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Africa’s Slums Aren’t Harbingers of Anarchy—They’re Engines of Democracy

The Upside of Rapid Urbanization

Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga greets supporters after a rally in Nairobi, August 2017 Siegfried Modola / Reuters

The crowded streets of Ajegunle, one of the largest slums in Lagos, Nigeria, are unpaved and littered with garbage. When it rains, they turn into little rivers because of the poor drainage systems. And although Ajegunle’s residents number anywhere from two million to five million, they have limited access to electricity, running water, and security.

Ajegunle is no outlier. For over half a century, sub-Saharan Africa has urbanized faster than any other region in the world. By 2040—a decade before Africa’s population is forecast to reach 2.1 billion, or double what it is today—the continent will become majority urban. That means over a billion people in poorly funded cities with crumbling or inadequate infrastructure.

Projections like these have inspired warnings of impending calamity. In his 1994 essay “The Coming Anarchy,” the author Robert Kaplan famously foresaw a twenty-first-century Africa beset by lawlessness, joblessness, administrative dysfunction, ethnoreligious tension, and unchecked

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