Creating Belonging or Ruling by Exclusion? Politics, Citizenship and African Governance

Facebook Twitter Email

Citizenship is and has always been a complicated and multi-faceted concept. Across African contexts, as a recent IDAP webinar reiterated, this complexity is both conceptual and reflective of the many and changing politics around the notion. Citizenship relates simultaneously, and sometimes in contradictory ways, to both sides of the hyphen in the equally complicated notion of the nation-state; to the idea of a nation, often vested in identity politics and issues of collective belonging as well as to the idea of the state as a bureaucratic order with its accompanying rights and obligations.

With reference to African states, the human rights scholar Bronwen Manby maintains , that “citizenship is not just a legal concept but also a profoundly political question of self-definition”. In a policy paper on The politics of citizenship: social contract and inclusivity in Africa, we have argued that a more committed investment in citizenship rights might contribute to social stability and improved state-citizen relations in Africa. We have expanded our arguments further to explain why and how “citizenship matters” in our view as a field of policy intervention in relation to social inclusion and political stabilisation. We herewith present a short summary of some of the main observations and arguments.

The burden of colonial heritage

Although European colonialism was a short historical moment in deep and varied histories of community- and state-building across the African continent, the colonial impact on the challenges currently facing many African states is considerable. Colonial administrations in most African countries south of the Sahara were built on a citizen and subject-divide: racial identity classified the white minority as citizens and the black majority as subjects. For Nigerian sociologist Peter Ekeh these “two publics” represented a bifurcated notion of citizenship. Influenced by colonialism, internal divisions shaped distinctive forms of citizenship in the post-colonial era. In Nigeria, for example, the issue of tribalism arose out of the dialectics between ethnic/tribal and civic/public citizenship.

Since independence, African states have generally retained the borders drawn by colonial powers. These boundaries often divided communities and limited their interaction through border controls. Such divisions have triggered demands for autonomy and even culminated in secessionist movements, destabilising perceptions of a unified national identity. In addition to regional and/or ethnicised internal divisions, some states also face challenges relating to current and historical mobilities within and across national spaces. For example, although an increasing number of African countries offer dual citizenship, participation in active civil and political life tends to privilege people considered original, or autochthonous, inhabitants. The push for a pan-African identity and integrating economic relations across the continent speaks to the African desire to overcome the legacy of colonial division, while at the same time working with the reality of the nation-state.

With the structural adjustment programmes promoted by the World Bank and IMF across Africa in the 1980s followed the retreat of the state in welfare and service delivery. Many, especially among the youth, were delinked from services and benefits as the state dismantled its obligations to its citizens.

Since the turn of the century, African governments have increased social protection. These  measures include cash transfers for health and education services and income support to the poor. These reshape the relationship between the state and its citizens. Such state cash transfers can either strengthen a sense of entitlement through inclusion or reproduce inequality and marginalisation. The suite of measures introduced as part of social protection programmes include encouragement for formal registration of births, especially in rural areas. But these efforts are hampered by a lack of administrative capacity (and in some cases, political will). Indeed, no African country has a complete birth registration system.

Political abuse of citizenship

The multiple meanings of citizenship and the governments’ insistence on having the sole authority to define belonging make individuals vulnerable to social, political and economic injustices, especially when they do not have the means to challenge such decisions in court. Such denial of access to rights, entitlements and civic freedoms becomes a weapon to exclude second-, third- and fourth-generation migrant descendants. The Zimbabwean state denies citizenship to hundreds of thousands of second- and third-generation migrants born in Zimbabwe, because their parents or grandparents were from Nyasaland (present-day Malawi).At the higher echelons of power, the withholding or withdrawing of citizenship is also a means to side-line political opponents by depriving them of their nationality. Zambia’s former president Kenneth Kaunda, Botswanan opposition politician John Modise and Ivorian former prime minister (later president) Alassane Ouattara are all examples of politicians who have been prevented from running for office by being stripped of their full citizenship status.

