West African cities are currently overwhelmed by the sheer shock of demographic change and population explosion. Although countries like Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, and Niger are characterised by particularly low levels of urbanization, with roughly less than 18 percent of their population living in cities, the proportion of urban residents in most countries in the region is projected to be on the rise, from nearly 37 percent in 2001 to 58 percent in 2025. Africa’s urban population annual growth rate of 4 percent is the highest of any world region.
Many of West Africa’s unique urban problems were identified and discussed during the Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlement (Habitat II, Istanbul 1996). Rural out-migration was recognised as the dominant trend feeding urban growth a trend stimulated by a conjunction of forces including drought, environmental degradation, rural poverty and wars. Government policies exacerbated the problem, for example, privatization programs of the 1980s and 1990s led frequently to sharp reductions in formal sector employment, as did trade liberalization, which flooded the region with cheaper consumer goods from foreign countries, thus undermining the competitiveness of local businesses.
The consequences of failures in official policies to maintain the quality of urban life in this regard are now familiar, and may be measured from the point of view of rising urban crime, social alienation, and the conundrum of sprawling squatter settlements
of high densities and inadequate services. Increased concentration of people in urban spaces is markedly deepening poverty, even as rural conditions are beginning to slightly improve in a few countries in the region. it is estimated that the number of households headed by women in many West African capital cities, as elsewhere on the continent, range from 10 percent to 25 percent.
Results of studies by the Network of Surveys on Migration and Urbanization in West Africa (NESMUWA) show that human conditions in the largest capital cities have deteriorated so sharply that the patterns of migration from the country-side are starting to shift. . Such findings (of counter urbanisation) are bound to surprise or generate skepticism among a number of observers, since they run counter to the dominant wave of predictions and projections on urbanization, some of which are examined by our contributors in this publication.
Principally, overall, these emerging new findings are significant because they draw attention to the existence of potential new dynamics of internal migration patterns that are worth further investigation and careful reflections. One key question would be whether the observed urban out-migration is a temporary anomaly, or whether it constitutes a long-term trend that would eventually charactersze neighboring countries in the region.