The History of Africa’s Largest Cities

Africa is a place of great history, and the development of the continent has been an interesting one. This article will look at the fascinating history of the continent’s 12 largest cities.

Lagos, Nigeria

The city of Lagos was known as Eko, and was home to Yoruba and Àwórì settlers who were farmers during the 14th century.  It is known that the city was under the rule of the Benin Empire, which spanned across the West African region. Eko was renamed Lagos, meaning ‘lakes’ in Portuguese, in the 17th century by the Portuguese, after the city rose in prominence as a major centre for the New World slave trade. In 1861, after internal fighting among the ruling monarch, Oba (King) Docemo signed a treaty that made Lagos a British colony.

Lagos was the region’s commercial hub and became a cosmopolitan city, being home to European traders and missionaries as well as freed Yoruba slaves from Brazil and then Sierra Leone. Even in the 19th century, the city was densely populated, with over 28,000 people in 1871 and between 600,000 to 1,500,000 people in the 1970’s. Overcrowding and sanitary issues were some of the problems experienced with the rapid urbanization of the city. Lagos has always been a place where people move to when in search for better life chances, political power and better economic opportunities. In 1914, Lagos was named Nigeria’s political capital, retaining that status until 1991 when Abuja formally became Nigeria’s new federal capital territory.

Taiwo Olowo's Monument in Lagos.
Taiwo Olowo’s Monument in Lagos.

Today, the state of Lagos is the smallest of all of Nigeria’s 36 states, and is the most populated with over 21 million people, making it Africa’s largest city. Lagos city is still Nigeria’s economic hub, with the state handling 80% of the country’s imports. It is also home to Africa’s biggest film industry, Nollywood. The city also experiences urban-based problems such as traffic congestion and frequent water and power cuts.

Cairo, Egypt

The city of Cairo was founded and ruled by King Menes in 2000 BC, who also ruled the ancient city of Memphis just south of modern day Cairo. During the first century, the Romans built the Babylon fortress on the Nile, which is the oldest structure in the city. Many Christian churches were built into or on its walls, including El Muallaqa or ‘the hanging church’ (which was built on top of the southern tower gate of the fortress) and the Greek church of St. George (who was the most popular warrior-saint throughout the Christian east of Egypt).

During the 10th century, Cairo was established as the city of Fustat by the Fatimids, and underwent a period of huge construction of prominent landmarks, including Al-Azhar mosque and Al-Azhar University, which is one of the world’s oldest universities. The city was an important link on the east-west spice route, resulting in bustling trade centre of Khan el-Khalili. In the mid-13th century during the spread of Islam across North Africa, the Mamaluks seized control of Egypt, subsequently turning Cairo into important centre of Islamic learning as well as the hub for spice trade, education, architecture and art.

The city wasn’t left unaffected by colonialism, as the British occupied Egypt from 1882. However, protests led to the declaration of independence in 1922, with colonial dominance continuing until the Egyptian revolution of 1952. Under the leadership of the country’s second president Gamal Abdel Nasser Hussein, Cairo turned into a bustling city that attracted millions of people from all over Egypt and the Arab world.

The Giza Pyramid Complex in Cairo, Egypt.
The Giza Pyramid Complex in Cairo, Egypt.

Today, Cairo (often referred to as Masr by Egyptians) remains Egypt’s largest city with over 12 million people in the city and a metropolitan population of over 20 million. It is the 3rd largest urban area in the Islamic World behind Jakarta and Karachi, and is Egypt’s economic, political and cultural hub. It has also suffered the downsides of urbanization, including crime and overcrowding. In 2011, millions of protesters gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring, leading to the resignation of the dictator Hosni Mubarak as part of their quest for democracy.

Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo

Even though people lived in the area throughout history, Kinshasa was officially founded in 1881. It became an important centre for Portuguese slave traders and merchants during the 15th century. The city began to urbanize when the Belgians arrived during the 15th century, and was subsequently named Leopoldville by the founder Henry Morton Stanley, who named the city in honour of King Leopold II of Belgium.

