APC: Dr.Okpala, you are one of the most prominent thinkers in Africa. Please tell us an anecdote about your life.

DO: The saying goes that “a traveller, who boasts of never ever having lost his /her way, is probably one who has never travelled very far!

Travelling by road in Nigeria  in the 1970s was arguably a terrible nightmare, though it had its occasional thrills!  

On 29th  August 1970, I  started a journey by road  from Enugu, in Eastern Region of Nigeria to the city of  Jos in North-Central  Region of  Nigeria – a distance of some  700 to 800 kilometers by road,  if the travel is  direct.

It, however, proved a circuitous journey in which I experienced untold inconveniences,  privations and delays – perhaps the worst journey so far in my  experience at that time. 

I was travelling to the City of Jos in North—Central Nigeria to continue a University field research assignment. It had originally been planned to travel by train from Enugu to the city of Jos.  I had planned to take the train at Enugu on 28th August, but the train failed to arrive.  The Train Station Master could not provide any information as to when the scheduled train would arrive or depart.  The alternative therefore was to travel by road.

So, the next day, 29th August,  I joined  a three-ton passenger lorry, bound for Jos. The lorry was driven by a short, light care-free fellow, who in all his dealings had no sense of time or urgency.  The lorry left the Enugu motor park at about 10.00 a.m. and after some aimless wanderings inside Enugu Township, searching for more intending passengers to fill the seats, (which took the better part of one hour), it set out, ostensibly for Jos.  There were so many unnecessary stops and delays along the way but a little after the town of Oturkpo in the Middle Belt Tiv country, a huge mud-swamped road held up all traffic for over 5 hours, while a vehicle which had gotten stuck there was being dug out. The month of August was in the midst of the rainy season in Nigeria.

The road was so bad that many vehicles were held up for hours. Among the stranded were   four Europeans, two men and two women in a land-rover vehicle   After a while, this group became impatient and decided to try an ingenuity which,  if it had worked, would have taken them out of the predicament.  They wanted to circumvent the swamp by driving through the (Savanna) bush but unfortunately the savanna grass had hidden a worse swamp and they immersed themselves deeply   in the mud.  There was a joint effort on the main road by all the passengers of the stranded Lorries to clear the road.  The Europeans tried to get their Land-Rover out, albeit singlehandedly.  But they had some sympathetic hands on and off.  A good many of the natives around refused to help them, reasoning that by trying to circumvent the bad road and leaving the others stranded, that that was a bad trick for which the Europeans had been instantly punished by God!   Their case became hopeless and one of them started calling for a plank to use on the tires.  The boy carrying a plank to them was a very small boy but one of the Europeans was calling out to him — “Oga! Oga! Oga!” (Meaning ‘Boss, Boss’).  And funny enough, another boy burst out into loud laughter saying, aloud,  “Things have really become difficult.  Just come and see where a white man is calling a Motor tout “Oga” .  It was a funny scene.  And when the main road was cleared, the lorries started swinging across and off on their way. 

The Land Rover Team was still far from being salvaged.  The night was fast closing in and the crowd was thinning down as each group boarded their respective vehicles (lorries) and drove off.  The two European ladies burst into tears and cries of “won’t you help us?”  But what did they get – E Whoo! –  E Whoo! – a mocking cry with “mai wayo,  ga wayo!” (Trickster! See trick!), for their reply from the local on-lookers!

One’s lorry managed to pass through the spot at about   7.30 p.m. and continued on the road to Jos. It got to the town of Makurdi at about 9.30 p.m. and passed the night there.  At about  6.00  a.m. the next  morning , it  started off  again and arrived  the  town of Lafia,  where a lot of time was again wasted.  It left Lafia Town after 8.30 am  on 30 August and got to the town of Akwanga at about 10.50 a.m., there to find that the road to Jos was impassable.  By the way, from Akwanga to Jos was about 1700 kilometres.  The group spent over 4 hours there and finally got the agitated  driver to accept 3/= ( three  shillings) additional fare from each passenger  as inducement  to circumvent the bad road by going through the towns of  Keffi-Kaduna-Zaria – Pambegua-Samunaka-Jos, –a distance of over 700 kilometres  again.  The lorry   later started on this and arrived Kaduna  at about  10.30 p.m. and spent the night there.  On the morning of the 3rd day, 31 August (Monday), it set out once again through the towns of Zaria – Pambegua – Samunaka.  

