Nairobi's Africities summit is the fourth for local governments in the continent. The first, in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivore in 1998, saw the emergence of the African municipal movement on the regional and international scene.
The ambition of the first summit was to break the linguistic barriers inherited from the colonial rule and to promote an African voice on the challenges of decentralisation, local development, regional integration and cooperation.
Africities Two, in Windhoek, Namibia, in 2000, marked the beginning of the structuring of the African municipal movement and Pan-African dialogue on decentralisation and local development. At the meeting on strategic challenges of funding local governments, the 1,200 participants, including 600 mayors and 40 Cabinet ministers from 51 countries, including 36 African ones, it was agreed that the All Africa Ministerial Conference on Decentralisation and Local Development be set up.
The inter-governmental institution of ministers in charge of local governments mandate was to include decentralisation among the priorities on the African political agenda. The Council of Cities and Regions (CCRA) was set up to build and represent a unified voice of African local governments.
The participants also institutionalised the Africities Summit as a platform between the local elected representatives and central governments, representatives of public authorities and other players and African officials and the technical and financial partners over decentralisation policies. It was also agreed to seek the recognition of the African Union for the institutions set up at the Summit.
Africities Three was held in Yaounde, Cameroon, in 2003, and marked the unification of the African municipal movement and its participation in the world movement. The third summit placed decentralisation and strengthening of local governments in perspective - to improve the living conditions of the people and participation of the citizenry.
It defined CCRA governance, with the setting up of an Interim Management Council, the presidency and the secretariat. The summit assigned to the institutions the role of preparing the participation of Africa in the Founding Congress of the world organisation of United Cities and Local Governments in Paris in May, 2004, and the CCRA Founding Congress in May, last year.
They were also assigned the duty of following up the CCRA recognition application submitted to the African Union. In accordance with decisions passed during the Africities Three Summit in Yaounde, the CCRA congress was held in Tshwane, South Africa, between May 15 and 18 last year.
The Congress adopted the constitution of the new organisation of local governments, now called the United Cities and Local Governments of Africa.
Africities Four in Nairobi is a meeting of stakeholders. The intention is to bring together major local government players so that they can discuss the best way to work together at the local level with a view to attaining the Millennium Development Goals in African local governments.
Like in the previous Africities summits, an exhibition of African local governments, the Citexpo, will be organised. The summit will provide an opportunity for public and private businesses, groups and local government suppliers to present their products, services and the latest technological advances that might interest delegates.
It will also provide an opportunity for countries to present their knowhow in decentralisation. The exhibition also hosts cities and local governments, associations, bilateral or multilateral partners, NGOs, universities and training and research institutions.
It appears that decentralisation is the magic goal and features in all themes. I am not an expert in policy formulation and urban development. But one glaring feature in all African cities is the growth of unplanned settlements or slums.
As urban development experts and political bigwigs exchange ideas during the summit, I wish to highlight areas that many city residents would hope were discussed.
Access to clean water is critical. Water is a basic need that is elusive in most cities, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. This should top the agenda because many years after independence, we cannot provide clean water to urban residents.
Housing is another concern. Many cheap housing projects that have been planned are an avenue for the rich and politically correct to cut deals and acquire houses at the expense of the poor. I hope the delegates visit local projects, Pumwani for instance, and establish if the poor benefited from them.
One wonders why Kibera, the largest slum in the continent, is a darling of visiting dignitaries. Could it be made a successful slum project in Africa?
Roads in most African cities are mere footpaths and a motorists' nightmare. This is a critical issue the summit should address.
African cities should also establish a conducive environment for informal businesses. Informal trading or hawking, as it is popularly known, in Nairobi is a consequence of poor planning on the part of council.
The problem is not beyond redemption though the council resorts to inhuman methods to curb the street trade. In developed cities, formal and informal trade are so well planned that it is difficult to notice the difference.
Although security is not under local governments, insecurity is a nightmare in most African cities. Poverty and lack of opportunity to engage in meaningful production drive many residents to crime.
Cities are manifestations of a country's development. Countries whose economies are on the right track have beautiful and progressive cities, where residents live a fairly decent life.
But African cities are the opposite in many aspects. The richest thrive in the city even as the poor die by the roadside.
Four summits down the line is a commendable effort for Africa, but the critical question is: Where are the achievements? For Nairobi, all is not lost, what with the recent projects to beautify it?
One hopes that the sprucing up of the city is not meant for the summit. It would be ridiculous to clean homes only in readiness for visitors and once they leave, all goes back to normal - a litter here, a pile later; a pothole here, a crater later; a shack here a slum later.