Identity, Citizenship, and Political Conflict in Africa

Identity, Citizenship, and Political Conflict in Africa

by Edmond J. Keller


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Identity, Citizenship, and Political Conflict in Africa by Edmond J. Keller

Reflecting on the processes of nation-building and citizenship formation in Africa, Edmond J. Keller believes that although some deep parochial identities have eroded, they have not disappeared and may be more assertive than previously thought, especially in instances of political conflict. Keller reconsiders how national identity has been understood in Africa and presents new approaches to identity politics, intergroup relations, state-society relations, and notions of national citizenship and citizenship rights. Focusing on Nigeria, Ethiopia, Cote d'Ivoire, Kenya, and Rwanda, he lays the foundation for a new understanding of political transition in contemporary Africa.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253011848
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 03/01/2014
Pages: 222
Sales rank: 1,223,729
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Edmond J. Keller is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is author of Revolutionary Ethiopia: From Empire to People's Republic (IUP, 1988) and "Trustee for the Human Community": Ralph Bunche and the Decolonization of Africa.

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Identity, Citizenship, and Political Conflict in Africa

By Edmond J. Keller

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2014 Edmond J. Keller
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01189-3


Identity, Citizenship, and Nation Building in Africa

"Nigeria is not a nation. It is a mere geographical expression." —Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Path to Nigerian Freedom

"We feel dissatisfied and unhappy when people tell us that we are not of this place. We have been here for over two hundred years.... We know no other place other than here ... so we have nowhere else to go." —Zangon-Kataf, Warri, Nigeria, Human Rights Watch interview, November 16, 2005

From their very inception as independent polities, African states have struggled to manage identity politics. Following the European Scramble for Africa that began in 1884–1885, colonial powers imposed their own artificial criteria to create states in Africa. Over less than a century, African peoples were grouped according to the rules of competing European powers that had formed their colonial African possessions and established effective control over them. As a matter of administrative convenience, the colonialists organized their African subjects according to assumed ethno-linguistic characteristics. Initially, they gave little—if any—thought to the notion of "independent" African states; however, this attitude began to change around the time of the Second World War and, by the mid-1960s, almost the entire African continent was again free of European rule. Rather than returning to their original forms of political organization, however, African societies found themselves facing the need to form viable multiethnic and multicultural nation-states comprised of "citizens" rather than mere "subjects." As they approached the challenge of nation building, African nationalist leaders aimed to create among what had until then been a multiplicity of parochial communities referred to as "tribes, a sense of "national" unity, transforming them so that they would now have primary attachment to the newly created multiethnic nation-states. A common phrase of that time was, "We must die as tribes and be born as a nation!" This effort proved to be a formidable challenge for the leaders of these newly independent states, and became the subject of intense scholarly discourse.

A common assumption of modernization theorists, as well as of third world political activists of that era (the 1960s), was that the process of modernization would lead inexorably to the breakdown—and the ultimate demise—of traditional institutions based upon communalism. This process was often described as "national political integration" and involved downplaying social, cultural, and economic differences, and strengthening or fostering a sense of national unity—or a sense of unity within the context of diversity—among the inhabitants of a particular polity. The newly created, multiethnic or multicultural nation replaced parochial entities of conjugal or extended families—or the so-called tribe—as the terminal community. The expectation among scholarly and policy analysts at the time was that nations would produce modern liberal institutions characterized by democracy and individualism. In short, some observers assumed that Western political institutions could simply be grafted onto African polities and that the transition to political modernization would be relatively smooth. Moreover, there was a prevailing belief that, as a result of the combined weight of modernization and conscious national government policies of political integration, cultural diversity would give way to more homogenous national cultures. Nonetheless, five decades later, in many parts of the developing world such assimilation has not completely happened. In fact, as Crawford Young asserts, the most recent wave of democratization in Africa has, in effect, ended the national integration project. In other words, nation building is still a work in progress. As Craig Calhoun notes, "Neither nationalism nor ethnicity is vanishing as part of an obsolete traditional order; both are part of a modern set of categorical identities invoked by elites and other participants in political and social struggles." In a similar vein, Benjamin Barber contends, "The planet is falling precipitously apart and coming reluctantly together at the very same moment."

In many parts of the developing world, the challenge facing state and nation builders was to construct viable multiethnic or multinational states, or as some have suggested, "new nations." And, indeed, over time, the citizens of these new states have come to see themselves as "nations." In many cases, nations with origins in nineteenth-century Europe emerged organically as collections of people who shared the same territory, language, history, and culture—or some combination of these factors—and felt the need to move to more complex and effective forms of sociopolitical organization.

The terms state and nation are often conflated, but in reality are quite different. Nations are based upon abstract normative attachments and are, in large measure, moral communities that in the mid-to late nineteenth century came to acquire legal definition and fixed geographic boundaries in the form of states. In that sense, these nation-states were the product of a process of reform and modernization. By contrast, nation-states that formed after the end of colonialism in Africa have, in large measure, been the result of efforts to conservatively preserve the polities that were artificially constructed by European colonialists. Notably, however, the concept of "nation" that took hold in Africa was not the same as the concept of "nation" that emerged in the creation of such entities in nineteenth-century Europe.

