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Are conflicts over citizenship inevitable in Africa?

- July 22, 2014

This is the fourth installment of TMC’s African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular. Edmond Keller, research professor of political science at UCLA, writes about his recent book, “Identity, Citizenship and Political Conflict in Africa.” – Kim Yi Dionne
As has occurred throughout human history, identity politics the world over have been characterized by social conflicts rather than by who belongs to a particular political community.  There are clear examples in the United States, Europe, Israel, India, Myanmar and elsewhere where groups and individuals who claim to be indigenous or at least true “daughters and sons of the soil” lash out against those they consider to be  “strangers,” “aliens,” “foreigners,” “immigrants”  or “interlopers.” Nowhere is this truer than in Africa.
Some 50-odd years ago when most of Africa’s European colonies achieved independence, there was a great deal of expectation among domestic as well as international observers that, despite what looked like a rocky road ahead for the region’s multiethnic, multiracial and artificially created states, they would slowly but surely transform themselves into culturally plural liberal democracies similar to those found in the West.  However, after just over a half-century of independence, the cultural diversity of most African states continues to form the bases for many social conflicts among constituent groups.  The question is: Why have independent African states not been transformed into politically integrated multiethnic and multiracial states? In other words: Why have nation-building projects in Africa continued to be incomplete and fragile?
To a large extent, intergroup conflicts in Africa today are based on competing claims over citizenship and citizenship rights.  Most often in rural areas these struggles are over political and economic issues relating to ancestral land claims, and nationally such conflicts stem from competition among ethnic groups over the spoils of national political offices.
African political identities relating to citizenship are rooted both in the past and the present.  From the past, individuals claim citizenship in a parochial political community that is rooted in a particular place within the new nation-state.  It is important to note that in most cases the notion of not belonging to one particular state but to another is not called into question.  However, the rights of ethnic communities to ancestral land and self-determination are often at issue.  At the national level, the state insists on national citizenship and citizenship rights based on the principles of liberal democracy.
The purpose of my book, “Identity, Citizenship and Political Conflict in Africa,” is to try to understand the bases and processes of many of the sociopolitical conflicts in Africa today.  After three introductory chapters that spell out the theoretical and substantive context in which these conflicts take place, the major part of the book applies an analytical framework to the case studies of Nigeria, Ethiopia, Côte d’Ivoire, Rwanda, and Kenya. The primary assumption is that any effort to comprehend identity politics in Africa today requires an understanding of three primary factors:

  1. the weight of history;
  2. the institutions that shape politics in particular circumstances; and
  3. the perceptions of cultural identity among ethnic groups and individuals.

The case studies highlight important examples of how conflicts can occur at all levels during the process of political change.  The Nigerian case considers the legacy of British colonial rule and the implications of the Biafran War, which threatened the very existence of Nigeria as a multi-ethnic nation state not long after Nigeria’s independence. That country’s leaders over the past 40-odd years have attempted to create a sense of national identity among more than 250 disparate ethnic groups in a country of almost 180 million.  The design and implementation of affirmative action policies based on “The Federal Character Principle” are carefully considered in this study.
The Ethiopia case study traces the evolution of the modern nation-state and the efforts of successive regimes to mold society into a multiethnic but cohesive nation-state. The imperial state under the leadership of Emperor Haile Selassie first attempted this between 1945 and 1974, but its efforts were interrupted by the following regime, a Marxist-Leninist junta that ruled between 1975 and 1991. The junta, known as the Dergue, attempted to downplay ethnic differences and ultimately failed to resolve the national question. The pursuit of a culturally diverse but unified Ethiopia continues under the current authoritarian leadership of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front.  The imperial and successive regimes attempted to create the sense that all ethnic groups at the end of the day were all Ethiopians. Repeated failure suggested a need for a new approach. Today Ethiopia is organized as a federal state based upon the concept of “ethnic federalism”.  Yet tensions continue to exist as several major ethnic groups, collectively and individually, regularly protest that they are being denied their citizenship rights.
In the case of Côte d’Ivoire, from the beginning of the postcolonial period, conflicts over citizenship relating to land rights in certain parts of the country eventually led to a definition of citizenship based on autochthony or ancestral communities.  This ancestral locale-based definition of citizenship – named Ivoirité – led to the exclusion of presidential candidates and involved questions of whether a given village was located in the country’s postcolonial boundaries.  Tensions growing out of this situation led to two civil wars and to constitutional reforms that redefined who can claim Ivorian citizenship.
In Rwanda, although two major groups, the Tutsi (14 per cent) and the Hutu (85 per cent) account for the majority of the population and historically belonged to the same ethnic group, colonial-era rulers presumed them to belong to distinctive racial groups.  Toward the end of the colonial period a social revolution occurred as the Hutu claimed to be the only autochthonous citizens of Rwanda.  In contrast, they viewed the Tutsi as foreigners and oppressive minorities.  Eventually this led to the 1994 Rwanda genocide as the Tutsi attempted to reclaim their birthright lost during the revolution.  In the end, invading Tutsi forces once again reversed the social order and established a regime dominated by Tutsi.
The Kenyan case study centers on issues relating to land claims and the confluence of claims of subnational citizenship rights and the introduction of liberal democratic notions of citizenship. After the reintroduction of multi-party politics in Kenya, cultural brokers and ethnic entrepreneurs called upon their own ethnic groups to support the national candidacy of their own ethnic elites.  When conflict relating to the 2007 national election broke out, long-standing tensions over immigration and land rights erupted.  At the subnational level, groups and candidates viewed as interlopers became fair game for ethnic cleansing by groups that claimed to be indigenous to certain regions of the country.
Are conflicts over citizenship inevitable in Africa? Or, are African societies moving toward more modern institutions and democratic practices that guarantee civic awareness of shared citizenship rights and the rule of law?  What is abundantly clear from my findings is that institutions matter—but they do not matter all the time.  Also obvious is the fact that for political institutions to work the way they are designed to, credible commitments on the part of political leaders, political opposition and civil society must be strong.  Presently in Africa, although this condition is improving, good governance is often trumped by bad governance and the rule of law appears in many cases to be weak or non-existent.  For example, both petty and major corruption is in numerous cases endemic.  Leaders do not consistently exhibit the political will to put the public good ahead of their own personal preferences or that of their own ethnic groups. It is clear that if conflicts over citizenship rights are to be reduced, effective political institutions will have to rely on the adherence to credible commitments in decision-making and policy-making on the part of political elites.
See earlier posts in TMC’s First Annual African Politics Reading Spectacular.
Edmond J. Kellerkeller_headshot is research professor and former chair of political science, director of the UCLA Globalization Research Center-Africa and former director of the James S. Coleman African Studies Center at UCLA. He specializes in comparative politics with an emphasis on Africa.