Land rights and the politics of origin

by Morten Böås

The lecture will explore the phenomenon of autochthony in contemporary African politics as such discourses has become a prominent feature of contemporary politics around the continent. Autochthony that literally means “emerging from the soil”, links identity and space, enabling the speaker to establish a direct claim to territory by asserting that he or she is an original inhabitants, “ a son of the soil”. Autochthony, therefore, implies localist forms of belonging, referring to someone with a supposedly indisputable historical link to a particular territory, and its expressions have led to violent struggles in Africa, where assertions of autochthony are used to justify land claims. Simply put, the claim is “this is ours because we were here first”, and at their root, these autochthony tales promise to restore that sense of belonging, often by articulating an implicit political agenda. This is what we mean by “tales of origin as political cleavage”. They are narratives, discursive constructions, that shape perceptions and informs people’s action by linking identity and space in very specific ways. My focus in this lecture us how these tales have become manifested in contemporary African cases, often provoking dramatic expressions of violence. This lecture will therefore examine the reasons behind the recent rise of autochthony in a handful of case studies from across Africa: Liberia, Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Côte d’Ivoire. In all four cases, the population has recently suffered grave forms of political violence in which autochthony claims were central, even if the actual word “autochthony” is not used in the language of violence in Kenya and Liberia.


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