Africa’s rising cities
How Africa will become the center of the world’s urban future
Growing at unprecedented rates, and shaped by forces both familiar and new, dozens of African cities will join the ranks of humanity’s biggest megalopolises between now and 2100.
Several recent studies project that by the end of this century, Africa will be the only continent experiencing population growth. Thirteen of the world’s 20 biggest urban areas will be in Africa — up from just two today — as will more than a third of the world’s population.
Researchers created three population models to account for different paths of development African countries might take this century, and in all of them, African cities outpaced the rest of the world’s cities in growth.
They found that changes in government policies, education levels, access to contraception, movements for women’s equality and the severity of climate change had significant effects on the birthrates driving population growth, but not enough to keep most major African cities from growing faster than cities on other continents.
In each of the following five African cities, we examine common themes — migration, inequality, foreign investment, conflict and planning — that underlie this transformation across the continent.
- Lagos, Nigeria: Set to become the world’s most populous city, Lagos faces all the challenges rapid growth poses, which can be boiled down to one: planning. Can solutions outpace the weight tens of millions of new inhabitants will place on a city that is low-slung and dense, situated on polluted lagoons and rivers, and short on public services? Jump to city.
- Khartoum, Sudan: Unstable states like Sudan crumble first in their hinterlands, and in those moments of crisis, cities are beacons of safety, places for people to regroup, build new identities and forge political movements — even revolutions — that aim to bring peace back to places they had to abandon. Jump to city.
- Kinshasa, Congo: In a city whose geography still reflects segregationist colonial-era planning, where a handful of oligarchs lead gilded lives while the poor navigate systems broken by corruption and neglect, we get a glimpse of what it takes to break inequality’s shackles. Jump to city.
- Mombasa, Kenya: The designs of foreign powers have molded African cities for centuries, especially along the continent’s coasts. From narrow-alleyed old towns to gleaming new container-shipping terminals, port cities like this one are layered with evidence of how budding empires, in the Arab world, Europe and now China, sought to remake them. Jump to city.
- Abidjan, Ivory Coast: Despite fearmongering that Africa’s growing population will flood into wealthier parts of the world, cosmopolitan cities like this one draw most of Africa’s migrants and serve as models of tolerance, welcoming immigration policies and a reinvigorated Pan-African identity. Jump to city.
On a new expressway in the city on track to become the world’s most populous, Abolaji Surajuddin lurches his packed minibus forward in traffic. Then he switches off the ignition for the 10th time in 10 minutes. It will take him three hours to travel 15 miles.
He’s driving one of nearly 100,000 decrepit “danfo” buses in Lagos — the main means of public transport — all of them decades-old hand-me-downs from wealthier countries.
Surajuddin’s ancient Volkswagen Transporter, its bare wooden benches packed with 20 weary commuters, shudders as he turns it off.
Humidity sets in.
Hawkers encircle, selling small plastic packets of water.
“This is every day,” one says, when a reporter turns around and looks at her with a sympathetic face. “This. Is. Every. Day,” she repeats.
The traffic is a manifestation of what Lagosians fear most for their city: There is no plan. Lagos will balloon to 30 million, then 50 million, maybe even 100 million people, and meanwhile the government will keep unveiling new visions for the city that never come to fruition. Many doubt even its simplest promises, such as the impending inauguration of a single subway line that was supposed to open a decade ago.
That’s why the small talk in this city isn’t about weather. It’s about traffic. The horror stories aren’t of bad jams; they’re of the times the “go-slow” became a “no-go” and everyone just left their cars in the road, figuring they would fetch them once the day’s obstructions — a flooded patch of road, a broken-down truck — were cleared.
Surajuddin’s daily route down one of Lagos’s most severely clogged arteries reveals the city’s dangerously high blood pressure. On the trip between Ajah — a newly developing suburb on the eastern edge of Lagos — and downtown, he said, he usually witnesses half a dozen fights between drivers unbottling their tempers after hours stuck in place.
“Maybe the government has tried to improve traffic, but we can’t see it,” Surajuddin says. “Because what good is a road if all you do is fight every day for an inch of space on it?”
He kicks the Transporter back into gear and focuses on the tasks at hand: maneuver wisely, don’t dent someone, conserve fuel.
“Yes, I am tired. My brain is tired, my hands are tired, my soul is tired. I am tired of this city,” the 39-year-old says. “But I am feeding my family.”
When demographers predict a city’s size far into the future, they seek to create growth models that account for variables such as shifting levels of education, family planning, climate change and migration.
In other words, values for political choices can be plugged into population-growth algorithms to change the outcome.
No matter how the values are tweaked, though, Lagos emerges as the world’s most populous city at some point between now and 2100, in study after study. Changing the inputs affects only how soon and by how much.
Lagos is already enormous, but no one is sure how many people live there. City officials say there are at least 20 million residents; the United Nations puts the number at a more modest 15 million — still nearly double New York City’s population.
Every new Lagosian has their own reason for coming here: fleeing poverty, fleeing conflict, fleeing family burdens, perhaps. The birthrate in Nigeria — one of the world’s highest — means the city also grows rapidly on its own.
“There’s no exact science” for determining the city’s population, said Taibat Lawanson, a professor of urban planning at the University of Lagos. She explained that most Nigerians go to ancestral villages for census counts, even though they live in Lagos most of the time. A huge proportion of the city’s residents are itinerant laborers who sleep in different locations from week to week, making census questions about household size irrelevant.
“If anything, Lagos’s population is probably higher than anyone gives it credit for,” she said.
A study published last year in the Lancet forecasts that Nigeria will become more populous than China by the end of the century, as birthrates rapidly shrink in some parts of the world — East Asia, eastern and southern Europe, the Caribbean — and level off in others, such as the United States, which is projected to have a similar population in 2100 as now.
Most of Africa’s population will continue to grow rapidly this century. Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania are all forecast to join Nigeria among the 10 most populous countries by 2100. North Africa and southern Africa, while continuing to grow, will do so at much lower rates than the rest of the continent.
Unlike China and Vietnam, which have imposed limits on the number of children families could have during periods of rapid growth, no African governments have attempted large-scale population control, although many do promote family planning.
In three projections by the University of Toronto’s Global Cities Institute, Africa accounted for at least 10 of the world’s 20 most populous cities in 2100. Even in the institute’s middle-of-the-road development scenario, cities that many Americans may seldom read about, such as Niamey, Niger, and Lusaka, Zambia, eclipse New York City in growth.
Depictions of Lagos in the news often focus on poverty; the urban landscape is frequently reduced to Makoko, a singular slum that sits on stilts above the city’s huge lagoon, where members of a local fishing community smoke their catch before distributing it.
But Makoko accounts for less than 1 percent of Lagos’s population. More than half the city’s residents live in what Lagosians call “face-me-I-face-you” housing, where space is so tight that several people sleep in the same room, either back to back or facing one another.
That is what most Lagosians can afford — in part because services such as water and sewage, which in other countries are subsidized by the government, are controlled in Lagos by private companies that often overcharge for what they provide.
Even public transport is a misnomer: Danfos and motorcycle taxis, known as okadas, are all privately owned. That makes it easier for elites in the government to routinely ban them.
Ayandele Olushola, 39, nearly lost his livelihood when okadas were banned in 2020. Every governor of Lagos in the past two decades has attempted a ban.
“The people who govern this city are brutes, banning this and that left and right,” said Olushola, who, like countless others, pays off police officers to continue working. “We are providing a service that millions of people need 24/7. There is no alternative except to walk, and they ban us.”
Lindsay Sawyer, a researcher at the University of Sheffield’s Urban Institute who has written extensively about Lagos, said many of the city’s problems stem from the fact that nothing is really public.
“Can we accept the reality that there will likely never be those centralized services? Why push for metro lines when you can work with the danfo organizations? Why criminalize reliable services instead of formalizing them?” Sawyer said in a recent phone call. “They’re not working with urban realities, perhaps because they’re not living in them.”
Olushola and his roommate Samson Odunlami, 30, a baker, share a face-me-I-face-you room with three others in a relatively common arrangement: all men, all paying slightly different rates depending on who sleeps on the room’s single mattress vs. the couch, or the rattan mat on the floor.
The aim is to save up and get out.
“I am very sure about my savings — 5 percent every year. In nine years, I will be able to afford a place with my family in Surulere,” said Odunlami, referring to a relatively better-off neighborhood where families, instead of groups of men, often take up single rooms.
But won’t Lagos have millions more people in nine years, and won’t it be more expensive — have you factored that in?
His earlier optimism disappeared, and he switched into Nigerian Pidgin English, his more comfortable language.
“God no dey promise future,” he said. “If you dey come give am ticket to leave this here country, I will disappear o. I will not even stop home for pick my bag.”
The prevalence of face-me-I-face-you housing means the heads of many Lagosian families live separately in single-sex quarters. It also means children often live outside the city with grandparents, while their parents work to afford an entire room they can share.
“I see my kids every three months,” said Saidat Bunmi Ayanwole, 37, who sells plastic kitchenware on the street in downtown Lagos. She pays roughly $3 a week to sleep in a room nearby. She said her husband never visits the kids, who are with her mother.
Despite the challenges, millions continue to pour into Lagos from the rest of Nigeria.
“You can get started in Lagos with practically nothing if you are willing to live on the street,” Lawanson said. “Come in on a truck. Buy a broken basket. Use it to transport goods. Use the money to buy a wheelbarrow — there’s a ready market for that kind of labor.”
But Lawanson and other researchers cautioned against believing wholesale in projections of 80 million or even 100 million people in greater Lagos. Not because that’s infeasible, but because the city is already so strained, there’s no guarantee that people will continue to find the kind of economic opportunity that draws them here now.
“These projections are based on people not leaving Lagos as it falls apart,” Lawanson said. Stuck in traffic herself, she canceled an in-person interview and instead spoke by video call from her car, horns blaring and hawkers shouting right outside her window.
The city’s government assures Lagosians that there is a plan — in fact, multiple “master plans,” “development plans,” “model plans” and various visions, such as Lagos 2030 and Lagos 2050.
“We are not worried,” said Idris Salako, commissioner of the Urban Development Ministry for Lagos’s state government.
Salako talks about new jetties being built to make ferry travel across the lagoon easier and gets animated about removing the pesky roundabout junctions built in less-populous times.
But in a city where the first and only major bridge over the lagoon was built decades ago, his assurance that not one but five more are being planned is scoffed at by many Lagosians — as are the four metro lines he says are “in the pipeline.”
“Danfo and okada are menaces, and we will gradually be rid of them,” Salako said of the transport that not only ferries nearly all the city’s millions but employs millions as well.
The unavoidable problem is budget. Nigeria spends 75 percent of its annual budget on civil servant salaries and other costs, leaving little for infrastructure projects. Lagos state has higher tax revenue than any other in Nigeria, but collection is still abysmally low.
Without new infrastructure to keep up with the growth, it now takes longer to cross Lagos from one edge to the other in a danfo than it does to fly to Lagos from Europe. Lyrics written half a century ago by Fela Kuti, the legendary Lagosian king of Afrobeat, still ring true: “Before-before Lagos traffic na special, eh / Number one special all over the world / You go get PhD for driving for Lagos, eh.”
It’s going to take more than master plans to keep Lagos from imploding, Lawanson says. And like Sawyer, she says the solutions already exist in the creative ways Lagosians have adapted to a city where traffic and face-me-I-face-you are facts of life. Rather than restricting those practices, adapting them for rapid growth needs to be at the center of the plan, she says — not an imitative subway system or dredged-up land on which luxury apartments can be built.
“Creative thinking is required, as well as compassion,” Lawanson said. “We cannot be like Dubai, which is a utopian aspiration some of our leaders have. We have to be the best Lagos we can be.”
From the surrounding desert, the sand-colored city of Khartoum rises like a mirage.
A caravan heading inward from its edge will pass scenes that repeat mile after mile like a plaintive folk song: square mud-brick compounds stretching to the horizon, the expanse broken every so often by slightly taller, mostly unfinished skeletons of iron and concrete, halfway between rubble and a dream fulfilled.
For half a century now, displacement by catastrophe has been the main driver of growth in Khartoum. This is the biggest of a downtrodden club of African cities where people have brought their lives on donkey carts or in rickety trucks, far from hometowns abandoned because of conflict or climate change — or both.
These cities — such as Goma, in war-torn eastern Congo, or Bangui, the capital of the deeply impoverished Central African Republic — tend to be as big as their countries’ problems are deep.
Growth spikes as crises flare; some cities, including Mogadishu, Somalia, are seeing the latest of successive waves of arrivals, while others, such as Pemba in northern Mozambique, where the government recently lost control to an insurgency, are suddenly adapting to the addition of hundreds of thousands of the displaced, seeking safety in numbers on the cities’ peripheries.
Safety: Without it, there is no healing in countries that are broken by disasters both natural and man-made. The city, by providing a refuge, is a site of healing. Greater Khartoum’s population has octupled while a succession of wars, famines, droughts and floods have ravaged Sudan’s countryside.
“Tell me: What does a person want?” said Aziza Idris Ahmed, one of Khartoum’s millions of newcomers in recent decades, as she sat with her family in their dusty compound.
“Peace and safety. The rest comes after.”
Estimating the proportion of a city’s population that ended up there because of internal displacement is difficult for a number of reasons; one study that tried a decade ago in Khartoum called it “an impossible task.”
“Displaced” is a term with a loose definition: If someone chooses to leave their home, are they displaced? And once that person is settled in a new city, at what point do they stop being considered displaced?
There is also nearly no registration or tracking of the world’s displaced in cities. The job, broadly left to the International Organization for Migration, a U.N. body, is mostly carried out at displacement camps, which are usually in or near conflict zones, and only occasionally found in major cities.
“All the energy in the humanitarian world gets channeled toward emergencies, and so we don’t end up talking about what happens as a result — the big current underneath our work, which is massive urban influx,” said Bernard Lami, the IOM’s deputy head in Sudan.
Broadly, the United Nations estimates that a quarter of Khartoum’s population is or was displaced by conflict alone — around 1.5 million people — but researchers say that number excludes a huge group that never passed through displacement camps and was never classified as displaced. The real proportion, they say, is well above half of the city’s population of 6 million.
Those figures are a testament to just how unstable Sudan has been for decades.
Like many African countries, Sudan was awkwardly drawn onto the world map by European colonialists, its borders clumping rival groups together while splitting other well-established societies in half. A new elite, trained in suppression and exploitation, was left in charge. It was a historical how-to in creating conflict-prone states.
Around 40 percent of the world’s internally displaced people are in Africa, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center’s most recent report, and that number is growing. In 2020, nearly 9 million people became newly displaced on the continent. As with the population estimates, these figures are thought to be a significant undercount.
Sudan’s post-independence cycle of wars, coups and calamities has only heightened the importance of Khartoum, its sole major city.
“There’s really not a lot of forward development happening around the country — it’s all concentrated in Khartoum,” said Mai Abusalih, an architect and urban planner. “And then that reinforces itself, especially if this city remains the only place to get safety and jobs in the country.”
“That’s why when you look at maps of Khartoum over time, it’s like there’s this explosion,” she said. “And you’re looking at it now and it’s like, where do we go from here?”
In the valley of the Wadi Azum, a seasonal river in western Darfur near the modern-day border with Chad, generations of Aziza Idris Ahmed’s family tended cows, goats and sheep.
Her village was destroyed in early 2003, as Darfur descended into an ugly war characterized by the burning of homes, ethnic cleansing and mass displacement.
Under the command of dictator Omar Hassan al-Bashir, Sudanese forces and aligned militias torched and bombed village after village, a conflict that led to an estimated 300,000 or more deaths, according to the United Nations. Three million survivors fled.
Her uncle and his five sons were killed; she and her mother made it to a camp.
“My mother was ill and there was no way to treat her there,” Aziza said. “That’s why we came to Khartoum. We came in the back of a small truck, and it took many days. She died anyway, and I’ve been in Soba more or less since then.”
Soba, named after an ancient city situated, like Khartoum, at the confluence of the Blue and White Nile rivers, became what the government calls a “squatters camp,” mostly for Darfuris. Others like it ring the city in what is sometimes pejoratively called the “Black Belt,” because its inhabitants hail from conflict zones in Darfur, Kordofan and what is now South Sudan, where people’s skin tends to be darker.
Some camps were named in ways that nodded to displacement (the Arabic equivalents of “We were forced” or “They threw us,” for instance), while others were named for their most visible characteristics (“Rubbish” or “Shanty”).
As the hodgepodge of camps developed their own miniature economies, they solidified into neighborhoods. Unsurprisingly, their residents bristled with anger and opposition toward Bashir’s regime, which had driven them from their homes. Soba was razed three times under Bashir, in what residents refer to as wars in their own right. It was never connected to water or power lines.
“There are millions of us living in these places that politicians never set foot in except to tear them down so they can make an industrial zone or new, big houses,” said Zulekha Mohamed Abubakr, 26, a teacher at a free, private night school that teaches English to around 400 children.
“Everything is in shortage — water, fuel, food, but especially money,” said her colleague Ahmed Isa Yusuf, also 26.
It is a precarious existence, but it beats spending every day worrying for your life in Darfur, where conflict is still simmering.
“Even when the floods come and destroy Soba, we rebuild it,” said Aziza, who brews tea on a small charcoal stove for a living, selling to customers who sit on plastic stools on the roadside.
“People with my same story are spread out all across the city. Many of them are also tea ladies. Some sell vegetables. The men move things around: cement, bricks, sand, pipes,” she said. “Business is awful. But if your daughter sells vegetables, and business is bad, well, at least you get to eat the vegetables.”
Some say Bashir planted the seeds of his own downfall in driving displacement to Khartoum, concentrating rising discontent over his misrule in camps that flanked the city on all sides.
In camps-turned-neighborhoods like Haj Yousif, long-oppressed groups from Sudan’s hinterlands discovered common histories and common cause. The city, after providing safety, became an organizing ground for groups that wanted to ensure that the safety was lasting. In Sudan, that meant first getting rid of Bashir.
With the spark of rising bread prices in late 2018, Khartoum ignited in street protests. Week after week, thousands marched through places such as Soba and Haj Yousif, and even downtown, braving violent security forces.
By April 2019, a sit-in that drew over a million people daily had coalesced outside the military’s headquarters. In self-preservation mode, the military deposed Bashir, and the long, fraught process of untangling the military’s hold over the economy and government haltingly began.
“The revolution made Sudanese people realize something: We are all in this together,” said Taha Abdalla, 30, an economics student working as a gardener who participated in protests in Haj Yousif, where his parents relocated from Darfur before he was born.
But the revolution was just the beginning of a transformation Sudan will have to undergo to stop the cycle of displacement. On Oct. 25, the country’s top military official, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, launched a coup, renewing protests in Khartoum’s streets and sending jitters through parts of Sudan where the military had committed atrocities in the past.
Conflict also returned to much of Darfur and South Kordofan in 2021, and in just eight months, nearly 420,000 people were displaced. Stress on Khartoum’s already booming population is rising day by day.
“What we have is a problem of scale. We’re not thinking big, we’re not thinking about how to assimilate so many people,” said Abusalih, the architect. “We have, like, one park for a million people. Or one main road for a million people. It feels like we are planning based on a zoomed-out map.”
Abdalla said he is studying economics in part because he wants to help solve these problems.
“The city can’t keep up with the population, so instead, everything deteriorates, and that also drives prices up because everything is more expensive to produce and deliver,” he said.
“In the revolution, that’s partly what we were fighting against. There were big political issues, but it was also about mismanagement,” he added. “How long will it take for the needs of the people to become part of our governance? Ten, 20 years — or after we’re long gone? I guess it will always depend on us, the people, ourselves.”
In this profoundly unequal world, Africa is often thought of by Westerners as embodying poverty. The Democratic Republic of Congo in particular has a reputation for woefulness: Six decades after independence, three-quarters of Congolese live on less than $2 a day. Life expectancy hovers around 60 years.
But poverty is a symptom of systems that entrench inequality. In Kinshasa, Congo’s capital city and home to at least 15 million people, those systems — erected by departing colonizers — are still firmly in place.
