Small Wars Journal

The Challenge of Africa’s Cities

Tue, 10/16/2018 - 12:13pm

The Challenge of Africa’s Cities

Todd Johnson

Africa’s cities are an assault on the senses. They are filled with a flow of human activity that can appear equal parts vibrant and dystopian. One need only transit Lagos’s Third Mainland Bridge or Kinshasa’s Boulevard Lumumba to get a sense of this frenetic pace and the complex ecosystem of social and economic interaction that allows African urban dwellers to survive and even thrive.*

These cities and many others will be where the continent’s course is charted over the decades to come. They can become seedbeds of innovation and commercial hustle. Or, they can become tinderboxes of unmet aspiration and anger that pose a very real risk to national, regional, and global stability.

The Numbers Tell It All

Political and business leaders are fond of saying “this is Africa’s century.” In one respect, population growth, that claim is indisputable. The number of the sub-continent’s inhabitants is expanding faster than any other region of the world.

Currently, around 1 billion people reside in Africa, according to the UN Population Division. This number is on track to double by 2050 and could reach up to 4bn by 2100 (or around 36 percent of the global population). As remarkable is the sheer youthfulness of Africa, with the current median age only 19.5 years old.

Coupled with the extraordinary growth in Africa’s population, the degree to which this expansion is occurring in urban areas is staggering. Africa’s cities currently are home to at least 472 million people, a number that is expected to double over the next quarter century.

This growth is occurring not only in megapolises like Lagos and Kinshasa, but also in “secondary cities” with populations of a few million or less. A extremely telling example is found in Niamey, the capital of Niger, which according to two Canadian demographers is growing at a rate that could conceivably make it the world’s 8th largest city with 46 million people by 2100.

While cities like Niamey may be starting from a relatively low base, the growth of megacities (10 million-plus residents) and those not far behind is where the most immediate challenge lies for Africa’s leaders.

Take Lagos, for example. Estimates of its population vary, with most settling on a total around 17-20 million. If its annual growth rate remains around 6%, within 60 years Lagos could be the world’s largest city and home to between 85-100 million people.

Lagos’s exponential growth is closely matched by other major urban areas on the sub-continent. Kinshasa, the restive capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, currently plays host to around 12 million people and is growing at a rate not far off that of Lagos. Or, there is Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s laidback seaside capital. Its population of roughly 3.35 million in 2010 is expected to grow to at least 6.2 million by 2025, an expansion of 85%, according to the African Development Bank.

Growth of this magnitude would be hard to manage with even the best urban planning capabilities. In most of Africa, it is occurring on the back of colonial-era infrastructure suited for a few million people at best. The physical framework of these cities simply cannot provide the carrying capacity to cope with the massive influx of migrants. Nor can they provide the economic opportunities these people seek.

A Toxic Brew

The combination of almost unprecedented rates of urbanization, much of it driven by young men seeking to escape rural poverty, with cities woefully ill-equipped to manage exponential growth, is a recipe for political instability and civil strife.

The past two decades have seen ethnic, linguistic, and class grievances consume cities like Freetown, Monrovia, and Abidjan, where the complaints of urban dwellers were very often genuine, but also manipulated by unscrupulous political and civic leaders. Just this year alone, there have been worrisome signals in cities like Kinshasa and Kampala of rising anger with political elites.

The stark challenge lying before Africa is tellingly made in David Kilcullen’s 2013 book Out of the Mountains. Kilcullen is a retired Australian army officer who has served in a variety of diplomatic and military advisory roles, most prominently as part of General David Petraeus’s team that crafted the US military’s approach to counter-insurgency in Iraq.

Kilcullen in his theoretical and practical work prioritizes rigorous systems-thinking regarding insurgencies, not only in how to counter them, but also in understanding their root causes. The title of the book is an allusion to his belief that one of the greatest threats to global stability in the decades ahead will come from overcrowded and under-governed cities rather than the semi-rural insurgencies that have characterized conflicts like that in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Kilcullen highlights four trends that he believes will define the world of the future: rapid rates of population growth, urbanization, littoralization (clustering of populations near coastlines), and the ever-increasing digital connectivity of residents. The destabilizing impacts of these trends will manifest themselves most clearly in developing world coastal hubs like Lagos.

These trends, when coupled with economies lacking in sufficient opportunities and operating under zero-sum political systems, create an environment of simmering instability where even minor events like an uptick in inflation or a local election can become a flashpoint for unrest. Kilcullen, using a theory he developed called “competitive control,” postulates that local populations will essentially support whatever state or non-state actor allows them to lead their lives with the least amount of interference.

