Urbanization is one of the most powerful, and insistent, emerging realities of the early 21st century. While developed countries have been largely urbanized for a long time, developing regions are quickly narrowing the gap. Africa, one of the least urbanized continents of the world, is urbanizing rapidly. Thus, in the year 2000 Africa's total population (estimated at 794 million) was 37.2 percent urbanized – the lowest of any major continental region of the world. During the next thirty years, however, the United Nations projects an annual average growth rate for Africa at 3.27 percent, the highest in the world by a substantial margin. These urban trends in Africa and its sub-regions have given rise to a number of other parallel, but equally important developments: the growth of a large and complex informal sector of small-scale economic and social activities; the emergence of an increasingly organized and insistent civil society; the faltering of state-sponsored provision of local services, often replaced by local initiatives or by private/public collaboration of some kind; the rise of religious expression in local politics; and the increasing awareness on the part of urban leaders of the need to attract outside investment in order to improve local employment of democratic openings – both at the national and local levels – in many countries; and at the same time as national governments have been decentralizing functions and power on the one hand, and revenue-raising capacity on the other.

In Africa, urban scholarship over the last decade or so has taken a back seat to serious challenges to political stability and civil peace, the scourge of HIV/AIDS, and the constant imperatives of food security for the poorest. On December 8-9, 2003 the Comparative Urban Studies Project and the African Urban Management Institute hosted a conference to promote increased awareness and scholarly work on the urban governance experiences of West African countries.

Dr. Mamadou Dioup, former mayor of Dakar, opened the conference with the a keynote address where he noted the need to create an instrument to preserve and build the African city and the need to develop action programs that incorporate the uniqueness of urban areas in Africa. The first panel, "Decentralization and Urban Development in Francophone West Africa" included presentations from Abdoul Wahab Ba, USAID, and Richard Stren, University of Toronto, presented a paper written by Michele LeClerc Olive, Centre for the Study of Social Movements (France). Panelists analyzed tax and financial decentralization in Senegal as well as explored the historical and social evidence of decentralization in Francophone West Africa. Commentator Mamadou Diouf, Professor at The University of Michigan, noted that a central theme of the presentations was the failure of the West African constitution to provide an adequate framework to pull together financial and political resources to improve local government. Participants noted the diversity of situations in the various countries, which call for a multiplicity of responses. Many emphasized the lack of a "tax-culture" and the need to incorporate the concept of citizenship into the themes discussed. Bachir Oloude, Director of the Insitute of Regional Studies and Urban Management, Benin, noted "We are citizens when we pay our taxes, when we demand our rights, and when we ask our leaders to be accountable."

The second panel, "Decentralization and Urban Political Experiences in Anglophone Africa and from Other Regions" included panelists Dele Olowu, Institute for Social Studies (Holland), Aprodicio Laquian, University of Vancouver, Ronald Vogel, University of Louisville, and Moustapha Zoubairu, Centre for Human Settlements and Urban Development (Minna, Nigeria). Panelist emphasized that culture matters and the need to understand both the past and the present. Presentations explored the history of decentralization and decentralization reforms, which demonstrate a vast disparity between the declared objectives and the actual practice. Panelist noted the importance of "levels of decentralization" and participants debated how to solve widespread corruption.

On Tuesday, December 9, the first panel, "Civil Society in Urban West Africa" included panelists Ousman Dembele, University de Cocody (Ivory Coast), El Housseynou Ly, African Urban Management Institute (Senegal), Mahamed Yari, Nigerian Urban Forum, and Mizanekristos Yohannes, The Integrated Centre for Social Development (Ghana). Panelists debated the issues of urban citizenship, grassroots development, and the contributions of civil society organizations. Discussion included topics such as the contradictions between the devolution of political and financial power and public-private participation. The emergence of NGO's and stakeholders has created a space for the negotiation of new formulas and a deflation of the role of the state. Participants called attention to issues such as unemployment and the right to work, highlighting the need for job creation programs. Corruption resurfaced as an important theme of discussion, as a debate on whether corruption is a social or political trend emerged.

The second panel "The Role of the elected Mayor in West African Cities: Current Challenges" included panelists Mamadou Dioup, Mayor of Yoff and foremer Mayor of Dakar, Goukouni Zen, Inspector of Territorial Administration from the Ministry of Interior, Nigeria, Oumy Badji Sanneh, Director of Finance, Banjul City Council and Mamdou Diouf, Former Director of Local Organizations. Panelists and participants discussed problems concerning mayors, emphasizing the lack of financial resources as a constraint. The role of the mayor is changing in West Africa. Traditionally the mayors role was limited to managing budgets, today, the mayor is responsible for public works. Decentralization and globalization have greatly affected the role of the mayor in West Africa.

The last panel of the workshop, "The Politics of Urban Identity" included panelists Mamadou Diouf, University of Michigan, Dickson Eyoh, University of Toronto, Kabir Yari, Nigerian Urban Forum, and Charles Nach Mbach, Universite de Douala. This panel revisited the themes of citizenship and the construction of identity. Race, class, age, and gender were identified as key elements to position in the state and political economy. Issues of ethnicity, urban fragmentation, and mismanagement all play keys roles in the creation of an urban identity. Participants discussed the construction and expressions of citizenship within the political arena and the concepts of individual vs. collective notions of citizenship.

The countries of West Africa have taken considerable strides in opening their political systems, decentralizing, and developing new approaches to local governance. The interface between decentralization (often initiated as an administrative program) and the development of local democracy (including the election of local mayors and councilors, the greater involvement of opposition political parties, and the participation of women and minority groups) is only one part of the opening of political space and decision-making freedom on a much wider range of policy issues. This conference provided a space to examine the gradual fabrication of truly civic societies based on efficiency, trust and accountability in local governance and a comparative study of the manner in which administrative and political issues are worked out on the ground. Dr. Mamadou Dioup, former Mayor of Dakar, closed the meeting, noting the importance of local resources and democracy, the principle components of local power. Throughout the two-day meeting, participants discussed the effects of the twin trends of decentralization and democratization in West Africa, in particular the impact on civil society. Participants concluded the need to better incorporate civil society into the decision making process and the necessary union of administrative decentralization with fiscal decentralization. Throughout the two-day meeting, participants discussed the effects of the twin trends of decentralization and democratization in West Africa, in particular the impact on civil society. Participants concluded the need to better incorporate civil society into the decision making process and the necessary union of administrative decentralization with fiscal decentralization.