Kinshasa became an important hub between the river and coastal areas of Congo during the 16th and 17th centuries, trading in slaves (who were usually the losers of conflicts), oil, almonds, palm, peanuts, sesame and ivory. The Matadi-Kinshasa portage railway, which was built in 1898, provided an efficient way of transporting goods between Matadi and Kinshasa, resulting in the rapid urbanization of the city. It became the capital of the Belgian Congo, replacing the town of Boma.

The country gained its independence in 1960, and Kinshasa was then ravaged by a 5-year civil war. In 1964, Mobutu Sese Seko seized power and declared himself president of the nation. As part of his Africanization policy, he renamed Leopoldville to Kinshasa in 1966. He named it after the village of Kinchassa, which once stood on that site. Even though Mobutu reign was plagued with violence, the city continued to attract people from all over the country as it was a economic and social hub. It was the main centre for finance and manufacturing, with diamonds, copper and other natural resources being processed in the city, and it was also a medical, cultural and educational hub, being home to the University of Kinshasa, a sports stadium and a tropical disease research centre.

Petites Chute de la Lukaya in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.
Petites Chute de la Lukaya in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.

The city gained worldwide fame in 1974 after hosting the boxing match between George Foreman and Muhammed Ali. It currently has a population of over 7 million people, and it is the 2nd largest French-speaking city in the world other than Paris. French is the official language in government, schools, newspapers, public services and high-end commerce in the city, while Lingala (a member of the Bantu family of languages) is largely spoken by residents. Minerals, gas, oil, agriculture, and timber are the key sectors that sustain Kinshasa’s economy; however conflicts have negatively impacted the economy. Problems that the city faces include crime and poverty as well as violence from political protests.

Luanda, Angola

The early inhabitants of West Africa were living a Neolithic existence until the arrival of Bantu migrants from the north, bringing iron technology into the region in the first millennium AD. The Portuguese arrived at the west coast of Africa, with the aim of finding minerals. They soon got involved in the slave trade after finding it more profitable, and soon established the towns of Luanda and Benguela in 1587. Luanda was initially founded by Portuguese explorer São Paulo da Assunção de Loanda, and it soon became the centre for commercial, political and cultural affairs. Slaves were the city’s largest export and generation of cash flow, and by the 1840s, the city exported palm and peanut oil, timber, ivory, cotton, coffee, tobacco, and cocoa.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Portugal continued to expand agricultural and mineral exports, and by 1940, the city had over 60,000 people, including European inhabitants from overcrowded Portugal who sought refuge in the city. This resulted in the growth of slums as Africans were displaced to create areas reserved for Europeans only.

National Museum of Slavery in Belas, Angola.
National Museum of Slavery in Belas, Angola.

Luanda continued to grow into an economic, political and cultural hub, attracting many people who sought a better life and better economic opportunities. However, when Angola gained independence in 1975, a civil war broke out, resulting in many people fleeing the city and subsequently stalling the economy. The civil war ended in 2002, and resulted in Luanda becoming a city of many complexities, being a hub of economic activity for some and a place of poverty for the rest. Luanda’s port is the 3rd busiest in the world, and main exports include coffee, cotton, iron, salt, and diamonds. Oil also contributes largely to Angola’s GDP. The city often suffers from traffic congestion, a short supply of electricity and water and crime, and is known to be one of the most expensive cities in the world. The population of the city is over 2.7 million.

Nairobi, Kenya

The area that the city of Nairobi is built on was at first an uninhabited swamp, until a supply depot of the Uganda Railway was built by the British in 1899, linking Mombasa to Uganda. The name Nairobi comes from the Maasai phrase ‘enkare nyrobi’, which means “cool water. The area was ideal for settlers due to its network of rivers and its elevation, making it a cool residential area to live in. The city soon grew big enough to become the railway’s headquarters, and became home to British settlers as well as thousands of Indian labourers who came to Kenya seeking employment on the railway line.