In the town of  Samunaka,  where   the lorry stopped to refuel, I ran into some  of my  town’s  boys – Mathew Onyelonu and Social Joe Ejezie who entertained me with boiled eggs and sugar cane.  It was a welcome relief after so much suffering.  Our lorry later left Samunaka and arrived at Jos – our ultimate destination at about 3.10 p.m. on 31 August.  None of the passengers looked like normal decent human beings – all being dust-covered from head to foot!  

One thanked God for having come off this ordeal with one’s life. The outcome could indeed have been worse. The total distance covered in this three-day horrific road journey was over 2000 kilometers!

APC: How would you describe your professional background, i. e.,  Education,  professional development and orientation? 

DO: I started life as a professionally trained teacher. I progressively taught at the primary and secondary (High) School levels.

I subsequently proceeded to the University of Ibadan (Nigeria) where I majored in Geography (B.A. Hons.). On graduation from the University of Ibadan in 1971, I joined the Nigerian Institute of Social and Economic Research (N.I.S.E.R) at the University of Ibadan (Nigeria), as a Research Assistant in the Institute’s Physical Planning (Urban and Regional Planning) Division.

Later on in October 1972, I proceeded to postgraduate studies in Masters Degree programme in Urban and Regional Planning at the Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design (GSD) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A.   I graduated with a master’s degree in Regional Planning in June 1974 and thereafter, in September 1974, I joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) in Cambridge, Massachusetts for a Ph.D. Program in Urban Studies and Planning.  I obtained the Ph.D.  Degree in Urban Studies and Planning from M.I.T. in February 1977.

During his  post-graduate studies in the U.S., Dr. I worked  on part-time basis as a Senior  Planning Consultant in the Team of  CE-TEC/ECODESIGN Inc. of Waltham, Massachusetts, U.S.A., when the Firm served as Advisory Consultants to the then Nigerian Federal Government (1974 – 1976).

I also served as Senior Planning Consultant with the ECO-DESIGN Inc. of Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A. in the Planning of  seven  towns in the  then East Central State of Nigeria (1975/1976).

After receiving his Ph.D. Degree from M.I.T. in February 1977, I returned to the Nigerian Institute of Social and Economic Research (N.I. S.E.R.), University of Ibadan (Nigeria) and resumed duties as a Research Fellow in Urban Development Planning and Management

I was awarded the Fulbright Senior Research Scholar Fellowship (August –November 1983), which I spent at the Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, as a Visiting Adjunct Professor. The Research output of this program – titled, “Institutional Problems in the Management of the Nigerian Urban Environment”, was later published by the Nigerian Institute of Social and Economic Research (N.I.S.E.R) as its Monograph series number 15 of 1986.

As a consultant to the World Bank, I co-ordinated the Bank’s Nigeria Urban Priorities Study (1982 -1983).

Later in 1983, Dr.  I was appointed Human Settlements Officer by the United Nations, and deployed to the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (UNCHS), headquartered in Nairobi Kenya. From there, I was reposted to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  For five years (1983 – 1988), I served as the principal UNCHS (Habitat) Officer for Africa in the human settlements analysis field, and was charged with developing the African Regional component of UNCHS(Habitat) Global Programs and projects. In this position, I was responsible for liaising, on behalf of UNCHS(Habitat), with the United Nations  Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and the then Organization of African Unity (OAU), now the African Union (AU), which was also headquartered in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  My duties also included holding consultations on relevant inter-Agency issues with these respective Organizations and  also included technical and policy advisory support services to African Member States on implementation of their respective national human settlements programs. 