Kilcullen pulls few punches in his analysis, forecasting more events like the 2010 “Battle for Kingston” that saw a well-armed criminal gang with strong community support, the notorious Shower Posse, battle Jamaican security forces for control of the capital. Kilcullen’s vision is certainly bleak, but also hard to discount when one thinks about the recent rise of criminality and militancy in cities like Lagos, Dhaka, Mumbai, and Caracas.

A Plan of Action?

Kilcullen is not the only expert to opine on the future shape of Africa and the challenges inherent to its growth. Development banks, journalists, and academics, to name but a few, have all focused attention on the question of whether Africa’s urbanization can be managed and even turned into an advantage. The World Bank’s 2017 report Africa’s Cities: Opening Doors to the World, while more upbeat in its verbiage, provides a message not too dissimilar from Out of the Mountains.

The report’s key takeaway is that the continent’s cities are stuck in a “low development trap” driven by the paradox of being crowded but still deficient in terms of economic opportunity. The vitality of African urban centers is undermined by spatial dislocation, with highly fragmented neighborhoods unable to reap the benefits of scale because of poor infrastructure. Finally, the relatively high cost of living and of doing business in African cities – Africans pay around 35% more for food than in low and middle-income cities elsewhere – undermines the ability of residents to reap the benefits of urban life and for businesses to become globally competitive. 

The report’s prescriptions are numerous and more detailed than simply calling for greater spending on infrastructure. Among many other recommendations, the authors highlight the criticality of wholesale regulatory reforms, formalization of land markets and property rights, and establishment of robust urban planning capabilities.

In the end, one statistic stood out for me, highlighting just how far behind Africa’s cities are in matching urban expansion with economic growth. In 1968, when populations in the Middle East and North Africa region became 40% urbanized, their per capita GDP was $1,800. In 1994, when the East Asia and Pacific region hit the same 40%-mark, per capita income was $3,600. In sharp contrast, Africa today, also 40% urbanized and growing rapidly, only has a per capita GDP of $1,000.

It’s All About Leadership

The imperative of addressing urbanization in Africa is not in doubt. The question is how to develop sound policies that look far beyond the next election cycle. This requirement places a premium on transformative political leadership, driven by leaders with genuine strategic vision.

One can certainly point to the oft-mentioned example of Lee Kuan Yew’s stewardship of Singapore, placing it on the path to become a global financial center. Or there is Lyndon Johnson’s deep commitment to waging a war on poverty and inequality in America in the 1960s. In an African context, the vision of Sir Sereste Khama propelled Botswana from one of the continent’s poorest to one of its wealthiest nations in the matter of a few decades.  

The necessity of visionary leadership is even more critical in Africa as most countries lack the institutions necessary to independently push ambitious reform agendas. Political power is concentrated in the executive, giving that leader an immense influence over a nation’s trajectory. As post-colonial history has shown, that concentration of power can be a force for positive development (e.g. Khama and Cote d’Ivoire’s Félix Houphouët-Boigny) or deeply destructive (e.g. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko).

Contemporary African leaders with fast expanding cities must take a page from the likes of Khama and plan beyond the next election, engage political rivals in the effort, and place in the public consciousness the urgency of the challenge.  

It’s Now or Never

Africa’s cities are clearly at a tipping point. The urbanization challenge may very well be the African policy dilemma of the 21st century. These cities can become engines for continent-wide prosperity or they can become incubators of insecurity. The necessary reforms and investments are politically contentious, complex, costly, and require long time horizons. Yet, they must be done.  

The solution to managing Africa’s cities won’t come solely from African leaders. Voters must ensure the candidates they support are genuinely committed to responsible urban growth. Foreign investors, particularly those providing infrastructure services, should ensure their offerings are aligned to long-term urban plans. And finally, aid agencies and donor governments must make urban development a policy priority on par with more emotive issues like treatment of infectious diseases.  

African cities are unquestionably rough and tumble, yet they’re growing precisely because people see them as places of opportunity. The test of the decades ahead will be to ensure they become beacons of aspiration and hope rather than a source of the continent’s undoing.

* Africa, in the context of this article, refers only to sub-Saharan Africa.


About the Author(s)

Todd Johnson is the risk leader for a large multinational operating throughout Africa. He has previously held roles in corporate strategy, political and partnership risk management, and in the US Government as a political-military analyst. Additionally, Todd has held the role of adjunct professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. He holds a master’s in international public policy from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from the University of Kansas. The opinions and positions stated are his alone and do not represent the views or policies of any company or organization.