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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 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

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