Forty years ago, the way to overthrow a government in Africa was through rural insurrection, like the one that brought Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to power. Today, opposition leaders instead largely try to mobilize urban protest, as seen in the revolution that toppled Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019.
Politics is urbanizing because society is, too. In about a decade, more Africans will live in urban areas than in the countryside; within a generation, African cities will be twice as big as they are now. This transformation owes less to the visions of government planners than it does to the dreams of informal workers. The continent’s traders, shopkeepers, and transport operators are inventing new cityscapes and new kinds of class politics—and rattling the regimes that rule them.
This trajectory is a departure from historical precedents. In Europe, North America, and parts of East Asia, cities and factories grew in tandem. But much of the global south today is “urbanizing without industrializing,” to borrow a phrase coined by economists Douglas Gollin, Remi Jedwab, and Dietrich Vollrath. In many countries, economic growth is fueled by resource exports, not manufacturing. Booming cities are oriented around serving the consumption of the rich, not around production.
Throughout the continent, the familiar tussle between those with capital and those without is now fought out on the city street. Its form is shaped by political circumstance. In Rwanda, a dictatorial government has maintained Kigali’s manicured image by detaining and beating street vendors. In democratic Kenya, by contrast, President William Ruto has claimed to speak for the hardworking “hustlers”—only to be confronted with opposition protests about the rising cost of living.
Kampala, Uganda’s capital, is a good place to watch these dynamics play out. In the city of 1.7 million people, the most visible struggles are rarely organized campaigns for higher wages. Instead, informal workers are embattled hustlers, with a host of other burdens: the rent on a market stall, the interest on a small loan, the price of fuel, the fee to hire a motorbike.
And perhaps the most important battle in Kampala is for urban space itself. The city is a place where anyone can come to make something of themselves, said John Ssekitoleko, the general secretary of an association of motorbike taxi drivers in downtown Kampala. But for the rich, and even for the aspiring middle class, the sight of hawkers and motorbike taxis disrupts notions of what a modern city should be. These rival visions of Uganda’s urban future are rooted in the economic contradictions of the present.
Although most Ugandans still live in rural areas, the United Nations estimated in 2018 that Uganda is urbanizing more rapidly than any other country in the world. Yet under Museveni, who has been in office since 1986, the national economy has grown on the back of agricultural commodities such as coffee, sugar, and fish. The listless manufacturing sector, hindered by a half-hearted approach to industrial policy, has failed to create jobs in the city. Half of all workers in Kampala run their own business or are employed by a relative. Two-thirds of urban workers are employed in services of some kind, and just 8 percent are machine operators.
Many of these urban workers have precarious jobs—they’re neither waged employees nor eager entrepreneurs. Drivers of 14-seater taxis typically pay a rental fee to the owner of the minibus they use. Mobile money agents, who take in and give out cash at roadside stalls, invest their own money to set up shop and are paid by multinational telecoms companies on commission, not in wages. Street vendors spread their wares on the sidewalk because they cannot afford to rent a spot in an official market.
The emblem of this hustler economy is the boda boda, or motorbike taxi. Nobody knows how many splutter over Kampala’s congested hills, but estimates run into the hundreds of thousands. Geofrey Ndhogezi, a boda boda driver and researcher who writes for the Lubyanza blog, said that one of the most common ways into the industry are lease-to-own arrangements or the kibaluwa system, where drivers pay around $2.70 to $4.05 a day to rent a bike from an owner.
All these activities are rooted in the shared space of the street. And in that regard, they have something in common with another urban phenomenon: political protest. Museveni’s government fears the turbulent flow of city life. It worries that eddies of frustration, with precarious employment and the rising cost of living, could coalesce into a whirlpool of unrest.
In some ways, those fears are reminiscent of colonial anxieties about the rootless African worker, adrift in the city. In British-ruled Kenya, the authorities forced African men to carry a kipande, or pass, which restricted their access to towns. The white minority government in South Africa devised apartheid to keep black Africans in rural “homelands,” with pass laws and so-called influx control used to limit permanent residence of black workers in cities.
