Book review forum: Politics and the Urban Frontier: Transformation and Divergence in Late Urbanizing East Africa

Review Forum: Politics and the Urban Frontier


Reviewed by Côme Salvaire and Graeme Young with an author response from Tom Goodfellow

First Published:

30 May 2024, 12:37 pm


Politics and the Urban Frontier book cover

Book review forum: Politics and the Urban Frontier: Transformation and Divergence in Late Urbanizing East Africa

Tom Goodfellow, Politics and the Urban Frontier: Transformation and Divergence in Late Urbanizing East Africa, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022; 352 pp.: ISBN: 9780198853107, £81.00 (hardback), ISBN: 9780191887444 (eBook Open Access)

Commentary I

Reviewed by: Côme Salvaire, Les Afriques dans le Monde, France.

Tom Goodfellow’s Politics and the Urban Frontier looks at how relations between states and urban populations shape the forms of urbanisation in Ethiopia, Uganda and Rwanda, with a particular focus on the capital cities of Addis Ababa, Kampala and Kigali. The book’s impressive analytical scope is grounded in the author’s own extensive work on various dimensions of urban societies in Ethiopia, Uganda and Rwanda, as well as in an unprecedented and remarkable effort at bringing together a very rich and diverse literature on East African cities. Relations between states and urban populations are examined in light of four key issues at play in shaping the forms of urbanisation in the three cities: land regimes and property, infrastructure and basic services, urban economies and labour, as well as urban mobilisations. All these dimensions are first examined through detailed long-term historicisation (part II), before turning to contemporary developments (part III).

A core strength of the book is its ability to carefully weave together these various dimensions throughout the argument, hence painting a highly comprehensive and carefully historicised picture of the realities of urbanisation in Addis Ababa, Kampala and Kigali. Although the scope of the empirical material mobilised is wide, the author avoids the pitfalls of elusiveness. Goodfellow succeeds in articulating issues related to land, infrastructure, urban economies and social movements, past and present, within a clearly defined analytical framework constructed around four explanatory factors: (1) the distribution of power across groups at national and urban levels, (2) the forms of social legitimacy pursued by ruling elites, (3) the way informal urban politics relates with formal state institutions, and (4) the role played by urban infrastructure in mediating relations between states and urban groups. This clear framework, together with a carefully designed regional comparison, succeeds in providing the reader with a clear understanding of both the singularity of urbanisation trends in the region and the specificities of urban development in each country and city. In this, Tom Goodfellow’s book is a tour de force, and certainly one of the most important studies published on African cities in the past two decades.

In the first part of the book, the author clears his own path towards apprehending the dynamics of urban development in Ethiopia, Uganda and Rwanda. Goodfellow steers away from some of the recent shortcomings of urban studies: attempts by some to account for urban politics through non-relational perspectives based on Rancière’s social theory, or overemphasis on the inherent provisionality of urban life by assemblage theory-infused scholarship. Compared to the latter, the author’s conceptualisation of infrastructure as a mediator between states and urban groups arguably does greater justice to actor-network theory’s original attempt at explaining social stability and power relations. Goodfellow equally stands clear of neo-evolutionist approaches that have depicted a homogenous, global urban convergence towards neoliberalism. Instead, he insists on the importance of regional factors in explaining urban change (p.18). While examining at length the implications of the global economic transformations of the 1970s, the author further looks at the ways neoliberalism has filtered through each state and city (for example, the effects of neoliberalisation have been much more pronounced in Kampala than in Kigali and Addis Ababa (p.119)). Goodfellow claims a ‘critical realist’ perspective (p.32), essentially a resolutely grounded and context-sensitive political economy approach, committed to serious historicisation.

Early in the book, the author constructs East Africa as a relevant and coherent urban region, most importantly from the standpoint of its trajectory of ‘late urbanisation’. Whereas comparative urbanism has for some time been concerned with the comparison of distant cities, the traditional, ‘most-similar’ design developed by Goodfellow is a good reminder of the value of carefully constructed regional comparisons. While East Africa remains one of the least urbanised regions in the world (28%), Ethiopia, Uganda and Rwanda in particular have been urbanising extremely fast over the past 25 years (e.g. 5.98% average annual growth rate of urban population in Uganda) (p.18). That essentially means that the three countries’ urbanisation is taking place in the context of an already hyper-globalised world, where opportunities of industrialisation are scarce, structural adjustment and decentralisation reforms have already been undertaken (to varying degrees), urban development is highly financialised and strongly shaped by China, and environmental challenges are already weighing heavily on cities (pp.12–15). This peculiar configuration of urbanisation constitutes the core puzzle of the book, an enigma whose implications are enormous. What kind of cities will it produce, and how will it affect the living conditions of the denizens of Addis Ababa, Kampala and Kigali?

