Both Kanifing and Freetown share many of the same urban challenges, including rural-urban migration, a lack of urban planning and the widespread economic downturn caused by the global pandemic. Both cities are striving to deliver quality services to their residents through waste management, market infrastructure, climate change adaption and more. Establishing a bilateral relationship between cities with a similar colonial legacy and comparable development contexts provides a unique and important opportunity for mutual learning and collaboration in pursuit of solutions to some of the most pressing challenges to urban development. It was this expectation that sparked the initial dialogue between Mayor Talib Ahmed Bensouda of Kanifing and Mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr of Freetown. Both cities are actively supported with embedded technical assistance from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, which has helped to accelerate this bilateral partnership.
Historically, twinning relationships between municipalities have been established through a North-South lens, with cities in the Global South linking with cities in the Global North. These partnerships frequently yield important gains in building cross-cultural understanding, yet often solutions found or promoted in the Global North are difficult or unsuitable to replicate in the Global South.
Kanifing and Freetown, however, have extensive cultural ties that have bound the people of both cities for decades prior to this particular exchange. These ties date back through a rich pre-colonial history, which saw the migration of various ethnic groups across the sub-region. Sierra Leone’s preeminent university, Fourah Bay College, hosted many Gambians in the years before the establishment of the University of The Gambia. In recognition of this, Gambian students pay domestic tuition fees when studying at Fourah Bay College, and today, it is common to see teachers from Sierra Leone teaching in some of Kanifing’s top private schools. During Sierra Leone’s civil war, The Gambia practiced an open migration policy towards Sierra Leoneans displaced by the war, leading many families from Freetown to settle in Kanifing. These numerous cultural connections between the two cities resulted in Mayor Bensouda describing how Freetown “felt like a home away from home”.
Beyond the cultural connections, the city leaders were able to offer a fresh perspective on the various governance structures adopted by the councils. Mayor Aki-Sawyerr shared the exceptional work of her Mayor’s Delivery Unit, which brings on board various technical experts to deliver key priority initiatives to transform Freetown. Mayor Bensouda explained how Kanifing is integrating technical experts from the local private sector into the council’s committees to promote capacity development of councillors and ensure elected councillors maintain ownership of reforms and development projects. Furthermore, both mayors discussed their efforts to promote decentralisation and the devolution of powers and financial resources, especially with respect to land use planning, building permits, parking fees and signboard dues. It was clear that both councils rely on a supportive and collaborative partnership with their respective central governments to achieve their development objectives.
Through deep-dive technical sessions and strategic site visits, the two councils shared practical advice for addressing pertinent concerns across these sectors. For example, the teams visited a brand-new innovative faecal sludge treatment centre, along with a solid waste transfer station, where tricycle waste collectors can dump their waste at a decentralized location to avoid traversing the long distance to an official dumpsite, promoting waste diversion through enhanced recycling activities. Both councils shared their experiences of increasing revenue through property tax reforms and establishing enhanced Geographic Information Systems within the council administration. In order to improve the sanitation and wellbeing of market vendors, the councils shared notes on their respective Public-Private Partnership arrangements to develop market infrastructure, which included a site visit to meet vendors at Aberdeen Market, one of the locations for development in Freetown. Finally, the discussion on climate change highlighted the need for measures to support vulnerable communities living in flood-prone areas, along with the “Freetown the Treetown” campaign to plant one million trees with close monitoring by tree stewards, who feed data into a real-time online database. Not only was the range of ideas shared vast, but the depth of the relationships built means that technicians from both cities will continue to work together for months and years to come.
After visiting cities across several continents as a municipal leader, Mayor Bensouda called the visit to Freetown the most relevant and immediately practical. Mayor Aki-Sawyerr described the rich value of "seeing your own city through the eyes of another city leader". The weeklong exchange between the cities of Kanifing and Freetown achieved the goals of sharing ideas of development successes and lessons learned, developing meaningful relationships at a technical and political level, and promoting regional and South-South cooperation between the two cities.