Past changes in global industrial aerosol emissions have played a significant role in historical shifts in African rainfall, and yet assessment of the impact on African rainfall of near-term (10–40 yr) potential aerosol emission pathways remains largely unexplored. While existing literature links future aerosol declines to a northward shift of Sahel rainfall, existing climate projections rely on RCP scenarios that do not explore the range of air quality drivers. Here we present projections from two emission scenarios that better envelop the range of potential aerosol emissions. More aggressive emission cuts result in northward shifts of the tropical rainbands whose signal can emerge from expected internal variability on short, 10–20-yr time horizons. We also show for the first time that this northward shift also impacts East Africa, with evidence of delays to both onset and withdrawal of the short rains. However, comparisons of rainfall impacts across models suggest that only certain aspects of both the West and East African model responses may be robust, given model uncertainties. This work motivates the need for wider exploration of air quality scenarios in the climate science community to assess the robustness of these projected changes and to provide evidence to underpin climate adaptation in Africa. In particular, revised estimates of emission impacts of legislated measures every 5–10 years would have a value in providing near-term climate adaptation information for African stakeholders.