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Women's organizations

Right from the pre-colonial era, women's associations have existed as distinct and autonomous units for organizing social relations, productive work, and even ritual and religion. In fact, Ifi Amadiume (1995), in a reinterpretation of power relations, classified traditional African women's organizations as anti-power movements, that is, groups engaged in struggles not to gain power but simply to defend and maintain their autonomy. Predominantly a response to patriarchal domination, women's organizations are a necessary part of social organization, without which societies cannot function.

With colonization, they continued to play important roles in both the urban and rural areas. In fact women had added to their traditional roles in households the new roles that emerged with the colonial economy. These roles, which often imposed additional burdens of support for spouses and families incorporated into the colonial economy in disadvantaged ways, also included new forms of subordination, embodied not only in pre-capitalist patriarchal relations but also in those of European capitalist patriarchy. In response to the wide variety of new roles in production and distribution, etc., women's organizations such as market women's associations, farmers' groups, and hawkers' associations emerged. Although these organizations were essentially economic in their aims, they often played political, social (convivial, supportive, and mutual benefit), self-help, and development roles (Stamp, 1986). In fact, during the anti-colonial struggles, there were several instances (such as the Aba Women's Riot in Eastern Nigeria in the 1920s and the labour unrest amongst Kikuyu women in Kenya) of a contribution of radical protest to these struggles (Priestly, 1986; Awe, 1992). In other cases, women contributed material support to nationalist parties. They were therefore unambiguously part of the struggles for independence, if not visibly so.

However during the early part of the post-colonial period, that is, the development or building phase, the activities and roles of women's organizations were defined as essentially supportive of and cooperative with the state in the nation-building process, and in different parts of the continent their autonomy was attacked. In an attempt at explaining the process of demobilization of civil society in the post-colonial period, Ngunyi and Gathiaka (1993, pp. 31-32) identified three major elements that applied in the Kenyan case. These were:

(a) the beginning of a gravitation towards a "maximum leader" and the disintegration of the "nationalist coalition";

(b) the emergence of factional patronage networks; and

(c) "the enfeeblement of certain institutions of civil society as actors on the... political stage."

These same processes have been identified for women's organizations in Tanzania alongside the important fact of the systematic exclusion of women from the formal political and economic spheres.

Aili Mari Tripp (1992a) has traced the changes that occurred in the activities of urban voluntary associations in Tanzania between the colonial era and the early post-independence period. She shows how these vibrant and useful associations were systematically suppressed in an effort by the dominant political party and the state to ensure centralization and control:

The government and party expanded their monopoly control of social relations by gradually centralizing party activities, by abolishing local governments in 1972, and by absorbing, eliminating or curtailing key independent organizations, creating new ones and preventing others from being formed... The crowding out of interest group activity was part of a trend of party and government expansion that saw these institutions increasingly encroach into new political, economic and social spaces. (Tripp, 1992a, p. 230)

This process embraced both formal women's organizations and other types of civil institutions. At the same time, as ordinary people saw that avenues for participation in formal associations were being blocked, they began to form informal, small-scale community and special interest organizations. These proliferated all over African cities around this period, because they more clearly served the needs of ordinary people for participation.

The main dimensions of state-women's organizations relations were essentially those of co-optation and domination or of neglect and indifference. The large, formal, broad-based national or sectoral women's associations were the target of co-optation and domination and were forced into supplementing and supporting the "development" and other goals of national parties and governments. The informal associations, which covered a wide range of needs such as "mutual help," burials, childbirth, rotating credit, and disaster relief, were systematically neglected by the state.

However, just as the economic crisis and the reform programmes forced limits on state-community relations, this was also the case with civil associations and institutions. With the intensification of the economic burden and its own fiscal crisis, the state neglected and abandoned its function of providing services for collective consumption and also could not effectively guarantee law and order all over its territory. In response, people had to provide ways and means of meeting societal needs through their organizations. As Tripp (1992a, p. 235) has pointed out:

Where the state's attempts to exert monopolistic control over society and the economy exceeded state capacity to regulate social relations and allocate resources effectively, people's own organizational structures often emerged to fulfil a variety of societal needs. The state's growing inability to guarantee adequate police protection, ensure that wages bore some relation to the cost of living, and provide basic social and public services led people to form their own organizations to cope with the difficulties they faced.

In urban Africa, women were part of these responses and initiatives, both autonomously and along with men. They emerged among the leaders of new urban welfare organizations, responding to flooding or the AIDs pandemic, contributing to providing and maintaining health and educational facilities, and becoming involved in a variety of other activities (Tripp, 1992b).

