international analysis and commentary

Urbanization in Central Africa: contradictions and challenges


“There are no wealthy countries that are not urbanized, but there are plenty of urbanized countries that are not wealthy.” This eloquent phrasing by urban analysts Joseph Parilla and Alan Berube gives adequate context to the phenomenon of urbanization in Central Africa. The current situation in most of what we call the developing world has made clear that urbanization is a necessary, yet insufficient condition for economic prosperity. Nowadays, in fact, whilst the African continent witnesses formidable growth in terms of urban population, the internal migration towards big cities cannot to be coupled with a boost in development indexes.

Historically, urbanization has been profoundly linked to the economy, as labor forces moved from the countryside to the cities, magnetized by the promise of newly-created jobs. This was undoubtedly true – with due differences – for Europe, North America, East Asia and even Latin America. Industrialization conveyed the blooming of large cities. Africa, and particularly Central Africa, suffered from the historical imposition of developing policies by colonial powers that established infrastructure, ports, railways and mines in economically strategic places. Modest cities were born this way, mainly populated with Western inhabitants.

However, this pattern was not replicated to the benefit of local people, as a consolidated rurality compromised the insurgence of real urbanization. The continent lived off agriculture: it is estimated that at the beginning of the 20th century, almost 90% of Africa’s people south of the Sahara lived from the primary occupations of farming, hunting and gathering, cattle nomadism and fishing. The worsening of conditions for these activities – primarily caused by large multinational competitors, wars, famine and environmental change – forced the rural population to abandon its areas and settle at the margins of big cities. As extreme poverty is more prominent in rural than in urban areas (at least three times higher), urbanization would therefore seem a natural and almost automatic way to provide better lives to millions. Over time, the misbelief that migrating to cities would entail positive consequences – notwithstanding a passive ruling class – created African megacities.

If on one hand Central Africa is experiencing the world’s fastest rate of urbanization (particularly south of the Sahara), on the other it remains the region with the lowest rate of urban inhabitants in the world. This apparent paradox is explained through the rooted rural condition of most Central African populations, as mentioned above. Moreover, large cities are badly-equipped to face the swelling number of residents, without the thrust of real industrialization. These cities cannot provide jobs, housing or the infrastructure necessary to accommodate thousands of new arrivals every month. Migrants end up living in slums and working in the informal economy, which represents over 60% of employment in African cities.

But despite the critical situation, the rural exodus continues: United Nations data shows that five years ago the African urban population barely comprised 400 million people; by 2045 it is estimated to triple. To this extent, as Danny Leipziger wrote, urbanization is not a subplot, rather the main policy narrative for Africa.

In Central Africa, Lagos and Kinshasa can already be considered “megacities,” in that they are home to 10 million people or more. In the next few lustra many sub-Saharan cities – Nairobi, Dar-el-Salaam, Khartoum and others – will reach this 10-million-person threshold. Despite the large labor force potentially available, most of these cities continue to rely upon ancient colonization development plans. Consequently – or consistently – the poor are excluded from the life of the city, investments are made solely on the account of international investors and the wealthy plutocracy, and therefore refrain slums from exiting the vicious circle: more arrivals and scarce infrastructure equals degrading conditions. A few case studies are trademark symbols of the contradictions of the current situation.

It is interesting to remark that sub-Saharan Africa is an assemblage of very different countries with equally different patterns of urbanization: it is rare to find large cities that resemble one another. Lagos is the most populated city in the African continent, and counts today more than 16 million people in its urban area. Rates are to be updated every year, as they keep increasing dramatically. Even though the central government moved the capital from Lagos to Abuja, the city still enjoys an unmatched status of economic and financial centrum in Africa.

For instance, private development is currently foreseeing the creation of a luxury cityscape right at the center of Lagos named “Eko Atlantic”, where skyscrapers are to be built to make Lagos the new African Dubai. When the blooming Nigerian economy started to encounter a worrisome downward path at the end of the 1980s, Lagos was still experiencing a huge flux of migrants knocking on its doors. With no money to invest, newcomers had to settle in slums, where still no sewers or houses exist and criminality rates are amongst the highest in the world. The immense shanty towns were fuel for social instability. Owing to this, the government considered slum demolition the solution to stopping growth: of course, this method did not prove to be a solution at all, as it just changed their location rather than their condition. International financial institutions, such as the World Bank, have attempted to intervene in Nigeria to stop urban deteriorated situations, but with little success.

Another way to deal with the extraordinary rates of urbanization is what the Rwandese government has put in place in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital and largest city with almost two million people. Like elsewhere in the continent, the rural exodus has swelled urban areas and produced slums. Nonetheless, the government gave proof of unprecedented political vision and took action to incentivize migration towards other cities rather than towards the capital, thus conveying the flows away from the risk of slums. Subsequently, mid-sized towns were flooded with investments to attract labor forces and prevent degraded areas from gravitating around Kigali. The largest investments were made in education and technical training for youth, and in the construction sector to build houses, infrastructure and facilities. Should this strategy succeed, it might prove a valid alternative and model for the whole continent.

In sum, while the rates of urbanization are astonishingly high, extreme poverty continues to haunt slums which, together with their unsustainable growth, are drivers of criminality and social instability, let alone the dramatic hygienic conditions. However, if properly overseen, the megacities can engender economic opportunities as cities offer economies of scale, which can well lead to sustainable economic prosperity and bettered human development.

In the end, it all comes down to whether governments will fight the causes of poverty rather than the poor themselves, and whether the investments will ultimately benefit the quality of life of people of all income levels.