The configuration of urbanisation that reshapes these cities contrasts heavily, for example, with those that produced the largest cities of West Africa and Latin America. The most rapid demographic growth of megapolises such as Mexico City and Lagos occurred in a much less globalised world where import-substitution industrialisation played an important role (although accommodating only a fraction of new urban populations) in defining urban development in both its physical and institutional dimensions. Most importantly, these cities had already experienced their most intense demographic growth when hit by the economic transformations of the 1980s, leading to massive informalisation and urban social movements that would prove very difficult to control for states, in a context where international creditors sought to starve cities of investments to counter ‘urban bias’. In the book’s three case-study cities, the picture is very different: their demographic growth did facilitate the emergence of urban social movements (e.g. the 2005 uprisings in Addis Ababa (p.258)), yet they occurred in a context in which states have had broad access to international urban infrastructure financing (p.151), enabling them to retain or even strengthen control over urban groups through distributing services and resources (housing, roads, employment, etc.). Whereas the intersection of urbanisation and global economic transformations led to the formation of powerful trust networks and institutions partly disconnected from states in large cities of Latin America and West Africa, territorial states have retained a much more central role in steering urban development and controlling urban populations in Ethiopia, Uganda and Rwanda.

Although it remains focused on East Africa, the book thus opens promising pathways for further inter-regional comparison. Beyond the configuration of late urbanisation, one can wonder if the urban region at hand could be deterritorialised to include other cities in different parts of the world with long-term histories of low urbanisation, weak cities and powerful territorial states (e.g. in North India, Jaipur or Lucknow).

In the context of such regional similarities, the book explores points of divergence between the three cases as it carves out the singularity of each city’s development trajectory. Put schematically, relations between states and urban groups are analysed at the intersection of the notions of associational and infrastructural power. For example, in Kampala, the legacy of the magendo (black market) economy that boomed under Idi Amin’s rule is a key factor at play in making it more difficult for the state to control the informal economy (p.115) than in Kigali (where its containment is the fiercest) or Addis Ababa (where it has experienced the highest level of integration with party networks and the state). In the Ethiopian capital, extensive state control over land (a legacy of the Derg) has facilitated ambitious infrastructural developments (such as the Light Rail), in a context where the urban polity has been consistent in pressing demands on the state (p.166). In contrast, fragmented land ownership (in Kampala) or the demobilisation of urban groups (in Kigali) have been some of the factors at play in producing different kinds of infrastructural developments (e.g. an outward-looking convention centre in the Rwandan capital). Differences in relations between states and urban groups shape urban development and life conditions in highly significant ways across the three countries.

Overall, however, all three states showcase a striking capacity to dominate their capital cities (even in Uganda, where the state imposed its own Kampala Capital City Authority) and intervene heavily in the socio-material urban fabric (sometimes at the cost of the resurgence of urban/rural tensions, as in Ethiopia), with little room left for the existence of an urban politics as such. Although the relative absence of collective action that would not hinge solely on the state flows logically from the configuration of urbanisation described above, one can wonder to what extent the conceptual framework mobilised by the author (which tends to move straight from social movements to the state) is fit for making that urban politics visible.

Commentary II

Reviewed by: Graeme Young, University of Glasgow, UK

In a highly urbanised world, East Africa is something of an outlier. The least urbanised and fastest urbanising region on the planet, it is a relative latecomer to the modern urban condition and all of the challenges and opportunities that this brings. It is, as Goodfellow declares in his impressive new book, the urban frontier: ‘the ultimate region in which to contemplate what Simone (2004b: 11) termed the “city yet to come”’. If possibilities for better urban futures are to be realised, we need to understand how and why cities change. It is hard to envision where we might be going if we do not know how we got here in the first place. Luckily, in Goodfellow, we have a more than capable guide.

