The history of Africa’s largest cities

Africa is rich with history and heritage, 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.  Eko was under the rule of the Benin Empire, which spanned across the West African region. It was renamed Lagos, meaning “lakes” in Portuguese, in the 17th century by the Portuguese colonialists after the city rose in prominence as a significant 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 that was 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 urbanisation of the city. Lagos has always been a place where people move to when in search of 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. The city is Nigeria’s economic hub and home to Nollywood – the largest film industry in Africa in terms of revenue, number of annual films and popularity.

Cairo, Egypt

The city of Cairo was founded and ruled by King Menes in 2000 BC, who also governed the ancient city of Memphis just south of modern-day Cairo.

Many Christian churches were built into or on its walls, including El Muallaqa or “the hanging church.” The structure of the church was built on the southern tower gate of the fortress and the Greek church of St. George.

During the 10th century, Cairo was established as the city of Fustat by the Fatimids and underwent a period of massive 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 essential link in the east-west spice route, resulting in the bustling trade centre of Khan el-Khalili.

In the mid-13thcentury during the spread of Islam across North Africa, the Mamaluks seized control of Egypt, subsequently turning Cairo into an important centre of Islamic learning as well as the hub for the 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.

Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo

Even though people lived in the area throughout history, Kinshasa became an official city in 1881. It became an important centre for Portuguese slave traders and merchants during the 15th century. The city began to urbanise when the Belgians arrived during the 15th century. Henry Morton Stanley originally named it Leopoldville 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 city experienced violence during a 5-year civil war which happened after the country gained its independence in 1960. In 1964, Mobutu Sese Seko seized power and declared himself president of the nation. As part of his Africanisation 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 an economic and social hub. It was the primary centre for finance and manufacturing, with it as the hub for diamond and copper processing. 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 residents mostly speak Lingala (a member of the Bantu family of languages). Minerals, gas, oil, agriculture, and timber are the key sectors that sustain Kinshasa’s economy.

Luanda, Angola

The early inhabitants of Western 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, intending to find minerals. They soon got involved in the slave trade after finding it more profitable than minerals and soon established the towns of Luanda and Benguela in 1587.

Portuguese explorer São Paulo da Assunção de Loanda initially founded Luanda, and it soon became the centre for commercial, political and cultural affairs. Slaves were the city’s primary 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 Luanda. This expansion 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.

The city 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 is the most significant contributor to Angola’s GDP, and Luanda is home to over 2.7 million people.

Nairobi, Kenya

The area that Nairobi occupies was initially 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. The city soon grew big enough to become the railway’s headquarters and became home to British colonists as well as thousands of Indian labourers who came to Kenya seeking employment on the railway line.

In 1900, the city became the Township of Nairobi, and it soon grew into a bustling town, 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 snowballed as many African migrants moved 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. The first woman mayor rose to power 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, contributing 60% of Kenya’s wealth. It is the only city in the world near a game reserve, which is the Nairobi National Park.

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.

Residents called it 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’s location was in the Banadir coastal region.

Maqdashaw 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, 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. It 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

According to various historians, the original inhabitants of modern-day Abidjan were farmers and hunter-gatherers of Mandinka (Dyuola) origin. 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 came 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 colonised 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 economic and political hub. It is also the 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 and actor Isaach de Bankolé.

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Emperor Menelik II established the city of Addis Ababa, meaning “new flower” in Amharic, in 1886 at the site of a hot spring that his wife, Empress Taytu Betul, selected. The Emperor centred the city around his palace called the Imperial Palace. The current seat of government remains in the same place in Addis Ababa.

Archaeological evidence suggests that human civilisation 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, the government planted eucalyptus trees imported from Australia for people to use them as wood for fuel and construction material. The city grew further in 1917 after the completion of the railway to Djibouti, Eritrea.

The city became an Italian colony in 1936; however, Emperor Haile Selassie returned to Addis Ababa in the 1940s to reclaim the city. The most substantial population growth of the city was experienced in the 1960s when rural to urban migration peaked. Manufacturing industries also became stronger during this period.

Emperor Haile Selassie helped form the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1963 and invited the new organisation to keep its headquarters in the city. The OAU became the African Union (AU) in 2002 and remained in Addis Ababa.

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

Today, Addis Ababa remains as Ethiopia’s largest city, with a population of over 2.7 million people. It is home to the country’s wealthiest people and 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 famous export.

Johannesburg, South Africa

During the 15th century, the Bafokeng and the Bakwena Setswana tribes populated modern-day Johannesburg and the greater Gauteng area. They were farmers who cultivated crops such as sorghum, millet and ground beans, herded cattle, sheep and goats and produced metal tools. Their settlements had extensive stonewalls, similar to those of the Zulu Kingdom. The area was rich with gold deposits, and the Batswana used gold to make artefacts and ornaments.

Johannesburg formed into a city in the 1880s after it attracted over 3,000 inhabitants in search for gold. 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. The gold rush attracted people from all over the continent and the world who came with hopes of striking it rich with gold.

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

Mining and manufacturing remain as the backbone of South Africa’s economy, and Johannesburg is still the economic and social powerhouse of the country. 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 the largest city in the world that is not located on a coast, lake or river, and has the largest human-made forest in the world with approximately 6 million trees.

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

The city of Dar es Salaam was originally a small fishing village named Mzizima (Kiswahili for “healthy town”) in the early 1800s. Sultan Majid bin Sayyid of Zanzibar named it Dar es Salaam (Arabic for “haven of peace”) when he founded it in 1866.

The city declined after the death of the Sultan in 1870. The German East Africa Company then moved in to establish 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 legalised the informal residential segregation that began under the Germans.

Tanganyika, the previous name for Tanzania, 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 and social hub of Tanzania. 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.

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 Anfa port until the 5th century.

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

In 1770, Sultan Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdallah revived the city to make it the primary trader with Europe. The French conquered Casablanca 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 during this era, 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 commercial and urban centre of the country, having fantastic places of interest to visit, such as the Hassan II Mosque. The mosque is the largest in Africa and the 3rd largest in the world that has one of the finest contemporary examples of Islamic architecture.

Accra, Ghana

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

The Ga tribe founded Accra in the 1500s, and later, the Portuguese came to the Gold Coast to build a fort that would serve as a European trading post for slaves. After much fighting between the Ga tribe, the Portuguese, the Dutch (who eventually built a new trading post on the Gold Coast) and the English, Britain emerged victoriously and 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 essential 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 proximity to the Sahara desert.

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


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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