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date: 19 March 2018

Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Migration in Sub-Saharan Africa

Summary and Keywords

Migration has had a strong impact on the interplay between ethnicity and nationalism in Sub-Saharan Africa. Today’s ethnic map of Africa is the outcome of a lengthy history of comings and goings. Before the European conquests, Africa was not populated by clearly bounded, territorially grounded tribes or ethnic groups in the Western sense. Instead, the most prominent characteristics of precolonial African societies were mobility, overlapping networks, multiple group membership, and the context-dependent drawing of boundaries. Colonialism was later seen as having shaped, even created ethnic identities, contributing to the African shift away from Western notions of nationalism. Afterward, with the postcolonial state taking up its mantle, ethnic loyalty continued to overpower national identity. Local ethnic associations have since acted as a substitute for national citizenship, and ethnic belonging for national consciousness. Three countries in particular demonstrate this interplay of ethnicity, nationalism, and migration in sub-Saharan Africa: Côte d’Ivoire, together with the homeland of many of its migrants, Burkina Faso, in West Africa; South Africa, together with the homeland of many of its migrants, Lesotho; and Botswana in southern Africa. They show that, even across very disparate countries and regions, a common trend is visible toward official attempts to subsume internal ethnic differences under a form of nationalism defined partly by excluding those deemed sometimes rather arbitrarily to be external to the polity.

Keywords: migration, ethnicity, nationalism, Sub-Saharan Africa, colonialism, Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana

Africa is, and always has been, a continent on the move. Its diverse migratory flows have played a critical role in the complex interaction between ethnicity and nationalism in the sub-Saharan context. This relationship has differed significantly from that in Europe, whose impact on all three phenomena in Africa has been great since before the colonial era. After a brief presentation of the scope and nature of migration in Africa, this essay will consider our evolving understanding of its influence on ethnicity and nationalism there. Sub-Saharan Africa’s extraordinary diversity makes it necessary to consider local variation, and special attention will be given to three critical cases – Côte d’Ivoire/Burkina Faso, South Africa/Lesotho, and Botswana – alongside broader regional patterns. Notwithstanding important differences in migratory experiences, there is a common theme that emerges: immigrants have served as pawns for governments keen on weakening or finessing internal ethnic divisions and constructing nationalism in countries that inherited artificial borders at independence. The impact of supranational African institutions and African emigrants on this process will be assessed in turn. Non-African immigrants, such as Indians and Lebanese, have performed a function similar to their African counterparts, and their effect on the development of nationalism will also be examined. In the final analysis, migration in its various forms has been employed as an instrument to integrate what have been fragile nation-states.

Africa: A Migration Continent

Demographic pressures, environmental calamities, economic troubles, fixed and nomadic transhumance, and wars and other conflicts have long driven Africans to migrate. Before the arrival of Europeans, there were no nation-state borders per se, and the boundaries between ethno-cultural communities did not have the same territorial rootedness. They were typically fluid, porous, and “shifted to incorporate newcomers” (Collett 2006:617). Nonetheless, host reactions towards “strangers” ranged between “friendliness, ambivalence, indifference, fear, [and] antagonism” and were subject to change (Shack 1979:7). Many of the dominant ethnic groupings in African countries at present began with migration from various places at various times. Today’s ethnic map of Africa is the outcome of a lengthy history of comings and goings.

During the colonial period, labor demand on plantations and railroads and in mines and bureaucracies led to mass migrations of unskilled men. Forced recruitment was common, as was the voluntary migration of individuals and families seeking economic opportunities (Amin 1974; Coquery-Vidrovitch 1992). Movements continued relatively unimpeded across boundaries that Europeans had inked with minimal regard for demographics or social categories on the ground, and which were frequently undefended and easily traversed. The situation was little altered by independence. Although the distinction between legal and undocumented migration gained force, new national migration controls by and large failed to prevent inflows. The “open” colonial system did close, in the sense that the new states had reason to distinguish between African groups on the basis of ethnic and territorial origin more than ever before (Shack 1979). “Africanization” policies designed to protect domestic employment led to a rise in xenophobia and even waves of deportations from a number of countries. More often than not, however, migration resumed shortly after each incident (Adepoju 2005a; 2005b).

It is difficult to know how many Africans live outside their homeland. Census data are incomplete, devoid of any migration-related information, and/or difficult to access. One estimate holds that there were around 30 million voluntary migrants in Africa by 1990, as well as some 17 million forced migrants, including 4 million refugees (Castles and Miller 2003). The sub-Saharan region has been accounting for a declining number and percentage of international migrants worldwide; the share that migrants comprise of the total sub-Saharan population fell from 3 percent in 1960 to 2 percent in 2000 – still higher than in Latin America or Asia, yet far lower than Europe’s 7.7 percent (Zlotnik 2003:4). The share drop in Africa was due in part to a near trebling of its overall population between 1980 and the end of the 1990s. Its international migrant component has been highly diverse, encompassing temporary laborers, seasonal workers, the undocumented, students, professionals, pastoral nomads, trafficked children, and refugees. The latter category has tended to define impressions of African migration in the outside world. While significant, representing between a fifth and a third of the foreign total in the 1990s, refugees have never constituted anything near the majority (US Department of State 2006). They have been comparable in volume to the number of Africans leaving for Europe. Added to the refugee population, moreover, are about twice again as many people displaced by conflicts and natural disasters (Landau and Vigneswaran 2007). With much of rural Africa facing environmental degradation, institutional depletion, and violent political conflict, “what constitutes the difference between voluntary and involuntary migration, political refugees and economic migrants, and even in some respects urban life and rural life can become vague” (Simone 2003:2).

Since African countries won their independence, the outflow of their residents to the former colonial powers has attracted the most scholarly attention. Migration within the continent has been equally noteworthy, and it, too, has been affected by colonialism. European-built cities, especially along the coast, have continued to attract migrants from the interior. The more urbanized and developed areas of Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, and South Africa have received the greatest domestic and regional influxes (Castles and Miller 2003). Given the uneven pattern of incorporation into global capitalism and the contrived nature of national boundaries, it has not always been of much practical significance whether migration is technically domestic or international. Residents designated as strangers have been as likely to be migrants from other parts of the same country as from other countries (Le Vine 1997; Isomonah 2003).

