The divide between the rural and urban areas which is prevalent in almost every African country has its roots and origins in colonialism. Regrettably, post-colonial African governments have done little to change the dynamics of the relationship between the rural and urban areas. Rural areas are viewed as ‘backward,’ stemming from colonial contempt. When one looks at the dichotomy between rural and urban areas, it becomes apparent that these are two completely different worlds, and that the concomitant lived realities and perceptions of ‘status’ and ‘success’ are inevitable.
It is an avowed fact that since the arrival of Western domination under colonialism (and its parent imperialism) on the continent, the urban areas have always been considered the epitome of ‘civilized’ society, a sure sign of individual success in a capitalist-inspired political economy. Urban citizens are the ‘true’ citizens, while rural citizens have been considered as lesser subjects, and as second-class citizens. Rural areas have been viewed as the ‘backwaters’ where ‘natives’ reside. While urban areas denote a more ‘meaningful’ and ‘dignified’ existence. Urban areas mean enlightenment. Hence, when it comes to matters of national development, the first preference has always been given to the urban areas. Rural areas are always the last consideration. And deliberately neglected.
During colonial times, the colonial officials created a dual/bifurcated state where different sets of laws applied. In the rural areas, customary law, administered by traditional authorities (mainly chiefs, who acted under the whims of colonial officials) applied while in the urban areas general/civil law applied. It was a two-pronged approach to governance, with connotations of ‘modernity’ and ‘tradition.’ This bifurcated state was in line with the methods of colonial rule, particularly the system of indirect rule by the British. Such a colonial administrative structure implied that the rural areas were a non-entity for the colonial officials as far as capital was concerned. Civil laws did not apply to people in rural areas, who were governed by customary law. This division ensured the superiority of the urban cities as the ‘true’ mark of living. In essence, rural citizens were treated more as subjects rather than citizens. This is what still obtains in African countries.
Even when rural citizens migrated into urban areas, as is still the case today, they were not considered part of ‘civil’ society. They were in civil society but not of civil society, as asserted by Ugandan academic and author Mahmood Mamdani. The urban areas have primarily served as a source of material support for the rural areas. And this creates the clientelism between urban and rural areas, where the urban populace materially supports the rural one with money, goods, and services with the expectation that the latter will provide political support to the former.
The approach towards rural areas by both central and local governments in African countries has been an undemocratic one where policies are imposed on rural areas. There have been no sincere and genuine motives for tackling the structural rural poverty and disempowerment. Instead, policies to improve progress are in nature elitist and perpetuate an unequal society. And as such the issue of ‘separate development’ is continuously cemented. Such approaches are not rooted in an altruistic desire to see an equitable society, whether rural or urban, where everyone has the same access to basic services on the simple basis that we are all equal human beings.
With how pervasive neo-colonialism is in Africa, materialism and consumerism have become the definitive characteristics of ‘modern’ African societies as professed in cities. Rural areas have not been spared, as there is a desire to mimic what life is like in the city. This removes context from rural areas. In solving unique rural problems, where context is a key ingredient, caution must be exercised by avoiding mimicking urban models/trends.
Urban areas have been an aspirational place for many rural youths, who see it as a place to avoid the rural poverty imposed on them. Rural to urban migration, with its colonial roots, still reinforces these realities, because the city is viewed as an ‘arrival’ to success. Despite how merciless the labor system in the urban areas is.
But what needs to be taken into consideration is that the rural areas must not be forgotten. And in developing them, there is no need to do so on a capitalist basis. Rather, context should be an instrumental, indispensable factor. Emphasis should be put on the equitable distribution of wealth, and equitable access to basic, fundamental social services such as water, electricity, healthcare, education, and land.
The provision of these inalienable services should be the top priority of central governments in Africa. Mamdani stresses this point saying that the inclusive development of Africa is dependent on the empowerment of rural areas. The rural-urban question can only be solved by focusing on the former. While at the same time democratizing both. Development in Africa, by focusing on equitable access to basic services, should be inclusive. Everyone has equal rights in the provision of these services, whether one is in rural or urban areas.
The integration of customary and general/civil law is crucial to a harmonious relationship between the rural and urban areas. As it stands, from a colonial viewpoint, the general law is exclusionary to rural citizens. General law takes precedence over customary law. And this is because general law is perceived to be the ‘civilized’ law of the land, yet the enforced rural poverty means rural citizens do not have adequate access to general law. This will also reform the traditional roles of chiefs, especially in issues to do with land and the allocation of food, farming inputs, etc. What currently obtains is that chiefs are viewed as the reservoirs of ‘tradition’ and bastions of the ‘natives’ while the central governments are preoccupied with the ‘modern’ and ‘civilized.’ And this is a reality that sadly prevails in the African context of a post-colonial society.
It is contradictory that the urban political entities and inhabitants view rural areas with scorn, yet this is where the liberation struggles in most African countries were won. The support lent to the struggles for liberation against colonial rule by the rural peasantry should inspire urban policymakers to create sustainable models of development for rural areas. This includes equal and transparent distribution of land to rural peasants, accompanied by undoubted security of tenure. It also includes safe, affordable, and quality methods of helping rural peasants maintain their livestock for example dipping tanks, dairy services, veterinary medicine, etc. Water retention programs that bolster the sustenance of rural peasants should top the priority lists of central and local governments in African countries.
The same way there is a sense of urgency relating to service delivery (dismal as it may be in many instances) is the same way it should be in rural areas. The colonial way of viewing rural areas as ‘backwaters’ by current African central governments should change. Decentralization plays a pivotal role in this effect. Rural areas should be empowered with participatory democracy which enables rural citizens to make their own decisions relevant to their contexts, without waiting for central governments to dictate terms to them. The dual legal system must be integrated because all citizens are equal and should be treated with the same law.
Colonial legacies that divide the rural and the urban should be smashed and supplanted with robust democracy which integrates the dual legal systems and local governments so that the ‘modern’ is conflated with ‘tradition.’ In the final analysis, development should be inclusive. No one must be left behind. And that there is no need to ‘urbanize’ rural areas. But to answer rural questions with the context in mind.