In Africa, even though deep parochial identities have been eroded, traditional values, institutions, and mores continue to exert considerable influence over various segments of social life. For example, even though national governments routinely seek to instill in the general population a sense of citizenship that transcends parochial identities and to organize political life accordingly, long-standing traditional identities—or even some newly invented identities that are treated as though they are from the ancient past—are often at odds with such objectives. This reality presents particular problems in deeply divided societies, in which national governments attempt to minimize the perception among some religious, ethnic, or nationality groups that they have been and continue to be systematically discriminated against at the expense of other more favored groups.

These dynamics must be understood in the context of how national identity has been defined in modern Africa, a process that has involved accepting both the legitimacy of the physical boundaries of the state and the legal command of state institutions of national governance. Individuals and groups that occupy given territories are considered, and consider themselves, citizens with rights and obligations. I shall return to this point later, but for the moment suffice it to note that much of the national civil conflict occurring in Africa today can be attributed to perceived grievances relating to citizenship rights.

We have reached a point at which understanding the politics of contemporary Africa requires that we rethink our original assumptions and reformulate our perceptions of the political transitions currently taking place on the continent. The quest for national political integration has been replaced by the need to create mostly multiethnic and multiracial societies in which all citizens and social groupings have equal citizenship rights—rights that are applied according to a nondiscriminatory rule of law. Jeffrey Herbst focuses on the emergence of a salient concept of citizenship in Africa as politically vital to the process of fixing colonial boundaries. As colonialists established effective control up until the nationalist period, they changed the patterns and rhythm of population movements on the continent, which over time came to affect claims to citizenship in the resulting nation-states. However, until recently citizenship per se did not form the basis for sociopolitical conflict. Crawford Young and others correctly note that democratization has considerably raised the import of group identity within the context of multiethnic societies characterized by historic inequalities. In a similar vein, Peter Geschiere argues: "Throughout the continent the new wave of democratization of the early 1990s seemed to bring initially a promising turn toward political liberalization. Yet in many countries it inspired in practice and quite unexpectedly especially determined attempts toward closure in order to exclude fellow-countrymen from their full rights as national citizens."

Scholars have found that the sources of many domestic political conflicts in Africa today are rooted in ethnically based grievances among constituent groups. As mentioned, modern states on the continent are comprised of a multiplicity of ethno-linguistic groups that were gathered into particular states as a matter of administrative convenience, not by free will. Ironically, these domestic conflicts are occurring at the very moment that African societies are attempting to liberalize and democratize their political systems to a greater extent than ever before. In some cases, these grievances and resulting conflicts relate to alleged irregularities in multiparty elections, or to the denial of citizenship rights of certain groups to vote or of some individuals to run for political office. In other cases, complaints relate to a rejection of or encroachment on the land claims of particular groups. In still other cases, conflicts are rooted in historic injustices visited upon certain groups by a more dominant group that now controls the reins of state. In all such cases, we see the emergence of a more communitarian sense of citizenship. The question is: What qualifies an individual or group to claim land in particular areas? Or, rather, who has the right to claim legitimate inclusion in the postcolonial state or even a relevant subnational community?

Even though we can identify two analytically distinct bases of political identity in Africa today, these identities should not always be perceived as conflicting. In fact, these two notions of citizenship can and do coexist in time and space on a regular basis. Empirical evidence indicates that people accept that subnational citizenship and national citizenship identities are not inevitably at odds. Employing Afrobarometer data, Robinson found that 70 percent of the respondents from sixteen Sub-Saharan countries viewed their national identity as more—or equally—important than their ethnic identities. Data from the Values Survey Databank (VSD) clearly demonstrate this finding as well. VSD surveys in ten selected African countries between 1999 and 2001 showed that in cross-country comparisons consistently just over 95 percent of the respondents saw no conflict in being proud of both their national citizenship and their identity group. In other words, people can be proud of both their ethnic affiliation and their national citizenship. These findings indicate the need to rethink the assumption that the forces of modernization and globalization are undermining parochial loyalties. Similarly, in a 2003 survey in Ethiopia, Keller and Omwami found that although respondents strongly identified with their own ethnic groups, they were supportive of the idea that all ethnic groups in the country have equal rights. In spite of strong ties to their own ethnic groups, they accepted that other groups deserve to have their citizenship rights respected and protected.

Although we cannot attribute all incidents of state-level civil conflict in modern Africa to any one particular origin, in many cases citizenship and its associated rights are clearly at the forefront. The complexity of this issue can be seen in all parts of Africa; however, the immediate stimuli and opportunities for conflict based on various aspects of citizenship rights, claims, and related grievances, in fact, vary from place to place. Given its diverse and complex nature, how are we to understand this phenomenon? What are the theoretical and substantive aspects of contemporary incidents of citizenship-based and identity-based political conflicts? History is replete with fraught claims to and conflicts over citizenship rights. What gives these incidents their character? It is assumed in these pages that we cannot understand such conflicts out of context. How citizenship is defined has changed over time and has varied from place to place. Moreover, the concept of "citizen" may look one way in theory and another way in practice. How do we understand this distinction?