The city was first incorporated in 1900 as the Township of Nairobi, and it soon grew into a bustling city, experiencing a myriad of problems including sanitation and improper town planning. As a result, schools and churches began to develop, as well as municipal services and efficient centres of commerce. By 1905, Nairobi had replaced Mombasa as the capital of the British protectorate, and administration and tourism attributed further to its growth. The city’s population grew rapidly as a result of African migrants moving into the city to seize economic opportunities.

The Nairobi National Park, which overlooks the city of Nairobi.
The Nairobi National Park, which overlooks the city of Nairobi.

The city elected its first mayor of African descent after its independence in 1964 and the first female Mayor in 1975. Nairobi is still the biggest city in Kenya, with a population of over 2.7 million people. It’s the financial hub for East and Central Africa, and is the cultural hub of East Africa. The city contributes 60% of Kenya’s wealth, and is the only city in the world near a game reserve, which is the Nairobi National Park. Majority of the population live in poverty, and the city is home to the largest urban slum in Africa called Kibera.

Mogadishu, Somalia

Mogadishu, also known as Hamar, was once a wealthy city that was a bustling trade centre in the Indian Ocean region, attracting traders from the Arab and Persian worlds. It was called Maqdashaw in the 13th century, and a famous Arabian traveller named Ibn Battuta described the city as enormous in size and filled with wealthy people with vast resources, including camels, sheep and beautiful fabrics. The city was located in the Banadir coastal region.

The city remained an important trade and commercial hub throughout the 13th and 14th centuries; however, from the 15th century, it lost its prominent role due to the rise of other emerging trading centres in the Swahili coast. Due to its wealth, the monarchs of Somaliland – the Muzzaffar dynasty which claimed its origin from Yemen, the Ajuraan group, the Imamate of Yaaquub and the Darandoole Mudulood group – fought over control of the city, with the Yaaquub Imam group taking authority over the city in the 1700s. They remained in power until the end of the 19th century, during the time when Zanzibari influence was growing in the Banadir region.

A fisherman carrying a swordfish on his head in Mogadishu, Somalia.
A fisherman carrying a swordfish on his head in Mogadishu, Somalia.

Mogadishu is still the largest city in Somalia, and remains an important administrative and economic hub. The city was ravaged by civil war in the early 1990s, and continues to experience attacks by Islamist militant groups. The current population in the city is over 2.5 million people.

Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire

It is widely believed that the original inhabitants of modern day Abidjan were farmers and hunter-gatherers and were of Mandinka (Dyuola) origin as they had migrated from the Niger basin to the coast during the 1300s. During the early 1600s, the Portuguese arrived and initially traded in gold, ivory and pepper, while the French arrived in later with missionaries. In the 1700s, the Akan people invaded the land and established the Baoulé kingdom around the town of Sakasso.

In the 1800s, the French colonized the region and established the borders of Côte d’Ivoire as well as French trading posts in Abidjan. The country gained its independence in 1960.

Even though Yamoussoukro is the capital city of Côte d’Ivoire, Abidjan is the country’s largest city and is its main economic and political hub. It is also most populous French-speaking city in West Africa. The city’s population is over 3.6 million, accounting for approximately 20% of the country’s population. It is known for exports such as coffee, cocoa, timber, bananas, pineapples, and manganese. Famous people from Abidjan include footballer Didier Drogba, musician DJ Arafat and actor Isaach de Bankolé.

The city still grapples with the consequences of its civil wars in 2002 and 2011, mainly a large influx of street children and high poverty rates. The city also experienced a terror attack in 2016.

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Addis Ababa, meaning ‘new flower’ in Amharic, was established in 1886 by Emperor Menelik II at the site of a hot spring chosen by his wife, Empress Taytu Betul. The city grew around the emperor’s palace called the Imperial Palace, which remains the seat of government in Addis Ababa, and was filled with the dwellings of his troops and retainers.

Archaeological evidence suggests that human civilization originated from the location of present-day Addis Ababa, as well as in north-eastern Africa and the Afar region. Scientists have discovered that humans spread from what is now Addis Ababa 100,000 years ago. Addis Ababa is known to be the exit point for out-of-Africa migration.

