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By Joseph Magloire OLINGA OLINGA, (Download Pdf Version)

Urban Governance In Cameroon: Between Laissez-Faire And Faire-Laisser Analysis Under The Prism Of Vulnerability To Environmental Risks


From a geohistorical point of view, Cameroonian cities are characterised by what B. TAMRU (2001) describes as a “process of vulnerability“. This concept is in line with the phenomenological approach, which studies the impact of human actions on risk and its aggravation, based on the study of damage (P. PIGEON, 1994). However, urban dynamics are still poorly taken into account in the diagnosis of environmental risks. In this case, the flood risk is rarely studied in all its spatio-temporal depth: “The risk of flooding is thus most often analysed at a time “t”, according to a given hazard, on channels considered as stable”. From this point of view, starting from a diachronic analysis, the geohistorical context of Cameroon cities, particularly urban centres such as Douala (economic capital) and Yaoundé (political capital), constitutes an important key to reading the current urbanistic, social, economic and environmental challenges. Based on recent news, in particular the images of the Yaoundé VII Town Hall flooded after the downpour of 8 June 2021, this paper analyses the vulnerabilities of Cameroon cities through the prism of two variables: firstly, the socio-spatial processes that produce them and, secondly, the mechanisms that determine the capacity of cities to adapt to environmental risks. It brings to the fore the thorny issue of urban governance lato sensu. The case of the Commune of Yaoundé VII is symptomatic of urban governance in Cameroon and raises the question of whether municipal executives are definitively caught in the dilemma of “laissez-faire” and “faire laisser”.

Laissez-faire” and “faire laisser”: heuristic foundations and associated logics

In the aftermath of independence (1960-1980), urban development in Cameroon was characterised by an urbanism of decision and power. This was the reign of the welfare state. The large urban centres were presented as a colonial legacy under construction, marked by the influence of the five-year plans. Through these plans, a housing policy was defined around the promotion of social housing advocated by the central state. The 1970s marked the start of a decade of major housing projects through the creation of planned housing areas and the restructuring of precarious neighbourhoods (13,000 plots in the Nylon neighbourhood of Douala), under the auspices of the Société Immobilière du Cameroun (SIC) created in 1952 as part of the first Urban Development Project (PDU 1) financed by the World Bank. These urban projects were accompanied, on the one hand, by the adoption of the ordinance of July 6, 1974, which established the land tenure system, the state tenure system and expropriation; and on the other hand, by the creation of the Crédit Foncier du Cameroun (CFC) in 1977 and the Mission d’Aménagement et d’Équipement des Terrains Urbains et Ruraux (MAETUR) in 1980 to support the SIC in its role as the secular arm of the state in terms of housing and urban planning in Cameroon. The economic crisis led Cameroon into the first phase of the Structural Adjustment Policy in 1988. Since the end of the 1980s, there has been talk of the “crisis of the welfare state”. This is the position defended by Jean-Marc ELA (1990) in the book “Quand l’Etat pénètre en brousse…”. However, the urban crises in Cameroon can only be explained by integrating them into the overall socio-political and economic context. Until 2006, when the completion point of the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative was reached, de facto urbanism reigned, an expression of the decline of the five-year plan policy. The conquest of space corresponds to a phase of profound deregulation linked, among other things, to the impossibility for the state to continue to honour its budgetary and financial commitments. The wind of democratisation at the beginning of the 1990s brought with it access to certain social, political and economic freedoms which rapidly extended to the liberalisation of the space conquest.

The concept of ‘laissez-faire’, formerly the prerogative of economic and political thought, emerged in urban governance when the public authorities, no longer able to intervene vigorously as in the past, let the new non-institutional actors do what they wanted, intervening as little as possible in the regulation of urban development, even though they were aware of the risks incurred by this liberalisation of the conquest of space, in a context marked by the difficulty of implementing the existing urban planning documents. This laissez-faire attitude is characterised by (i) the non-respect of the provisions of the planning documents prescribed by Law n°2004/003 of 21 April 2004 on the Urban Development Code, and (ii) the inadequacy of repressive control of constructions and various economic activities, thus contributing to the general degradation of the urban environment.

In November 1999, the Cameroon government adopted the Urban Strategy Declaration. This document identifies three main actors in urban development: the State, the Decentralised Territorial Collectivities (DTCs) and Civil Society. It is in the analysis of the means of action and priorities of these actors that the concept of “doing-leaving” is based. When discussing issues of urban governance in Cameroon, it is clear that there are no overtly conflicting objectives or ‘battlegrounds’ between actors. However, the power relations between these actors form the basis of urban governance and the spatial strategies that result from it. For S. RUI (2011), the power in question here refers to “the capacity of the individual or collective actor to control the terms of an exchange relationship so that it is favourable to him”..

In this context, there is a confrontation in the urban arena between the control power of the state and the autonomy power of the local authorities. The aspect of the state’s tutelary power that attracts attention in this case is
the power of instruction of the supervisory authorities (MINDDEVEL and the Prefect). However, although this tutelage does not extend to other ministerial departments, it is customary to see,the Local Authorities undergo their power to ‘make leave’ the implementation of projects of general interest. The concept of “laissez-faire” comes into play when the achievement of project objectives requires strict compliance with land-use, construction and planning regulations. Consequently, it is likely to call into question the particular interests of certain state actors or civil society, particularly those who have invested in areas declared non-constructible or insusceptible to private appropriation, and therefore exposed to eviction for the implementation of development projects. This power to “faire laisser” is exercised in flagrant violation of the provisions of Decree No. 2016/3058/PM of 28 July 2016 laying down the rules for land use and construction and Decree No. 2008/0740 of 23 April 2008 laying down the system of sanctions applicable to infringements of town planning rules, which specify the infringements and sanctions prescribed, as well as the methods of control by the Mayors. Consequently, the vulnerability of Cameroon cities to environmental risks is the result of a social construction that has led to the emergence of what V. NOVEMBER (2000) calls  ‘risk territories’ such as the Commune of Yaoundé VII, which is now considered to be a victim of catastrophic flooding. It is therefore the logic of “laissez faire” and “faire laisser” that makes the process of vulnerability of urban territories intelligible.

