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 pollution. More optimistic observers have seen opportunity in numbers, arguing that urban expansion can yield net benefits if associated risks, such as pollution and congestion, are mitigated. But even the optimists acknowledge that major challenges lie ahead.

Often overlooked in this debate is the role that electoral politics will play in shaping the future of African cities. As people move from the countryside to the cities, political power will move with them, transforming how the continent’s democracies are governed. Historically, urbanization has spurred demands for political accountability. The U.S. civil rights movement was made possible in part by the migration of black Americans to cities, where denser social networks made it easier to organize protests. The Arab uprisings of 2010–11 coincided with North Africa’s attainment of majority urban status. Sub-Saharan Africa will soon cross the same threshold. The transition will bring a host of social, political, and environmental problems—but it also has the potential to improve governance across the continent.  

THE RURAL-URBAN DIVIDE

Urban residents are, on average, better educated than rural dwellers and more exposed to contrasting political views. They also have better access to infrastructure, such as roads, electricity, potable water, and Internet connectivity—even in poorly resourced slums such Ajegunle. (Many Nigerians, particularly in rural parts of the north, have no access to electricity at all.) In part because of these quality-of-life differences, urban voters tend to care more about structural economic and governance issues than their rural counterparts, who are typically more concerned with basic social welfare needs.

Afrobarometer survey data from South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya—three of the most populous democracies in sub-Saharan Africa—bear out these trends. The three countries are at quite different stages of urbanization: South Africa (66 percent urban) has long been one of the continent’s most urbanized countries; Nigeria (50 percent urban) achieved rural-urban parity only last year; and Kenya (27 percent urban) is still about three decades away from rural-urban parity. But in all three countries, city dwellers are more likely to identify corruption and economic management as core concerns, whereas people in rural areas are more likely to cite food and water shortages and inadequate infrastructure. Because Africa has long been majority rural (it remains 60 percent rural today despite rapid urbanization over the past 50 years), politicians have historically taken their cues from rural dwellers, promising to meet voters’ immediate, basic needs rather than articulating clear policy visions for the future. But as the share of rural voters across sub-Saharan Africa shrinks, demands for improved governance in the cities will become more and more difficult to ignore.  

The notion that urbanization is undesirable for developing countries, particularly in Africa, first took hold in the colonial era. European colonial administrators, fearing that dense urban areas would be difficult to control, often limited investment in city infrastructure to discourage migration from the countryside. This was particularly true in countries under indirect rule, such as Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria, where colonial administrations focused on maximizing the extraction of raw materials. Upon independence, the level of urbanization on the continent was extremely low: in 1960, only 15 percent of sub-Saharan Africans lived in urban areas, compared with 34 percent globally. The only countries with reasonably developed urban infrastructure, such as South Africa, tended to be places where greater numbers of European settlers had prompted colonial administrations to make the requisite investments.

The notion that urbanization is undesirable for developing countries, particularly in Africa, first took hold in the colonial era.

Migration to urban areas accelerated after independence, but owing in part to this colonial legacy, cities were ill-equipped to take in the newcomers, and large slums sprang up across the continent. Historically low levels of investment in education, health care, and physical infrastructure in most cities meant urbanization generally did not correlate with the same jumps in agricultural productivity or per capita income experienced in Asia, the Middle East, or North America and Latin America. Faced with this harsh reality, even postcolonial African governments began to view urbanization with skepticism. They demolished illegal urban settlements and focused youth employment programs on rural areas. In some cases, they continued the colonial tradition of failing to invest in urban infrastructure. In 1996, just over half of African governments had official policies designed to curb migration to urban areas, according to the United Nations. By 2013, the proportion had spiked to 85 percent.  

The pessimistic view of African urbanization thus became a self-fulfilling prophecy. But the distortions that date back to the colonial period can be rectified with the right policy interventions. And as urban dwellers gain more political clout—and politicians are incentivized to prioritize their needs—governments will come under greater pressure to make those interventions. This is already happening in Lagos, where improved tax compliance and greater scrutiny of public coffers has resulted in better public services and infrastructure than elsewhere in Nigeria. Lagos State was one of the first Nigerian states to publish itemized budgets in an effort to show accountability, among other things (although it discontinued the practice). The state also maintains its own emergency services and chips in funding toward the local branch of the federal police. The result is a more effective security presence than in other parts of the country. Progress has been slow and uneven, but the trend lines are moving in the right direction. 

OUT WITH THE OLD, IN WITH THE URBAN

By increasing political pressures for accountability, urbanization complements two other recent trends that augur well for African governance: rapid demographic change and growing political competition. Across the continent, governments have long been dominated by politicians who were either actively involved in their countries’ independence struggles or took the reins soon afterward. Those veterans are now well past retirement age and slowly losing their grip on local political structures—a trend accelerated by the generational shift underway among voters: 60 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s population is under 25.

The combined effect of these changes has been to erode the old consensus among political elites, typically focused on uniting the political class against a common enemy such as colonialism, apartheid, or military rule. More than 60 years since the first African countries gained independence and over two decades since military regimes fell out of favor, the unifying power of such “us versus them” narratives has faded. As a result, previously dominant parties have lost their grip on power or succumbed to infighting, opening up space for new political entrants. For example, incumbents in Senegal and Nigeria were voted out of office for the first time in 2012 and 2015, respectively—in both cases after internal disagreements led previously dominant political blocs to splinter. In South Africa, the ruling African National Congress has lost close to 50 parliamentary seats in the 400-seat National Assembly since 2004 amid infighting between feuding factions of the party. Altogether, over 20 sub-Saharan African nations, including those under long-standing authoritarian rule such as Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, and Sudan, have had a transfer of power, often as a result of a competitive election, in the past four years alone.

Greater competition and accountability are, of course, no panacea. As the Brexit debacle in the United Kingdom; the revolutions in Egypt, Libya, and Syria; and the recent turmoil in many other Western countries have driven home, demands for accountability do not always deliver political stability or continuity. The same will be true in sub-Saharan Africa, where more competitive election cycles will exert pressure on the public purse as administrations invest in tangible projects to sway voters and in building or strengthening political coalitions to ward off rivals. At the same time, faster turnover in government could result in greater policy volatility.

In the long term, however, such risks are a small price to pay for the benefits of increased accountability. Urban density will make it easier to mobilize popular support for or against policies, ideas, or regimes in democratic and nondemocratic countries alike, improving both the quality and the responsiveness of governance. In the Yoruba language, Ajegunle roughly translates to “the place where riches dwell.” For most of the slum’s impoverished residents, the name remains an aspiration. But as Nigeria grows more urban, and the concerns of Ajegunle become the concerns of the country, it may well become a reality.