In the early 1900s, the city was in danger of abandonment due to a shortage of firewood, so as a solution, eucalyptus trees imported from Australia were planted to be used as fuel wood and construction material. The city grew further in 1917 after the completion of the railway to Djibouti, Eritrea.

The city modernized from 1936 when the Italian occupied it, making it the capital of Italian East Africa. Emperor Haile Selassie returned to Addis Ababa in the 1940s to reclaim the city. The largest population growth of the city was experienced in the 1960s when rural to urban migration peaked and manufacturing industries were established. Emperor Haile Selassie helped form the Organization of African Unity in 1963, and invited the new organization to keep its headquarters in the city. The headquarters still remain in the city, and the organization has since 2002 been renamed the African Union.

The city experienced problems such as inflation, drought, famine and forced conscription to the army in the 1970s and 1980s, resulting in many fleeing to neighbouring countries and Western nations, forming a large Ethiopian diaspora.

The Lion of Judah in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The Lion of Judah in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Today, Addis Ababa remains as Ethiopia largest city with a population of over 2.7 million people. It is home to Ethiopia’s wealthiest people as well as more than 100 international missions and embassies, making it a hub for international diplomacy concerning Africa. It is also home to famous people such as model Liya Kebede, Chef Marcus Samuelsson and musician The Weeknd, whose parents are Ethiopian. It is also Ethiopia’s commercial and social hub. The city is known for its vibrant coffee culture, which is also its most popular export. Poverty is still rife in the city, with 80% of the population living in slum areas.

Johannesburg, South Africa

During the 15th century, modern day Johannesburg and the greater Gauteng area was populated by the Bafokeng and the Bakwena Setswana tribes. They were farmers who cultivated crops such as sorghum, millet and ground beans, herded cattle, sheep and goats and produced their own metal tools. Settlements were characterized by large stonewalls which were prevalent during the time of the difaqane/mfecane by the Zulu Kingdom. Mzilikazi of the Zulu Kingdom depopulated the region in 1823, and the land appeared empty when Voortrekkers arrived.

The tribes who lived in the area knew of the existence of gold deposits as the mineral was mined, even as far as in the Kingdom of Mapungubwe, to make artefacts and ornaments. Dutch farmers who moved into the area from the Cape also knew about gold, but realized public knowledge of it would threaten their survival, and so, they decided not to make the news of the mineral public knowledge. Gold was discovered for the first time on a reef on a farm in Krugersdorp in 1852; however, the first public discovery was made on the Witwatersrand by Jan Gerrit Bantjes June 1884. By 1886, a mining camp with approximately 3000 inhabitants had formed, and it was named Johannesburg. This resulted in the formation of the first large mining company on the reef called the Witwatersrand Gold Mining Company.

By 1895, Johannesburg had over 100,000 residents of European and African descent, and within 14 years, it became the largest city in southern Africa as well as the country’s foremost centre for industry, commerce and finance. In the 1900s, racial segregation resulted in African and Indian labourers being forced to work on the mines due to forced removals and exclusion from skilled jobs.

The Nelson Mandela Bridge in Johannesburg, South Africa.
The Nelson Mandela Bridge in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Mining and manufacturing are credited as the backbone of Johannesburg’s economy, and it remains the economic and social powerhouse of South Africa. It is home to over 10 million people in the city and the greater Johannesburg metropolitan area, and is home to Africa’s richest square mile, Sandton City. It is largest city in the world that is not located on a coast, lake or river, and has the largest man-made forest in the world with approximately 6 million trees. The city’s problems include poverty and crime.

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

The city of Dar es Salaam was originally a small fishing village named Mzizima (Swahili for ‘healthy town’) in the early 1800s. It was located on the Indian Ocean coast. It later became Dar es Salaam (Arabic for ‘haven of peace’) when it was founded by Sultan Majid bin Sayyid of Zanzibar in 1866.