The relationship between those internal African migratory movements and ethnicity and nation building has often fallen through academia’s disciplinary cracks: “Anthropologists have tended to focus on ‘tribal’ traditions in a rural setting as the starting point from which to measure change; while political scientists study the integration of ‘ethnic groups’ by centralizing ‘national’ institutions” and historians highlight “various stages of anti-colonial nationalism or of cooption into the world capitalist system” (Chappell 1989:671). Migration has fit only incidentally into most analyses. Interest in it has grown lately, as xenophobia, anti-migrant attacks, and even mass deportations have become all-too-common features of African sociopolitical life. In order to understand such phenomena, it is necessary to consider precolonial, colonial, and postindependence experiences. The “rise of ‘ethnicity’” (Gervais and Mandé 2000) has been part of the process of nation building, “accompanied in certain instances by the expulsion of groups considered to be extraneous to the national polity” (Zlotnik 2003:1).

Ethnicity in Sub-Saharan Africa

It is not uncommon, in fact, to find the term “ethnicity” within quotation marks when treating African realities. Agreement has been widespread in the scholarly literature that ethnicity represents a colonial-era invention. Before the European conquests, Africa was not populated by clearly bounded, territorially grounded tribes or ethnic groups in the Western sense. Instead, “the most prominent characteristics of precolonial African societies were mobility, overlapping networks, multiple group membership, and the context-dependent drawing of boundaries” (Lentz 2000:107). Colonial officials are seen as having shaped, even created ethnic identities. In the Congo, for example, Belgian authorities co-opted ethnic leaders (chiefs) or put their own amenable allies in place as a means of exerting control through indirect rule and divide-and-conquer strategies (Mamdani 1996). Such “historical ethnic engineering” left a seemingly indelible mark: chiefs have remained as major powerbrokers since independence, and politicians and governments have continued to manipulate ethnic identities in their interests (Amisi and Ballard 2005:13). The malleability of ethnic identities is evident in variations over time in the construction of ethnic and linguistic divisions across institutional contexts (Posner 2005).

This “constructivist” view has been challenged, however. Feelings of belonging to ethnic communities predated the colonial period, according to this line of argument. Thus the impact of Europeans’ agency should not be exaggerated. They did not start with a tabula rasa, nor did they invent “ethnicity.” It has been the product of a long, complicated, many-sided, ongoing process of appropriation, reshuffling, and creation involving a host of actors and institutions (Ranger 1993). This dynamic conception focuses on “how ethnic categories, boundaries, and institutions were created and continually redefined by colonial officials, anthropologists, chiefs, labor migrants, and educated elites, and how the different ethnic discourses fed into each other” (Lentz 2000:107).

Depending on their background, language, and territorial origins, domestic and international migrants entering into a given area presented different bases and potential for absorption. One popular perspective has maintained that in West Africa broader ethnic identities first began to supplant localized rural ones among migrants in coastal port cities. While the extent to which the process was unidirectional remains open to debate, common emphasis is laid on developments affecting expatriates who were living “along a geographically complex social frontier” (Breitborde 1991:186). It has likewise been argued that African ethnicities emerged out of the sorts of migrant outposts that “nestle in the interstices” between settled groups, continually injecting fluidity into local systems and gradually transforming traditional kinship and clientelistic structures into more inclusive mechanisms (Kopytoff 1987). It is important to recall again that the decisions of authorities – during and since the colonial period – were responsible for many of the population movements in question, as well for key aspects of identity construction among them and their neighbors.

African Nationalism and Migration

The role of European officials in establishing borders between colonies and in shaping both their demographic composition and ethnic identities has already been discussed. Since independence, those artificial boundaries have been maintained for the most part. In the hopes of strengthening their position and heading off internal divisions, weak and routinely corrupt African states have endeavored to replace (or at least trump) ethnic identities with national ones.

Nationalism emerged from the western European experience, associated variously with the end of the religious wars and the French Revolution (Zuzowski 2006), the development of the centralized state (Conversi 2004), and the onset of capitalism and the industrial era (Anderson 1983; Gellner 1983). While some scholars have criticized these so-called modernist explanations for ignoring premodern identities that “enabled” nationhood (Smith 1991), national identities are usually seen as cultivating a sense of unity, security, and belonging that transcend other sources of loyalty (Gellner 1983; Miller 2000). In practice, the idea of joining the shared “we-feeling” of the nation to the political structures of the state means that a majority culture may be imposed on minority cultures, which have the choice either to assimilate or to attempt to break away and establish their own polity (Van Dijk 2003:564; see also Walzer 1997; Gellner 1998).

It remains unclear to what degree Western-style notions of the nation-state and nationalism apply to sub-Saharan Africa. Politicians and scholars have engaged in pitched, partisan debates over the relationship between nationalism and ethnic identity there (Young 1976; Horowitz 1985). Except for the unions of British and Italian Somaliland and British and French Cameroon in 1961 and the more recent separation of Eritrea from Ethiopia, Africa’s national borders are as they were when colonialism ended. African officials have defended the “imperial” boundaries that they inherited, fearing the implosion of newly independent states into small, politically unstable, economically frail entities if concessions were made to internal ethnic demands (Hughes 2004:834). There has also been concern that micro-states would be more vulnerable to superpower meddling. Nationalism has an international dimension, and “claims to nationhood” are perforce “claims to at least some level of autonomy and self-sufficiency, and claims to certain rights within a world-system of states” (Calhoun 1993:216).

Colonial rule and the frailty of independent African states meant that citizens had learned not to expect much of government. The disconnection between the public sphere and the private sphere before independence resulted in a split in the former: the primordial public, comprised by ethnic and communal groupings, stood in opposition to the civic public, which was closely associated with the colonial administration (Ekeh 1975). With the postcolonial state taking up its mantle, ethnic loyalty has continued to overpower national identity. Local ethnic associations have acted as a substitute for national citizenship, and ethnic belonging for national consciousness (Amisi and Ballard 2005). For insecure African governments, then, nationalism has stood as a necessary foil against the divisive forces of “tribalism” and “communalism” – which only threaten to grow more dangerous when riled by the rapid social change brought by economic development (Calhoun 1993). Generally speaking, African regimes are seen to have failed at cultivating nationalistic sentiments (Paul et al. 2003). A widely cited survey of twin Hausa villages on opposite sides of the border between Niger and Nigeria did yield contrary evidence, however, and points to the need for more careful empirical research (Miles and Rochefort 1991).