I was responsible for the over-all coordination of UNCHS (Habitat) activities at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia from 1983 -1988. 

I was re-deployed back to UN-Habitat Headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya until 2006, when I retired from United Nations Service. I participated   and contributed to the development and back-stopping of several and varied global programs and projects of UN-Habitat in the urban and regional planning, development and management sphere. These included development and implementation of the following programs and projects, among others:

  • The Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II Conference) in Istanbul, Turkey in 1996;
  • Preparation and publication of the  “Global Report on Human Settlement (1996 edition);
  • The Global Strategy for  Shelter to the Year 2000;
  • The Istanbul + 5 Global Conference in 2001 (New York, U.S.A.));
  • The Second  World Urban  Forum 2004   (in Barcelona, Spain);
  • The Third World Urban Forum in the City of Nanjing, China, in (November 3 – 8), 2008

Indeed, for some four years after my retirement from the United Nations I, continued to  engage and contribute periodically ( on consultancy basis) in the development and implementation of programs and projects  of the United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-Habitat).

During 2007/2009, for example, I led and coordinated three Teams of  Nigerian  Consultant Town Planners in the Preparation of  Urban Development Structure Plans for three (3)  cities in Anambra State of Nigeria, namely: Awka Capital Territory,  Nnewi and Onitsha respectively,  for the Anambra State Government. The Project was jointly supported by UN-Habitat and the Government of Anambra State.

In 2008, I led a multi-national United Nations-Habitat Team of Four that carried out a Technical Assessment of the Comprehensive Environmental Planning and Redevelopment of the Qinhuai River Corridor in Nanjing City, People’s Republic of China.

From 2010 –2011, I served as Technical Assistance Program Coordinator to Shelter-Afrique S.A.  –The Company for  Habitat and  Housing  in Africa.  This involved coordinating, monitoring and reporting on the implementation of the Institutional Capacity Building Technical Assistance offered to the Shelter-Afrique Organization/Institution by the African Development Bank Group.

To date, I have continued to provide professional services on consultancy basis, in addition to involvements in Community Development Programs and projects of my primary rural Community, which I have been privileged to also  serve  as President  General.

APC: What is your perception of the Concept of Sustainable Urbanization?

DO: Sustainable Urbanization presupposes a progressively well-planned, implemented and adequately provisioned  urban settlement, which  anticipates and progressively provides for  adequate  future needs  for housing, transportation, water supply, power and other  services, including waste management. As has perceptively been underlined,

        for a city to be livable, productive and sustainable, there must be a competent and responsible authority to plan, manage, maintain and  care for its complex infrastructure and services  and their functionality. Without such a development and management structure, machinery and process, the infrastructure progressively breaks down and the city or settlement disintegrates” (Nigerian Guardian Newspaper Editorial (2008:14).

The HABITAT AGENDA  (1996) which embodies the series of  commitments, undertakings and  recommendations collectively made by the World Community of Nations to improve the living conditions of their peoples in an increasingly urbanizing world, which  has been subsequently updated  and enhanced by the  Millenium  Development  Declaration and Goals (MDGs 2000), the Declaration on Cities and other human settlements in the New Millenium (2001), the  World Summit on Sustainable Development  (WSSD) and the resulting  Johannesburg Plan of  Implementation (2002), form the main springboards and purpose of  sustainable  human settlements in both  urban (city) and regional (rural) contexts.

As had also been underlined by the Habitat Agenda (1997 : para 17 – 18),

         “The quality of life of all people depends among other economic, social, cultural and environmental factors, on the physical conditions and spatial characteristics of our villages, towns and cities.  City layouts and aesthetics, land-use patterns, population, architecture and building densities, transportation and ease of access for all to the basic goods, services and public amenities, have a crucial bearing on the  livability of  settlements”,  both urban and rural.

