Sub-Saharan Africa is urbanizing at the fastest rate in the world. Western commentators, notably McKinsey in its 2016 report “Lions on the Move II,” see rapid urbanization as increasing the continent’s p roductivity.

McKinsey states, “urbanization has a strong correlation with the rate of real GDP growth,” and that “productivity in cities is more than double that in the countryside.” Other observers, however, question whether urban infrastructure—especially water and education—can meet the needs of an exploding population.

The Financial Times recently published a balanced report on the pros and cons of rapid African urbanization. It focuses on Bamako, Mali, as an example of the continent-wide phenomenon. It cites a World Bank estimate that Bamako’s population today, at 3.5 million, is 10 times larger than it was at independence in 1960.

A professor at the University of Bamako comments that that the city’s growth is a “catastrophe foretold,” that “Bamako is a time-bomb.” Among other shortcomings, the professor notes that the city lacks a land registry even as real estate booms. The exploding population growth translates into high land prices that encourage corruption.

Peppered through the Financial Times piece are arresting statistical notes. For example, a World Bank economist observes that Africa is now 40 percent urban with a per capita GDP of $1,100. By the time Asia reached that level of urbanization, its per capita GDP was $3,500.

Statistics about Africa are generally weak, but for frequent travelers to Africa, the explosion of the urban population is obvious. So, too, are the slums, the lack of schools, water shortages, and unpaved roads. Unemployed male youth are ubiquitous and do, indeed, constitute a potential time bomb with respect to political instability.

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Experience shows that urbanization cannot be reversed, as few residents are willing to return to the countryside unless compelled to do so, as occurred in Chairman Mao’s China or Pol Pot’s Cambodia. But no African state has comparable means of repression should it wish to reduce its urban population. African urbanization will continue and public authorities having few tools with which to manage it.


by John Campbell , Council on Foreign Relations

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