Issues of migration are by no means alien to this discussion, even if they have not infrequently been absent from it. Jeffrey Herbst (2000) has argued that the abundance of land and scarcity of labor in Africa meant that states in the precolonial period fought over people and concentrated on controlling them. That legacy has lived on since independence, as African leaders have manipulated boundaries of membership for their own goal of retaining power. Managing movements across national borders and regulating access to citizenship and membership in the political community represent not only central attributes of state power (Peberdy 2001) but also potential challenges to state sovereignty (Adamson 2006). In the West, migration and migrant integration were intimately bound up with nation- and state-building processes (Wimmer and Schiller 2002). With nation-states’ powers now in apparent decline in Europe, those states have made use of migratory issues to reaffirm their importance and control (Ireland 2004).

In Africa, analogously, migration and migrants have proven critical to state-led efforts to build nations and to assert (if not reassert) their clout. In many instances, the relationship has been cast in antagonistic terms. Pastoralist communities (such as Chadian Mohamides in Niger) and transborder populations have been among those most widely affected. States have offered “belonging” to insiders and “otherness” to outsiders – be they international migrants or domestic strangers (Van Dijk 2003; see Malikki 1995). The genocide of Tutsi by Hutu in Rwanda (Taylor 1999), the struggles of the English-speaking minority in Cameroon (Konings and Nyamnjoh 2000) and the Banyamulenge of eastern Congo, the expulsion of black Mauritanians, and the events in west and southern Africa described in detail below stand as cases in point.

Migrants, more specifically, have long received blame for urban ills ranging from unrestrained growth to labor market competition (Beauchemin and Bocquier 2004). In rural areas, local land tenure systems appear to have influenced the (in)ability of later arrivals to fit in, their citizenship rights, and the tenor of intercommunal relations (Isumonah 2003). Whether xenophobia involves one-sided dislike of foreigners on the part of locals (Gray 1998) or a more intricate, reciprocal interplay of repulsion and attraction (Van Dijk 2003), xenophobia and the policy-generated “minoritization” of formerly unnoticed groups have marked more and more African societies (see Werbner 2002). States have seen it to be in their interests to finesse internal cleavages by encouraging those trends and adopting an “exclusionist” conception of national citizenship (Van Dijk 2003; see Mamdani 1996).

A Diversity of Experiences

The “exclusions of nation-building” (Crush 2002:161) have characterized countries across the African continent. At the same time, analysis of migration is made difficult by the sheer diversity of its countries, peoples, histories, and climates. Not surprisingly, then, coverage of sub-Saharan Africa has typically suffered from the extremes of excessive generalization (normally perpetrated by political scientists) or an exaggerated resistance to generalization of any kind (characteristic of some anthropologists and historians). The goal should be to balance sensitivity to undeniable contextual variations with attentiveness to the patterns that exist. For instance, while countries whose economies are dominated by rents from hydrocarbon extraction, such as Nigeria and Gabon, are quite dissimilar in many respects, there have been clear similarities in their migratory experiences: each pulled in and even recruited large numbers of migrants (many of them undocumented) from around their region during the oil industry’s postindependence boom. When it went bust in the 1980s, policies to nationalize the labor force, large-scale expulsions of foreigners, and an upsurge in xenophobia were part of both the Nigerian and Gabonese reactions (see Swindell 1990; Doomernik 1998; Zlotnik 2003).

In many African countries, ethnic differences have not prevented the negotiation of stable social relations, poverty and lack of development notwithstanding. Outsider communities arising from migration have reached accommodation with a range of African governments. That said, instances of harassment and forced expulsion have been far from exceptional. The respected Citizenship Rights in Africa Initiative (a joint project of the Global Pan African Movement, the International Refugee Rights Initiative, and the Open Society Justice Initiative) has estimated that tens of millions of people have suffered from forced statelessness and the denial of citizenship in Africa, deemed the top human security and human rights problems on the continent (see Ali-Dinar 2007).

More detailed coverage is offered below of three cases that are critical to understanding the interplay of ethnicity, nationalism, and migration in sub-Saharan Africa: Côte d’Ivoire, together with the homeland of many of its migrants, Burkina Faso, in West Africa; South Africa, together with the homeland of many of its migrants, Lesotho; and Botswana in southern Africa. Even across very disparate countries and regions, a common trend is visible toward official attempts to subsume internal ethnic differences under a form of nationalism defined partly by excluding those deemed sometimes rather arbitrarily to be external to the polity.

Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso

Côte d’Ivoire has had a lengthy history of attracting migrants. Its four main cultural-linguistic groups – the Akan, Krou, Mandé, and Voltaic peoples – all immigrated into the region at various points between the tenth and nineteenth centuries. Over 60 distinct groups, many of them linked to one of the four major groupings, lived in the territory that became a French protectorate and then the colony of Côte d’Ivoire in the 1800s. Interethnic boundaries, which had never had great meaning and had never been fixed, became more geographically rooted under colonial rule. As in next-door Ghana (Tsikata and Seini 2004), development was uneven, eventually dividing the more prosperous and more Christian south, the seat of political authority, from the poorer, predominantly Muslim north (Collett 2006). On either side, competition for land and other resources resulted in a hardening of the division between “natives” and “strangers” (Woods 2003).

A prime source of rivalry and conflict was the influx of workers, in many cases forced laborers, destined for the large cocoa and coffee plantations that the French introduced into Côte d’Ivoire (Langer 2005). Northerners, including many Mossi people from Upper Volta (modern-day Burkina Faso), performed the menial agricultural tasks. European planters, Lebanese shopkeepers and wholesalers, and educated clerical workers from other areas of French West Africa added to the demographic mixture (Chappell 1989).

After independence, the Ivoirian government signed labor recruitment agreements with several of its neighbors, loosened labor market practices, and adopted a liberal immigration policy. By the mid-1970s, more than a third of the country’s workers and 80 percent of agricultural laborers were not Ivoirian citizens – even without counting the growing number of French expatriates. During flush economic times, this foreign presence was unproblematic and might well have mitigated tensions among Ivoirians themselves and contributed to a sense of national unity (Mingst 1988).

