Africa’s urban revolution

Africa’s traditional societies and agrarian civilization

Africa has seen extraordinary urban growth in the twentieth century and this, rather than the conventional view of the continent as an exporter of raw materials, should form the basis for thinking about development in future. This means exploring ways of linking present forms of urban commerce to the world economy, as well as to national and regional markets. Indigenous commerce has so far been approached mainly in terms of the ‘informal economy’. The social forms that organize the informal economy and mobilize its resources must surely play a significant part in whatever happens next.

If African ‘development’ is ever to break out of the unhappy pattern established in the last half-century, its engine will have to be sustained endogenous economic growth. But, in order to understand Africa’s twentieth-century experience, we must first take a long view of the region’s divergence from the general historical trajectory of the Eurasian land mass.

My teacher, Jack Goody has written a series of books seeking to explain how and why African societies south of the Sahara diverged before the modern period from their counterparts in Europe and Asia (‘Eurasia’). He concluded that all the agrarian civilizations of Eurasia shared a common origin in the ‘urban revolution’ of Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago. The rise of cities was accompanied by the formation of states whose function was to supervise a new kind of class society, where a narrowly-based urban elite extracted agricultural surpluses from an increasingly servile rural labour force. Goody showed how forms of kinship and marriage reflected property relations that were themselves made possible by more intensive technologies, such as the plough and irrigation. Sub-Saharan Africa, he held, had largely missed out on this urban revolution along with its agricultural technology, higher population density and unequal property relations. This accounts for why traditional African forms of kinship and marriage are so different and their societies were, relatively speaking, classless.

The contrast between egalitarian societies built on kinship and unequal societies based on state power and class division cannot be applied unambiguously to Africa and Eurasia before the modern age, even if we try to isolate Black Africa from its Northern and Southern extremities. The Atlantic and Indian Ocean slave trades generated coastal enclaves in both West and East Africa. The medieval civilization of the West African Sahel was a significant part of the Islamic world. Of the Yoruba agro-cities that emerged as a result of nineteenth-century warfare, Ibadan’s population had reached 200,000 by the onset of colonial rule.

Even so, it must be admitted that large swathes of middle Africa entered the modern epoch with a minimal urban population and that the dominant institutions of their societies owed a lot more to kinship than to class differences. Indigenous states were commonplace in the early modern period, many of them emerging in response to the upheavals provoked by European imperial expansion. But Goody documents how most African societies south of the Sahara diverged from the pattern of agrarian civilization typical of all the major regions of pre-industrial Eurasia. This civilization rested on territorial states, embattled cities, landed property, warfare, racism, bureaucratic administration, literacy, impersonal money, long-distance trade, work as a virtue, world religion and the nuclear family; its grip on modern world society is still strong.

Africa’s urban revolution in the twentieth century

If Africa is normally judged these days in terms of what did not happen in the twentieth century (‘development’), what actually did happen? In 1900, Africa was the least densely populated region in the world with the smallest proportion of its inhabitants living in cities (probably around 2%, near the world average for the beginning of the modern era around 1800). By 2000, a sustained population explosion means that the continent now has a share of world population equal to its share of land area and up to a half of its inhabitants live in cities (also near the world average). Since Africa’s population (currently a bit less than either India’s or China’s) is still growing much faster than other regions at 2.5% per annum, so too is its relative size in the world, if not yet its purchasing power in the world economy (which is around 2%). Certainly the Asian exporters of manufactures, unlike the Americans and the Europeans, are keenly aware of the potential of Africans’ market share.

In short, Africa experienced in the course of the twentieth century its own version of the urban revolution that it had largely avoided before. This means not just that cities proliferated on an unprecedented scale, but that the whole package of pre-industrial class society was installed there more or less for the first time: states, new urban elites, intensification of agriculture and a political economy based on the extraction of rural surpluses. Africa made the transition to agrarian civilization after Europe and America had moved on to industrial capitalism in the nineteenth century and while the Asians followed suit in the next. The relative success of Asians in translating their political independence into effective economic competition with the West has significant consequences for Africa’s prospects now. In the meantime, any strategy for African development in the coming decades must build on the social conditions resulting from the construction of nominally independent nation-states on an economic foundation of pre-industrial agriculture.

