With urban areas as the epicenters of the novel coronavirus pandemic, a new report this week framed how the virus challenges states and societies in Africa, the world region experiencing the most rapid urbanization.

On average, an African country south of the Sahara has grown from 15 percent urban 60 years ago to 40 percent urban today. Some countries remain largely rural, like Burundi, whose urban residents account for only 13 percent of the population. Others have urbanized more rapidly than the African average, like Gabon, where the urban population grew from 17 percent in 1960 to 89 percent today.

The new U.N.-Habitat report on the coronavirus and its disease, covid-19, highlighted how the products of poor urban planning — widespread informal settlements, undersupply of services and infrastructure — can facilitate the spread of the virus and exacerbate its adverse impacts in African cities.

The poor conditions urban Africans face betray analysts’ expectations that urbanization would change Africa’s political and development landscape. As more Africans entered the middle class, became educated and moved to cities, analysts expected this new crop of middle-class urban voters would shift African electoral politics away from favoring co-ethnics and toward policy-based electoral competition.

How does increasing urbanization in Africa change (or not change) politics and power? This week’s installment of the African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular reviews two recent books with insights on this question: Noah L. Nathan’s “Electoral Politics and Africa’s Urban Transition: Class and Ethnicity in Ghana,” and Jeffrey W. Paller’s “Democracy in Ghana: Everyday Politics in Urban Africa.”

Both books examine in detail the experience of Ghana, a leading democracy in West Africa whose urban residents now make up a majority of its population. Here’s what we can learn from the study of politics in urban Ghana.

Urbanization in Africa isn’t the cure-all for ending ethnic politics

Ghana has established political parties, a peaceful history and a well-educated population. Urban Ghana’s large middle class and high ethnic diversity should support a shift away from politics where a voter’s ethnic identity predicts their vote choice.

Nathan’s book begins with the sober assessment that although these conditions would support transforming from a clientelistic system — one in which benefits from the state are tied to political support — toward more programmatic, policy-based elections, the evidence shows that ethnic competition and clientelism are still thriving in Ghana.

Likewise, Paller’s book opens with vivid narratives of the difficult conditions in some neighborhoods in and around Accra, Ghana’s capital city. These difficult conditions and political clientelism persist despite the presence of highly competitive elections, active civil society organizations and communities regularly engaging in collective decision-making.

Nathan attributes the persistence of clientelism and nonprogrammatic politics in Ghana to an “urban politics trap.” In a compelling and elegant diagram in the first chapter, Nathan outlines the urban politics trap as a product of multiple forces: the state’s inability to meet the service delivery challenges created by urbanization; low state capacity constraining politicians’ ability to credibly commit to delivering programmatic policies; policy-oriented citizens opting out of voting in elections; and, subsequently, politicians incentivized to campaign on nonprogrammatic, often ethnic, appeals to voters.

The urban politics trap is not a permanent condition

Nathan doesn’t think the urban politics trap he has identified is a permanent condition. His book ends with a discussion of similar cases in the Americas, including the early- to mid-20th century United States, where machine politics and clientelism continued even after the middle class and urban population grew.

Nathan marshals these cases to identify potential paths out of the urban politics trap. For example, some U.S. cities were able to emerge from the trap following meaningful civil service reforms, loosening political machine control over civil service jobs. Similarly, the expansion of the national social welfare state freed the urban poor from having to rely on political party ties and related clientelistic relationships once they could access benefits from nonpartisan federal bureaucrats.

By looking at everyday politics, we gain a better understanding of Ghana’s democracy

Paller’s study of everyday politics is a window into understanding why clientelism persists or ethnic politics are entrenched in some urban areas but not others. By “everyday politics,” Paller means the context of daily decision-making in a neighborhood — how people act, think and feel about power in their everyday lives.

“Democracy in Ghana” offers rich narratives of different parts of Accra, varying in their patterns of settlement (indigenous, strange or squatter) and belonging. These different neighborhoods respond differently to challenges requiring collective decision-making and community governance.

While the logic in Nathan’s book focused on the growing middle class in urban Ghana, Paller focused his study on poor urban neighborhoods. Paller’s comparison of everyday politics in three neighborhoods highlights the importance of leadership, citizen engagement and control over urban space in shaping governance and development outcomes.

Africa’s future is increasingly urban

Together, these books make an important contribution in returning our focus to politics in African cities. Africa’s urban population will continue to grow in the coming decades. These books shed light on how that projected urbanization might transform or strengthen existing power structures and political processes.

Whether trying to confront the consequences of the current coronavirus pandemic or the looming climate crisis in African cities, these new books by Noah Nathan and Jeffrey Paller are essential reading to understanding contemporary politics and power in Africa’s cities.

Check out other books in the #APSRS series: