A few days before Christmas, I had the most tense journey to an airport of my life. I was in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where I had been reporting on the end of President Joseph Kabila’s term (he had refused to step down, despite being constitutionally limited to two terms).
My flight back to Kenya wasn’t due to take off until the mid-afternoon, but that morning my driver and I set out to the airport at 6am. Along the Boulevard du 30 Juin, what used to be the city’s Belgian core, but is now a vast and smooth Chinese-built highway, rocks littered the road. We drove past lorries full of police officers in navy blue. On the corners, young men stood in small groups. Occasionally, we’d hear the pop of a teargas grenade being flung into the neighbourhoods along the road.
Getting out of Kinshasa then was particularly stressful. But when I got inside the terminal, and looked up at the forlorn departure boards, I was reminded that, even at the best of times, leaving Congo’s capital isn’t easy.
This is Africa’s third biggest city. At 12 million, its population is bigger than London’s. Yet it has almost no connections to the outside world. On normal days, there are only 11 international flights out of Kinshasa per day. At Heathrow, the figure is around 1,400. Apart from the airport, the only other way into this vast megacity is the rickety ferry from neighbouring Congo-Brazzaville. If you were extremely brave, you could try the road to the Atlantic Ocean. But that’s about it. Kinshasa can burn and most of the world doesn’t notice, because Kinshasa is only slightly better connected to the global economy than the North Pole.
And yet somehow it is one of the world’s fastest growing cities. Kinshasa is a particularly extreme example of how Africa is urbanising without globalising. Sixty years ago the whole of sub-Saharan Africa had no cities with a population of more than a million people. Now it has dozens.
But unlike the English peasants who moved to factory cities in the 19th century, or Chinese ones in the 20th, the people moving to African cities are not moving to new global metropolises. Africa’s urbanisation is not driven by economic growth. Instead, people are moving to miserable mega-cities, with crumbling infrastructure and corrupt political systems, and which export almost nothing. Two thirds of Africa’s urban population growth is accounted for by slums. Changing that may well be the biggest challenge facing African governments in the 21st century.
The problem with African cities is that they are generally built for the rich elite. Kinshasa is dotted with football stadiums, grand theatres and spectacular government buildings – all the crumbling remains of president Mobutu Sese Seko’s attempt to build a pan-African capital. In that it is hardly alone. Dakar, in Senegal, has a ludicrous “African Renaissance” statue, built by North Korea. Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, has a growing number of glitzy housing estates for the wealthy, reclaimed from the lagoon. The most spectacular, Eko Atlantic, reclaimed from the Atlantic Ocean by a Lebanese-Nigerian family, wants to be a new financial capital to rival Canary Wharf.
Yet all of these cities lack the basics. Roads are jammed up; power is erratic; there is often little in the way of sewage systems or clean water.
As a result, few competitive businesses want to move to African cities. Manufacturing is all but absent: the power and logistics are simply not good enough for factories. But neither are the service sector businesses that have boomed in Indian cities taking off, despite educated populations who speak English and French. The trouble is that the cost is simply too high. According to one survey, of the 10 most expensive cities in the world, three are in Africa. Nobody expects New York City to be cheap, but that is because it has everything else a business could possible want. N’Djamena, Chad’s capital, is pricey precisely because it has nothing a business needs.
What most African cities get by on is money from natural resources. As the Brookings Institution explains here, African cities are built for consuming, not creating, wealth. The elite who capture oil or mining revenues have to live somewhere – and they concentrate their spending in cities. That is why the nightlife and restaurant scene in Kinshasa is so good, even though nothing else works. It’s the main thing the city
produces. The poor flock in, hoping to feed on the scraps. Extreme inequality isn’t so much a product of the system; it is the cause of it.
Elsewhere in the world, cities which work well are expensive precisely because they are productive. London costs a fortune in part because so many good jobs are based there. What cities create is the possibility of specialisation. In a village, most people have to be farmers; in a city, you can do anything. And the wealthiest cities in the world are part of a network. As long as the developing world’s cities remain turned in on themselves, they will never be a part of that. Globalisation, which is making the rest of the world’s metropolises more pleasant, exciting (and expensive) places to live, will pass Africa by.