Goodfellow is not, however, interested in what makes processes of urban change in East Africa so similar; he is interested in explaining the differences that set them apart. Through an in-depth analysis of Kampala, Uganda, Kigali, Rwanda, and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, he focuses on four areas of divergence: grand designs for urban transformation and accompanying infrastructure investment, property development and housing, informal trade in marketplaces and on city streets, and how city dwellers mobilise politically. In a useful piece of symmetry, Goodfellow presents an analytical framework that stresses the intersection of four factors: ‘(i) the distribution of associational power within the wider nation-state; (ii) the pursuit of social legitimacy by governing elites; (iii) modalities of political informality at the city level and their relationship to formal governance structures and (iv) legacies and practices of urban infrastructural reach’ (p.24). These come together, in a simplified and stylised way, at different levels of scale: advanced capitalism globally, late urbanisation regionally, associational power nationally, infrastructural reach nationally and at the urban level, and legitimacy and informality again at the level of the city. The argument is lucid and compelling, and Goodfellow does a remarkably skilful job of combining fascinating case study work with impressive theoretical engagement, weaving together a compelling narrative while never losing sight of the broader claims he wants to make. The result is engaging, thought provoking, and, quite simply, a remarkable contribution to our understanding of the political economy of modern urban Africa.

Goodfellow chooses his targets well, pushing back against ‘the political naivety of prominent urban policy agendas, and the attendant assumption that any city can pursue a given package of strategies and achieve similar outcomes’ (p.5) and acutely observing that while ‘poststructuralist urban theory offers limited purchase on questions of what causes particular trajectories of urban development, dominant urban political economy approaches lack (ironically) sufficient attention to politics in their own analysis of causal drivers’ (p.7, emphasis in original). Restoring causality and politics to the fore offers considerable explanatory power, and Goodfellow does this deftly, combining top-down structural analysis with an attention to the potential of bottom-up spaces for agency in ways that are often lacking in more standard accounts that privilege one at the expense of the other. From the impact of the contours of global capitalism to the claim making of informal workers, politics intervenes to shape every level of city life. Goodfellow should be commended for giving it the attention it deserves but too rarely attracts.

There is much that Goodfellow’s book speaks to. One topic that it is perhaps worth dwelling on is what it means for the question of whether expanding our empirical horizons necessitates also expanding our theoretical vision or even abandoning long-held views about how and why cities change, how they function, and how we should study them. We are, in Goodfellow’s book, not only viewing the city from the South; we are viewing the city from a particular vantage point of the South, one that is inseparable from its particular historical experiences, economic dynamics, and arrangements and expressions of political power. As Goodfellow acknowledges, cities in East Africa ‘look very different in terms of their urban experience from places now at the forefront of “Southern thinking” on urban development and change. There are cores and peripheries within “the South,” both economically and in terms of knowledge production’ (p.8). Such a charge usefully throws the questions that emerge from Southern Urbanism back onto itself: who speaks for whom, who has privilege and how, and at what point differences become so great that we can no longer find meaning in common frames of reference. If the cities that Goodfellow studies are far removed from London, Paris, and New York, they are also removed from Cape Town, Delhi, and Bogotá. Erasing that difference does them a profound disservice. At the same time, failing to appreciate the forces that bind them together is, at best, naïve, and, at worst, myopic. Getting the right balance here can be difficult, but surely maintaining our commitment to appreciating and exploring structural factors, modifying our thinking through lessons learned in an increasingly diverse set of urban settings, and recognising that making grander claims might necessitate sacrificing some nuance and context is preferable to getting lost in a world of almost infinite difference where there is little possibility to say anything meaningful. Goodfellow’s book reminds us that divergence exists and can be explained, and that politics has much to say as we seek to understand and articulate difference without losing sight of the bigger picture. It is a useful vantage point from which to consider urban change, and one that others would do well to adopt.

Here it is perhaps apposite to return to the idea of the urban frontier. As Goodfellow acknowledges, the frontier, in popular imagination, invokes the vast expanse of territory at the outer limits of European settlement on the North American continent, and the comparison bears pause for thought. In true Turnerian fashion, frontiers have a profound impact on culture and politics, providing, at least for some, spaces in which hierarchies can be discarded and the constraints of the old world can be left behind. The East African frontier is a place of urban imaginaries, urban possibilities, and the hopes, dreams, tragedies, and nightmares that make up city life as it gazes into an uncertain future. It is a place where poverty, climate crisis, and glaringly inadequate social provisions are common problems, and where what anyone might reasonably call an even vague approximation of justice is non-existent. It is not, patently, a place of freedom in any meaningful sense of the word. Politics is central to why this is the case. Yoweri Museveni is 79 and has been in power in Uganda since 1986; Paul Kagame is 66 and has been the de facto leader of Rwanda since 1994 and President since 2000. Both have amended the constitution to remain in power, both have received significant praise and criticism from abroad, and both rule countries with remarkably young populations. Neither seems to have any intention of loosening the firm grip they hold on power. Ethiopia does not have a comparable longstanding leader – Meles Zenawi died in 2012 – but it is no democracy nor protector of human rights. It is doubtful that ossified authoritarian structures can continue to contain the energy and longing for a better future that urban life unleashes, but what comes next is uncertain. Perhaps signs of gradual reform will at long last materialise; perhaps calls for greater inclusion will be resisted until popular democratic pressure can no longer be contained and produces sharp, dramatic change. A politics without accountability is a politics without possibility. If we really hope for better urban futures – in East Africa or anywhere else – then surely it is time we took this more seriously.