The middle class calls for inclusion – but not for all

A growing number of Africans have moved from poverty or economic precariousness into (lower) segments of the so-called middle classes. The shift upwards in level of education, professional activities and lifestyle goes hand in hand with promoting active citizenship and a greater awareness of what a citizenship means to enhance one’s protection, opportunities and mobility. The new middle-class citizens demand improved governance, accountability, and transparency. Included in their demand for a new ‘social contract’ is a claim for a ‘citizenship rent’ as a simple rule of mutual benefits: I pay my taxes and follow the law, and therefore expect the state to provide access to justice and welfare services in return.

A growing middle-class does not automatically call for democratic inclusiveness of all, however. It can just as well advocate further exclusion of already marginalised groups. According to an Afrobarometer survey, “middle-class persons display a pervasive suspicion that their fellow citizens are incapable of casting a responsible vote”. In his research, Michael Bratton has shown that as education rises, “individuals are more likely to agree that ‘only those who are sufficiently well educated should be allowed to choose our leaders’ and to disagree that ‘all people should be permitted to vote’”. This means that rather than promoting equal political participation, socio-economic advancement can foster claims for status-related citizenship rights and different categories of citizenship.

Resource nationalism

Historically in many parts of the continent, access to land depended on membership of lineages, ethnic groups, and similar forms of belonging. Customary norms remain a source of intergenerational tensions, hindering the youth from accessing livelihood options, especially in rural contexts. One central sphere of contention regards the relationship between citizenship and property, which is often controlled by the older generation, and often by the men of that generation, at the expense of women and young people, who see their access to landownership denied or restricted. Land rights is also a fundamental factor affecting other resource extraction activities. For example, artisanal and small-scale mining engages an increasing number of youth, including women, who call for land formalization, redistribution and support from the state.

Local contestations of foreign ownership and control over natural resources refer increasingly to citizenship and collective belonging. Compensation demands and clauses force foreign companies to secure beneficiation, meaning to employ local workers, to sub-contract local businesses or to pay back parts of the foreign direct investments as taxes to enhance local benefits. These are manifestations of what is dubbed resource nationalism. It emphasizes citizenship as a bundle of collective rights and entitlements over the natural wealth of one’s country, as opposed to unregulated access by foreign investors. Political discourses motivated by this orientation can take an exclusionary form, such as the anti-Chinese rhetoric in Zambian president Michel Sata’s 2011 election campaign or Ghanaian president Nana Akuffo-Addo’s “declaration of war” (2017) on artisanal gold mining (galamsey), a trade that creates informal jobs for tens of thousands of marginalised young people.

Controversies over who is entitled to control and regulate access to natural resources can escalate into ethnic or xenophobic violence, which adds to the debates on citizenship. In Uganda, president Museveni’s semi-authoritarian regime seeks to encourage the industrial sector and formalise small-scale gold mining, thereby favouring a (trans)national elite. In South Africa, a large proportion of the artisanal gold miners, the Zama Zamas, are undocumented migrant workers, exposed to the recent upsurges in xenophobic violence against foreign traders, which have escalated into the looting of shops and migrants becoming the victims of mob lynching.

A generation in waiting?

Even in contexts where exclusionary practices do not lead to outright violence, youths and migrants (and other marginalised groups) are often not fully recognised in, or sometimes completely excluded from, the social contract between state and citizen. They do not have the same access to justice, social protection, and welfare services. According to UN statistics, Africa’s population will double by 2050. Nearly 41% are below the age of 15, while 15 to 24-year olds constitute almost 20%. They are increasingly concentrated in major cities. Economic strategies incorporate “jobless growth”, when technology replaces a human workforce. Such innovation bypasses those who do not have the required skills. A majority of youth are either unemployed or underemployed and do not have access to higher education or vocational training.

According to a 2020 report by the African Development Bank, close to half of the employed youth on the continent perceive their education and skills as a mismatch with the requirements at their jobs. Around two-thirds of youth have inadequate education. Most live in “waithood”, lacking full citizenship rights and excluded from representation in democratic forums.

The consolidation of multi-party democracy has strengthened young citizens’, or more particularly the young urban voters’ influence over the ballot in many parts of Africa. At the same time, formal political structures often continue to entrench power among the older generations and maintain governance by elders. This resonates with traditional social hierarchies. Such hierarchies are challenged by emergent youth and feminist movements,  mobilising on issues of access to services, land, jobs and resources. This in turn exerts pressure on those in power, who often in response resort to reinforcement of autocratic rule and repression.

