Africa’s future is urban. By 2050, the majority of Africans will live in cities, transforming its societies and economies. Yet very little is known about the impact this demographic shift will have on residents and political systems.

In my new book Democracy in Ghana: Everyday Politics in Urban Africa, I examine urbanization from the vantage point of Ghana’s rapidly growing neighborhoods. Ghana has a long history of urbanization dating back to pre-colonial long-distance trade, as well as increased investments in coastal cities during British colonial rule. Today, Ghana is one of the continent’s strongest democracies, displaying a robust two-party system that has experienced multiple turnovers of power. But the deepening of democracy coincides with political clientelism, the capture of public goods for private gain, and sustained ethnic politics.

Why do these characteristics endure despite the strengthening of liberal democratic institutions? Moreover, how do societies overcome these challenges to their political systems? In the book, I demonstrate how these patterns and practices of politics vary across Ghana’s urban neighborhoods. To do so, I spent fifteen months immersing myself in the civic life of three poor neighborhoods (often labeled slums in the popular discourse) attending community meetings, conversing with party activists, observing campaign rallies, interviewing leaders, and conducting focus groups with residents.

I find that conventional theories of African politics and democracy miss the everyday politics in urban neighborhoods that bring representatives and their constituents together or keep them apart. Everyday politics refers to the institutional context of daily decision-making in a neighborhood – how people act, think, and feel about power on a daily basis. The context of daily life is important to African politics because this is where leaders legitimate their authority and decide how to distribute resources.

In addition, I argue that informal norms of settlement and claims to urban space continue to structure everyday politics in Ghana’s cities, despite significant changes in the formal and societal realms. In particular, norms of indigeneity – that groups native to a territory hold special rights and entitlements – endure, setting cities on a path of urban development where host-migrant relationships dictate the politics of its neighborhoods. These cleavages are apparent in everyday politics, but extend to the formal realm during elections and in courts over claims to property rights. Drawing from an original household survey, I find that these patterns extend to 16 neighborhoods across three different cities in Ghana. Specifically, I show that stranger settlements, or migrant communities that formed on the outskirts of cities in the early stages of urban growth, have more responsive leaders, robust public spheres, and cross-ethnic interactions than indigenous neighborhoods and squatter settlements today. These practices underlie democratic politics in Ghana.

Uncovering how democracy “works” – and where it fails to achieve the interests of its citizens –reveals novel understandings into the relationship between urban change and political competition in Ghana. But it also has the potential to shed light on similar patterns of political and demographic change across the continent, providing a new vision for sustainable urban development amidst “Africa’s urban revolution.”

Jeffrey Paller specializes in African politics and sustainable urban development at University of San Francisco. His research examines the practice of democracy and accountability in urban Africa. He has conducted fieldwork in Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, and South Africa. His new project examines state and slum relations and public goods across African cities. He has received funding from the Social Science Research Council, National Science Foundation, and the University of Wisconsin. His work is published in Polity, African Studies Review, and Africa Today. Before USF, he served as Earth Institute postdoctoral research fellow at Columbia University, and was a visiting lecturer of politics at Bates College. He curates the weekly news bulletin This Week in Africa.

Democracy in Ghana: Everyday Politics in Urban Africa is available now.


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