“FREE BOBI WINE!” say the graffiti outside his recording studio in Kamwokya, a poor district of Kampala, Uganda’s capital. On August 13th the pop star-turned-politician (pictured above) was arrested and, he says, beaten and tortured by soldiers. Though he was released after two weeks, treason charges still hang over him.
His real crime is being popular. Born Robert Kyagulanyi, Mr Wine speaks for many of Kampala’s roughly 1.5m slum dwellers. “If parliament cannot come to the ghetto,” he said after his election as an MP, “the ghetto will come to the parliament.”
Mr Wine is part of a broader trend in which upstart politicians with support among the urban poor are rattling governments. They include Kenya’s main opposition leader, Raila Odinga, and Nelson Chamisa of Zimbabwe’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). In South Africa Julius Malema of the Economic Freedom Fighters has been gaining ground by promising to seize white-owned land.
The past few years have also seen widespread protests by city folk. Witness the “Black Friday” demonstrations in Lusaka (Zambia’s capital) in 2013 and “Red Friday” marches in Accra (Ghana’s) in 2014, or the post-election riots in Kenya last year.
The rise of urban discontent and young opposition leaders partly reflects a youth bulge. The median age in Africa is 19.5, whereas its leaders’ average age is 62. It also arises from Africa’s idiosyncratic urbanisation, whereby cities are growing fast but opportunities in them are not.
In 1960, 15% of Africans lived in cities, about the same as in Europe in the 1600s. Today the share is 38%. By 2030 it will surpass 50%. Africa’s urban population is expanding at a rate of 4% per year, twice the global average. Yet urbanisation is not bringing Africa the prosperity it brought to other continents. In Europe and East Asia the growth of cities was driven by migration from the countryside, as workers swapped fields for factories. African urbanisation is mostly a result of natural population growth. For example, in Maputo, Mozambique’s capital, just 12% of the population rise is accounted for by migration from rural areas. Since there are few manufacturing jobs, most of the growing urban labour force is absorbed by the informal economy. That is one reason why urbanisation in Africa does not reduce poverty as much as it does in other continents.
Another reason is the woeful way cities are organised. More than 50% of urbanites live in slums. Fully 40% lack flushing toilets. Many capitals still rely on out-of-date planning laws, leading to haphazard building and needlessly expensive rent.
The neglect, paradoxically, is rooted in democracy. From the end of colonial rule until 1991 no incumbent government was replaced via a peaceful election. Policy-making had an “urban bias”. Since the greatest threat to autocrats was a coup, and most coups started in cities, leaders tried to buy off urbanites. This meant, for example, favouring (urban) consumers of food over (rural) producers by keeping prices low.
Much changed as democracy flowered in the 1990s, and rulers switched to winning support in the populous countryside. In a study of 27 countries, Robin Harding of the University of Oxford found that the advent of democratic elections is associated with increased access to primary school and healthier children, but only in rural areas. Other studies show skewed spending on rural roads and on farm subsidies.
Urbanites have many reasons for being less likely than rural voters to back those in power. They have better access to news and can be organised more easily by activists. Using polls taken in 28 countries Mr Harding has found that city dwellers are on average five percentage points more likely to oppose the government than rural voters are. This is true even after controlling for age, gender, education and whether voters share the ethnicity of the country’s leader.
Politicians mindful of urban unhappiness perhaps stand a better chance of success. Mr Wine’s music evokes slum life. In one song he protests against the heavy-handed arrest of street traders. In another he sings about kikomando, a humble snack of chapati and beans eaten by the poor. He slips naturally into Luyaaye, a street slang. By contrast, Yoweri Museveni, the 74-year-old Ugandan president who won just 31% of the vote in Kampala in 2016, sprinkles his speech with rustic idioms. Young urbanites call him “Bosco”, after a character in an advert, a country bumpkin who comes to the city and stumbles down escalators with his bicycle.
Such politicians hope to emulate Michael Sata, perhaps the most successful African populist. Sata, who was Zambia’s president from 2011 until his death in 2014, coupled an appeal to his ethnic Bemba group in the countryside with a pro-poor message in cities. During electioneering he spoke in the vernacular. He launched campaigns from informal markets, not plush hotels. One of the first things he did in office was to order town clerks to stop harassing street vendors.
Elsewhere vendors have been less lucky. Some of the most violent incidents have taken place in Zimbabwe, where thousands of street traders in MDC strongholds have been arrested in operations co-ordinated by the ruling party, Zanu-PF.
Incumbents are also trying more subtle ways to quell urban unrest. In Mozambique cities run by opposition parties are starved of public funds. In Botswana the ruling party has appointed extra unelected councillors to cities where the opposition has polled well. In Uganda Mr Museveni has transferred many powers from the opposition-led city council to his appointees.
Yet at some point the size of the urban voting bloc will become too big to ignore. In countries where more than half the people live in cities, urbanites are only a little less satisfied with democracy than rural voters are (see chart), suggesting that politicians do eventually take more notice of city dwellers’ interests. But for now, in countries such as Uganda, where three-quarters of people still live in rural areas, politicians will make mainly half-hearted attempts to please those in cities.
In October Mr Museveni toured downtown Kampala, promising to shower traders’ associations with cash. Mechanics at Kisekka market, an unruly hub for spare parts, waved dutifully. “He’s the best president in the world,” gushed one man in a ruling-party T-shirt. Then he leaned closer, whispering: “Actually we hate Museveni. We love Bobi Wine.”