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ESA Regional Hub: Scaling City-Led Action to Prevent and Respond to Hate, Extremism and Polarisation in East and Southern Africa

— 19 minutes reading time

With support from the European Union (EU) as part of its STRIVE Cities initiative, the Strong Cities Network’s East & Southern Africa (ESA) Regional Hub, which is hosted by the East Africa Local Governments Association (EALGA), held its third regional workshop in Arusha (Tanzania) on Scaling City-Led Action to Prevent and Respond to Hate, Extremism and Polarisation. The workshop brought together mayors, governors and other officials from over 30 cities across Botswana, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Somalia, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda, as well as representatives from national governments, regional economic blocs such as the East African Community, local government associations and development partners such as ICLEI Africa, the Institute for Security Studies, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and UN-Habitat, and more.

The event builds on the Regional Hub’s past two regional workshops and various technical support activities, including – for example – its border cities-focused learning visit to Cape Town (South Africa) in December 2023, its learning visit to Mombasa (Kenya) on youth engagement in November 2023, national-local dialogues in Uganda and Malawi and city-specific technical assistance. Mayors, governors and other city officials that took part in these activities shared how they have contextualised and applied the practices they learned, inspiring counterparts with practical guidance and showcasing the potential of city-city learning and exchange. Key practice areas featured included youth-local government engagement, community engagement, refugee integration, national-local cooperation (NLC) and how urban design and planning can strengthen social cohesion.

Several key findings emerged from the discussions:

Threats & Key Challenges

Participants pointed to high unemployment rates, unprecedented levels of migration, hate speech, identity politics and exploitation of porous borders as among the primary challenges exacerbating hate and extremism across ESA. For example, in Busia (Kenya), extremist groups such as Al-Shabaab exploit high youth unemployment and poverty to recruit vulnerable individuals. In Tanga (Tanzania), local and regional extremist groups capitalise on the city’s proximity to the porous border with Kenya to recruit Tanzanian and Kenyan youth, while Funny Kanojerera, Deputy Mayor, City of Blantyre (Malawi) expressed concern over spillover of violence from Mozambique into his city, pointing to an urgent need to strengthen cross-border city-city collaboration.

Meanwhile, regional conflicts and global crises like climate change are causing unprecedented levels of internal and cross-border migration, which cities feel mostly ill-equipped to manage. For example, Flora Maboa-Boltman, Deputy President, South African Local Government Association (SALGA), shared thatmigrants in South Africa are increasingly scapegoated for insufficient public service delivery, with xenophobic movements such as Operation Dudula gaining momentum as a result. She said that cities across South Africa are therefore not only having to adjust to rapidly growing populations (without the requisite municipal resources nor with support from the national government to do so), but also to navigate xenophobic sentiment as well as rising levels of distrust in and protests against local government as a result of strained service delivery.

Further, participants from Busia, Trans Nzoia, West Pokot and other Kenyan counties shared thatclimate disasters are increasingly causing displacement and exacerbating competition over resources, particularly amongst pastoral communities whose livelihoods depend on agriculture. In some contexts, such tensions have manifested into violence and are used to stoke inter-ethnic hostilities, given how pastoral communities are largely shaped by ethnic and/or tribal ties. As shared by Philomenah Kapkory, Deputy Governor, Trans Nzoia County and Peter Odima, County Executive Committee Member, Busia County, identity politics and ‘political shareholding’, where political parties build their support base along ethnic lines (e.g., through promising to prioritise members of their ethnic group in policymaking), remains a significant threat to social cohesion across the country.

Overall, there was consensus amongst participants on the urgent need to support local governments with addressing hate speech targeting migrants and ethnicity in particular, with violence against minority-owned businesses (e.g., in South Africa) and displacement as a result of hate speech (e.g., in DRC) highlighted as examples of how hate can manifest into significant harm offline.