African economies have not fared well since independence. Most Africans are still waiting for political forms that will guarantee their full participation as equals in world society. But what was the model of development they were expected to adopt? I call it ‘national capitalism’, the attempt to manage markets and money through central bureaucracies organized by the nation-state. Development in this sense never had a chance in Africa. For the first half of the twentieth century, African peoples were shackled by colonial empire and in the second half, after they achieved independence, their new nations struggled to keep afloat in a world economy organized by and for the major powers, then engaged in the Cold War.

African independence was based on the idea that merely changing ownership of the state would be sufficient to deliver economic development to African peoples, regardless of conditions in the world at large. Africa’s new leaders thought they were generating modern economies, with ambitions for public expenditure to match, but in reality they were erecting fragile states whose economic base was the same backward agriculture as before. This weakness led them to exchange the democratic legitimacy generated in the independence struggle for dependence on foreign powers. These ruling elites first relied on revenues from agricultural exports, then on loans contracted under dubious circumstances, finally on the financial monopoly that came from being licensed to supervise their country’s relations with global capitalism. But this bonanza was switched off in the 1980s, when foreign capital felt that it could dispense with the mediation of local state powers and concentrated on collecting debts from them. Many governments were made bankrupt and some simply collapsed into civil war.

It is hardly surprising then that hopes for African democracy soon flew out of the window, to be replaced by a norm of dictatorship, whether civil or military. Concentration of political power at the centre led to primate urbanization, as economic demand became synonymous with the expenditures of a presidential kleptocracy. The growth of cities should normally lead to an expanded level of rural-urban exchange, as farmers supply food to city-dwellers and in turn buy the latter’s manufactures and services with the proceeds of their sales. But this progressive division of labour was stifled at birth in post-colonial Africa by the dumping of cheap subsidized food from the West and of cheap manufactures from Asia. ‘Structural adjustment’ meant that African national economies had no protection from the strong winds of world trade. The result was that a peasantry subjected to political extraction and violence at home had no option other than to migrate or stagnate. Somehow the cities survived on the basis of markets that emerged spontaneously to recycle the money concentrated at the top and to meet the population’s needs for food, shelter, clothing and transport. These markets, often referred to as ‘the informal economy’, contain the economic potential of Africa’s urban revolution.

Urban commerce and the informal economy

‘Form’ is the rule, an idea of what ought to be universal in social life; and for most of the twentieth century the dominant forms were those of bureaucracy, particularly national bureaucracy, since society was identified to a large extent with nation-states. The idea of an ‘informal economy’ is entailed in the institutional effort to organize society along formal lines. Until the 1970s it was agreed that only the state could effectively promote and manage development. The flood of migrants into African cities after independence provoked alarmist reports of mass unemployment there. I argued, based on fieldwork in the slums of Accra, that the urban poor were not ‘unemployed’. They were working, often for low and erratic returns. ‘Informal’ incomes, unregulated by law and invisible to bureaucracy, were a significant part of urban economies that had grown up largely without official knowledge or control.

In the 1970s, the informal sector was often promoted as a source of employment creation capable of lifting a poor economy by the bootstraps. It was still assumed that this was primarily the state’s responsibility. Things changed in the 1980s, with the arrival of neo-liberal regimes in the USA, Britain and elsewhere. The World Bank and IMF embarked on a radical program of ‘structural adjustment’ whose chief effect was to open up poor countries to international capital flows and to scale down public expenditures there. Now the engine of development was ‘the market’ and the informal economy was encouraged as one of its instruments. If governments now lacked the funds to provide public services, people would have to supply their own needs for health, education, transport and utilities informally. These services would be paid for directly and thus constituted a major boost for the free market — free because largely unregulated. The informal sector is now thought to account for 70-90% of the economy in most African countries. War-zone economies such as the Eastern Congo are almost wholly informal. There is a gender component to the informal economy too, in that men have the lion’s share of formal positions and women’s work is predominantly informal.

What the concept can’t do is show us the social forms through which African urban economies are actually organized. These include religious and criminal institutions, for example. The undoubted commercial energies of African peoples have of late been locked up in a political economy reminiscent of ‘agrarian civilization’. Another name for this was the Old Regime, whose nemesis was the liberal revolutions that inaugurated the modern age.

Could the conditions brought about by the installation of an Old Regime in most of Africa during the second half of the twentieth century be the launching-pad for another liberal revolution there in the twenty-first?

An African liberal revolution?