A response to both the emergence of global support and the proliferation of independent and active (if small) women's organizations was the attempt to reorganize and incorporate them into the state domain through what Amina Mama has called "femocracy" - that is, state-directed feminism operated via the first ladies (wives of African presidents and heads of state). With the dual intention of cornering the increasing international funding for women's organizations and directing efforts away from protests, femocracy emerged in the 1980s as an alternative mode of organizing the relations between the state and women's organizations (Mama, 1994). It was, however, vulnerable, because it was sustainable only as long as there were resources to nurture it, and as long as the male head of state kept his hold on power against coups and electoral changes, or had a wife or wives who could operate the femocracy.

The state-NGO relations

Although there had been a wide range of non-governmental efforts and organizations in the humanitarian, relief, and welfare sectors prior to the 1980s, NGOs as we know them today are really a product of the African crisis and the responses it occasioned. Although, in common-sense terms, NGO would refer to any organization not owned or created by government and operating in the social and development sector, it has become acceptable to think of NGOs as the more formalized, registered non-governmental, non-profit organizations created primarily to serve developmental or altruistic objectives. In terms of size, scope, origins, history, and focus, a wide range of NGOs can be identified in any given African country today (Seppala, 1992b; Kanyinga, 1993; Kiondo, 1993; Sandbrook and Halfani, 1993). Firm boundaries between them in terms of organization and functions do not always exist. Moreover, they have evolved, changed focus, and undergone major organizational transformations over time. An attempt to summarize the broad non-governmental sector in Nigeria led to the following:

They consist of a wide variety of civil associations and development activities operating on different levels. The first tier, which tends to be highly formalized and large-scale, includes international agencies and donor organizations. The second tier, emerging gradually in Nigeria, includes large formal indigenous organizations, foundations, and civil associations that are national in composition and staffed by a few professional people. This second tier overlaps with the national branches or offshoots of global groups such as the Red Cross/Red Crescent, Boys' Scouts, and Rotary. The third tier consists of Town and Regional Development Associations, voluntary groups based on membership subscriptions and donations but oriented exclusively to their own local problems. At the bottom are community-based organizations of small villages and parts of towns. They are grassroots organizations, a category which also includes small-scale neighbourhood groups, special interest groups such as women's organizations, occupational and trade groups, and guilds. Finally, religious associations or societies formed from churches or mosques occupy an ambiguous position, operating across local, regional and national levels. (Aina, 1993b, p. 141)

It is this complexity and variety of the constituents of the NGO sector that has created such a nightmare for analysts attempting a classification. Some have resolved the problem by emphasizing formalization, scale, range of resources available, and origin to generate two categories, namely NGOs and popular or grass-roots organizations. These two broad classes have also been linked to approaches that distinguish between top-down and bottom-up origins. A similar attempt at making sense of this sector classifies NGOs into membership organizations and predominantly service-oriented organizations run by a few professional staff. What is important here is not the organizational analysis of NGOs but rather their importance in the developmental and political lives of African cities and towns. It is this that actively brings them into a set of relations with the state.

Using our earlier periodization, the early post-colonial period was not as active a period as more recent times for NGOs. Then they were mainly welfare, philanthrophic, and relief organizations and religious groups, predominantly with origins in the West, such as the Boy Scouts, the Red Cross, and the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). These provided civic and religious training for young people, offered charitable and welfare services, and were involved in disaster relief. Their indigenous counterparts were often religious associations, and ethnic and mutual aid organizations. In terms of relationships with the state, these were mainly cooperative and supportive (i.e. helping with civic training and duties) or purely neutral and indifferent. The state, using inherited colonial practices, did not tax, monitor, or control these organizations. NGOs, in turn, neither bothered much with nor criticized the state. Their various welfare operations occurred in both urban and rural locations. For the centralizing state these NGOs were generally neither a threat nor a problem. However, with the second phase of post-colonial development, namely the crisis period, external and internal factors combined to change the nature, focus, methods, and concerns of NGOs.

In his study of the Kenyan experience, Kanyinga (1993) has effectively captured these elements. The external factors comprise: (i) the growth of northern NGOs with interests in Africa and in development issues; (ii) the change in the agenda of the donors; and (iii) the globalization of human rights and democratic struggles. The first two elements, namely the growth of northern NGOs and changes in the agenda of donor agencies, are closely related to the African crisis. The massive ecological and political crises of the 1970s in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, resulting in &mines and starvation, led to a regeneration of the international relief industry with Africa as a focus. Also many northern NGOs began to go beyond relief to the root causes of the problems they had to tackle, that is, development. They therefore began to focus on development, poverty alleviation, and projects of social transformation. The change in the agenda of the donor agencies was mainly led by the international financial institutions directed by the World Bank, in terms of economic reforms that emphasized market and non-state-centred strategies. NGOs and other private interests, therefore, began to receive direct international approval and support. The liberalization of economies also implied the withdrawal of the state from the social sector. The element of the globalization of the democratization and human rights questions was partly related to the African crisis and partly related to the democratic transitions in Eastern Europe, the old Soviet Union, and large parts of Latin America. Human rights issues and NGOs, which later received their formal stamp of approval at the UN Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993, became central players in the global agenda. Their African counterparts became important elements in the struggle against post-colonial centralization and monolithic political structures.