The country’s first president and durable personal ruler was Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the son of a leader of the Baule (or Baoulé) people related to the Akan. Part and parcel of his development strategy was continued encouragement of immigration from elsewhere in the region: Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, and Niger (Daddieh 2001). The “Old Man” (le Vieux) aligned himself with northerners and immigrants, granting land ownership to resident Burkinabè and calling for the unity of the Ivoirian people while employing a vague definition of Ivoirian identity (Collett 2006). Nevertheless, Houphouët-Boigny and other native elites were quick to decide that a truly national culture and identity required an explicit effort to “indigenize” control over the economy (Cohen 1974). This “Ivoirianization” policy left commerce in private hands. Despite the prominent, not to say predominant role of Europeans and Lebanese firms, merchants, and traders, much of the “official discourse targeted non-Ivoirian Africans” (Boone 1993:80). And when the global recession and severe drought took their toll on the economy in the 1980s, it was against them that local anger was directed. Hostility and violence compelled many foreigners to leave Côte d’Ivoire.

President Houphouët-Boigny died in December 1993 and was succeeded by the president of the National Assembly, Henri Konan Bédié. Running for election to a full term in 1995, he propagated an exclusionary and ethnicized brand of nationalism. At that very moment, war refugees from Liberia and Sierra Leone were seeking a safe haven in the country, only to find themselves being made scapegoats for worsening unemployment and crime. To be Ivoirian, according to Bédié, was to partake in “ivoirité” (“Ivoirianness”) (Toungara 2001). Only a person whose parents had both been born in Côte d’Ivoire and had never held non-Ivoirian citizenship met the requirements. While designed primarily to head off a political challenge from a northern candidate, the use of ethnic labels as negative identifiers only invited responses in kind. Bédié and other southern politicians tarred northerners and Muslims from neighboring countries with the same brush (Kirwin 2006) and made dark suggestions that foreign countries were intent on destabilizing the Ivoirian government (Daddieh 2001). General Robert Gueï, a westerner, overthrew Bédié in 1999, and was eventually replaced by Laurent Gbagbo, a southerner. Both used ivoirité and xenophobia as tactics and as cudgels against their opponents.

From an element of developmental strategy, nationalism had transmuted into a xenophobic, quasi-tribal tool of power politics (Akindès 2003). Côte d’Ivoire descended into civil war from 2002 to 2004 and remains split in two. Throughout this period of political instability and demagoguery, Burkinabè and Malians have been harassed, attacked, and chased out of the country once more. Certain media outlets have spewed diatribes against the “forces of evil” resembling the hate-filled incitements to genocide broadcast by Rwanda’s Radio Mille Collines in 1994 and echoing the inflammatory discourse of some of the new Pentecostal churches (Banégas 2006). It might take a miracle for migration to become again what it was for a time under Houphouët-Boigny: a hedge against ethnic division and a boon to national unity.

The flipside of the Ivoirian story, meanwhile, is discernible in Burkina Faso. The poor, landlocked country to the north of Côte d’Ivoire furnished one-third to one-half of the over five million non-native Africans in that country in the early 2000s (US Department of State 2006). Three ethnic groups have dominated migratory flows – Mossi, Fulani, and Lobi – each following its own pattern in consequence of traditions and socioeconomic status. Migration has taken place to the urban centers of Bobo-Dioulasso and Ouagadougou and to Europe and North America, in addition to other west African countries (Beauchemin and Schoumaker 2005).

The latter “continental” migration may have brought fewer economic benefits to Burkina Faso than “intercontinental” migration (Wouterse and Taylor 2008). Yet as in Côte d’Ivoire, migration to neighboring countries has contributed more significantly to the birth of national identity in Burkina Faso. Both in the homeland and the so-called host society, “one of the central impacts of the migration experience was to crystallize the will to assert a national state”; with their “new sense of otherness,” migrants returning to Burkina Faso “became catalysts both of change and of a new sense of community” (Gervais and Mandé 2000:59). A series of struggles have obliged Burkinabè emigrants and returnees alike to ponder, reassess, and reshape their collective interests and identities: the hard-fought competition over their labor between British and French colonies in the region, the complicated and changeable status of Upper Volta within French West Africa, the ethnic tensions in Côte d’Ivoire following decolonization, the battle between conservative and radical elements in Burkinabè society, Burkina Faso’s own charged road to self-government and independence, the accusations leveled by Ivoirian politicians against Burkinabè migrants and officials in Ouagadougou, and the country’s ongoing economic crises (see Gregory et al. 1989). Migration has thus been as powerful a factor in “sending” Burkina Faso as in “receiving” Côte d’Ivoire in the construction of national identity and its interaction with ethnic identities.

South Africa and Lesotho

In southern Africa, too, migration has mediated the relationship between ethnicity and nationalism. For South Africa, the current economic magnet of the region, internal and international migration has been a tradition since well before the arrival of the Dutch Boers in the seventeenth century. After independence in 1910 and under formal apartheid from 1948 to 1994, immigration per se was a white affair: the state felt the need to augment the non-black population. Even so, the “clamor for white immigrants waxed and waned over time, as did both the areas deemed suitable as sources of immigrants” and the strength of an “introspective nationalism” that was anxious about their effects on social cohesion (Crush 2002:156–7).

Migratory movements involved the native population as well. Poll taxes compelled subsistence farmers to head to the mines and the developing cities to earn wages, and South African employers and the governments of neighboring countries signed agreements under which foreign workers were recruited. Their contracts were limited to a maximum of two years, after which they had to return as a group to their homelands. They were not permitted to bring their families with them, to leave the area in which they worked, or to change their employers. In the early 1970s, “supplying” countries like Mozambique and Malawi decided to halt the labor outflow. The South African government responded by steadily reducing the gold and coal industries’ reliance on imported workers (Zlotnik 2003). Always a major source, Lesotho came to provide over half of its foreign labor force (Adepoju 2003).