Even in Kampala, where segregation was less rigid, colonial urban planners designed a “green belt” around the European zone, supposedly to stop malaria spreading from the locals. The green belt survives today as a golf course. And something of the old unease survives, too, in the snobbery of wealthy Ugandans. Some sneer that the urban poor are bayaaye, or tricksters and hooligans.
Museveni himself has said that the “bayaaye people in Kampala” are “causing confusion” by promoting demonstrations. In his view, an orderly city is one where the traffic flows smoothly and taxes are paid—and where the citizens keep quiet.
The urban poor pose another big problem for Museveni: They overwhelmingly support his opponents. That is not necessarily because they are worse off than people in the countryside. But injustice is felt more acutely in the claustrophobic hierarchies of the city, and access to information is freer, making Kampala a crucible for opposition politics—as in other African cities, like Luanda and Dakar, which have become electoral strongholds for opposition parties.
In each of the last five presidential elections, opposition candidates have won more votes than Museveni in Kampala, which has been governed by a succession of mayors loosely associated with the tradition of the opposition Democratic Party.
With little prospect of winning the city back, Museveni has tried to contain it. In 2011, he replaced the old city council with a new agency, the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA). Power was effectively vested in technocrats he appointed himself, alongside a weak elected council. Two divergent visions are now embedded in the bifurcated governance of the city. On one side stand the technocrats, espousing a high modernist ideal of cleanliness and order and working with national ministries and the security forces to tax small businesses, clear roadside shacks, and regulate transport. On the other stand the elected politicians, led by an opposition lord mayor, who argue that the government’s heavy-handed methods are trampling on the rights of the poor.
Last year, KCCA enforcement officers, together with soldiers and the police, arrested thousands of street vendors without licenses. The police also arrested elected councilors who tried to protest the roundups. Many informal workers were critical of the arrests; as Richard Lubega, the chair of the Federation of Kampala Hawkers and Vendors Associations, said in response, the government cares for “big people,” not “low earners.” But the city’s class politics are multilayered; many small shopkeepers support restricting street trade because, with rent and taxes to pay, they cannot match the prices on the sidewalk.
Hajjat Minsa Kabanda, the cabinet minister for Kampala, said that street vendors were “vandalizing” the city. “Let them work from their parishes, from their area, instead of coming to town,” she said. “The congestion in Kampala is too much. The vendors were working in front of the shops. That’s why we removed them from the streets.”
But Erias Lukwago, the lord mayor, criticized the government’s approach to hawkers and transport workers. “All those people who are running away from the countryside … should be absorbed in the industrial sector,” he told me. “But right now, here the industrial sector is not growing. So that’s the reason … they are surviving on their own.”
The government oscillates between harsh crackdowns on informal traders and clumsy attempts at co-opting them. After the 2016 election, for example, Museveni blamed his poor performance in Kampala on the KCCA’s tough handling of street vendors. Enforcement often eases before polling day.
Opposition stalwart Kizza Besigye, who fought alongside Museveni in the bush, has spent the last decade trying to stir up a popular urban uprising against him. In 2011, for example, he led “Walk to Work” protests against rising inflation. Similar rhetoric has been deployed by Bobi Wine, a singer-turned-politician and self-appointed “ghetto president” who has condemned the treatment of street vendors in song. They both draw vibrant support from the frustrated workers of the city.
Museveni is alert to the threat. Police trucks loom at intersections. Cameras watch the streets. Security forces have abducted hundreds of opposition activists and shot dead more than 50 people during protests in 2020.
“What this regime fears is [a Ugandan version of] the Arab Spring coming from the urban poor,” said Lukwago, a close ally of Besigye. For now, there is little sign of that, and protests are effectively banned. But the lord mayor said the pressure is building: “One way or another, there’s an implosion that is going to happen.”