Key Themes

The workshop offered mayors, governors and other city leaders the opportunity to share how they are investing in prevention.For example, Florence Namayanja, Mayor, Masaka City (Uganda) spoke about how she was inspired by the commitments of Strong Cities’ New York City Mayoral Declaration, which was launched at Strong Cities’ Fourth Global Summit in September 2023, to establish a disability council, youth council and women’s council to ensure policy and programmes are informed by diverse perspectives and are therefore better able to meet the needs of residents (particularly historically marginalised ones).

Further, under the leadership of Sanya Wilson, Mayor, Koboko Municipality (Uganda), the Municipalityestablished a trauma-healing centre for refugees, which employs refugees from DRC, South Sudan and local Ugandans as counsellors to accommodate diverse language and cultural needs and to ensure refugees can obtain mental health support from those that have similar lived experiences. The centre was established at the recommendation of refugees themselves, who are consulted – alongside long-term residents – during the Municipality’s annual policy and budget planning processes.

In West Pokot (Kenya), Deputy Governor Achaule Robert Komolle led a cross-border, inter-ethnic reconciliation effort that resulted in a joint communique between the County Government, National Government of Uganda and representatives of the various ethnic groups represented in West Pokot and across the border in Uganda (see the spotlight on page 5 for more information), while Geoffrey Ngiriker, Mayor, Nebbi Municipality (Uganda) hosted a delegation from Mahagi (DRC) to similarly strengthen cross-border city-city ties.

As a city, we initiated community engagement meetings after endorsing the New York City Mayoral Declaration … to ensure that every voice is heard. We are focusing on closing the gap between leaders and residents. Then, building on peer learning in Mombasa on youth engagement, and with support from Strong Cities’ ESA Regional Hub, we organised a dialogue with youth on how the local government can work collaboratively with them to address youth issues and build community cohesion.

Florence Namayanja, Mayor, Masaka City

Mayors and other city leaders additionally provided several lessons for effective leadership against hate and extremism, which include:

Cities are the custodians of hope in the campaign against hate, extremism and polarisation globally… Mayors are the dealers, agents and brokers of that hope.

Sanya Wilson, Mayor,
Koboko Municipality

Cross-Border Inter-Ethnic Reconciliation, West Pokot County (Kenya)

West Pokot often experiences clashes between its different ethnic communities as well as with those in neighbouring Uganda. These clashes generally arise out of competition over resources such as land, cattle and access to water. Further, climate change-induced droughts have significantly impacted the livelihoods of West Pokot’s rural communities, forcing many of them to migrate to other parts of the County or into Uganda. This, in turn, causes tensions between long-term residents and migrants, which often takes ethnic undertones and thus exacerbates existing inter-ethnic hostilities.

The County Government has implemented several measures to address inter-ethnic tension, including:

  • Cross-border peace meetings and agreements, involving community leaders from both sides of the border to address and resolve sources of conflict. For example, in March 2024, Deputy Governor Achaule Robert Komolle led a delegation to Moroto (Uganda), convening representatives of various ethnic groups and the Ugandan national government to agree to a series of provisions to mitigate (cross-border) inter-ethnic conflicts. The meeting resulted in a joint communique between all actors, which outlines commitments to facilitate inter-ethnic reconciliation, such as an immediate cessation of hostilities, a greater security presence along the border and provision of compensation to those that lost cattle and other resources in recent violence.
  • Integrated development projects that aim to improve infrastructure, public service delivery and create economic opportunities for pastoral communities, thereby addressing some of the root causes of inter-ethnic conflict and marginalisation.
  • The launch ofPeace Border Schools, where the County Government partnered with local communities to build classrooms wherein youth from different ethnic communities can receive their education together. This has strengthened inter-ethnic interactions, with an evaluation of the Peace Border Schools showing that they create positive interactions between pupils of diverse ethnic backgrounds and their parents, while also supporting the local economy, with different ethnic communities settling and conducting business near the schools. The initiative is also a commendable example of NLC, with the County Government partnering with the national Ministry of Education, Science and Technology to support with school registration processes, allocation of certified teachers and to provide quality assurance to the initiative as a whole.