The idea of rapid economic improvement in Africa soon seems counter-intuitive, especially given Africa’s symbolic role as the negation of ‘white’ superiority. Rather than face up to their own economic decline, the whites prefer to dwell on the misfortunes of black people and on Africa’s exclusion from modern prosperity. Failed politicians and aging rock stars announce their mission to ‘save’ Africa from its presumed ills. The western media represent Africa as the benighted battleground of the four horsemen of the apocalypse: pestilence, famine, war and death. It all goes to reassure a decadent West that at least some people are a lot worse off than themselves.

In the 1920s and 30s, Americans and Europeans often spoke of the Chinese the way they do of Africa today. China was then crippled by the violence of warlords, its peasants mired in the worst poverty imaginable. Today the country is spoken of as the likely replacement for the United States as world leader, while its manufactures make inroads into western dominance on a scale far greater than Japan’s ever did. This profound shift in economic power from West to East should make it easier to envisage change. Africa’s weak attachment to the status quo is an advantage in the current economic crisis.

This begs the question of what Africa’s new urban populations could produce as a means of bringing about their own economic development. So far, African countries have relied on exporting raw materials, when they could. Minerals clearly have a promising future owing to scarce supplies and escalating demand; but the world market for food and other agricultural products is skewed by western farm subsidies and prices are further depressed by the large number of poor farmers seeking entry. Conventionally, African governments have aspired to manufacturing exports as an alternative, but here they face intense competition from Asia. But the world market for services is booming and perhaps greater opportunities for supplying national, regional and global markets exist there.

The fastest-growing sector of world trade is the production of culture: entertainment, education, media, software and a wide range of information services. The largest global television audiences are for sporting events like the World Cup or the Olympic Games. The United States’ three leading exports are now movies, music and software. Africans are well-placed to compete here because of the proven preference of global audiences for their music and plastic arts.

Africa must escape soon from varieties of Old Regime that owe a lot to the historical legacy of slavery, colonialism and apartheid; but these can no longer be blamed as the causes of underdevelopment. The example of the classical liberal revolutions, building on the conditions and energies generated by the urban revolution of the twentieth century, could offer fresh solutions.

The cultural sources for a liberal revolution

The basis for Africa’s future economic growth must be the cultural production of its cities and not rural extraction or the reactionary hope of reproducing capitalism’s industrial phase. This in turn rests on:

1. The energy of youth and women

2. The religious revival

3. The explosion of the modern arts

4. Digital communications

5. The new African diaspora

1. African societies, traditional and modern, have been dominated by older men. Women have benefited less from their opportunities and are less tied to their burdens. In many cases they have been quicker to exploit the commercial freedoms of the neo-liberal international economy. Even when men and boys have plunged whole countries into civil war, thereby removing state guarantees from economic life, an informal economy resting on women’s trade has often kept open basic supply lines. The social reality of Africa’s cities is a young population without enough to do and a growing generation gap. The energies of youth must be harnessed more effectively and the chances of doing so are greater if the focus of economic development is on something that interests them, like popular culture.

2. The religious revival in Africa, both Christian and Muslim, is a matter of immense significance for the forms of economic development. This is partly founded on young people’s rejection of the social models and political options offered by their parents’ generation. Fundamentalist and less extreme varieties of religion make a different kind of connection to world society than that offered by the nation-state. They help to fill the moral void of contemporary politics and often offer well-tried recipes for creative economic organization. Christian churches are usually organized and supported by women, even if their leadership is often male.

3. In all the talk of poverty, war and AIDS, the western media rarely report the extraordinary vitality of the modern arts in post-colonial Africa: novels, films, music, theatre, painting, sculpture, dance and their applications in commercial design. There has been an artistic explosion in the last half-century, drawing on traditional sources, but also responding to the complexity of the contemporary world. Did you know that the world’s third largest producer of movies is Nigeria (‘Nollywood’)? Most of their movies cost no more than $5,000. American popular culture is still that country’s most successful export. There is no reason why it couldn’t be for Africans too.

4. Africa largely missed the first two phases of the machine revolution, based on the steam engine and electricity; but the third phase, digital communications, offers Africans very different conditions of participation that they are taking up avidly. The internet is primarily a global marketplace with very unusual characteristics. Like the informal economy, it goes largely unregulated; but this market freedom is harnessed to the most advanced technologies of our era. The internet has also generated new conditions for managing networks spanning home and abroad by radically shortening the time and space dimensions of communication and exchange at distance. The extraordinarily rapid adoption of mobile phones has made Africa a crucible for global innovations, such as the first multi-country network and use of phones for banking purposes in East Africa. Nor should we neglect the role of television as a transnational means of widening perceptions of community.