Apartheid’s demise radically transformed the dynamics of migration in South Africa. Legal immigration and thus the influx of skilled white migrants declined. In fact, greater numbers of white South Africans than before began leaving for Europe, North America, and Australia. On the other hand, from 1990, when the ban was lifted on the African National Congress (ANC) and Nelson Mandela was released from prison, skilled professionals from Nigeria and Ghana streamed into the country, along with merchants and traders from both Congos, Mali, Senegal, and Zimbabwe; farm laborers and mine workers from the traditional source countries of Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, and Swaziland; and other unskilled workers and refugees from across the continent (Rogerson 1997; Adepoju 2005b). Notwithstanding the very real problems that confronted them, South Africans enjoyed greater economic and political opportunities and better living standards than most other sub-Saharans (Adepoju 2003). Just to cite one telling illustration: the ratio of per-capita GDP between South Africa and Mozambique was more than forty to one in the mid-1990s, compared to a ratio of just over six to one between the USA and Mexico (Kotzé and Hill 1997:22).

In 1994, the new ANC-led democratic government “inherited a system of cross-border migration management characterized by corruption, racial double-standards, and special privileges for certain employers” (Crush 1999:1). Several steps were taken to move beyond that legacy. Migrant workers won the right to vote in local and national elections and, in due course, gain formal citizenship. Three separate amnesties between 1994 and 1999 awarded legal standing to over 300,000 contract workers, undocumented migrants, and one-time refugees (Crush and Williams 1999). The apotheosis of apartheid-era migration policy, the Aliens Control Act of 1991, was amended to remove the most draconian regulations concerning undocumented migrants’ rights. However, the Act’s exemptions remained, allowing for bilateral recruitment treaties with sending countries to meet the needs of mining companies and farmers, guest worker schemes, and the selective admission of permanent immigrants and skilled temporary labor (Peberdy and Crush 1998). Amendments in 1995 required immigration and work permit applications to be filed abroad, instituted large non-refundable fees on applications for residence permits, and levied heavy fines on airlines and shippers that transported passengers without proper documentation (Peberdy 2001).

The apartheid system had suppressed ethnic rivalries by separating and tightly controlling the African population, endeavoring to anchor the country’s numerous ethnic groups in “tribal” homelands. Conflicts emerged when the new regime faced the task of meeting the populace’s heightened expectations once democracy had arrived. The ruling ANC leadership, including Nelson Mandela, came primarily from the Xhosa, the second-largest ethnic group. Its principal ally/competitor, the Inkatha Freedom Party, was associated with the largest grouping, the Zulu. The Inkatha leader, Mangosuthu G. Buthelezi, was named Minister of Home Affairs in 1994 and took charge of the immigration portfolio. His brand of “ethnic exclusivism” was visible in the migration policies left over from apartheid (Crush 1999).

Neither was it absent from the subsequent escalation in xenophobic sentiment and behavior. African handicrafts – “sculptures from Zimbabwe, kente cloth from Ghana, and the popular traditional boubous from Senegal” – were much sought after in post-1994 South Africa. Migrant traders themselves, by contrast, were “abhorred” (Adepoju 2003:12). The dismantling of apartheid employment regulations and the implementation of programs to diversify the labor market combined to worsen unemployment. Foreigners seemed to be contenders for jobs, and they were soon blamed as well for rising rates of crime, poverty, and HIV/AIDS infection (Croucher 1998). Sounding like their counterparts in western Europe and the USA, the mainstream media warned shrilly about the dangers posed by the “flood of illegal aliens” (South African Migration Project 1998:1). In the larger cities where they rubbed shoulders, South Africans and other Africans “developed competing idioms for relating to one another and the space they share” (Landau 2006:125).

Hostility toward African immigrants grew markedly. Police raids on undocumented migrants targeted them specifically, relying on skin color, vaccination and scarification marks, accent, level of language fluency, dress, mannerisms, and other superficial identifiers (Minaar and Hough 1996:165–7). Every year, South Africa was expelling around one million Mozambicans alone. Foreign Africans became victims of official harassment and extortion, arson attacks on their homes and possessions, mass demonstrations, beatings, and even murders (Human Rights Watch 1998). The bitter irony of such developments was that many of those migrants and refugees hailed from countries that had for decades offered protection and shelter to ANC officials in exile, and material and moral support to anti-apartheid freedom fighters (Adepoju 2003:9–14).

The ethnic chauvinism on display – the phenomenon of “violent othering” (Crush and Dodson 2007:436) – was not happening by chance, however. South Africa reinvented itself after 1994 as a “rainbow nation,” inclusive not only racially but likewise with respect to ethnicity, religion, class, gender, and sexual orientation. This ambitious, defensive project was designed to transcend past rifts by generating a national identity that could be shared by all citizens. It was this “shift toward citizenship and inclusivity as markers of belonging” that resulted in harshness toward immigrants (Peberdy 2001:15). The rainbow nation, as Jonathan Crush (2002:166) has remarked, “was multi-colored but had very well-defined and impermeable borders.” Africans from outside them now represented a possible menace to South African nationals’ newfound rights, entitlements, and social benefits (Peberdy 2001:27–9).

It would take until 2002, with passage of the Immigration Act, for the lingering harshness of the Aliens Control Act to recede. Once amended in 2004, the new Act finally went into effect in summer 2005. While breaking with the anti-immigrant tack of the past, it inaugurated a system geared around a selective admissions policy prizing certain skills. The idea was both to appeal to migrants deemed desirable and to deny entry to those who posed a threat to South African jobs and fiscal interests (Crush and Dodson 2007:441–2).

To a certain extent, Lesotho, totally encircled by South Africa, has served as the functional equivalent of Burkina Faso: the primary source of labor to its larger and more developed neighbor, with which it has engaged in a privileged yet bittersweet relationship (see Ulicki and Crus 2007). The Basotho people, also present in South Africa, constitute by far the largest ethnic grouping in Lesotho. They share a history of successfully resisting attempts by more powerful neighbors to conquer, absorb, and control them. Their legendary king, Moshoeshoe I, won British support for Basotho autonomy early in the nineteenth century and thereby gave a jumpstart to feelings of national identity. It swelled after 1910, when incorporation into the Union of South Africa loomed as a real possibility (Rosenberg 2001). Lesotho nationalism, as a result, developed early and defensively. The country has since evolved into a democracy that is in many ways dependent on South Africa (Southall 2003).

