Expect issue-based politics in Africa soon

Saturday March 4 2017

Ugandan opposition leader Kizza Besigye speaks in court before his treason trial in Nakawa, Kampala on May 18, 2016. PHOTO | RONALD KABUUBI | AFP

Ugandan opposition leader Kizza Besigye speaks in court before his treason trial in Nakawa, Kampala on May 18, 2016. PHOTO | RONALD KABUUBI | AFP 

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According to the current projections, sub-Saharan Africa will have radically changed by 2050. Not only will the continent be more densely populated, it will be wealthier, better connected to information, and feature a larger – and more influential – middle class.

The economic and developmental ramifications of these changes have been widely discussed. Afro-optimists argue that population growth will increase the size of African markets and so create new economic opportunities, while the “youth bulge” will ensure there are enough wage earners to look after the elderly in their dotage. Against this, Afro-pessimists point out population growth means there will be more mouths to feed, and that a young population may be a curse rather than a blessing if jobs cannot be found to satisfy expectations.

Amidst this increasingly fractured debate, one question has received much less attention: What does this all mean for African politics? Will the demographic and social transformation that is currently underway alter the nature of the African state, or the dynamics of political competition? And if it does, what will this mean for the prospects for political stability and democracy?


There are three main kinds of changes that seem most likely to impact on the practice of African politics. The first is population growth and urbanisation. According to a report published by the consultancy organisation Oxford Analytica in August, growing populations and internal migration mean that the total number of urban dwellers on the continent will increase from around 400 million to more than 1.26 billion in the next twenty years. Over the same period, the proportion of people living in urban areas in Africa will increase significantly, hitting 50 per cent in 2035.

Significantly, this growth will not only occur in capital cities. Instead, the United Nations estimates that 75 per cent of the increase in the urban population will be absorbed by small and intermediate-sized cities. One consequence of this is that the distance between urban centres is likely to fall, resulting in the emergence of metropolitan areas and large urban corridors, some of which will extend across state borders. In many parts of the continent, this process is already underway. In West Africa, for example, the average distance between urban areas with a population greater than 10,000 has fallen from 111km in 1950 to 33km in 2000.


Projecting economic growth more than a year ahead is a notoriously difficult business, but if we follow the analysis of the African Development Bank (ADB), the future looks promising. On the basis of past experience, the recent resource finds in East Africa, an expectation of rising regional trade, and the assumption of consistently high demand from China, the ADB forecasts that continent’s economies will continue to expand, with GDP growth hitting a high of 6 per cent in 2020 and then gradually declining to 5 per cent in 2060.

One implication of this projection is the proportion of people living in poverty, that is on less than $1.25 (Sh125) a day, is expected to decline from more than half of the population to less than 40 per cent. Conversely, the size of the middle class is destined to swell from 30 to 50 per cent – although it is important to keep in mind this analysis is based on a definition of the middle class as those who consume more than $2 a day, which is a very low threshold. Nonetheless, a significant decline in poverty rates would represent an important socioeconomic change, with far-reaching ramifications.


Rising wealth will also enable a broader section of society to access the latest technology. Combined with technological innovation, which is likely to reduce the cost of smart phones and other devices, this will enable millions more people to access information and services over the Internet. The quality of this access will also increase: While just 20 per cent of the continent is currently covered by ICT Broadband, this is projected to rise to almost 100 per cent by 2060.

Technological innovation is likely to make companies more productive, and to make it easier for political parties and social movements to connect to potential supporters. However, it may also have a range of less positive effects that are often overlooked. Most obviously, by 2050 large parts of the manufacturing sector will have become mechanised, while driverless cars will be on the streets. These innovations will help to drive up profits for business owners, but are likely to undermine employment in parts of the economy that have traditionally been labour intensive.


If these projections are right, in the future sub-Saharan Africa is going to be more urban, technically advanced, and wealthier than it is today. What would this mean for its politics?

Of course, Africa is not a country, and these changes will play out very differently depending on whether we are talking about resource rich states that are already more urban, or agricultural economies that are predominantly rural. However, there are some general developments that could play out across a number of different countries.

To start with, larger urban populations would represent a major threat to the ability of the current crop of governments to retain power. At present, many ruling parties hold on to power by controlling the vote in rural areas through a combination of traditional leaders, patronage and service delivery. They have to do this, because in many African states – though not all – opposition parties have captured the hearts and minds of urbanites. In Uganda, for example, President Yoweri Museveni was declared the winner of the 2016 general elections, but it was the opposition leader, Kizza Besigye, who dominated the vote in Kampala.

This suggests as the size and influence of urban populations increases, the ability of governments to use existing strategies to retain power will diminish. In order to maintain control of the political agenda, ruling parties will either need to find ways to boost their support in urban areas, or to deploy higher levels of repression in order to compensate for the shrinking size of their core constituency.

The growth of urban areas is also likely to have other important effects. As research by Danielle Resnick and others has demonstrated, poorer and more disaffected urban communities are a natural breeding ground for populist political sentiment. As urbanisation proceeds, the size of these communities is likely to increase because few governments on the continent have developed a plan to manage the strain that population growth will put on housing and public services. Given this, it is a good bet that as the continent becomes more urban the influence of populist leaders will grow.


It is tempting to think that the growth of the middle class, rise of populist leaders, and expansion of technology will lead to more fundamental kinds of political transformation. On the one hand, more educated, wealthier, and informed citizens will be better placed to demand clean and accountable government. On the other, populist leaders who appeal to urban electorates often do so by demonising a common enemy such as technocratic elites or foreign powers, avoiding explicitly ethnic appeals. Does this mean African politics will become more “issue based” and less “ethnic” in the future?

Maybe, but even if this is the continent’s long-term trajectory the pathway to a new form of politics is unlikely to be straightforward or smooth. We know, for example, that people who live in more cosmopolitan areas, receive more diverse sources of information, and have ethnic intermarriage in their families, are less likely to identify first and foremost with their ethnic group. However, we also know that rapid and unplanned urbanisation leads to overcrowding and fierce competition over jobs and services that, in countries such as South Africa, have contributed to ethnic and xenophobic violence. Thus, while urbanisation has the potential to reduce the significance of ethnic politics in the very long-run, in the short-run it may actually exacerbate tensions between rival communities.

A similar story is likely to hold when it comes to the middle class. Over forty or fifty years, rising wealth and education levels, in addition to the expansion of the private sector, will generate more assertive societies that are less dependent on government favours for jobs and economic opportunities. But we are a long way from this point right now. In contemporary Africa, many members of the middle class are rhetorically critical of corruption and ethnic politic but are also involved in running small-scale scams and funding the campaigns of political leaders who mobilise along ethnic lines. It is therefore important to be realistic about the political inclinations of the middle class, and about the extent to which the expansion of the middle class will promote democracy.

In summary, while African politics will change significantly over the next two or three generations, this transformation is more likely to be evolutionary than revolutionary. The meaning and significance of ethnic identities are hard wired into the politics of many countries and are sustained by a range of cultural, social and political practices. It will take more than demographic change to reverse this state of affairs. After all, one of the most notable recent elections in which different communities voted in very different ways occurred not in Africa but in the United States, urbanisation, GDP growth and a large middle class have not eroded the salience of race.

Nic Cheeseman is professor of democracy, University of Birmingham, the United Kingdom and author, ‘Democracy in Africa: Successes, Failures and the Struggle for Political Reform’.

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