This situation can only be realized through well-thought-out settlement (urban and rural) planning, development and management of the settlements sizes and scales!  Sustainable Urbanization is therefore hardly possible without adequate planning and dedicated effective implementation of such plans.

Towards greater realization of this objective of sustainable urbanization, UN-HABITAT had devoted considerable efforts to promoting sustainable urbanization programs and projects  over the years.  In this regard, I, during my service years,  was responsible for organizing, promoting and managing a series of seminars, workshops and expert-group meetings etc. to advance the policy, programs and practice of sustainable urbanization in developing countries, with special focus on Africa and Asia (China).

In the course of my service with the UN-HABITAT, I had several  occasions to travel to different regions and cities of China –namely Baotou, Beijing, Autonomous Region of Inner Mongolia, Weihai, Yantai, Nanning and Hong Kong, among others — to promote programs of sustainable urbanization.

In 2003, I co-organized and managed the International Conference on Sustainable Urbanization Strategies (3 – 5 November 2003), in Weihai, which was jointly sponsored/funded by Weihai Municipality (China) and UN-HABITAT.

Two years later, I led the UN-HABITAT  Team, in coordinating and managing  “The  Nanning International Conferrence on Sustainable Urban Development –From Research to Action”,(9-11 November 2005), at which  I also  presented the lead paper titled “ Improving Research for Sustainable urban development: The Perspectives of an International Organization (UN-HABITAT).”

The concept of sustainable urbanization remains a living concept, more critically so in today’s  developing countries.

APC: In your view/experience, to what extent is sustainable urbanization tenable in contemporary African urban systems? 

Sustainable Urbanization is not necessarily a point-in-time end state but rather, more of a situation that incrementally and progressively evolves or improves over time. In this context, countries, regions and/or cities in contemporary African countries could be said to be in varying stages of the march towards sustainable urbanization.  Sustainable urbanization is predicated on proper and adequate planning of the cities and effective implementation of such cities.

The HABITAT AGENDA (UN (Habitat): 1997:1997 para 17 – 18)) underlines that:

“The quality of life of all people depends among other economic, social, cultural and environmental factors, on the physical conditions and spatial characteristics of our villages, towns and cities. City layouts and aesthetics, land-use patterns, population, architecture and building densities, transportation and ease of access for all to the basic goods, services and public amenities, have a crucial bearing on the  livability of settlements”.

This presupposes a well-planned, implemented and managed urban system.

Currently however, many contemporary African urban systems, as most developing countries’ cities, are not yet adequately planned, and where such plans exist, they are hardly fully implemented as planned. They are as yet constrained/hamstrung by such fundamental challenges as continuing high rates of urban population growth, unplanned and unregulated physical growth and expansion of the budding cities, the challenge of mass poverty – particularly urban poverty, and extreme weakness of urban management institutions  — reflected in their inability to  adequately provide basic urban services.  

 The outcome, as currently generally reflected, is usually   fragmented and disparate urban systems and structures, which as Dewar (1995:411) notes, 

         “….. generate enormous amounts of movements at great temporal and 

monetary cost to the individuals and societies alike and  massively aggravate the main developmental issues of poverty, unemployment and inequality …The sprawling discontinuous pattern makes efficient and viable public transport impossible, they waste scarce resources such as  land, energy and finance to the degree that the urban settlements  are becoming financially non-sustainable, and they are resulting in extensive environmental degradation in terms of landscape, vegetation, water, air and noise”.

The massive and destructive flooding of cities and towns in various countries of Africa and indeed in other developing countries of the world is attributable to inadequate planning of cities or ineffective implementation and enforcement of the plans, where they exist.

Sustainable urban development is therefore not possible without adequate planning and dedicated implementation of such urban plans. Cities cannot be sustainable either ecologically or environmentally, socially or even economically without an adequately planned and developed spatial and trunk infrastructure framework. Spatial planning is one of the key public actions that shape growth and change in cities. Indeed, as underlined by the U.N. Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE),

  “ in all countries, irrespective of their stage of development, the absence of spatial  planning and regulations may create very difficult situations, rectified only at great effort and cost, and with no guarantee as to result” (UNECE:1986:2).