The city was built with race and class segregation in mind; only the rich received public services. Fewer than 1 in 10 Congolese have electricity at home. In Kinshasa, the number is closer to half, but a drive around the city at night is one way to witness its inequality. A similar dynamic plays out in Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo, which is visible across the Congo River.
Successive Western-backed Congolese governments have been preoccupied with self-enrichment, disregarding mounting poverty except during elections and rebellions. Without expanded economic opportunities for the poor, upward mobility remains a long shot in Kinshasa, and the future livability of the city and others like it in Africa will depend on how easy it becomes to follow the path of Alain Nzenga.
Out of a cramped storefront on Loadi Street, Nzenga has achieved the unlikely: He has joined the middle class. He has carved out a solid earning by attending to a necessity for the rich — fixing their cars’ air conditioners — and becoming a “master of the art,” as he puts it.
Nzenga’s workshop is in Kintambo, which Belgian colonizers set aside as a “cité indigène” — a neighborhood reserved for natives. Where you live amid the colonial geography reflects class in today’s Kinshasa.
Areas once reserved for Whites are now inhabited by wealthy Congolese.
Areas such as Kintambo are working-class. And vast tracts of land that were undeveloped 60 years ago are now covered with shantytowns, home to the city’s majority who live in grinding poverty.
Along the city’s main thoroughfare, the two worlds collide. Porsche SUVs vie for space with the city’s run-down shared taxi-vans. But mostly, the worlds stay separate.
While designer labels open showrooms in wealthy neighborhoods, millions of the city’s inhabitants break rocks, sell peanuts or carry heavy loads to afford their daily sustenance.
The rich live behind high walls topped with barbed wire. Their estates, which would be at home in Malibu or the Hamptons, are right next to downtown.
Outside the gates of wealthy homes, evidence of the state’s neglect is everywhere.
Those in the middle class haven’t escaped this world of neglect altogether. At Nzenga’s house, the electricity is usually down. The running water is dirty and warm, but the tap is right outside the door.
The house is one room, but it has a television and a tile floor. Nzenga’s gate is rusty and broken, but it shields the family from prying eyes. To leave, you step right over an open sewer.
When a reporter met Nzenga, he had just paid a small bribe to a tax collector, instead of paying a local tax.
A poorer man who couldn’t afford such bribes might never have been able to open a business. Nzenga got over this hurdle only with the help of a mentor who trusted him with money.
Nzenga doesn’t expect to ever get rich. There’s no “Congolese dream,” as he sees it, where a poor man makes it big. Maybe one in a million, he says. But where he’s at now, he has most of what he wants.
He no longer drinks to ease the day’s stress, because now he has a few employees who do the hardest work. Instead, he buys his favorite cigarettes.
On the walk home from work, he picks up half a dozen sweet oranges for his daughters, on whom he has pinned his hopes for the future.
“The smarts are there,” Nzenga said. “The question is whether jobs are, too. What future can they dream of?”
It was dusk in the plaza and histories were blending together in the dimming light.
Dozens of men had gathered under the chinaberry trees to talk politics and chew khat, a mild stimulant beloved in the communities that skirt the western Indian Ocean. The call to prayer emanated from a nearby mosque built by Omani tradesmen more than 450 years ago.
A crumbling fort built by the Portuguese, who wrested this port city from the Omanis in the 1600s, loomed behind the trees, which also enshrouded a monument to a British regimental commander killed in World War II.
An auto rickshaw raced by, briefly interlacing the Islamic recitation and the murmur of gossip with a nostalgic music choice: the 2012 Bollywood hit song “Hookah Bar.”
Like many port cities, Mombasa is infused with distant cultures. From its centuries-old core, its expansion has been spurred by sultanates, seafaring mercantilists and great world powers, which all saw economic opportunity in its protected inlets.
Each has left an indelible mark on the Kenyan city. In the past decade, the biggest ones have been made by Chinese government-backed loans.
Beijing’s burgeoning economic might has contributed to an infrastructure boom across the continent, in cities such as Djibouti; Luanda, Angola; and Lubumbashi, Congo.
- Chinese institutions invested more than $200 billion in the transportation and power sectors across Africa between 2000 and 2017, according to the AidData initiative at William & Mary, the Virginia college.
- At least 46 ports and 34 airports in Africa received direct investment from China, according to AidData and a separate data set from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
- At least 13,000 miles of railroads, highways and bridges have been built or renovated with investments from two Chinese state-owned banks, according to a third data set, from Boston University’s China’s Overseas Development Finance Database.
China’s growing role in shaping African cities is driven by unfulfilled local needs for trade and transport infrastructure. But expansion also serves China’s need to export labor and goods, and its desire to gain diplomatic clout in dozens of nations.
The implications for Africa’s urban future are highly visible and tangible — a stark difference from the subtler effects of aid money, which represents Western countries’ largest unilateral investments on the continent.
Since the colonial era ended in the 1960s, African countries have struggled to collect tax revenue, stem corruption and accumulate savings, driving reliance on grants, loans and aid. Simple yet vital infrastructure, especially in transportation, is lacking even in some of Africa’s biggest cities.