Author response

Response by: Tom Goodfellow, University of Sheffield, UK

Reading these commentaries on Politics and the Urban Frontier has taught me a lot about my own book. It is a great privilege to be able to respond to comments made by these talented scholars, and to have my work read and considered in such detail by them. Evoking examples from his own research in West Africa and Latin America, Salvaire pushes further the arguments made in the book (and in Fox and Goodfellow, 2022) about how the timing of urbanisation intersects with shifts in the global economy, linking this to the relationship between states and urban social movements. His reflections on how the historical timing of political mobilisation by urban populations conditions the broader long-term relationship between states and urban populations adds an important new dimension to the geo-historical framework of ‘late urbanisation’.

In his review, Young draws out the idea of East Africa as the global urban frontier, reflecting on frontiers as spaces in which old hierarchies can be discarded and new ones built, riding on bold visions of a bright future that cloak profound oppression and violence. For the countries and cities on which the book focuses, this aspect of the frontier idea is certainly significant. Frontiers are everywhere these days it seems; more specifically, ‘urban frontiers’ of varying kinds have been identified by many scholars, either spatially at the city edge or within metamorphoses of the urban core. Yet, as Young notes, there is something at the level of wider discursive and institutional development that characterises East Africa as a frontier urbanising region. Rasmussen and Lund (2018: 388) define frontiers as ‘novel configurations of the relationship between natural resources and institutional orders’. The accelerated urbanisation in a region of densely interconnected states that have been relatively poor in mineral resources, building their sense of developmental mission on real estate, infrastructure and (more or less concerted) efforts towards late industrialisation, is producing a variegated terrain of such ‘novel configurations’.

As well as drawing the framework from my book in potentially productive new directions, the two reviews each throw down a gauntlet. For Salvaire, the important question on which his review ends is whether the book’s framework is fit for making urban politics itself visible. For Young, the gauntlet is the political ‘elephant in the room’ when it comes to the wider politics of the three countries on which the book focuses: specifically, the authoritarian nature of the regimes in power, and the idea that ‘a politics without accountability is a politics without possibility’. These two points, though made independently and framed in different ways, are clearly connected.

Salvaire highlights an important irony: in my attempts to pull on the threads of state-centric political economy frameworks to bring them to the city level, while also rejecting the ‘methodological cityism’ (Angelo and Wachsmuth, 2015) of many approaches within Urban Studies, the urban as a scale of politics sometimes recedes from view. The book aims to foreground political causality in an academic context where the fields of Political Economy and Urban Studies have, to my mind, become rather estranged, and where reacquainting them requires taking seriously scalar ontologies and conceptions of causal force beyond the city. This scalar focus echoes that of leading urban thinkers such as Brenner and before him, Lefebvre. But where Brenner’s (2000, 2019) ‘politics of scale’ is primarily concerned with how political activity acts intentionally upon scale, exerting itself on the relationship between different scales of power and sometimes seeking to change these relationships, my focus is on the ways that politics as a force driving urban transformations is constituted across different geographic scales. In other words, we need to think not only about how politics works from the city ‘up’, but how the city is shaped by politics from the global to the regional ‘down’ to the scale of the city, street or infrastructural artefact. This for me means folding in insights from political economy and political sociology (and a more fundamental level, critical realist epistemology) that foreground the collective power of historically constituted social groups that exist within but also transcend city borders. It means interrogating how power distribution at the national level, along with regional economic and discursive currents, cascades into distinct patterns of urban development in each case.