Discussions also underscored the multi-faceted role of community engagement in helping local governments stem the rising tide of hate, extremism and polarisation. For example, participants shared that local governments should facilitate participatory governance, where policy and budget planning are a collaborative effort with residents. Eric Apelgren, Head of Department: International and Governance Relations, eThekwini / Durban Municipality (South Africa) shared that participatory governance was key to the development of eThekwini’s five-year Integrated Development Plan and is a cornerstone of the plan’s implementation. The Plan was developed in part through an approach the Municipality calls ‘community-based planning‘, where consultations were held per ward to ensure it is informed by hyper-local needs. In a public call for feedback published on the Municipality’s website, residents were also given the opportunity to review a draft plan and draft budgets per its strategic pillars. The Municipality additionally makes use of digital platforms, such as its eThekwini Strategic Hub, to provide residents with insight into ward-level budget allocations, safety and security incidents, climate risks and efforts to strengthen climate resilience, among other aspects of local governance. The purpose of the Strategic Hub is to strengthen transparency and “communities’ ability… to contribute meaningfully to political processes and hold [the local government] accountable”.

Related to participatory governance is collaborative service delivery, which participants highlighted as an effective way to provide idle youth with structure, employment and healthy ways to stay occupied, while also helping local governments scale public service delivery. For example, Nansana Municipality has employed young people in garbage collection and other municipal management efforts and Mombasa County (Kenya)’s Mombasa Ni Yangu Initiative has hired more than 1500 youth to work in the County’s safety and security, disaster risk management and environment departments. These initiatives not only mitigate youth idleness, which extremist groups can exploit, but also help young people feel they are contributing positively to their community, providing a sense of ownership over their environment and give them transferable, practical skills that can support them in the job market over the long-term.

Further, communities can serve as partners in amplifying positive messaging and with early-warning against hate, extremism and related issues. For example, Omar Ibrahim, Municipal Manager, Wajir County (Kenya), shared how the County Government’s Tara Community Engagement programme employs mosque leaders to promote religion as a tool to build peace and resolve conflict. Further, under the leadership of Mayor Namayanja, Masaka City has partnered with religious leaders, civil society and local media to disseminate messages of peaceful coexistence between its various ethnic communities. Munira Bakali, Deputy Mayor, Zomba City (Malawi), shared that, “since attending Strong Cities events”, her City is “mainstreaming conversation about hate, extremism and polarisation into existing structures”, such as local grievance management committees, to strengthen community-based early-warning capacities.

Participants agreed that the impact of robust community engagement practices lies not only in the local government’s ability to glean local needs and concerns, but also in the ownership and sense of belonging it can foster amongst residents, which is particularly important amongst those that have been historically marginalised, such as ethnic and religious minorities. By making a concerted effort to regularly engage all residents, including to support policy planning and budgeting, cities can help residents feel like they have a stake in and control over their environment and (re)build trust in local governance.

Importantly, however, as noted by Samuel Wagaba, Programme Officer, Uganda Youth Senate, there is much to be done to ensure youth are more meaningfully engaged and able to inform policies and programmes. Amongst the barriers to youth involvement that Samual and other youth leaders, such as Mahmoud Noor, Chief Mentor, Swahilipot Foundation and Joseph Nazareth, Founder, Lonamac CBO, shared are limited access to the information required to make informed recommendations and ceremonial or superficial youth engagement by city officials, which is used to curtail more meaningful efforts to solicit youth feedback. Participating city representatives agreed that they could do more to consistently provide young people with a platform to share ideas, concerns and needs, with many city officials identifying this is an implementation priority.

In Luton, the City Council works with its local football club to engage ‘hard-to-reach’ residents, recognising the importance of football to Luton’s ‘identity’ and the credibility and influence the club therefore holds among local residents. The City of Liège (Belgium) has also partnered with its local football club but to address racism amongst its fanbase, organising trips to concentration camps to educate them on the real and long-term impacts of such hate. Further, the City has partnered with a local youth theatre to develop a play about violent extremism, which is performed in schools and followed with dialogue and debate among the actors, teachers and students, ultimately using performing arts as a way to raise awareness of hate and extremism among young people.