Chinese loans have enabled African cities to refurbish their infrastructure, making transportation easier and cheaper for people and goods.
China’s state-owned lending institutions have put more money into African governments over the past decade than all Western aid combined, and China has become the largest trading partner for most African countries. Many of the loan repayments are resource-backed, meaning the borrower commits future earnings on bauxite, oil or some other resource as collateral.
The shifting dynamics have been a source of concern in Western capitals, which have seen their cachet on the continent decline. And the changes have spawned warnings from those same capitals to African governments that they are being tricked into debt traps that leave strategic resources and infrastructure vulnerable to Chinese takeover.
That view has been increasingly discounted by scholars, in part because Chinese lenders have not requisitioned any major infrastructure projects even as debts continue to mount. Chinese loans to Africa also have declined after a high in 2013, the year China launched its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative to link its markets with the rest of the world.
“There’s an interest particularly in Washington to portray Chinese actions in as malign a light as possible,” said W. Gyude Moore, Liberia’s former public works minister, who is now a fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington. “The U.S. struggles to outline a positive vision of what the world should be. The easiest way they’ve found is through comparison to enemies: ‘We are free, China is not; we are helping, China is extorting.’ ”
After independence movements swept Africa in the 1950s and ’60s, birthing dozens of countries into a world riven by the Cold War, Kwame Nkrumah, the first leader of Ghana, proclaimed, “We face neither East nor West, we face forward.”
In reality, African governments have faced both East and West, and those relationships have been deeply troubled.
Now, instead of states wielding power through force, it is corporations, banks and the world’s largest lending institutions wielding loans laden with confidentiality clauses.
Their relationship with African governments remains an unequal one, and in some cases, the outcomes resemble Africa’s years emerging from the colonial era. Opaque loans and closer ties with Beijing have strengthened African governments that have little regard for democracy, human rights or economic equality.
In Mombasa, the Chinese have supplanted colonial-era infrastructure with their own: a huge container terminal, a gleaming new rail line to Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, and new highways linking a smattering of special economic zones. The boom has left the country billions of dollars in debt but also with some of the tools it might need to get itself out.
On a humid monsoon-season morning, Sylvan Mghanga, a spokesman for Kenya’s port authority, barely had a minute to spare before jetting off from Mombasa to Lamu, another thousand-year-old port town on Kenya’s coast, where the Chinese have financed an additional port that will serve northern Kenya, Ethiopia and South Sudan.
“In our coastal cities, it used to be wooden dhows,” he said, referencing the sail-propelled vessels that ply the Indian Ocean. “Now we load 10 100-container trains on a good day, and they end up as far away as Congo.”
Mombasa’s old port — heavily used for centuries until colonial-era British warships necessitated a new one in deeper waters — still gets about one dhow a week. This closing window on the past was still open in May, when laborers lugged sacks of rice and spices up wooden planks onto an India-bound dhow named Noor-e-Mustafa, which was decorated with intricately painted latticework. A Gujarati foreman barked out orders at sweaty Kenyan deckhands.
“We have deep water, we’re on the equator, we’re on the way from everywhere to everywhere else,” said Kalandar Khan, a historian of Kenya’s coast whose ancestors were brought from Baluchistan, in what is now Pakistan, to Mombasa four centuries ago by Omani sultans who employed them as mercenaries.
The Chinese are not new to Mombasa. Zheng He, the great sea voyager of China’s exploration age, traveled along the coast here in the early 1400s. A statue of him greets passengers at the new Chinese-built-and-financed railway between Mombasa and Nairobi.
China’s current influence in Africa, however, is difficult to scrutinize. In the post-2013 Belt and Road era, nearly all Chinese loan contracts have included extensive confidentiality clauses that prevent citizens of both China and the African countries receiving the loans from being able to investigate the terms on which their governments are interacting.
The Mombasa-Nairobi railway is a case in point. Its $4 billion-plus price tag has raised questions, given that some estimates put the cost of refurbishing the old British-built line at a quarter of that.
Mombasa, Kenya’s second-biggest city, is expected to grow rapidly as it accelerates its shift from being an outdated spice-route waypoint to a major global city that funnels goods to all of East Africa, a region with one of the world’s fastest-growing populations.
“The Chinese are in effect building yet another layer — the farthest one away from Mombasa’s Old Town,” Khan said. “What will it mean? I think [the city] will become less eclectic of a mix. Yes, Baluchis, Somalis, Arabs, Indians, locals, but now more and more of Kenya will want to live here. We will start to look more like the rest of Kenya.”
Most of China’s loans in Africa haven’t yet yielded huge financial returns, and the bulk of African governments’ debt to Chinese banks remains unpaid. In many cases, experts say, getting paid back isn’t the creditors’ top priority.
“The loans create work for Chinese firms and employment for Chinese managers,” Moore said. “The debts keep African governments invested in having close ties with Beijing. They don’t need to get literal returns on investment to win.”
A vast global web of loans has allowed China to stretch its muscles as a global superpower, said Howard French, who has written two books on China’s ambitions, including one on Africa specifically.
