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In the Country that Outlawed Cities, a Metropolis Gets Ready to Roar

By Capital Frontiers

Most people have never heard of Dar es Salaam, which isn't surprising. It’s the 116th largest city in the world and isn’t even the capital of its country, which is the 30th poorest nation in the world. It isn’t a hub of international trade, and its skyline is meager. Its public transport system is inadequate and outdated, and its electrical grid is patchworked together to the point officials often have to ration electricity. Far from a commercial capital, its downtown is anchored by small businesses run by traders and subsistence proprietors from the Middle East and India, even though the city itself is in Africa.

And yet the United Nations projects that by the year 2100, Dar es Salaam will be the world’s fourth-largest city, more than twice as large as the world’s current largest city, Tokyo. It will be nearly ten times larger than New York City, and between now and 2100 more people will move into Dar es Salaam than live in the entire nations of France or the United Kingdom.

Like the protagonist of a fairytale plot readying to score overwhelming revenge against the villain who irrationally oppressed them, Dar es Salaam is sitting in the green room rehearsing its lines. While many cities will see population growth in the 21st century, and many of them are yet to see their moment in the sun, none of them have quite been held back from the growth that otherwise could have been, and may yet still be, like Dar es Salaam. And now Dar es Salaam is preparing to be shot out of a metaphorical growth canon. It will enact revenge on those that hindered its growth with the ferocity of a caged lion, and both it, and the rest of the world best hang on, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Tanzania provides a suitable setting for this lion to get its revenge. The animated backdrop for the Lion King with its unmatchable pride lands and Serengeti, with vast coastline on the Indian Ocean, Tanzania is a country people should want to frequent for both business and pleasure, and with any luck they soon will. Dar es Salaam has optimal positioning to be an engine of growth within this landscape, with beautiful views, optimal weather, and direct coastal port access to the Indian Ocean Basin and inland access to hundreds of miles of deep fresh water rivers.

The Country that Outlawed Cities

If Dar es Salaam is the protagonist in this fairy tale, the villain who has hindered it would be Tanzania’s former president from 1964 to 1985. Meet Julius Nyerere. Nyerere was the first president for Tanzania, which was formed when the neighboring states of Tanganyika and Zanzibar each gained their independence within a year of each other, Tanganyika from Britain and Zanzibar from Arab sultans. When the two merged into a new nation in 1964, they together formed one of the wealthier countries in Africa, with a GDP per capita seven times greater than that of China.

Nyerere was an African socialist who resented both colonialism and capitalism, and the ideas he brought to Tanzania followed in the footsteps of Mao. On the one hand his promotion of African nationalism in the country helped suppress tribal infighting and helped Tanzania become one of the only countries in Africa not to experience a civil war after achieving independence from colonial rule. For this the Pope later named him a “Servant of God”, the first step toward canonization.

On the other hand, Nyerere brought to the new nation a spirit of unilateral leadership, of self-reliant communalism, and an anti-urban streak that held back the nation’s development. During his leadership, the population grew, and the economy shrank. Nyerere’s policies included multifold failures that have held Tanzania back for nearly half a century.

Nyerere believed in a form of African socialism known as Ujamaa, which prioritizes communal living, sharing, and brotherhood as keys to African salvation. Nyerere believed Tanzania could succeed through self-reliance rather than international trade and through “economic cooperation” rather than capitalism. And mostly he believed, in contrast to nearly every world leader in every developing country regardless of political proclivity, that urbanization and cities were an evil that should be outlawed.

Rather than cities, Nyerere sought to develop a nation of subsistence farmers at the exclusion of urban centers. Echoing Mao, he nationalized the country’s agriculture into a series of co-ops. Families were given a half-acre each, and encouraged to live life in remote enclaves, farming only enough to support their own needs. Overproduction was discouraged to minimize sale and profit, which were capitalist ideas.

Although the population of Tanzania doubled during his tenure, something that usually drives urbanization and development as young people move into big cities seeking opportunity, Nyerere aggressively pressured young people to stay in rural areas with their families. In 1974, to discourage urban growth, he stripped Dar es Salaam, then the nation's largest city, of its title as the nation’s capital and moved the government to a small city in the hinterlands. Never before has any leader of any nation done more to effectively outlaw the growth of cities and make the development that comes with urbanization illegal. As he did this, no city suffered more than Dar es Salaam, whose growth slowed precipitously compared to what it otherwise would have been.

