Africa’s urban revolution in the 20th century

This one is longer than usual, but it does contain the foundation of my book’s argument concerning how Africa arrived at the 21st century. In the spirit of blogging, I link it here to a piece in today’s FT by the Sudanese businessman Mo Ibrahim on the implications of his country’s impending breakup for Africa’s economic integration. He and I agree that such integration is indispensable to the continent’s development, but the breakup of dysfunctional nation-states may not be an impediment to that.

Africa has become poorer in the last half-century, but, from being the most sparsely populated continent around 1900, Africa’s seventh of the world’s population now equals its share of the total land mass; and urbanization there is fast approaching the global average of around 50%. We need to understand this ‘urban revolution’ of unprecedented speed and scale; and specifically to identify how Africa’s urban economies might act as a springboard for economic development in the coming century. The continent is divided into three disparate regions — North, South and Middle (West, Central and East Africa); but a measure of convergence between them is now taking place.

A preoccupation with Africa’s post-colonial failure to ‘develop’ – or to ‘take-off’ — has obscured what really happened there in the twentieth century. The rise of cities has been accompanied by the formation of weak and venal states, locked into dependency on foreign powers and leaving the urban masses largely to their own devices. The latter have generated spontaneous markets to meet their own needs and these have come to be understood as an ‘informal economy’. Whatever its value in bringing to light hitherto invisible economic activities, this concept is largely negative, focusing on whatever is not regulated by state bureaucracy and law. It tells us nothing about the social organization of these practices. In order to understand Africa’s twentieth-century experience – the extraordinary compression of contradictory social developments within a short period — we must first take a long view of the region’s divergence from the general historical trajectory of the Eurasian land mass.

I distinguish between three broad types of social formation: ‘egalitarian societies’ based on kinship; ‘agrarian civilization’ in which urban elites control the mass of rural labour by means of the state and class power; and ‘national capitalism’, where markets and capital accumulation are regulated by central bureaucracies in the national interest. Although Africa south of the Sahara has a more complex history than can be captured neatly by this typology, its dominant institutions before the modern period may best be understood in terms of the classless type based on kinship institutions. The second type, agrarian civilization, covered most of Europe, Asia, the Middle East and North Africa for the last few millennia. National capitalism within Africa has only taken root so far in Southern Africa, until recently for the benefit of whites only. For a time after independence, Kenya was touted as a coming capitalist power. This was never realised, but the country has remained a centre for commercial innovation. Middle Africa, particularly after independence, made a belated transition to the Old Regime of agrarian civilization, while Europe and North America, followed by much of Asia, embraced national capitalism. This brought North and Middle Africa closer together as pre-industrial class societies, while South Africa has drawn closer to the rest of Africa since the coming of majority rule.

Jack Goody, in a dozen volumes starting with Production and Reproduction (1976), has tried to explain how and why African societies diverged before the modern period from their counterparts in Europe and Asia. He concluded that all the agrarian civilizations of Eurasia shared a common origin in the ‘urban revolution’ of Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago (Gordon Childe What Happened in History, 1939). This pattern also extended to Egypt and the Mediterranean littoral long ago. By the 11th century, Cairo was the hub of a mercantile civilization stretching from Spain to India. The rise of cities was accompanied by the formation of states whose function was to supervise a new kind of class society, in which a narrow 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 distinctive and their societies were, relatively speaking, classless. Even where a measure of stratification existed, redistribution through kinship institutions prevented the emergence of classes based on different styles of consumption.

The contrast between egalitarian societies built on kinship and unequal societies based on state power and class division goes back to L. H. Morgan’s Ancient Society (1877) and before him to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins of Inequality among Men (1754). It 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 urban 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. These examples of pre-colonial urbanization were rightly emphasized when the anti-colonial revolution delivered independence to most African countries from the 1950s.

Even so, large swathes of Middle Africa entered the modern era with a minimal urban population and 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 political, economic and demographic upheavals provoked by European imperial expansion. But, in a dozen volumes, Goody documents how most African societies south of the Sahara diverged from the pattern of agrarian civilization typical of pre-industrial Eurasia. This institutional pattern included 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; and its grip on modern world society is still strong, since national capitalism everywhere incorporated elements of the Old Regime.

Of course, if traditional African societies appeared to be more equal than their European counterparts, it does not mean that inequality was wholly absent there. Friedrich Engels, in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), made much of the progressive subordination of women, first in tribal societies of farmers and herders, later in pre-industrial states and finally in capitalist societies. A body of more recent Marxist and feminist scholarship (e.g. Claude Meillassoux’s Maidens, Meal and Money, 1981) extended this analysis to the conflict between African males of different age, with polygamous elders commanding young men’s labour through control of access to marriageable women who were in their turn condemned to do most of the work without effective political representation. Gender and generation differences accordingly take on huge salience in African societies.

In 1900, Africa probably had less than 2% of its inhabitants living in cities, under the global average before the industrial revolution. By 2000, a sustained population explosion has seen the urban share rise to almost half, compressing into one century what took twice as long elsewhere and from a much more rural base. Since Africa’s population 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 (around 2% of the world economy). In short, Africa experienced in the twentieth century its own version of an urban revolution that it had largely avoided before. This means not just the unprecedented proliferation of cities, but also 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. Any strategy for African development now must build on the social conditions that came into being when nominally independent nation-states were built on an economic foundation of pre-industrial agriculture (Hart The Political Economy of West African Agriculture, 1982).

The anti-colonial revolution unleashed extravagant hopes for the transformation of an unequal world. These have not yet been realized for most Africans who are still waiting for political forms that will guarantee their full participation as equals in world society. By most accounts African economies have not fared well since independence. But the model of development they were expected to adopt was ‘national capitalism’, the attempt to manage markets and accumulation through central bureaucracies with the general interest of citizens in mind. Development in this sense never had a chance to take root in Africa. For the first half century, African peoples were shackled by colonial empire and in the second, their new nations struggled to keep afloat in a world economy organized by and for the major powers, then engaged in the Cold War.

The assumption was that a change in ownership of the state would deliver economic development to African peoples, regardless of conditions in the world at large. Frantz Fanon took a different view. In The Wretched of the Earth (1961), written from the depths of Algeria’s own anti-colonial struggle, he spoke prophetically of the “pitfalls of national consciousness” which would undermine Africa’s post-colonial states and especially of the weakness of the new middle class who led them:

“From the beginning the national bourgeoisie directs its efforts towards (economic) activities of the intermediary type. The basis of its strength is found in its aptitude for trade and small business enterprises, and for securing commissions. It is not its money that works, but its business acumen. It does not go in for investments and it cannot achieve that accumulation of capital necessary to the birth and blossoming of an authentic bourgeoisie.”

In other words, 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. As Fanon predicted, this weakness inexorably led them to exchange the democratic legitimacy of 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 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. Political scientists have long written of the patrimonial norm for African states without pushing the analysis far or deep enough. 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 their earnings (a process identified by Sir James Steuart as long ago as 1767 in Principles of Political Economy). But this progressive division of labour was stifled at birth in post-colonial Africa by the dumping of cheap subsidized food from North America and Europe and of cheap manufactures from Asia. For ‘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 was forced to choose between stagnation at home and migration to the main cities or abroad. 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. As Fanon pointed out, there is no shortage of business acumen, just of capital. These markets are the key to understanding the economic potential of Africa’s urban revolution.

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