Waiting in the Wings

Africa's Principal Second-Tier Cities


Mwanza Tanzania


Port Harcourt Nigeria

From coastal fishing towns to minor colonial rail hubs, these five African “second cities“ started small only to emerge as important economic and cultural hubs in their respective nations.

Mwanza, Tanzania

Tanzania’s second-largest city, Mwanza hugs the southern coast of Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest body of water. Though Uganda’s Kampala is the largest city on the lake, some 310km to the north, Mwanza is the most important port. With a strong Indian influence, this city of 700,000 is a key hub for travelers and merchants from Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, and Burundi. It is also the terminus of the country’s most extensive railway line which starts in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s preeminent city.

Though relatively small by 21st century standards, Mwanza is growing at an astonishing 11% per year. For a country with 50 million people and few metropolises outside the former capital of Dar es Salaam, Mwanza only stands to gain as Tanzania urbanizes at one of the fastest rates in the world (5.36%). While the vast majority of its inhabitants are from the Sukuma tribe (90%), which has earned Mwanza the moniker of Sukumaland, everyone also speaks Swahili, the lingua franca of the Great Lakes region, official tongue of Tanzania, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the most commonly understood language in the region with over 100m speakers.

Mwanza is also at the crossroads of Tanzania’s flourishing religious heritage. A country thought by many to be roughly equally divided between Christians (33%), Muslims (33%), and animists, Hindus, and Buddhists (33%), Mwanza’s rich fabric of Catholics, Hindus, Lutherans, Muslims, Anglicans, Mennonites, and animists represents its diversity as one the great spiritual melting pots of the Great Lakes region.

Port Harcourt, Nigeria

Once known as the “Garden City,” Nigeria’s Port Harcourt has been suffering under a thick haze of smog since last November, engulfing nearly everything in a viscous dark grey. Though a Chinese construction company burning asphalt was fingered and forced to close its doors—its company directors now slated for prosecution—and a special “Black Soot Task Force” established to round up any lingering public health-imperiling culprits, the air remains murky.

The country’s fourth-largest city and second-largest port, Port Harcourt stands at the confluence of two of the continent’s critical geographic and geopolitical hotspots: the mouth of the Niger river delta, the exit-point whence Nigerian petroleum is exported to the rest of the world, some 2.3 million bopd from the nation’s de facto oil hub.

Yet the city is also pivotal for domestic historical reasons. As the port and largest city of the breakaway Republic of Biafra (1967-1970), the city also lies at the heart of one of the country’s largest festering wounds. In February of this year, pro-Biafran independence and ostensibly “pro-Trump” demonstrations (since, they claimed, the latter “supports self-determination”), briefly turned violent.

Though largely overshadowed by Boko Haram-related terror in the north, the fact that many in Port Harcourt still clamor for what some now glibly call “Biafrexit” means the country’s oil hub will have more than pollution-control on its plate in the years to come. Which is why its fate will be synonymous with that of the nation: only if the Nigerian state can rein in Port Harcourt’s pollution, separatism, and the local Igbo’s people’s feelings of peripheral insecurity will it truly thrive in the community of nations.

Beira, Mozambique

As Mozambique’s second-largest city, the port town of Beira is not only central and northern Mozambique’s window on the world and access to the wider Indian Ocean, it plays the same role for much of southern Africa. The only significant port between Maputo and Dar es Salaam (some 3,500km apart), it is the only direct link between the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, and the Indian Ocean (550km away). Though handling less cargo than Mozambique’s capital of Maputo, Beira is still in some ways the country’s true railway hub, with direct lines into Zimbabwe and Malawi and, by way of the latter, onward to Zambia and the rest of the southeast African hinterland.

Though better known today for its photogenic detritus, shipwrecks, and semi-urban abandon as it once was for its colonial dynamism—the ruins of the never-completed Grand Hotel which now hosts 3,500 squatters is a marvel of urban brinksmanship and compromise—Beira’s geographical position at the heart of the country, the capital of the large Sofola province, the mouth of the Púngoí¨ river, and the terminus of the largest oil pipeline into Zimbabwe makes it a permanent contender for renewal as both an oil and transport hub

Until last year, for example, plans were underway between Russia’s Rosneft and South Africa’s Mining, Oil and Gas Services Company (MOGS) to build a new USD1 billion pipeline from Beira to service the Mabvuku, Msasa, and Feruka storage facilities in Zimbabwe, a project currently on hold. Though this has stalled under recent tensions between Maputo and Harare, the silver lining is that if Zimbabwe is ever to engage on a broader footing with the rest of the world—a trend that already seems underway—it will have to go through Beira. Best for the latter to be ready when it happens.

Takoradi, Ghana

Unlike some of our other contenders that arose late in the colonial game, Ghana’s second city of Sekondi-Takoradi came to prominence as an important Dutch trading hub in the mid-17th century, then known as Fort Orange. With Ghana’s first deep-water seaport (1928) and direct rail links to Kumasi, Accra, and the Ghanaian hinterland, this was where the country’s rich supply of minerals and timber were sent to port. Its strategic location also came in handy during WWII, when the RAF used it as a staging point for troops and weapons en route to Egypt.

Before black gold was discovered here in 2007, Takoradi was a dusty port-town. Now with well over half a million residents, in addition to its traditional mainstays of timber, mining, and shipping, the city has also become an energy and technology hub. Vast new hotels have been built, in addition to a wide array of luxury housing (from which many, of course, have not yet managed to benefit).To be sure, the allures of a booming oil town are not for everyone; and overnight wealth has a way of causing old demons to rear their heads, and newer ones to emerge.

The question thus is one of the oldest: can Takoradi escape the infamous oil curse? Ghana’s long been the darling of West Africa, if not the entire continent, for its low levels of corruption and political violence and broad reputation for good governance. Whether the city’s people and political and commercial leaders can toe an ever-meandering line will determine to what extent Ghana meets the myriad and multifaceted challenges in the 21st century.

Mombasa, Kenya

Around 480km from the capital of Nairobi, Kenya’s second city of Mombasa is the third-most important Indian Ocean port on the eastern shores of Africa, and the only one worth its mettle north of Dar es Salaam. Well over 1,000 years old, its ideal natural geography, a manageable island ringed on three sides by a natural harbor, was fought over for more than four centuries by the Portuguese, the Sultanate of Oman, and the British Empire before becoming part of independent Kenya in 1964.

Visited by Ibn Battuta and Vasco da Gama (the first European known to have done so), the city traded with Persian Empire for centuries whilst serving as an important Swahili and Arabic-language center of trade and study. Its place in the modern sun was set when it became capital of the British East Africa Protectorate in the late 19th century, not to mention the terminus of the Ugandan railway line and the fount of that country’s access to the sea (not to mention all trade, travel, and transport to and from Nairobi, once the capital of the British protectorate moved there in 1906).

Its ancient port also services a massive oil refinery (processing 80,000 bopd), many of the major intercontinental telecoms cables that connect the Great Lakes region with the rest of the world also alight on its shores.

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