Political Life in African Cities

Key information

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Module code
FHEQ Level
Department of Politics and International Studies

Module overview

Cities are fascinating and central sites of political life, often at the sharp end of new political ideas and movements, struggles between order and disorder, violence, resistance and creativity. This module focuses on political life in African cities as a way to understand core aspects of modern political life around the continent.
The module is organised around two broad themes:

  • Cities as sites of contested imaginations of the state. We will discuss how cities express state personality or identity, including ideas about pre-colonial city states and their incorporation into modern cities; the often uncomfortable ways in which colonial architectural and planning legacies shape existing cities; experiments in starting new post-colonial cities from scratch; and predictions of the continent’s future cities.
  • Cities as sites of intense and often conflictual state-society relations. We will explore the tensions between bureaucracy and informality; the effects of economic liberalisation on city shapes and life; the uses of fiction, music and dance to express engage political themes; and the origins and outcomes of popular protest.

The module draws on work from a variety of disciplines including archaeology, architecture, geography, urban studies, anthropology, development studies and political sociology. This means students will be approaching a broad range of literature and encountering a variety of research methods.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

  • Understand a range of historical, theoretical and empirical themes that have shaped political life in African cities since independence.
  • Apply some of this understanding to a study of at least one African city (chosen and developed by the student).
  • Develop critical analytic and communication skills in running class discussions, presenting complex arguments orally and in writing.


This module will be taught over 10 weeks with:

  • 2 hour seminar per week

Method of assessment

  • Assignment 1: Class room discussion 10%
  • Assignment 2: Essay 90%

Suggested reading

  • AbdouMaliq Simone (2005) Urban Africa: changing contours of survival in the city
    Edgar Pieterse (2011) 'Grasping the unknowable: coming to grips with African urbanisms', Social Dynamics, 37:1, 5-23
  • Achille Mbembe & Sarah Nuttal (2008) Johannesburg: the elusive metropolis
  • R. Abubakar & P. R. Doan, ‘Building New Capital Cities in Africa: Lessons for New Satellite Towns in Developing Countries’ African Studies, 76(4), 2017: pp. 1-20
  • Biruk Terrefe ‘Urban layers of political rupture: the ‘new’ politics of Addis Ababa’s megaprojects’ Journal of Eastern African Studies, 14:3, 2020: pp. 375 395


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