Regrettably, institutional structures for such planning, implementation and management of city systems — viz: architecture and planning, housing, transportation, water supply, waste management, revenue generation/mobilization, and urban economic development generally, regulatory mechanisms and by-laws, etc,  are still relatively generally weak and fragmented in African countries, as in most other developing countries.

Much greater emphasis and investments in spatial planning of African cities and towns are therefore imperative if the objectives of sustainable urban development are to be realized. The cities could still be better planned, more productively and sustainably managed and be more efficient despite crowds, traffic, noise and despite pollution (Masser, 1995 p.74), while still allowing for great diversity and be made to work well as  sustainable living and working environment.

APC: How has working with the United Nations (Habitat) and other International Programs impacted  your life.

DO: I consider the most memorable time  in my career, the twenty-three years (1983 –2006)  of service with the United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-HABITAT). This tenure of service with the U.N.  accorded me, invaluable world-wide exposure to human settlements (urban and rural) conditions and challenges across countries of the world, as well as exposure to comparative strategies for addressing those issues and challenges. Re-enforced by earlier experiences garnered from various other program engagements/involvements, such as the Fulbright Fellowship Program, consultancies with the World   Bank Group’s Urban Division in its Nigeria Urban Priorities Study (1982/83), as well as participatory involvements in a number of Planning Consultancies with a number of  other international Companies and institutions. These exposures also accorded me opportunities to contribute towards some of the solutions in the form of ideas, practice and capacity building.  These were greatly enriching experiences.

I, in addition, greatly treasure the friendship and fellowships I was able to develop and build with people of other national and regional origins and cultures.  These exposures and experiences make one feel at ease wherever one finds oneself in this wide world!

APC: What do you think is your most important accomplishments so far?

On a lighter note, I suppose that my most important accomplishment so far  is having managed to stay alive on this side of hades, in spite of my long arduous obstacle race and adventure over seven-plus decades!!

I am, of course, quick to admit that this particular accomplishment is not solely a result of one’s personal ability or efforts.  The hand of God/Destiny has more to do with it!!

On a more serious and  substantive note, I  cherish my participation and contributions to the development, implementation and  documentation of various programs and projects  of the United Nations Habitat Program.

I , in addition, cherish my contributory involvements in support of education, capacity-building and varied social and Community Development programs and projects at varying scales in my  primary  Community and  in wider Society at large.

APC: What would you recommend to young professionals going forward?

DO: Debutant professionals would be  well-advised to work hard to establish and build themselves up strongly in whatever  professional  discipline they choose.  They should build and develop skills and experiences in some identifiable substantive knowledge and skills area e.g. in geo-spatial design and communications skills, be able to  analyze, communicate  well.

They should also be well-advised to avoid the temptation to take short-cuts, or to hang too much value on making money as opposed to building a sound professional competence and integrity, and avoid undue consideration and emphasis on short-term material gains.

They would also be well-advised to always keep open minds to ideas and be disposed to life-long learning.

APC: Thank you this was very interesting and valuable.


1. Dewar, D. (1995) “The Urban question in South Africa:The Need for  a planning paradign shift”. (Third World Planning Review, Vol. 17 No 4, 1995 (p.407).

2. Masser, Ian (1985:74) “The Transfer of development Experience: A Review”. (Third World Planning Review, vol. 7 No. 1 February, 1985).

3. Okpala, D.C.I.(2009): Regional Overview of the  status of urban planning and planning practice in  Anglophone (Sub-Saharan) African Countries” (http://www.unhabitat.org/grhs/2009).

4. United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) (1986): Report of Seminar on Building Regulations and technologies at different stages of economic development: Note by the Secretariat” (20 February, 1986).

5. United Nations (Habitat) Programme , 1997: The  Istanbul Declaration and the Habitat Agenda.( Nairobi).



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