“When China wanted to kick-start its own process of getting out of poverty, its leaders took a very studied look around the world to see where there might be opportunities for them” and settled on Africa, among other less-developed parts of the world such as Pakistan and Venezuela, he said.
Competition was low in Africa, but the population was growing and urbanizing at a quick pace — and Chinese leaders have always taken demography seriously, French said. They knew that the same kind of material they needed for their own urbanization — tin sheeting, tiles, cement, household electronics — would find ready markets in Africa. And they could create brand loyalty in places where people were still buying their first cars and mobile phones.
Conversely, Western countries have stuck with a model that is arguably just as susceptible to the problems they cite in criticizing China: billions of dollars in aid going to often-unaccountable public institutions, and private investment in extractive industries like mining and oil.
The United States in particular has sought to counter China’s ascent in Africa with questions about respect for human rights and the environment in Chinese-linked projects. The approach has not prevented any of those projects from pushing forward.
“China has given the money and said, ‘We want to help you integrate into the global economy, of which we are now at the forefront,’ ” Moore said.
African governments can be understood to be following Nkrumah’s exhortation of looking neither West nor East but forward, Moore said, even if both relationships have created new forms of dependency.
Africans themselves, in surveys, express mostly positive attitudes toward Chinese investment.
“The stories of collateral are well known at this point, but they will forgive our debt,” said Khan, reflecting a common viewpoint in Kenya. “As ever, Mombasa is a strategic gem. It is a door to a large region. But the Chinese are not disrespectful. They won’t say, ‘Now this door is all mine.’ ”
That kind of reasoning is often contrasted with the West’s exploitative past in Africa, which built up cities like Mombasa primarily for the conquerors’ gain, with little incidental benefit for the common citizen.
Responding to skepticism about Chinese intentions, many Africans simply ask: What is the problem with getting help to attain the same level of development others have? And who are Western governments to raise questions about human rights and accountability in Africa when their own record is atrocious?
“I can’t believe the way to win hearts and minds is to have a discourse about Africans being duped, but you hear this over and over again,” French said. “China hasn’t done everything right, but China has had a positive vision of where Africa might fit into its own story of economic growth and ascension. Of course they’ve stumbled. But it was a training ground for their broader ambitions in the world.”
At first, the sudden stardom she found playing the lead role in “Mistress of a Married Man,” Senegal’s surprise smash-hit soap opera, was something for Halima Gadji to relish.
There were trips to Europe and America. On the streets of Dakar, Senegal’s capital, she’d encounter fawning fans whose adoration reaffirmed what she had heard so often: You’re a great actress. She confidently defended the TV show’s controversial premise, which had riled some sections of her conservative society.
“People say that I am perverting the youth, but I don’t think so,” she was quoted as saying in the New York Times in 2019. “I am only reminding them that everyone is free to do what they want with their own sexuality.”
But the clerics got louder and louder, and her image was recast in the eyes of the public. The glamour gave way to glares.
A deep depression crept over her, and she found herself echoing a question asked by tens of millions of Africans every year: Should I leave my country?
When Gadji decided the answer had to be yes, she, like the majority of African migrants, did something many in the West might not expect, especially after a decade of fearmongering by populist politicians and a relentless focus in the media on the most desperate, perilous voyages in search of asylum.
Gadji immigrated, legally, to another African country.
Data from the United Nations’ migration agency offers a clear rebuttal to the misconception that this century’s projected population growth will inevitably lead to a flood of Africans leaving the continent.
- The majority of African migrants, both rich and poor, do not cross oceans, but rather land borders within Africa.
- Ninety-four percent of African migration across oceans takes a regular, legal form.
- At least 80 percent of Africans contemplating migration say they have no interest in leaving the continent.
Gadji, like 2.5 million other West Africans, chose Ivory Coast, where foreigners now account for nearly 20 percent of the country’s economy, more than anywhere else in Africa.
Like New York or Paris, Ivory Coast’s biggest city, Abidjan, is a cosmopolitan patchwork of neighborhoods where flavors, languages and histories overlap. As Africa’s population grows, Abidjan, Nairobi, Johannesburg and other cities across the continent that brim with opportunity will reap the dividends of that growth, especially if Western countries continue to suppress African migration flows off the continent.
“I didn’t have to go to some unfamiliar world to find my peace — I’m still right here in West Africa,” Gadji said. “I may be famous, but yes, I am also a migrant — there is no shame in that. Like anyone, I would rather live where I am comfortable, where I am accepted.”
West Africa is one of the most integrated regions of the world. That’s partly a holdover from France’s colonial domination of the region, which left behind a lingua franca and a common currency still backed by French reserves.
But before the French arrived, this was also a region of vast trading empires and of nomadic groups that traversed it in search of pasture. In modern West Africa, home to 17 countries, locals often see borders as a hindrance — or even a fallacy — more useful to the Europeans who created them than the Africans who have to navigate them.
Despite relatively low historical levels of African migration to Europe, European Union member states have paid billions of dollars to West African governments over the past decade in return for strict enforcement of border controls aimed at preventing African migrants from reaching European shores.