Socio-spatial dynamics and vulnerability of territories

With regard to the recent floods in the Commune of Yaoundé VII, the analysis of the socio-spatial dynamics reveals that the area located between the Rue d’Oyom Abang and the Route de Douala had been declared a “green zone”, and therefore non-constructible, during the construction of the Douala – Yaoundé Road, now called the “old Douala Road”. More precisely, it is the lower part of the flanks of Mount Messa and Mount Akok Ndoé, as well as the valley that separates them. This area is also the eponym of the Cité Verte (1505 dwellings) built between 1972 and 1982, at the same time as the so-called “Douala Nord” dwellings (Bonamoussadi, Makèpè, Kotto, Logpom and Cité des Palmiers).

This area of Yaoundé was then considered as a natural zone to be preserved and it is rightly that the oldest constructions in the Communes of Yaoundé VII, VI and II avoided this buffer zone. The urban dynamics that subsequently took place there reveal that this highly exposed area is of recent construction, over the last twenty or even twenty-five years, which correspond to the phase of the ‘crisis of the welfare state’ and of profound urban deregulation. The indigenous villages of the above-mentioned districts are less exposed, or to a lesser extent, due to the density of occupation and the sealing of the soil, which have recently increased and strongly constrained the rainwater drainage system. In other words, the “laissez-faire” attitude has taken over the urban regulations that have existed since 1966 through Law n°66/10 of 18 November 1966 on the legislative part of the town planning code of East Cameroon and Ordinance n°73/20 of 29 May 1973 regulating town planning in the United Republic of Cameroon. This situation can also be observed in the City of Douala where until the early 1980s, flood valleys and steep slopes constituted natural obstacles to spatial conquest. From then on, between the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 2000s, the conquest of space was freed from natural constraints. The result was the creation of new precarious, under-structured, poorly served and densely populated neighbourhoods.

In view of the above, it goes without saying that the management of environmental crises is an eminently social, or even socio-political, issue when we know that these neighbourhoods represent electoral strongholds to be protected at all costs. So what room for manoeuvre do the municipalities concerned have today?

Reconciling urban development and adaptation to environmental risks

The question posed refers to the capacities of the Local Authorities to identify, plan, set up and manage projects for adaptation to environmental crises to be submitted to innovative financing mechanisms, in particular the financial instruments provided for by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This financing refers to a set of mechanisms designed to mobilise funds for development that are complementary to Official Development Assistance (ODA), predictable, stable and closely linked to the idea of global public goods. These include the Strategic Priority on Adaptation (SPA), which comes from the Global Environment Facility (GEF)’s own funds, the Special Climate Change Fund (SCCF), which comes from voluntary contributions from developed countries, and the Adaptation Fund supported by the GEF and the World Bank.

In reality, no municipal budget (already weak and insufficient) can be sufficient to manage these environmental crises. According to the recommendations of international development agencies such as the World Bank, the real investment needs of a city are between 7% and 10% of its Gross Local Product (GPL) per year. For a city such as Douala, whose GLA is around CFAF 3,070 billion (INS, 2011), its investment needs are objectively around CFAF 215 billion/year, far from the CFAF 60 billion that represents the average budget of the Douala Urban Community over the last five years.

In addition to complying with the legal and regulatory provisions on urban development, municipalities must now adopt an integrated approach to the operational management of natural risks in order to strengthen urban resilience (OLINGA, 2021). This new approach, both regulatory and operational, builds on a stream of ideas for sustainable environmental management, in particular target 11.b of Sustainable Development Goal 11 (SDG 11) to “significantly increase the number of cities and human settlements adopting and implementing integrated policies and action plans”.

The Adaptation Plan recommended by Decision 5/CP.17 of the 17th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC in 2011 is thus proposed at the scale of Cameroon cities as an operational response for integrated environmental risk management (H. NAPI WOUAPI et al., 2018). It is a strategy document federating all the initiatives and measures for reducing vulnerabilities to environmental risks inherent to the present and expected effects of climate change at the local level. It is in line with the achievement of Target 17.14 of MDG 17 aimed at “enhancing policy coherence for sustainable development”.

Finally, OLINGA (2021) stresses that at the national level, the State must continue, on the one hand, to guarantee compliance with the legislative and regulatory framework in terms of urban planning, and on the other hand, to promote access to innovative financing for DTCs. Indeed, the need to finance planned adaptation measures remains. Far from being a sinecure, these needs are increasingly felt at the local level. It is at this level that climate paradiplomacy intervenes on the basis of Decree No. 2011/1116/PM of 26 April 2011, which sets out the modalities of decentralised cooperation in Cameroon. In the same vein, Decree No. 2012/0882/PM of 27 March 2012 laying down the modalities for the exercise of competences transferred to the DTCs in the area of the environment in its article 16, provides that the DTCs may freely maintain cooperation relations between themselves and with international partners, and benefit from their financial assistance. The dynamics of the international action of Cameroon DTCs for the financing of sustainable and resilient urban development projects, although favoured by the important institutional framework from which they benefit, requires the indispensable accompaniment of the central State, which must re-schedule the public policies in this area.


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