5. In the last half-century a new African diaspora has emerged, based on economic migration to America, Europe and nowadays Asia. These migrants are often highly educated, with experience of the corporate business world, while retaining links to relatives living and working in the informal economy at home. One consequence of neo-liberal reforms has been that transnational exchange is now much easier than it was, drawing at once on indigenous knowledge of local conditions and the expertise acquired by migrants and their families in the West.

Classes for and against the liberal revolution

You may well ask how these separate factors might generate sustainable forms of enterprise capable of raising African economies to a new level in the near future. Economic success is always a contingent synthesis of existing and new conditions. There is no model of successful enterprise, just many stories of economic innovation waiting to be discovered by those who will look. Thus the Mourides, a Sufist order founded in the early twentieth century, constitute an informal state with the state of Senegal. Their international trading operations are capable of influencing national economies, as when they recently shifted shoe supplies to the USA from Italy to China. Pioneering communications enterprises in Kenya and Ghana are beginning to attract notice for their exciting mix of local cultural resources and modern technologies. The Nollywood phenomenon offers morality plays to African and world audiences at an affordable price.

In The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon provided a blueprint of how to go about analyzing the class structure of decadent societies that are ripe for revolution, in his case the anti-colonial revolution. He pointed out that political parties and unions in late colonial Africa were weak and conservative because they represented a tiny part of the population: the industrial workers, civil servants, intellectuals and shopkeepers of the town, a class unwilling to jeopardize its own privileges. They were hostile to and suspicious of the mass of country people. The latter were governed by customary chiefs supervised in turn by the military and administrative officials of the occupying power. A nationalist middle class of professionals and traders ran up against the superstition and feudalism of the traditional authorities. Landless peasants moved to the town where they formed a lumpenproletariat. Eventually colonial repression forced the nationalists to flee the towns and take refuge with the peasantry. Only then, with the rural-urban split temporarily healed by crisis, did a mass nationalist movement take off.

The African states brought into being by independence likewise rely on chiefs to keep the rural areas insulated from the more unruly currents of world society. Where the state’s writ has been fatally undermined, warlords take its place. International agencies now prefer to approach indigenous populations through NGOs, the missionaries of our age, rather than national governments. World trade is organized by and for an alliance of the strongest Western governments and corporations. Some of the latter operate as independent states within the state. Mechanized production is poorly developed in post-colonial Africa. The civil servants have been ravaged as a class by neo-liberal pressure to cut public expenditures. This leaves us with the informal economy of unregulated urban commerce. It is not likely that a liberal revolution could succeed by relying solely on a popular economic movement from below. There are larger players on the scene and their influence too must surely be felt.

Africa must unite

South Africa, the one African country to make a go of ‘national capitalism’, is well-placed to lead the next stage of African development as a whole. It is in South Africa’s interest for continental expansion not to be seen in national terms, but rather as a drive for African unity led by the strongest black government with a Pan-African agenda. If Africans want to have a say in what happens to them next, they will have to tap old and new social forces to develop their own capacity for transnational association, in the face of imperial power from the East as well as the West, mobilizing to deny them that self-expression.

Pan-Africanism gave way to the national capitalism model at independence because world society was not organized then to accommodate it. But one of the strongest political movements today is the formation of large regional trading blocs. This is a good time for Africans to renew the movement towards greater continental unity, at first in economic affairs and as a complement to national governments, since that is the way the world is going now, unlike a half-century ago.

Africa could make rapid economic advances in the coming decades through a mixture of top down and bottom up forces. But this would require both a radical shift in development strategy and willingness to confront, by whatever combination of peaceful and violent means, the entrenched institutions of economic backwardness. Africa’s great cities offer the obvious launching pad for such a revolution.

We need to discover the social and cultural dynamism that underpins the informal economy’s most progressive clusters. It was never the case that a national framework for development made sense in Africa, except possibly for South Africa, and it makes even less sense today. The coming African revolution could leapfrog many of the obstacles in its path, but it will not do so by remaining tied to the national straitjacket worn by African societies since they won independence from colonial rule.

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