“There are levels of irony here. Europe has integrated into a union, and yet they pay us to isolate ourselves,” said Issiaka Konate, a senior official in Ivory Coast’s ministry that promotes regional integration. “By doing so, they create an opportunity for criminal networks to operate in human trafficking, which has led to a profusion of armed groups and instability. Migration is not the political lightning rod in West Africa that it is in Europe. We welcome it.”
Between 2000 and 2019, the number of international migrants within Africa jumped from 15.1 million to 26.6 million, a 76 percent rise, the sharpest increase of any world region, according to the International Organization for Migration. On the entire continent, only South Africa, which has more than double Ivory Coast’s population and a much bigger economy, has more migrants.
For most of its post-independence period, Ivory Coast has sought to lure migrants with relatively high wages, especially in its cocoa industry, the world’s largest. That alone has drawn millions from Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and others, and propelled Ivory Coast forward as the region’s best-performing economy.
Nearby countries such as Niger, which has the world’s highest birthrate and lowest standard of living, are replete with reasons to leave. For Gadou Amadou, 20, it wasn’t just poverty or the fact that the farms of Niger’s Tahoua region are drying up as climate change expands the Sahara southward — it was what all his friends were doing. Of the kids he grew up with, he was the last to reach Abidjan. He arrived here with 8,000 West African francs (about $15) and a backpack.
“My aim, and I think I can do it in just a few years, is to leave with 2 million. With 2 million, you go home, you build a house, you get married, everything is all right,” Amadou said.
He’s never done a day of school, he said, and he didn’t speak a lick of French until he got to Abidjan, where he works at a stall selling garba, a hugely popular street food made mostly by Nigerien immigrants.
He serves its signature fried tuna on a bed of chopped tomatoes, onions and chiles, with a side of attieke, the Ivorian cassava staple. In halting French, he flirted with two young female customers. They admired a new hat he’d bought with his earnings, emblazoned with the English words “Don’t Give Up.”
The food stall’s owner said that in just five years, 15 young men like Amadou had come and gone, earning enough to go back home comfortably.
“Garba makes us popular here. It is cheap, it is fast, it is tasty. People appreciate us,” Amadou said, explaining why he’d chosen Abidjan over Europe.
“Europe is unimaginable to me. Very few people dream of Europe, frankly — and they are people you could say who dream too much.”
While the number of migrants moving from West Africa to Europe is minuscule compared with migration within the continent, Europe has nevertheless reorganized its historic relationship with the region around limiting the number of Africans who can reach its shores. In doing so, Europe has restricted the flow to exceptionally strong-willed migrants for whom the lure of Europe is hard to shake.
“Once you make it to Europe, you’re set — it’s a guarantee,” said Aladji Kandé, 21, who arrived in Abidjan from Senegal two years ago, and for whom Abidjan is a waypoint, not a destination. “I don’t care about ‘possibility,’ or about small money. I’m looking for a guarantee. In Europe, making 10 million francs is just a matter of time. So it’s just a matter of getting there.”
Kandé’s dream of Europe has little to do with Europe itself. The real dream — his raison d’etre — is to build his mother a house. She was a teenager when he was born, and his father, an older man, died soon after. They’ve been destitute since.
The dream was meant to be carried forward by his older brother, Adama — but Adama ended up in the hands of traffickers while transiting Libya in 2015, a fate met by tens of thousands of other would-be migrants. His extended family raised 1 million francs for his release, but after they sent it, they were informed that Adama had been killed, his captors having lost hope that the ransom would arrive.
“It’s worth the risk — I still believe that. My mind is made up. I’m leaving in January,” said Kandé, whose Wolof was translated into French by an aunt. She shook her head as he relayed his words. For months, she had shown him videos of the horrors in Libya and mass drownings in the Mediterranean.
To an older generation of migrants, the fixation on Europe and the insistence that it’s the only place to make enough money to live the good life is a sinister myth driven by a few success stories.
It’s also an abandonment of a political ideology often called Pan-Africanism — most popular in the years right after independence — that advocates strength in African unity and the dissolution of colonially imposed borders. The movement has faded as nationalism has proved just as potent a political force on the continent as elsewhere in the world.
Abidjan is home to many ardent Pan-Africanists. Chief among them is Pathé Ouédraogo, 71, better known as Pathé’O, who came from rural Burkina Faso to Abidjan as a teenager by way of the cocoa plantations and ultimately became one of Africa’s most renowned couturiers.
On a recent day in his atelier, he sat on a plush leather couch, measuring tape draped around his neck, surrounded by portraits of luminaries he has dressed in his signature African haute couture: Nelson Mandela; Morocco’s King Mohammed VI; Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man; and dozens more.
“In my youth, there was no word ‘immigration’ — saying a fellow African is a foreigner is itself a foreign concept,” he said. “Well, it is an infectious concept and a political tool — the blame game, the creation of difference, those classic divide-and-rule mentalities of the West, are they not? It is a miseducation foisted upon us.”
“Why should someone spend thousands of dollars, earned with years of sweat, to try to go to Europe when you can build a dignified life in Africa with that kind of money?” he asked. “What I am is thanks to this city, this country. I have now dressed Miss Ivory Coast 10 years in a row. Me, a village boy from over the border.”