Often referred to as the “Ghetto President” of Uganda, Bobi Wine’s politics, policies and base of support are antithetical to those of President Yoweri Museveni. Though many will note that Bobi Wine’s enormous popularity may be partly attributed to the appeal of his youth or artistic background among Uganda’s disproportionately young population – a demographic phenomenon that’s coming to be known as the “youth bulge” on the African continent.
“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 Many capitals still rely on out-of-date planning laws, leading to haphazard building and needlessly expensive rent.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.