Youth have developed new forms of articulating dissent and protest. Popular music is instrumental in how the youth communicate resistance and mobilise. In Zambia , contemporary popular music with political undertones portrays the youth’s precarious and continuous efforts to try to make a living. In Uganda, pop star-turned-politician Bobi Wine, is affectionately known as the “ghetto president“, and is the opposition’s most popular candidate for the next presidential election. His support among the people makes him not only a strong contender but also a target for intimidation, arrest and assassination.

African governments also fear activism utilising the potential created by social media. During protests, governments have restricted access through internet disturbances, so-called throttling, or by total shutdowns. In 2019, at least ten African countries blocked or reduced access to digital media. In mid-2020, the Ethiopian authorities imposed an internet shutdown  for close to a month in response to unrest which followed the killing of the popular Oromo singer and activist Hachalu Hundessa. Internet was also closed down when the invasion of Tigray took place. Governments also seek to curb youth protests by imposing social media taxes and stricter control of internet-based communication.

The need for civic education

A report by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa suggests civic education as a means of influencing the attitude of younger generations. It suggests that governments should seize the opportunity of reaching out to young people through school curricula and public awareness campaigns. But promoting common ground requires more. Civic education ought to address not only pupils but brief all members of a society on citizen rights and civil liberties. Such education could be institutionalised as an integral part of targeted programmes on national, regional and local state levels beyond public and private schools. Training should include public servants, state officials and members of political parties.

It also needs to ensure participation of grassroots organisations and social movement activists to encourage an institutionalised state-citizen dialogue. As a communication strategy, popular forms of youth articulation such as cultural activities, art performances, music and the electronic media, can be utilised. This might enhance and anchor a social contract, which offers citizenship as civil right and entitlement to social benefits for all. In return, based on mutual recognition, such civic liberties need to acknowledge and respect the obligations which come along. These include non-violent engagement with state authorities, who in return abstain from physical repression and other ways of intimidation as a pact on the way towards more social stability.

Promoting inclusive citizenship

Inclusive citizenship and civic rights are key to anchor shared identities and national aspirations in multi-ethnic and multi-lingual societies. Citizenship creates loyalty and an awareness that rights (as benefits) come with obligations. It reduces the risk of civil violence by providing a sense of belonging – and the necessary documents – to all inhabitants. This installs values of a rights-based social contract. For the state, a social contract comes with obligations, such as ensuring services and the rule of law. For citizens, it includes duties, such as paying taxes and limiting disputes to non-violent means. In addition to a shared understanding of this social bond, and the will to pursue and maintain it, genuinely inclusive national citizenship requires an administrative infrastructure for people to register their children for birth certificates and to obtain identity documents.

What we are suggesting, then, is a reflection on citizenship as a social contract that reinforces the nation-state as a space of shared belonging. The salience of regional-cultural identities would not be diminished but instead remain respected in forms of “peaceful co-existence”, with citizenship underlining an all-embracing form of commonality. By stressing bonds rather than dividing lines it offers opportunities to reduce conflicts based on seeing those who are different as “other”. Clientelist relations rooted in ethnic affinities and claims would lose their prominence in the distribution of state and societal resources. This holds potential to open up space for a wider notion of belonging, in resonance with the renewed ambitions of African unity.

A more genuine investment in the promotion and defence of full citizenship rights and obligations as a step towards better governance might be worth a try. Enhancing citizenship and civic rights has almost everywhere been a step in the right direction for the benefit of most. It should be one for African societies too.

Jesper Bjarnesen (@BjarnesenJesper) is Senior Researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala.
Cristiano Lanzano (@stiannu) is Senior Researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala.
Henning Melber (@HenningMelber) is Associate at the Nordic Africa Institute and President of EADI (
Patience Mususa (@PatienceMususa) is Senior Researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala.




Join in the debate... let us know what you think!

Discover more from Democracy in Africa

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading