The Politics of Nationalism and Identity

A fascinating discussion on the politics of citizenship in Africa is taking place on the SSRC’s African Arguments blog. As described by Sebastian Kohn,

Millions of people in Africa are stateless. Some because their births were never recorded, others because they belong to the ‘wrong’ ethnic group. Civil conflicts in Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo and numerous other countries have been fuelled if not created by pernicious citizenship policies that sever the link between certain parts of the population and the state. The politics of statelessness and citizenship discrimination in Africa are complex and potentially explosive.

While certainly important in the context of the struggle for political power and resources, this debate is certainly not unique to the African continent. The French government is currently in the midst of a three-month series of meetings to “reaffirm the values of national identity and pride in being French.” The discussions were prompted by the rise of the far-right French nationalists, who objected to the increasing multiculturalism of French society.

Citizenship (and national identity more generally) has long been a contested political concept. Identity politics can be used in a progressive, inclusive sense. But far more often identity politics are used to exclude certain members of the polity from participating in the body politic. In the context of post-colonial Africa, this is particularly problematic because the borders of state [glossary] and nation [glossary] bear little historical connection to the actual on the ground identities of the people. The creation of artificial states as a result of colonialism has been a problem recognized since the early days of African independence. Indeed, many of Africa’s most celebrated leaders—Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, to name but a few—rose to prominence preaching a message of inclusion. For them, the only solution to the divisions created by colonialism was to establish a new, Pan-African political identity, essentially transcending the political divisions of statehood to create a unified African community.

This vision never materialized. Instead, the politics of identity came to be characterized by exclusion and hierarchy, frequently motivating political violence: Hutus vs. Tutsis in Rwanda, Yoruba vs. Igbo in Nigeria, Xhosas vs. Zulus in South Africa, Shona vs. Ndebele in Zimbabwe, and so on. But rethinking the nature of citizenship and constructing a politics of inclusiveness may represent an important step towards national reconciliation and development. The Truth and Reconcilliation Commission in South Africa sought to address the injustices of apartheid by brining the violence of the apartheid system to public light. Similarly, efforts at national reconciliation following the Rwandan genocide centered on overcoming the divisive politics of ethnicity that characterized the genocide.

Contributing to the discussion on the African Arguments blog, Bronwen Manby offers a powerful conclusion, describing citizenship as “the most important right of all.”  Manby writing,

“Give us our identity cards and we hand over our Kalashnikovs”, said the leader of the rebel forces in Côte d’Ivoire. Those who have never been deprived of official papers may find it hard to imagine the powerlessness that results: powerlessness that can and does lead people to take up arms. Even in the poorest countries, a passport or identity card does not just provide the right to travel, but forms the basis of the right to almost everything else.


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