The contemporary legal definition of citizenship is largely derived from the legacy of former colonial powers that governed particular territories. All African states today have laws relating to citizenship and citizenship rights that are based largely on the legal codes of former colonial powers. But because disputes over citizenship rights often occur, these laws are in constant flux. Some of these disputes are local in nature but others, as we shall see, take on national relevance. Again, because it has legal command, the state can decide who is and is not eligible for citizenship. Today, it is not uncommon for those living in a particular country to be required to possess and to carry identity cards stating their birthplace. Not having a proper identity card may result in the loss of individual rights normally accorded to legitimate citizens.

Although concerns around identity and citizenship in contemporary Africa are complex and varied, developing a framework for analysis of these issues will help us make sense of their growing importance on the continent. In some cases, ethnically based conflicts related to grievances grow out of electoral competition in national elections; others are triggered by long-standing claims relating to land ownership and other property rights; still other conflicts are linked to failure on the part of national or local governments to deliver public goods to ethnic communities in an equitable manner.

This study is grounded in the assumption that any attempt to make sense of these issues of identity and citizenship requires an understanding of three primary factors: (1) the context in which politics takes place; that is, the weight of history; (2) the institutions or structures that shape politics in particular circumstances; and (3) the perceptions and cultures of individuals and groups involved.

The Context of Politics

All politics take place within the context of a particular political culture, whether we are speaking of national or subnational politics. To explain political change, one must understand not only the relevant context of political culture but also the structures that are found in that culture and the human agents that influence—and are influenced by—those particular structures. Relevant structures and human agents can be both domestic and international. At the same time, it is necessary to acknowledge that even with the necessary structures and agents present, political accelerators or precipitating events must be there to initiate change. Precipitating events may or may not be part of a formal political process, such as elections or other forms of political contestation. Ethnic communities can also be provoked to behave in certain ways by ethnic entrepreneurs who rhetorically link cultural grievances to a denial of the basic rights of their particular groups. Depending on the nature and context of the interaction among certain structures and human agents, change can be peaceful or hostile. For instance, in national elections, if minorities or opposition groups see the results as "free and fair," or at least not worth fighting over, then the likely direction of change will be peaceful; should this perception not be the case, political protest, and even violence, can be expected. (A full articulation of this analytical framework will be presented in chapter 3.)

Despite the differences in the political culture from one African state to the next, and despite the variability in precipitating events, at a very fundamental level we can identify relevant political agents, political institutions, and structures that shape and are shaped by actors interacting within a particular political culture. By tracing these relationships as they develop and change, we can better understand citizenship conflicts based on ethnic identity.

Roots of the Crises of Identity and Citizenship

Some critics suggest that state failure is at the heart of the crises of identity and citizenship that we find in Africa today. For example, Robert Bates ascribes African state failure in the late twentieth century to the fact that "rents" in the form of development assistance or proceeds from the sale of African resources began to dry up in the 1980s. When this happened, he argues, many African leaders resorted to predation and abandonment of policies intended to spread the greatest good to the greatest number. Faced with states that could not or would not attempt to satisfy their demands, the African masses in such places could either accept their increasing poverty and misery—or turn to protest and violence. Bates draws a link between this turn of events and ethnic violence, arguing that the ethnic diversity found in African states does not cause violence but is, in fact, the result of state failure.


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Table of Contents

Part I. Citizenship and Political Conflict in Contemporary Africa
1. Identity, Citizenship, and Nation Building in Africa
2. Theoretical and Formal-Legal Dimensions of the Concept of Citizenship in Africa
3. Toward an Analytical Framework of Identity and Citizenship in Africa

Part II. Identity Politics and Selected Cases in Conflict over Citizenship Rights in Africa
4. Nigeria: Indigeneity and Citizenship
5. Ethiopia: The Politics of Late Nation Building and the National Question
6. Côte d’Ivoire: Ivorité and Citizenship
7. Kenya: Citizenship, Land, and Ethnic Cleansing
8. Rwanda: Exclusionary Nationalism, Democracy, and Genocide
Summary and Conclusion: Identity, Citizenship, and Social Conflict


What People are Saying About This

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill - Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja

By interrogating theories of citizenship and by looking at the citizenship question in Africa within a historical and comparative perspective, Edmond J. Keller enhances the debate on citizenship and democratization in political science in general, and with respect to African politics in particular.

University of Wisconsin, Madison - M. Crawford Young

Clear and lucid. . . . Offers a promising design for careful comparative exploration of a core issue confronting contemporary Africa—the definition of citizenship as a legal and moral issue in a political environment where in most states ethnic attachment coexists with national identity.

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