But in so doing, as Salvaire highlights, the question arises as to what room is left for urban politics itself? To the extent that my book evades this question, this is probably a consequence of two things – one empirically grounded in my region of study, and one more rooted in the theoretical currents that my book to some degree pushes back against. First, as Salvaire himself acknowledges, the space for urban politics simply is constrained in the cities the book focuses on, so the book’s framework and argument mirror this. This is true of some of my cases (Kigali) much more than others; both Addis Ababa and Kampala both have in their own ways a strikingly dynamic urban politics, the latter of which has been a focus in Young’s own excellent work.

A wider implication of Salvaire’s point, however, is that even in contexts where urban politics is constrained, this does not excuse a theoretical framework that lacks space for urban politics; indeed, arguably it provides all the more reason to make (theoretical) space for urban politics! This should certainly be a focus of ongoing research and theorisation; both of my reviewers are among the many young urban scholars working in this direction (Salvaire, 2023; Young, 2021). I can only hope that my book provides some of the wider conceptual architecture for thinking through what urban politics is and could be in places where there are significant national and regional constraints on the urban as a political scale. We need better, more adaptable and more adapted theories of urban politics, which as a subdiscipline of political science is neither as vibrant as it was in the mid-late 20th century, nor as active with respect to African contexts as it could be. There is, however, some brilliant work happening in this space, with notable examples including the work of Lewis Abede Asante, Claire Bénit-Gbaffou, Smith Ouma, Jeffrey Paller and Danielle Resnick (e.g. Asante, 2022; Bénit-Gbaffou, 2018; Ouma, 2023; Paller, 2019; Resnick, 2021).

It is no coincidence that the foregrounding of urban politics in the work of these scholars, in contrast to the broader politics of the urban on which my book focuses, is empirically rooted in contexts where the space for urban politics is greater. Yet this is not and should not be an excuse; rather it is a challenge to myself and others to carve out a clearer path to urban politics conceptually and empirically in the research we do in more authoritarian contexts.

The second reason why ‘urban politics itself’ is not given more space in the book’s analytical framework is rooted in a reaction against currently popular conceptions of urban politics which, drawing on particular readings of Rancière (among others), obscure what I understand politics to be in the cities I have studied. Some recent theorising on ‘the urban political’– while bringing together geographic and sociological approaches to the city with renewed vigour through its focus on space and its political potentialities – has often taken for granted the actual constitution of state power, downplaying the unsettled nature of this power and the multiple contestations within and over it. States and ruling coalitions are themselves fundamental sites of politics, a fact sometimes obscured through ideas of technocracy and ‘police’ order. Moreover, in the East African contexts where I have conducted urban research, the central state and the actors seeking to enact or undermine its power are inseparable from even the most local manifestations of what we might call ‘urban politics’. Hence the book’s theoretical and empirical proclivities lean outwards, away from a more consistent focus on ‘urban politics’ per se and towards the wider array of scales of politics shaping the city.

This links to Young’s point about the sheer weight of authoritarianism in the contexts my book examines. Authoritarianism on the surface might suggest the ultimate Rancièrean ‘police’ order in which ‘the political’ must necessarily unfold elsewhere, at a remove from the state; but my argument suggests the opposite. The ‘political’ inheres in the varying distributions of power, projects of legitimation and norms of political engagement that constitute state power and shape different forms of authoritarian urbanism. Divergences between the three cities in my book are fundamentally about differences in state-society relations – a catch-all ‘black box’ of a term that the book’s framework attempts to unpack – rather than a difference in the state’s capabilities or the capacities for political action within civil society. Young’s point about ‘politics without possibility’ in authoritarian contexts is nevertheless pertinent. While the transformations of the cities under study have been remarkable and diverse, the sense of constrained possibility overshadows all three.

The ways in which authoritarianism attempts to bolster and renew itself in cities, while not an explicit focus of Politics and the Urban Frontier, is front and centre in Controlling the Capital, a new collection of studies edited by myself and David Jackman (Goodfellow and Jackman, 2023). There will always be limits to how much one can say about the ‘politics of the possible’ from examining authoritarian cases alone. However, the unfortunate proliferation of such contexts makes their varying implications for the urban an important object of analysis. We must necessarily unsettle many assumptions and scholarly inheritances about urban politics – the study of which largely emerged to advance analysis of the workings of democracy – in order to better understand the challenges facing cities that are transforming amid evolving architectures of democratic constraint.


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On the conditions of ‘late urbanisation’ by Sean Fox and Tom Goodfellow

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Cities and Conflict in Fragile States in the Developing World by Jo Beall, Tom Goodfellow and Dennis Rodgers

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