The internal reasons for the growth of NGOs are also directly related to the African crisis; this generated a fiscal and capacity crisis for the state, which could no longer provide basic social services. At the beginning, international NGOs, in what Fowler (1992) has called the "internationalization of social welfare," involved themselves in combating poverty and direct community development projects. But the difficulties of the terrain, their lack of familiarity with it, cultural and political sensitivity, and sheer capacity difficulties led to their adopting an intermediary role - supporting grass-roots organizations and community groups and stimulating and/or reinforcing indigenous NGOs.

With all these, a boom in the number and activities of NGOs in the late 1980s and 1990s occurred. These were of all types, including specialized human settlements and environmental groups such as the Mazingira Institute and Green Belt Movement in Kenya, ENDA in Senegal, and the Nigerian Environmental Study Action Team in Nigeria (Aina, 1993b). Relations with the state varied and were often contradictory for the formalized human settlements groups. Development work, research, and policy advocacy were their central functions. Given the increasing scale of poverty and the social devastation occasioned by the crisis and governmental insensitivity and corruption, merely researching and documenting the issues was often considered subversive. But project implementation often needed their cooperation with central and local governments and this necessitated contact and collaboration. On larger human rights and democracy questions - as with human settlements rights issues, particularly the eviction and demolition of the settlements of the poor - state-NGO relations were oppositional. In fact, such NGOs risked being proscribed and having their officers sacked, detained, and harassed. This has been the case with human rights groups, journalists, and lawyers in Nigeria, Egypt, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Zambia, Kenya, the Sudan, Togo, etc. More generally, the state, recognizing the strength of the global contacts and constituencies of the NGOs and their partial autonomy, has sought to control their expansion, operations, and funding. Resistance to this has cut across Africa and has been supported by international organizations and other bodies. NGOs therefore operate in a situation of fragile autonomy that the government is anxious to pounce on at the slightest pretext - particularly that of financial accountability. This particular aspect of state-NGO relations remains in a state of precarious balance all over Africa and is a possible entry point by governments for controlling NGOs. Another strategy is the creation by governments of their own NGOs favourable to state positions in specific sectors such as the environment and, as noted above, women's movements. These new phenomena have been aptly christened by observers as GONGOs (government-owned NGOs).

Central-local government relations

Apart from their centrality to the institutional framework for urban management, central-local government relations also embody some of the elements of democratization, participation, and accountability to constituencies posed by the larger questions of state-society and state-community relations discussed above. The literature contains extensive information on the problems related to central-local relations in both their specific and Africa-wide dimensions (Stren and White, 1989; Lee-Smith and Stren, 1991; Grest, 1995). Again, as Stren (1991) has pointed out, the movement towards centralization in the early post-colonial period stimulated the gradual erosion of the autonomy of local authorities in all parts of Africa irrespective of the constitutional system, be it unitary or federal. Examining the history of the two traditions of local administration dominant in Africa - the francophone and the anglophone - Stren (1989) points out that, in spite of the differences in colonial history, in which there were significantly more centralizing traits in the French system, post-colonial African regimes have consistently pursued central domination.6 In some cases, particularly anglophone countries such as Nigeria, periods of high centralization and ineffective local government have been followed by attempts to redress the balance through decentralization. This does not mean that African politicians and statesmen did not recognize the virtues of decentralization and "local democracy," but there have been wide gaps between proclamations and actions, and at times attempts at effecting large-scale decentralization goals have produced ridiculous outcomes, such as the case of Tanzania, when decentralization replaced both rural and urban local governments with regional and district committees that were dominated by central government officials (Kanyinga et al., 1994).

With the emergence of the crisis of the mid-1970s, the problems of centralization and concentration of resources, functions, and power worsened, leading to the virtual collapse of urban management in many countries, most dramatically in Zaire (see chap. 7 in this volume). As has been amply documented in the different case-studies in Stren and White (1989), the arguments for decentralization and increased participation of micro-units, apart from being political arguments, are also efficiency arguments. The decentralizing ethos increasingly pushed by international agencies such as the World Bank led to a strong need to reconsider issues of more effective decentralization and local participation. In addition, the trend towards increasing democratization often manifest in the introduction of electoral and multi-party politics at the local level created new openings for some local participation and accountability.

