Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

Urban-bias and the Roots of Political Instability: The case for the strategic importance of the rural periphery in sub-Saharan Africa

  • Author(s): Rabinowitz, Beth Sharon
  • Advisor(s): Vogel, Steven K
  • et al.

Military interventions continue to be pervasive in Africa. Thirty out of forty-eight sub-Saharan states have experienced at least one successful coup. Nor have these numbers abated. In the 21st century alone, thirteen coups have been successfully staged in Africa, thus far. At the same time, several African countries - such as Ghana, Uganda, Burkina Faso and Benin - have managed to escape from seemingly insurmountable coup-traps. Yet, we understand little about what drives countries into a coup-trap and even less about how countries can extricate themselves from one. What explains this divergence? To address these contradictory trends, I focus initially on Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire, neighboring states, with comparable populations, topographies, and economies that have experienced contrasting trajectories. While Ghana suffered five consecutive coups from the 1966 to 1981, Cote d'Ivoire was an oasis of stability and prosperity. However, by the end of the 20th century, Ghana had emerged as one of the few stable two-party democracies on the continent, as Cote d'Ivoire slid into civil war. Why was Cote d'Ivoire so much more stable and prosperous than Ghana in the `60s and `70s? And what explains their dramatic reversal of fortunes?

I answer these puzzles by examining the political strategies of regimes in both countries, with a particular focus on rural alliances. I find that the leaders who followed a rural political strategy were better able to preserve stability, while those who followed an urban political strategy were more likely to suffer coups. In contrast to the prevalent urban-bias thesis, I contend that traditional elites and producers in rural areas - not the organized urban sectors - are most critical to political stability. To show the wider applicability of my thesis, I extend my argument beyond these two countries. In a systematic review of fifty-eight regimes over eighteen sub-Saharan countries, I demonstrate that the rural/urban dichotomy is pervasive and predictive of the success/failure of regimes. Using formal modeling, I show a strong and robust correlation between supporting rural areas and the likelihood of being ousted in a coup as well as longevity in power

Main Content
Current View