The positive and negative experiences of Basotho migrants there have bolstered Lesotho nationalism and assisted its adaptation to postapartheid realities. Opinion polls conducted in Lesotho (as well as in Mozambique and Zimbabwe) have shown great upset over xenophobia and restrictive immigration policies in South Africa. Respondents display a clear preference for more relaxed border controls and a belief in interregional mobility as a basic human right. Simultaneously, they accept the existence of migration regulations and respect “the sanctity of the border” (South African Migration Project 1998:28). Hence, migration persists in buttressing the national boundaries defining Lesotho as a distinct polity, irrespective of the close cultural, linguistic, and familial ties between its people and South Africans.


Yet another variation on this theme comes from another South African neighbor, Botswana. It was once a profoundly poor place, thousands of whose men served as contract laborers in the gold and diamond mines to the south. A bilateral agreement, which contained a provision to defer pay and channel remittances home, regulated their temporary migration. Just a year after the country’s independence in 1966, however, substantial diamond deposits were discovered beneath the national territory. Soon, Botswana was facing a shortage of skilled workers in a number of economic sectors and began to welcome qualified migrants from across Africa. Among the more numerous were professionals from Ghana, Malawi, Namibia, Zambia, and Rhodesia/Zimbabwe (Van Dijk 2002). With the highest per-capita GDP in sub-Saharan Africa, Botswana became a prime destination for undocumented migrants as well. It nevertheless found no need to devise a formal immigration policy, readily granting entry visas and residence permits.

Unlike such liberation movements as the ANC and Namibia’s South West African People’s Organization, which have mutated into dominant and domineering political parties once in power, the Botswana Democratic Party has based its rule on its economic achievements and its defense of democratic political principles. The Tswana people account for almost 80 percent of the overall population, and they have close ties to the Tswana living in what used to be the South African bantustan of Bophuthatswana. Even so, emigration from Botswana has been low since independence and since the end of apartheid. The South African Migration Project and the University of Botswana undertook research in 1997–8 that linked that fixedness to a high level of nationalism. Overwhelming majorities of interviewees expressed pride in being a citizen of Botswana and considered it to be a very important part of their identity. A solid majority disagreed with the statement, “It really does not matter where one is a citizen as long as the person has a good quality of life” (Southall 2003).

Unfortunately, the gelling of national consciousness has gone hand in hand with mounting hostility toward the ever greater number of foreign migrants. Previously, the state had underscored its anticolonialist heritage and acknowledged the country’s unmet labor demand by stressing “Africanization” and recruiting workers from throughout the continent. As in Côte d’Ivoire, the economic challenges of the 1980s and early 1990s provoked a shift toward “localization”: the state began to couch its liberal democratic rhetoric in terms of an “undifferentiated citizenship” that aimed at “concealing on the one hand inequalities between the various groups in the country, but on the other hand defending the exclusive interests of all ‘Batswana’ against foreign influence” (Van Dijk 2003:560–1). The new localization approach and the attendant institutional and informal xenophobia damaged the position even of professional migrants. Refugees from Namibia and people fleeing conflicts in its Caprivi Strip, Angola, and – especially – Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe nonetheless bore the brunt of the sea change in policies and attitudes. There were mass deportations of Zimbabweans, who comprised the bulk of undocumented migrants.

The cases of Botswana, Lesotho, South Africa, Burkina Faso, and Côte d’Ivoire, to sum up, illuminate two key aspects of the migration–ethnicity–nationalism relationship. First of all, they highlight the undeniable diversity of sub-Saharan Africa. Countries’ general and migratory histories, demographic composition, level of economic development, degrees of national consciousness, and regional context have been and are manifold. Second of all, however, there are important points of convergence. Whereas most African communities have proven hospitable and generous to outsiders and newcomers in the past, a new unfriendliness and lack of sympathy have emerged over the past few decades. Both in receiving and sending countries, migration and migrants have been employed to mediate domestic ethnic frictions and build or reinforce national identities.

Perhaps for that reason, proposals to cooperate on migratory issues at the regional level have borne little fruit. The Economic Community of West Africa (Communauté Économique de l’Afrique de l’Ouest – CEAO) grouping of seven former French colonies, Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso among them, signed an agreement on the free circulation of people in 1978. It never came into effect, and the CEAO’s successor organization, the West African Economic and Monetary Union, has concerned itself with other issues. The broader Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) passed a Protocol on the Free Movement of Persons, Right of Residence, and Establishment in 1979. The right to entry for member-state citizens with valid travel documents became reality in 1980. The right of residence and the right to set up a business in another ECOWAS country have remained limited due to concerns over undocumented migration. The outcome has been similar in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), to which Botswana, Lesotho, and South Africa all belong (Zlotnik 2003). (Regional organizations in central Africa and east Africa have made even less progress toward realizing the free movement of people.) Like Côte d’Ivoire in its region, South Africa has been the chief impediment to greater mobility within the SADC (Crush and Dodson 2007). Agreements reached under the aegis of the CEAO, ECOWAS, and SADC have failed to prevent periodic expulsions of community citizens. Migration, after all, has fortified national boundaries more than it has rendered them obsolete.

Additional Migration-Related Contributors to Ethnic Relations and Nationalism

Several additional migration-related elements have provided grist for the nationalist mill. Although not as central to the story as the movements and incidents described above, emigrant communities outside Africa and Indian and Lebanese immigrants have enabled political elites’ efforts to convert synthetic boundaries into meaningful dividers between sovereign nations. These groupings demonstrate more clearly than the national cases that ethnic identities and national identity need not be at loggerheads; they can be “mutually constitutive” (Amisi and Ballard 2005:13).

Emigrant Communities/Diasporas

As noted above, scholarship has focused more on Africans emigrating to Europe and North America than to those migrating within the continent. When emigrants’ interaction with their homelands is the topic, the spotlight mostly falls on the effects of brain drain on sending countries and the amount and impact of their economic remittances (see Styan 2007). Lately, emigrant participation in development projects (such as the building of irrigation systems, electrification, and various public health initiatives) has drawn interest – not least from Western governments hoping to reduce migration push factors (see, inter alia, McDowell and de Haan 1998; Diatta and Mbow 1999). Initially highly suspicious of such initiatives and more worried about exerting control over their nationals abroad, African governments have started to mine the potential benefits of expatriate communities and have taken up “strategic transnationalism” (Patterson 2006).