Central-local relations therefore oscillated between dominant-supportive patterns in which the central government was the senior and stronger partner in the early post-colonial phase, to the oppositional-competitive patterns of the crisis era in which decentralization opened up political competition and challenges to the central state. The points of tension now occur at many levels. In terms of the hierarchy of government, local governments tend to be constitutionally disadvantaged. Most national constitutions give residual powers to the local level in legislative matters and therefore reduce their capacity to deal with even local issues of revenue and administration once these are defined as national in scope. Thus most local authorities are restricted from dealing adequately with the management of resources such as land.

The struggle for autonomy in central-local relations has also been complicated by the fact of political pluralism. Many African countries have been persuaded to hold local government elections, e.g. Nigeria, Côte d'Ivoire, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and Senegal. In those contexts where the parties controlling local authorities have been different from those at the centre, the tension and conflict have been tremendous. For example, in Lagos State, Nigeria, in 1992, a great degree of tension occurred between the elected chairman of the Lagos Island local government and the elected governor of Lagos State, who were from different political parties. This tension contributed to limiting the dynamism and effectiveness of the local government chairman, whose success would have proved to be a formidable threat to the incumbent governor's chances of re-election. Even in cases where the political party has been the same, there have been reports of conflict between local authorities and their overseeing central ministries, generally the Ministry of Local Government in anglophone Africa and that of the Interior in francophone Africa. In particular, central government is prone to regard local authorities as inept and corrupt, leading to a situation in which, when more effective services are required, parallel centrally based institutions and parastatals are set up, further undermining the confidence and capacity of local authorities.

These conflicts and the inherent competition between central and local authorities have had far-reaching implications for urban management, particularly the administration of services, resource allocation, and local participation. Institutional and behavioural arrangements for managing this tension and operating what Sanyal (1994) has called "cooperative autonomy" are a priority. Indeed, over the past few years, a new local level of politics and active decentralization is emerging in Africa, which is giving a new dimension to issues of participation and local accountability but nevertheless has not avoided the tensions and competition discussed above (Kanyinga et al., 1994).

Conclusions State-society relations: The urban challenge

In this chapter, an attempt has been made to document the trends and patterns of state-society relations in urban Africa. Some time was spent clarifying concepts, so that the rather complex issues of urban politics and the way they are differently understood were elucidated. The role of external and internal factors in the expression and resolution of some of the major issues and questions of concern has also been examined. Options and directions for state-society relations must emerge from the concrete struggles and efforts of collective and individual political actors with different vested interests, goals, and ideals. However, one thing is clear from the discussion, and this is that since the 1980s the patterns of state-society relations have started to undergo serious changes, with the emergence of more fundamental questioning of the principle of state domination by important actors in both national and global civil society. This has been accompanied by an increase and fundamental change in the pattern of collective demand making. Social justice and equity questions now confront not only larger issues but the more mundane questions of urban management and administration of services. Local and popular participation, accountability to stakeholders, sustainability, ownership by end-users, and equitable resource allocation are all components of the demand making. Although the responses to these demands must be long term and large scale, they also have the potential to contribute immediately to efficiency, effectiveness, and collective well-being as perceived by the subjects of policy and administration. This is the major urban challenge.


1. An interesting related dimension of the concept of civil society is its globalization both in practice and as an idea (Lipschutz, 1992).

2. However, there has been an interesting application in the context of South Africa, where the concern is with the transition to a pluralistic democracy and uneasiness about an ANC dominated state. In the debate, the notion has had a wide range of use, from the banal and literal-meaning level to more theoretical debates between the neo-conservative, Marxist, and critical perspectives. See, for instance, Fine (1992), Simone and Pieterse (1993), Gouws (1993).

3. My reading of the situation in the Republic of South Africa in the mid-1990s does not significantly controvert the similarity of this experience there. The African National Congress alliance's Reconstruction and Development Programme is in essence about the incorporation of excluded social groups, except for the feet of a more popular base. So also is the ongoing debate about economic restructuring in South Africa (see Nolan, 1995).

4. For accounts of the social effects of structural adjustment in Nigeria, see Aina (1989) and, in Tunisia, Hammouda (1995).

5. The 1980s literature was filled with this stereotyping and characterization, particularly by North American Africanists, who seemed to be engaged in a struggle over who could find the most sensational label for the African state.

6. The lusophone tradition is documented by Grest (1995).


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