Nov 22, 2015
Population Growth Comparison of West African Cities
Paul Conton

The issue of the rapid urbanisation of African countries has attracted divergent opinions. Professional economists see higher average incomes in city dwellers compared to their rural counterparts, and also greater participation in the formal, cash economy as positives. Others decry the growth in urban slums and joblessnes, the increase in demand for imports and precious foreign currency, and the wasted opportunity represented by millions of hectares of arable land lying fallow as countrsiders migrate in droves to the cities. Movement of people on this scale certainly has economic consequences. Are they positive or negative? Is the urbanisation causing economic growth or contributing to Africa's decline? It is by no means a uniquely African phenomenon. Europe and other developed countries experienced great waves of rural/urban migration during the period when they were rapidly industrialising. Clearly the migration was as a consequence of the availability of well-paying jobs in the new emerging industries of the cities of the West and now of China. The conditions in Africa over the last few decades have been somewhat different.

Can one find correlation or causation between urban growth and economic development in Africa? A look at the growth of West African cities since 1950 (see chart) gives no clear answers. Some countries that have done relatively well economically have experienced high population growth in their major city (Dakar, Abidjan), whilst other good performers have experienced low growth (Accra).

Similarly, some of the poor performers have experienced high population growth (Monrovia) whilst others (Freetown, Conakry) have not.

West African city populations as percentage of national populations
Population growth chart West African cities
Source: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population division, November, 2015.

All countries show a rise in urbanisation in the late fifties to early sixties, the time of Independence. The growth can be conveniently divided into three categories: the fastest growing cities (Monrovia, Bissau, Banjul, Nouakchott, Dakar, Abidjan) had 2015 populations that were between 20 and 30% of their national populations. Cities with intermediate growth (Freetown, Conakry, Bamako, Ouagadougou, Lomé) had 2015 populations between 10 and 20% of their national populations and the slowest growing cities (Accra, Lagos, Cotonou, Niamey) had 2015 populations under 10% of their national populations. Lagos is in this category despite having far and away the largest population in absolute terms.