Migration, however, is also about “interrelating places” (Simone 2003:33) in ways that transcend economic issues. Given the ineffectiveness and corruption of many sub-Saharan states, it has only been when overseas that many Africans have really learned about the value of national citizenship and have developed national consciousness. Survey data on return migrants to Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana suggest that family ties affect decisions to return and to send remittances, and “aspects of human, social, and financial capital acquisition and investment” (Tiemoko 2004:155; compare Hampshire 2006 on Burkina Faso). Associational membership, both while abroad and back home, plays a meditating role. There is a two-way transfer not only of money but also of social, cultural, and political ideas.

The consequences of this phenomenon are just now coming under serious investigation. Diasporas and transnationalism, objects of recent fascination in the migration studies field, have lent a needed accent on agency and membership, highlighting migrants’ construction of their own identities in relation to different places, groups, and countries (Rummens 2003). These concepts’ popularity has occasionally obscured their more problematic aspects. The diaspora notion shares a direct lineage with older paradigms of race and ethnicity, appealing to similar conceptions of primordial bonding and belonging (Anthias 2001) and ignoring the historical-institutional contingency of identity and community (Soysal 2000). Diaspora studies often fail by design to contribute to generalization and have suffered from severe conceptual stretching (Brubaker 2005; see Dosi et al. 2007). Discussions that emphasize the specific mobilizational processes that must occur for a diaspora to emerge (Sökefeld 2006) amount to exceptions that prove the rule.

Admittedly, such processes are more prominent in the literature on transnationalism, where the primary emphasis is placed on the networks and choices that immigrants make for themselves. Migrants often exercise latitude in determining whether and when to leave their place of origin, where to resettle, which homeland connections they wish to preserve, and which attachments to their new host country are most significant to them (Faist 2000). Their decisions contribute to a migratory trajectory over the course of which identities are loosened, redefined, and (re)created. Multiple identities are the norm in this optic. The linkages between identity, transnational politics, and homeland development – nation-building efforts included – are a fresh area of research (Kleist 2008).


Emigrant communities, therefore, are increasingly viewed as actors in the complicated give-and-take between ethnicity and nationalism in sub-Saharan Africa. Closer to home, there are non-African (and non-European) migrant communities that have been implicated in the same game. Indians, for example, have had a noticeable presence in east and southern Africa, the parts of the continent closest to the subcontinent. The migration of Gujaratis to east Africa is of long standing and at first responded to the construction of the Uganda–Kenya and Tanganyika railways and other infrastructural projects. Their contribution in those areas peaked in the mid-1960s; they moved thereafter into manufacturing and services, becoming more urbanized and concentrated in the process (see Morris 1956).

East African Indians – the broader, politically correct term now being “Asians” – were widely and mistakenly resented as exploiters, and they worried about what independence might bring to the region. Anxious to prove their loyalty and commitment, large numbers of them took up formal citizenship of the new countries: 41 percent in Kenya and more in Uganda and Tanzania. Others hedged their bets, retaining British or Indian citizenship. Looming restrictions on UK entry immigration from former colonies provided fuel for the latter trend in the late 1960s (Gupta 1998). Soon, “Kenyanization”, “Tanganyikanization”, and “Ugandanization” policies were conferring preferences in hiring, training, licensing, and access to credit and technical assistance to Africans and bumping Indians out of the commercial sphere (Himbara 1997). The failure of the new policy to create a strong African entrepreneurial class only aggravated anti-Indian sentiment.

Xenophobia has been harnessed to generate national consciousness in the three countries. Mistrust among the Acholi, Baganda, Bakonzo, Karamojong cluster, and other peoples has dominated Ugandan politics. Diversity has been accepted, but the winner-take-all principle has prevailed: governments in power “have suppressed particular ethnic groups in order to promote the interests of the political leader’s ethnic group” (Baker 2001:7). Indians were candidates for this “suffocation” under Colonel Idi Amin Dada, who ordered all 60,000 of them to leave the country within 90 days in 1972. There was less discrimination in Tanzania, although Indian businesses had been looted during the fight for independence. President Julius Nyerere’s embrace of African socialism (or Afro-Marxism) could not help but cast Indian traders in a negative light and bring about xenophobic rhetoric and actions (Gupta 1998). Even capitalist Kenya saw economic troubles, Africanization, governmental denunciations of Asian “bloodsuckers”, riots, and looting that led to the departure of Indians in the early 1980s. No strangers to these developments in Kenya or in Tanzania were political leaders’ hopes of reducing internal ethnic rifts by vilifying Indians. Only of late have the three countries witnessed a modest amount of return Indian migration, due in some measure in Uganda to insistence by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank that property expropriated under Idi Amin be returned (Himbara 1997:16).

The dynamics of Indian migration to South Africa has proven a bit more complicated. Today, more than a million “Indian South Africans” live in the country, many of them descended from indentured workers brought in during the 1800s by the British to labor on sugar plantations and in coal mines in Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal) Province (Hughes 2007). The population has always been very diverse, however, stratified by caste, class, religion, region, and language. The imposition of ethnic boundaries and segregation preserved Indian identity during the colonial and apartheid periods. With varying degrees of acceptance, Indians were labeled “Black,” “Asian,” and “Indian,” depending on the time and context. Their confusing, ambiguous position in South African society did nothing to mitigate resentment toward their economic role and alleged “double allegiance” and “duplicity,” as evidenced by sporadic anti-Indian riots like those in Durban in 1949 and Inanda in 1985 (Landy et al. 2004:213).

The end of apartheid has converted the Indian-origin population into pawns in the new nation-building push. Once caught between the ruling white minority and the African majority, Indians now find themselves caught between the Zulu-dominated Inkatha Freedom Party, in control at the regional level, and the ANC, in control at the urban and national levels (Landy et al. 2004). The ANC’s vision of a rainbow nation has appealed to a majority of Indian voters, which has earned them the wrath of Inkatha supporters. Their diatribes have found resonance in conservative ANC circles, stoking Indian-African hostility more generally. Like “rainbowism,” then, “anti-Indianism” has served the purpose of drawing attention away from internal tensions and socioeconomic ills and constructing a national identity (Ramsamy 2007). Unlike African immigrants, Indian South Africans grew into an integral part of South African society long ago, and they have been compelled to renegotiate their identity and membership (Singh 2008).


