Studies in Comparative International Development

, Volume 52, Issue 3, pp 327–348 | Cite as

Against the Grain of Urban Bias: Elite Conflict and the Logic of Coalition Formation in Colonial and Post-Colonial Africa

  • David Waldner
  • Brenton Peterson
  • Jon Shoup


The theory of urban bias was a major contribution to the evolution of contemporary theories of political economy that remains highly relevant today. Yet theorists of urban bias have still not produced a general explanation that accounts for anomalous cases of what we call “rural incorporation,” or coalition strategies based on modest rural producers. These anomalous cases suggest that the collective action underpinnings of urban bias theory underdetermine outcomes. This paper advances a new explanation of the anomalous African cases of Kenya, Côte d’Ivoire, and Zimbabwe. After detailing the costs of rural incorporation, we theorize the conditions that would motivate state elites to overcome their pro-urban biases and offer substantial material benefits to non-elite agrarian producers. Rural incorporation is an optimal strategy only when state elites are locked in unusually intense conflict with their rivals. Most nationalist movements in Africa did not meet this condition and their leaders followed pro-urban policies. The three outliers are all cases of settler colonialism: bitter rivalry between European settlers and native planters created the conditions for rural incorporation. We show how native planters and their political allies selected rural incorporation as a political-economic instrument of commercial competition and political supremacy. Case studies of Ghana and Nigeria demonstrate that in the absence of political and economic rivalry with settlers, African leaders selected the “default” strategy of urban bias.


Urban bias Political economy Political coalitions Development Agricultural policy Africa Colonialism 



An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2010 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, where Robert Bates, Catherine Boone, and Atul Kohl gave valuable comments.

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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PoliticsUniversity of VirginiaCharlottesvilleUSA

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