In 2008, for the first time in human history, the number of people living in urban areas outstripped the rural population; however, the same will not occur in Africa until nearly 2050. Even so, Africa’s cities are urbanising at a profound rate, reaching 40% in 2012, up from 19% in 1960.
Due to the implications of urban population growth on the economy and other social factors, it is imperative that African state leaders and policy-makers plan for these transitions adequately. The changes that will occur, and in fact have begun taking place, in terms of urbanisation, need to be factored into long term planning, as not doing so could lead to possible political and economic instability.
According to City Mayors, an organisation dedicated to the research of cities and metropolitan areas, Africa has 19 cities with a population over 1 million, and this is a conservative estimate given that most reliable city population data is 15 years old. The fastest growing city, according to Foreign Policy magazine, is Bamako, Mali, currently at 1.3 million people and growing at 4.45% a year, a result of both economic growth and desertification. Bamako, however, is dwarfed by the estimated 10 million people that live in Lagos, Nigeria, Africa’s second fastest growing city at 4.44% a year. Fifteen million people are expected to live in Lagos by 2030, overtaking Cairo, Egypt, as the continent’s largest city.
The UN recently performed a study on mega-cities and concluded that an additional urban phenomenon is the growth of mega-regions, like the 600km urban stretch between Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria that now links the whole region’s economy. Minister of Lands, Housing and Development in Nigeria, Amal Pepple, stated that with an urbanisation rate of five percent per annum, the West-African region is recording the fastest urban growth in history, estimating that by 2020, 52 percent of the region’s populations would reside in cities. This is sure to have a profound impact for West Africa.
The growth of cities and urbanisation are typically associated with positive attributes that lead to economic growth and development. As economies grow and diversify, manufacturing, information technology, and services sectors tend to cluster in more urbanised settings. Likewise, an urban population supports growth in these sectors because of the abundant labour supply. Historically, urbanisation in developed countries indicates a strong correlation between economic development and improved quality of life. However, while urbanisation is often associated with growth and dynamism- as mentioned earlier- it also comes with challenges.
In developing economies, unplanned cities and urbanisation have led to the development of slums in cities and towns. Large concentrations of people mean that there is a higher demand for public expenditure on physical infrastructure, safe water and sanitation, and social services. It also tends to create additional stress on the natural environment. As people move to cities, the demand for basic services and housing increases. Urban population growth can also become problematic with respect to poverty and unemployment rates, when an inadequate number of jobs are available. Without adequate urban planning mechanisms and allocation of resources, rising urbanisation can become a serious liability for numerous African states, leading to political, economic and social challenges.
A UN-HABITAT country programme document on Nigeria highlights that while Nigeria continues to experience rapid urban population growth, this is not being matched by adequate human settlement planning and management. The report further states that Nigeria’s urban population rose from a mere 3.2 million (10.6%) in 1953 to a staggering 70 million in 2007 (50%). The country’s rapid urbanization has led to the challenge of rising poverty, with the situation being further exacerbated by the lack of provision in critical infrastructure, such as water and sanitation, electricity, roads and an adequate transport system. Seventy percent of urban dwellers in Nigeria live in slums. The report also asserts that the housing shortage in Nigeria is estimated to affect between 14 and 16 million people. About 46% of the population has no access to safe drinking water, while an estimated 47% lack adequate sanitation services.
Amal Pepple underlined that the urbanisation rate in Nigeria as a whole is put at 5.5 percent per annum, with projections showing that by 2015, more than 50 percent of the people will be living in cities. The country’s inability to correctly plan and manage rapid urbanisation has resulted in uncontrollable growth in all major cities. The lack of capacity to plan these cities to accommodate an informal economy- which stands at 60-70%- has had a negative impact on not only the landscapes in cities, but has also limited their contribution to the national economy.
The challenges of urbanisation are particularly saleable now. The New Year’s Day approval of a removal of fuel subsidies has sparked strikes by some of the country’s largest labour unions- shutting down much of the economic activity in the city. The Nigerian government stated that the removal of the subsidy would free up money to be used for other development projects such as infrastructure improvement. However, the removal quickly increased the price of fuel and other goods, and, combined with distrust in public management of oil revenues, it provided a perfect recipe for protest and strike.
According to a recent report, although President Goodluck Jonathan has reinstated the subsidy and labour unions have called off their strikes, Lagos remains on-edge. Countries like Nigeria, that wholly experience the challenges of urbanisation could look towards cities such as Accra in Ghana, which was recently ranked one of the highest cities in the world for sustainable development by Siemens and the Economist Intelligence Unit. Private-public partnerships have been working together to adequately direct economic growth, provide citizens with adequate physical and health-related infrastructure, set the foundations for a green city economy, and maintain an attractive business climate.
Without a clear strategy to address service delivery, employment and governance issues, African countries in transition from rural to urban population growth could experience instability in the future. Confronting these challenges is much easier said than done, but there are model cities showing that this can be possible.