In West Africa, Lebanese (or Syro-Lebanese) merchants, traders, and entrepreneurs have acted as something of the functional equivalent of Indians in other regions. Privileged yet vulnerable minorities, they provide yet another example of the employment of xenophobia to provide an answer to the question “who are we as a nation?”. Initially fleeing economic and political turmoil in the declining Ottoman Empire, Lebanese had their entry facilitated and institutionalized by European rule. These constituents of the “Lebanese trading diaspora” became “colonial sidekicks” (Akyeampong 2000:200), many of them recruited during the interwar period to serve as sales agents, crop purchasers, and retailers across the region. The earliest Lebanese émigrés were in the main Maronite Christians, while from the 1920s on, Muslims – a majority of them Shi’is from southern Lebanon – predominated. In Côte d’Ivoire, home to the largest single community, the number of Lebanese peaked at an estimated 90,000 in the mid-1990s (Bierwith 1999).

Lebanese came to dominate the coffee and cocoa businesses, the diamond trade, and the retail sector in west Africa (Boone 1993). They had leading interests in banking, manufacturing, and gambling operations. When Lebanon and Syria won their independence in 1943, their nationals’ legal status as immigrants became clear. Their social status was not as unequivocal, since they were accepted as neither European nor native (Bierwith 1997). So influential were they that their community could be recognized officially as a tribe with “tribal headmen” in independent Sierra Leone (Leighton 1974). So visible and exposed were they that they became periodic targets of riots and were “always considered as ‘strangers,’ as outsiders” (Kaniki 1973:113). “Attitudes of superiority” and involvement in illicit activities on the part of certain Lebanese probably did not improve matters. In spite of variations in the ways and degrees to which Lebanese pursued integration into different west African countries, they were politically and socially marginalized in all of them, dependent on the patronage first of European powers and then of indigenous political leaders. Internal divisions along religious lines and between established families and relative newcomers compounded their vulnerability (Bierwith 1999:94–7).

It only followed that Africanization would result in the seizure and occasional expulsion of Lebanese economic interests (Falola 1990). In and out of power, politicians have turned them into scapegoats, shaken them down for financial support, and used their exclusion to define the nation. The language of nationalism and self-determination has frequently written out the Lebanese. They have been the first victims of conflicts in Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. Some have fled to the Gambia, where they now own supermarkets, hotels, and restaurants in and near Banjul (Akyeampong 2000). Like African non-nationals, Lebanese have offered up a contrasting image against which to forge a national consciousness out of the detritus of colonialism.


Eric Hobsbawm (1990:10) once remarked, famously, that “nations do not make states and nationalisms, but the other way around.” He formulated his argument from observation of nation and state building in western Europe and North America. This essay has proffered evidence that similar dynamics have been at play in sub-Saharan Africa, on which Europeans imposed their notions of ethnicity, state, and nationalism. Rijk van Dijk (2003:564) has re-posed a question formulated by Adrian Hastings (1997): are such notions applicable to Africa? This essay has argued that they are. Van Dijk goes on to paraphrase Hobsbawm’s dictum and wonders: does a nation produce xenophobia, or xenophobia the nation? The evidence from Africa points to the former sequence.

The questions thereby begged for future exploration concern the relationship between migration and citizenship in Africa. The effects of self-serving colonial territorialization, micro-level characteristics, and the struggle for scarce resources have clearly had a part to play (Ali-Dinar 2007). Some observers have likewise seen a connection between regime type and degree of inclusiveness. More complex precolonial political and economic structures – such as those in west Africa – have been found to correlate with mass expulsions after independence, and the “frailty of government” in general has been seen to make strangers “easily identifiable targets in periods of national political and economic crises” (Shack 1979:19). The influence of factors like competition for power and political complexity has also come under debate, with indications that democratization may create incentives for political leaders to exploit ethnic, religious, linguistic, and other identities as mobilizational tools and to disbar competitors (Nzongola-Ntalaja 2004). Relying on the limited but promising survey data provided by the Afrobarometer project, Alicia Bannon, Edward Miguel, and Daniel N. Posner (2004) conclude that ethnic identification in nine African countries grew more pronounced as political and economic competition heated up.

The impact of institutions like citizenship laws has emerged as a related area of research. Has maintenance of colonizers’ emphasis jus soli or jus sanguinis determined integration outcomes (Herbst 1999)? Or is there greater variation and changeability in the laws governing formal citizenship and naturalization, which would necessitate more complicated explanations and acknowledgement that African states have not “passively accept[ed] their colonial legacy or geographic, demographic, and social circumstances” (Seely 2007:16)? All of these variables and processes will require additional study in order to understand the causal mechanisms producing similarities and differences across the continent.

And just as migration appears to have influenced nation building there, the historical record suggests that the same has been true in Europe. Controversy over migrants has been roiling the “Old Continent.” Many of the themes are familiar to students of African cases like Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, South Africa, Lesotho, and Botswana: the state’s strategic role as gatekeeper between society and the forces of globalization, the manipulation of ethnic identities and migrant-origin populations by governing and oppositional political leaders, the use of xenophobia to shore up nationalism, and even the dubious “clash” between the Muslim and adjoining “civilizations” (Huntington 1996). A prime topic of investigation in the European research has been the impact of ethnic diversity on social cohesion (Ireland 2004). The received wisdom has it that ethnic and “tribal” divisions explain sub-Saharan Africa’s poor performance on that front and in terms of economic performance (Kymlicka and Banting 2003:285; see Easterly 2001). Migration, when treated at all, tends to be simply blended into discussions of ethnicity. The analysis here has shown this assessment and approach to be too sweeping and too reliant on easy stereotypes. African states, like their European opposite numbers, have manipulated ethnicity and migration to their own ends, sometimes yielding conflict and at other times dampening it. There is good reason to recommend that future research on the interrelationships between ethnicity, nationalism, and migration be explicitly comparative and empirical, both within Africa and between it and other world regions. The insights and benefits to flow from the demarginalization of research on Africa promise to be significant and mutual.


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