The city declined after the death of the Sultan in 1870; however, it was revived by the German East Africa Company, who established a trading station there in 1887. Dar es Salaam soon grew to become the German administrative and commercial centre; however, during World War I, the British forces took over the city, and legalized the informal residential segregation of the city that began under the Germans.

Tanganyika, as Tanzania was previously called, attained independence in 1961 and joined with nearby Zanzibar to officially form Tanzania in 1965. Dar es Salaam lost its title as the country’s capital city to Dodoma in 1973.

The Uhuru Monument in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.
The Uhuru Monument in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.

Dar es Salaam remains as the commercial, administrative, political and social hub of Tanzania, and it is the largest city in East Africa with a population of over 2.6 million people. It is the most populous Swahili speaking city in the world, and is Tanzania’s most prominent city in arts, fashion, media, music, film and television. The city’s problems include overcrowding, traffic congestion and crime.

Casablanca, Morocco

3000 years ago, Casablanca was a Berber settlement. The Roman Empire took possession over the area shortly after the death of the first Emperor Augustus, and continued to operate around the area and on the Anfa port until the 5th century.

By the 8th century, the city was restored under Berber authority by the Kingdom of Barghawata followed by the Amoravids in the 11th century. The Portuguese conquered the city in 1468 and developed as settlement around the Anfa port known as Casa Branca. The city was abandoned in 1755 after an earthquake struck the region and after the Portuguese experienced constant attacks from local tribes.

In 1770, the area was built up by Sultan Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdallah, and the city grew through trade with Europe. It was conquered by the French at the start of the 20th century, and under the French protectorate, the city’s population grew to 100,000. It was the hub for commerce, tourism and architecture, boasting some of the most extraordinary art deco architecture in the world of French and Moroccan heritage.

The interior of the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, Morocco.
The interior of the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, Morocco.

Casablanca is Morocco’s most populous city with a population of over 3.1 million people. The city is the commerce centre of the country, and is the most cosmopolitan of Morocco’s cities, with great places of interest to visit, such as the Hassan II Mosque, the largest mosque in the world that boasts as one of the finest contemporary examples of Islamic architecture. Problems that the city faces include poverty, crime and pollution, especially in the city’s slum areas.

Accra, Ghana

In ancient times, modern day Accra used to populated by the great Mossi and Ghana kingdoms that ruled in West Africa. Archaeological findings in the area show evidence of human settlements as far as 30,000 to 40,000 years ago.

Accra was founded in the 1500s by the Ga people, and later the Portuguese arrived at the Gold Coast to build a fort that would provide European traders with an outlet for trade, especially in slaves. After much fighting between the Ga, the Portuguese, the Dutch (who eventually built a new trading post on the Gold Coast) and the English, Britain eventually established a fortress as part of the Breda treaty of 1672 after conquering the Dutch.

In the 1800s, the British overpowered the Asante Empire, seizing Ghana as their colony. Throughout the colonial era, Accra was an important commercial hub and became an important link in the allied transportation network between the European and East Asian regions of conflict during World War II. Ghana became the first sub-Saharan African colony to gain independence in 1957, and Accra remained the country’s capital city.

The Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum in Accra, Ghana.
The Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum in Accra, Ghana.

Accra is the administrative, economic and social hub of Ghana, and is the largest city in the country with a population of over 1.9 million people. The city is one of the hottest in the world because of its close proximity to the Sahara desert. It is known for its cultural diversity as it attracts people from all over the country. Problems that the city faces include traffic congestion and pollution.

*images from Jumia, Creative Commons, Afrotourism, Heather Leila Moz and Jambo Nairobi

*Dailypost WordPress.


16 thoughts on “The History of Africa’s Largest Cities

    1. Hey Marsha.. Thanks for reading! I have done some travel around the continent; still need to explore some more. It’s awesome! But more than that, I love African history 🙂

  1. This is such a GREAT informative post! It really makes me want to travel to Africa and see some of this beautifully historic cities. I’ going to need to delve further into your links and read some more. Thanks for this post!

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