As a result of Nyerere’s relentless anti-urban campaigning, the once-modestly thriving Tanzanian economy ground to a halt. Although the population of Tanzania doubled during his tenure, it lost foreign investment and its cities shrank. People, now dependent nearly exclusively on small-scale farming instead of white collar wage labor, lost their agency to participate in the broader economy, and family members became so co-dependent that when war broke out and male members left their farms to fight, many of those who remained found it difficult to survive. Because all farming occurred in small enclaves, the efficiency of farmland was also decimated, and farming sprawled across the countryside, damaging the environment.

Nyerere’s agricultural policies mirrored Mao’s in China during that country's ill-fated "Great Leap Forward", and Tanzania suffered from the same destructive failures China had in that era. But China rebounded in a way Tanzania never would once Mao's agricultural policies gave way, with China benefitting from both urbanization and liberalization shortly on the heels of that period. Nyerere, by contrast, aggressively fought against both urbanization and liberalization. As a result, China’s GDP per capita increased 117 times more than Tanzania’s between the 1970s and today. At one point Tanzania was seven times richer than China, and today it is four times poorer.

During the same period that China liberalized, Nyerere continued to hold an iron grip on the trajectory of Tanzania’s economy and its cities, pioneering a devastating one-party rule so that he continued to reign even when his policies failed. As if stupefied by the results, Nyerere commented after he left office: "They keep saying you've failed. But what is wrong with urging people to pull together?”

Tanzania is still languishing from Nyerere’s assault on urbanization, and the growth in living standards and opportunities that might have been realized 40 or 50 years ago is still yet to be achieved. Like China, Tanzania has experienced massive population growth over the last several decades. But unlike China, whose urban population grew from 17 percent of its total population then to nearly 70 percent today, driving the vast majority of that country’s growth, Tanzania languishes among the lowest rate of urban inhabitants in the world, with nearly 80 percent of the country continuing to live as subsistence farmers. A radical outlier, Tanzania is the only country globally where overall population growth has not led to urban growth.

Letting the Lion Out of Its Cage

What is a tragedy looking backward is an opportunity looking forward. You can’t keep humans yearning for a better life bottled up forever. Imagine the last 50 years of urban growth in China held back through policy, bottled up and ready to explode. To say that’s Tanzania today wouldn’t be far from the reality. Add in the contemporary drive for urbanization in a country where half the population is under 18, and you’ve got an urbanization bomb on your hands. The lion is ready to roar.

As the country’s largest city and the likely destination for all of the bottled up hopes and dreams of its young people, Dar es Salaam is the likely beneficiary of this momentum. While it is only a city of around 4 million people today, it is projected to have over 74 million inhabitants by century's end.

Whether this meager former capital can handle its new role as the Ellis Island for 50 years’ of pent up economic aspirations for some 70 million Tanzanians over the next 80 years is a bit of a shaky proposition. Adding 70 million people to a city in such a short period is literally unprecedented in human history. The largest cities in the world today are only half that size. As the country liberalizes, the number of people who are currently poor who will move into the outskirts of the city seeking opportunity could overwhelm its prospects and will put a massive strain on city resources of all types. Right now the city's public health resources are not prepared for this kind of expansion, nor are its waste, water, or energy utilities. Its roads certainly aren't ready, and it isn't home to much in the way of public transit. Whether its economy can scale quickly enough to afford people opportunity is also a question. It might be the biggest challenge in urbanization capacity the world has ever seen.

The biggest test will be on the country's political and administrative leadership, who will be depended on to answer the call to keep up with the pace of this influx to the city, to gather the resources and to expand these infrastructures. It will take not only competent leadership, but exceptional, visionary leadership coupled with vast planning that will require enlisting the world's brightest and most capable minds. There's not much track record to date that Tanzania is ready for this, but they don't really have a choice. It's game time whether they're ready or not.

What Dar es Salaam will face in the next several decades is unprecedented in human history. We’re not sure how Dar es Salaam’s story of revenge against the destructive policies of Julius Nyerere will ultimately play out. But we hear the lion grumbling. Grab your popcorn. Dar es Salaam, get out of the green room and take the stage.


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