Across Africa, local government is the main governance authority responsible for connecting with local communities. Names given to these structures differ from country to country. Among the more common are “assemblies”, “councils” and “municipalities”. However, these naming distinctions belie the generally similar systems of local government in Africa. 

Any vision of inclusive governance in Africa that excludes local communities is hollow. Spanning urban and rural areas, local communities are the bedrock of societies and nations. Reflecting this, governance structures, both national and local, should respond to their needs and concerns. This is all the more important because of the sheer diversity of the continent. Africa has more than 50 nations, and it is also home to over 2,000 languages.  

A young Zimbabwean boy does his homework by candlelight during a power cut in Harare. (Photo: Jekesai Njikizana/AFP)

Most critically, local government responsibilities include the provision of basic services like water and electricity – though this is sometimes shared with national or provincial/regional authorities. They are also responsible for law enforcement, maintenance of basic infrastructure, including roads, and the upkeep of facilities such as libraries, parks and cemeteries. In some countries, these authorities are also responsible for the provision of basic education and healthcare facilities. 

There are three main local government structures in Africa: rural authorities, urban authorities, and large metropolitan authorities. Rural structures deal with the concerns of lower-density, predominantly agrarian areas. As the political scientist Jeffrey Herbst says, these areas suffered across the pre-colonial and colonial periods, as national governments struggled to extend their power into these sparsely populated hinterlands, leaving them under-resourced. Nascent post-colonial African governments perpetuated this trend through an “urban bias” that privileged urban interests, especially in the building and maintenance of infrastructure. In this sense, a priority of rural authorities is to reduce these disparities by addressing the concerns of these communities. 

A healthcare worker tends to a newly arrived patient at a temporary cholera treatment centre at Bwaila District hospital in Lilongwe in February 2023 during the deadliest cholera outbreak in Malawi’s history. (Photo: Fredrik Lerneryd/AFP)

Urban authorities are generally found in towns, in intermediary cities, and on the outskirts of large metropolitan areas. These authorities bridge the divide between less populous rural areas and Africa’s ascendant larger cities. In a rapidly growing and rapidly urbanising continent, their role is increasingly important in ensuring that African governments are responsive to their citizens’ concerns. 

Large African cities will define the continent’s fate during the 21st century. Currently, four African cities – Kinshasa, Cairo, Lagos and Johannesburg – qualify per the traditional definition of a “megacity” as having at least 10 million people. According to some estimates such as the United Nations World Urbanisation Prospects, for example, this list of megacities could double or triple by 2050. Cities expected to join this list include Dar es Salaam, Luanda and Nairobi.

The principal authority responsible for governing these cities is the large metropolitan council. They tend to have enhanced powers and responsibilities compared to basic rural and urban authorities, especially in spheres such as transportation, housing and economic development.  

With the rapid growth of the jurisdictions over which they govern, these entities will play an ever-increasing role in ensuring the stability, economic development, effective governance and sustainability of the continent. Regarding inclusive governance, they will need to play a defining role in guaranteeing that citizen priorities are reflected in institutions, policies, and actions. 

But how are local authorities in Africa doing when it comes to engaging the communities they are meant to serve? One way to assess inclusivity is by looking at public opinion data reflecting citizen sentiment on local governance in Africa. Trust is a key element in ensuring that communities perceive local governance as inclusive. 

Figure 1: Average trust in key institutions across 34 African countries (2019-21). (Source: Afrobarometer Round 8)

In this regard, local authorities across Africa have room to improve. Taking round eight of Afrobarometer, which surveyed citizens in 34 countries between 2019 and 2021, as a reference point, local authorities rank second-worst out of key institutions on the measure of citizen trust. Figure 1 represents the proportion of respondents who say they trust these institutions either “somewhat” or “a lot”.  

Local councils are trusted by less than half of all citizens. Moreover, local councils trail the army, traditional leaders, the head of state/government, courts of law and the police on this measure. Indicating an element of scepticism toward elected representatives – with the exception of presidents – as a whole, members of parliament are the only group trusted less than local councillors.  

This pattern of low trust in local authorities generally holds across 34 countries. In only six of them – Tanzania, Niger, Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Zimbabwe – do at least half of all respondents trust these councils.  

A man fills up a container with water for home use from a well in the area of al-Takamul-Hillat Salha, 15km southwest of Omdurman, the twin city of the Sudanese capital Khartoum, in March 2023. (Photo: Ashraf Shazly/AFP)

Perhaps the most interesting contrast is between local authorities and traditional leaders, who are the other listed group that most frequently deals with local communities. Overall, the average trust in these leaders is 15 percentage points higher than in elected local leaders. Admittedly, this disparity is more distinct in rural areas where 67.2% of respondents indicate trust in traditional leaders compared to 48.7% in local leaders. And yet, a meaningful gap also exists in urban areas where only 36.3% trust their local authorities relative to 47.2% trusting in traditional leaders. 

Going back to Africa’s rising urban profile, the fact that just over a third of urban respondents trusted their local council is of paramount concern. If urban authorities and large metropolitan authorities do not find ways to raise their esteem among these citizens, they risk facing crises of legitimacy with ever greater frequency. 

The survey revealed that one reason behind the low trust in local councillors across Africa was that citizens feel ignored by them. Tellingly, 47.2% of respondents in the same survey indicated that their elected local representatives “never” listened to them and their concerns. Figure 2 maps the proportion of respondents who felt this way. 

Figure 2: Proportion who say that local councillors never listen (2019-21). (Source: Afrobarometer Round 8)

In 14 countries, at least one in two respondents indicated no responsiveness to them and their concerns. Once again, an urban versus rural dynamic is at play; 51.3% of urban respondents feel ignored to this extent compared to 44.1% in rural areas. 

When one considers how much of local government’s mandate in Africa relates to ensuring that the provision of basic services such as water happens and that the maintenance of basic infrastructure like roads occurs, then this is a concerning trend. It indicates a continent-wide problem of citizens perceiving a lack of inclusivity from their elected local leaders. The contrast with traditional leaders is once again instructive. In only one country – Morocco – do at least half of all citizens indicate never having been listened to. The overall average is 29.2%, 18 percentage points lower than it is with local authorities. 

Local authorities, whether responsible for rural, urban, or large metropolitan areas, have a crucial part to play in dealing with 21st-century inclusive governance concerns in Africa. They can help reduce the infrastructure and developmental gaps between rural and urban areas, and they can help dictate the fortunes of Africa’s current and future megacities. 

There may well be justifiable concerns raised about a lack of national government support in adequately resourcing them. But this alone cannot explain why citizens are more inclined to trust the same national authorities, and why they also feel more ignored by local authorities compared to the attention they receive from traditional leaders. 

How, then, can local authorities across Africa adopt a more inclusive approach when dealing with the communities they are meant to serve? Listening to them and prioritising their concerns would be a good start. 

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Pranish is a Senior Data Analyst within the Governance Insights & Analytics programme. He holds a Master of Arts in-Science obtained with distinction from the University of the Witwatersrand. This degree formed part of the Department of Science and Innovation's National e-Science Postgraduate Teaching and Training Platform. His research interests include comparative politics, local governance, quantitative social analysis and political geography.