure in advance that you have enough money, or the patient will not be accepted.
If you have the patient accepted to the hospital, the family can easily lose all their financial resources: doctors may just extend the stay of the patients indefinitely if they think they can take advantage of you. I once met a woman who told me that the doctor treating her relative made her pay for medication – but that the patient never got any of it. This is a common situation; it is assumed that doctors collect money from relatives to buy drugs – and then sell it to a different patient. The local authorities know about this – yet they do nothing to sanction such behavior.
Corruption is very prevalent. In 2017, I took my seriously ill sister to the university hospital centre of Yopougon. We were not allowed to enter the emergency room, as, we were told, there was no room available for additional patients. Neither our begging nor the sight of my sister struggling with death would let him change his mind. But once one of our group had handed him CFA-F 10,000 (about USD 20) he immediately started trying to find a place for my sister.
Also in 2017, a pregnant woman died in the maternity ward of Cocody hospital, presumably because of insufficient care. We thought that this might cause municipal authorities to do something about the situation in the hospitals – in vain. A 70-year-old lady once told me: ”Every time we bring a close relative to the hospital, I get really scared and start crying.”, and she added, ‘’it seems to me that our hospitals are built to shorten lives …”
Housing is another issue that is characterised by a complete lack of regulation. Rents are soaring and scams are frequent. With conditions like this, finding a place to live becomes an ordeal. No matter where in Abidjan you go, rents are expensive. Depending on the area, rents range between CFA-F 60,000 (about USD 100) and CFA-F 100,000 (USD 180) for a studio and between CFA-F 150,000 (260 USD) and 300,000 CFA-F (USD 530) for a three room apartment. Keeping in mind that households’ monthly incomes in Ivory Coast tend to range between CFA-F 95,500 (USD 170) and CFA-F 455,000 (USD 800), finding a place for your family to live is a devastating task. Not able to afford spacious apartments, it is not uncommon to find five or more people sharing one room. Apartments are often in poor conditions, lacking basic services.
Real estate agents often scam people – take money of several potential tenants and disappear thereafter, for example. Before finding a place to live, there is a good chance you will be scammed twice or more. It happened to me once, in 2014, when I was trying to find a place for me and my wife-to-be. The place I had found turned out to be a scam; I had to postpone our wedding because of it. I filed a report with the police, but no investigation was ever conducted. Hundreds of people are ripped off by real estate agents every year, but the authorities do nothing to stop this.
Many are not even able to afford to rent one room – they are forced to live in informal settlements, where shacks are built from wood with black tarpaulins for roofs. There are 137 precarious neighbourhoods in the district of Abidjan, covering 2% of its surface. And housing 20% of its population. These become extremely dangerous to live in during the rainy season, with dozens of residents dying in the floods and in landslides each year.
It is necessary to make the favouritism and the corruption which undermine our administrations known to a large public. Sometimes, a file that should only take one day to handle may take a month or more. Can putting a seal on a document take that much time? In our town halls, the processing of files happens according to social status. If you are an ordinary citizen, the processing of your files can take time. However, someone of high social status will be called to pick up his or her file within days. Wouldn’t good governance imply treating all citizens in the same way? From our administration, we learned that it is necessary to bribe people in order to have your files delivered within a reasonable time. But what does one do who does not have money to bribe?
Both the distribution of electricity and water in the city is marked by a revolting injustice. While water and electricity cuts are common in all of Abidjan, in some neighbourhoods power outages do not last more than an hour − these neighbourhoods are inhabited by the rich and important. Yet, in other neighbourhoods where poor families live, power and water cuts can last for days. Finding drinking water for everyday needs is a daily struggle for many, leading to endless queues in front of the few water points. To make the situation worse, these points are often located in barely hygienic spots, for example next to public toilets. This is an integral part of Abidjan residents’ daily life. Power cuts are just as common – note the irony that the Ivory Coast is a country exporting electricity to other countries like Ghana, Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, Togo and Liberia. While the country is selling electricity to other countries, there are still places in Abidjan without electricity.
The state of public transport in Abidjan is disastrous. Busses are old: they cause traffic jams when they break down in the middle of rush hour, horrible accidents when they brakes fail to work, and air pollution due to their outdated engines. The drivers hardly ever have proper licences or training. Schedules are absolutely unreliable. Waiting for hours at a bus stop, once a bus arrives, it is the strongest and the fastest of those waiting who manage to get onto the already overcrowded vehicle. It is impossible to arrive at work or school in time under these conditions. I once met a school child at a bus stop at 10pm; he had been waiting to get onto a bus home since 7pm. This is a common situation. How are children supposed to succeed at school when they come home late at night and have to be back in class at 7.30 in the morning? The lack of public transport is impeding their education. All this happens under the eyes of passive municipal authorities.
The Need for Good Urban Governance
The city of Abidjan finally needs to become active. It needs to make honest efforts to develop functioning urban governance structures which ensure that its residents have access to the services they need. These processes have to be participatory, making sure that the voices of the residents are heard and that their concerns and daily struggles are addressed. Such processes furthermore need to include local media to a great extent, contributing to transparency and to the public conversation on maladministration. Most importantly, we need to reestablish the dialogue between local authorities and the residents: only thus can an environment be created that allows both sides − the authorities and civil society − to become true actors in Abidjan’s development toward becoming a liveable city.