Similarly, through its Espace Egalité, the City of Strasbourg uses role-playing and simulations to broach the topic of hate and discrimination with children as young as six. The Espace serves as an education centre on discrimination, teaching visitors the 20+ characteristics that are considered protected in French law, the impacts of discrimination and the steps victims and witnesses of discrimination can take to seek justice. It also humanises the experiences of migrants and refugees by taking children through the typical journey of an asylum seeker, while also teaching children to think critically through games and puzzles that seek to raise awareness about (unconscious) biases.

Participants shared examples of how urban planning and sports can prevent hate, extremism and polarisation, thus ‘widening the lens’ to include disciplines and practices beyond more traditional and often explicitly labelled hate and extremism prevention initiatives. As Kevin Mutia, Professional Officer, Urban Systems, ICLEI Africa pointed out, urban planning can strengthen a) community interactions through addressing spatial obstacles to integration, b) mobility, by creating infrastructure that enables all communities to access urban centres where employment opportunities are greatest and c) help facilitate equitable public service where no community feel under-serviced. For example, he encouraged cities to invest in natural and green spaces, which can serve the dual purpose of reducing a city’s carbon footprint while also creating spaces where local governments can bring communities together for cultural exchanges and dialogues.

Kevin additionally recommended that cities collaborate with their neighbours to produce metropolitan plans, which combine city-specific plans and create a joint responsibility for gaps in service and infrastructure delivery. He noted that cities on the opposite side of a border could use a metropolitan plan to ensure no area between them is left neglected, thus mitigating marginalisation of remote communities. Similarly, he shared that such plans could help ensure informal settlements, which can develop on the periphery of a city as a result of high levels of migration and urbanisation, are adequately provided for.

Several examples of sports as a means to create social cohesion were also shared. For example, the Governor of Wajir County launched a ‘Governor’s Super Cup’ that uses football to bring young people together and draw them away from potentially harmful behaviours. Koboko Municipality hosts regular cross-border football games (e.g., between its residents and Congolese from across the border) to enable positive interactions and reduce stigma between these two communities. In Mombasa, the County partners with young people to organise sports activities to strengthen inter-community engagement, as shared by Kenneth Ambani, Chief Executive Committee Member. Participants agreed that sports are an effective vehicle through which to achieve prevention objectives amongst communities where there may be a lack of trust in government and where other community engagement practices (e.g., dialogues) may be premature due to such a lack of trust.

The workshop featured presentations on national, regional and international frameworks for prevention, providing city officials with the opportunity to recommend how national, regional and international actors can better collaborate with local governments to implement such frameworks. While participants agreed that there has been notable progress in enhancing NLC across the region (e.g., through National Counter Terrorism Centres, Regional District Commissioners and in Malawi through District Peace and Unity Committees), this can be improved. Participants pointed to the need for greater engagement between the ‘lowest’ level of local government and national government, noting that NLC is often limited to county and district governments, thus neglecting municipalities and towns. Discussions highlighted how Strong Cities and local government associations across the region are well-positioned to advocate for the role of cities in prevention and to hold national governments accountable for more consistent engagement with cities on this topic.

The workshop concluded with commitments by participants to implement and share learnings, as well as with recommendations for how Strong Cities can continue to meet the needs of cities across the region.

Participant Next Steps:

Recommendations for Strong Cities’ ESA Regional Hub:

The ESA Regional Hub, including in collaboration with partner organisations, will seek to support these commitments with technical assistance and take the recommendations forward as it continues to strengthen city-led prevention across the region.

This workshop was made possible with generous support from the EU through STRIVE Cities. Strong Cities is grateful to the City of Arusha for its generous hospitality in hosting the dialogue, to the Tanzanian Ministry of Local Government and President’s Office of Regional Administration and Local Government and to the EU Delegation to Tanzania for supporting and participating in this event.

For more information on this event, please contact Gertrude Rose Gamwera Buyinga, Head of the ESA Regional Hub, at [email protected]