The Nordic Africa Institute

Policy Note

The politics of citizenship – Social contract and inclusivity in Africa

Close-up photo of a hand holding multiple passports.

Photo: BBC World Service, Creative Commons.

Date • 11 Dec 2020

In many African countries, citizenship offers civil rights to those who are included. At the same time, many – especially youth, migrants and other marginalised groups – often do not receive equal recognition in the social contract between state and citizen. They do not have the same access to justice, social protection and welfare services. This policy note addresses the challenges facing inclusive citizenship.

The authors. Photo.

What’s new?

Africa is demographically the youngest continent. Almost 60 per cent of the population is under the age of 25. Between 2008 and 2019, intracontinental migration doubled from 13.3 million to 26.5 million people; from the end of 2015 to the end of 2018, the number of internally displaced persons External link, opens in new window. increased by 35 per cent, from 12.4 million to 16.8 million. Youth and migrants (and other marginalised groups) are often not fully recognised – or are sometimes totally excluded – in the social contract between state and citizen. They do not have the same access to justice, social protection and welfare services as fully recognised citizens.

Why is it important?

The inequality in citizenship status leads to ethnic tensions, social unrest, clientelism, weak tax compliance, exclusion from services, and unequal access to land and other natural resources. This shows up in many ways – for example, in outbreaks of xenophobia and in politicians exploiting migration issues to gain electoral mileage. The African youth’s attempts to challenge the hierarchies – e.g. the Arab Spring or the Rhodes Must Fall movement – should also be viewed through the lens of citizenship inequality.

What should be done and by whom?

Policy makers and everyone working on development issues should endeavour to include a citizenship perspective. When planning and implementing development projects and social policy programmes, three guiding principles should be considered: Who are the marginalised groups from a citizenship point of view? What measures could include them? How can the project promote an inclusive social contract between the state and its citizens?

Citizenship, or belonging to a state, comes with rights and obligations. Formal membership of a state is also a matter of security and identity, with state institutions representing citizens at home and abroad. The notion of ‘belonging to a state’ has changed since the establishment of most independent sovereign states in Africa in the second half of the twentieth century. Globalisation, digitalisation, migration and internal displacement have rendered obsolete the concept of ‘groundedness’ External link, opens in new window., the idea that citizens live, work, vote and earn and spend their money in a home country, where they are physically ‘grounded’.

Citizenship plays a growing role in governance at a time when globalisation and population mobility have shifted the context of belonging. Hence, as a legal status associated with national identity, citizenship is both negotiated and contested. The often-synonymous use of the terms ‘nationality’ and ‘citizenship’ makes such disputes apparent.

Trading with citizenship

Citizenship has also become a commodity available for purchase External link, opens in new window. – big business, where countries can make easy money. Different forms of citizenship reflect global inequalities: to benefit from mobility, identity documents such as passports are a formal prerequisite, and the home country’s global status may place limitations on freedom of movement internationally.

Citizenship and Residence by Investment (CRBI), including the trade in passports, is a growing market: more than half of all countries in the world offer CRBI deals. Legal citizenship or residence status is a precondition for international migrants who seek lawful employment. Such employment enables people to transfer considerable amounts of income to their countries of origin, by means of remittances. For the African diaspora, citizenship arrangements may therefore become a form of investment.

The burden of colonial heritage

Colonial administrations in most African countries south of the Sahara were built on a citizen and subject divide External link, opens in new window.: racial identity classified the white minority as citizens and the black majority as subjects. 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 ethnicity, and the continued dialectics between ethnic/tribal and civic/public citizenship is expressed (among other things) in corruption. For Nigerian sociologist Peter Ekeh, the ‘two publics External link, opens in new window.’ document a bifurcated notion of citizenship. Ethnic identities have also been reinforced through the invention of tradition External link, opens in new window..

Since independence, African states have maintained the borders drawn by the colonial powers. Often, these boundaries divided ethnic communities and limited their interaction, through border controls. Such divisions triggered demands for autonomy, and even culminated in secessionist movements External link, opens in new window.. In the words of human-rights scholar Bronwen Manby External link, opens in new window., ‘citizenship is not just a legal concept but also a profoundly political question of self-definition’.

Infographic: Low mobility score for African passports.

Political abuse of citizenship

The withholding or withdrawal of citizenship is a means of getting rid of political opponents by depriving them of their nationality External link, opens in new window.. Zambia’s former president Kenneth Kaunda External link, opens in new window., Botswanan opposition politician John Modise External link, opens in new window. and Ivorian former prime minister (later president) Alassane Ouattara External link, opens in new window. are all examples of politicians who have been prevented from running for office by being stripped of their citizenship. The multiple meanings of citizenship External link, opens in new window. leave individuals vulnerable to social, political and economic injustice. This vulnerability is further increased by governments’ insistence on having the sole authority to define belonging External link, opens in new window., especially for those do not have the means to challenge such decisions in court.

Disqualification from citizenship can also be used against groups of people. For example, the Ethiopian authorities denied thousands of refugees citizenship External link, opens in new window. after the Eritrean–Ethiopian war (1998–2000), on the grounds that they were allegedly of Eritrean origin and therefore a security risk. Similarly, the Zimbabwean state denies citizenship External link, opens in new window. to hundreds of thousands of second- and third-generation migrants born in Zimbabwe, because their parents or grandparents were originally from Nyasaland (present-day Malawi). Denial of access to rights, entitlements and civil freedoms becomes a weapon to exclude second-, third- and fourth-generation migrant descendants.

Recognition by citizenship

Africa is demographically the youngest continent. Almost 60 per cent of the population is under the age of 25. Between 2008 and 2019, intracontinental migration doubled from 13.3 million to 26.5 million people; from the end of 2015 to the end of 2018, the number of internally displaced persons External link, opens in new window. increased by 35 per cent, from 12.4 million to 16.8 million. Youth and migrants (and other marginalised groups) are often not fully recognised, or are sometimes totally excluded, in the social contract between state and citizen. They do not have the same access to justice, social protection and welfare services as fully recognised citizens.

Africa is host to more than 20 per cent of the world’s refugee population. Most of them are young, with 59 per cent under the age of 18 External link, opens in new window.. It is hard for young refugees to obtain nationally recognised identification documents, such as birth certificates, which would allow them to access education, services and citizenship. When access to social grants and other benefits requires citizenship, refugees are more likely to be excluded.

Although an increasing number of African countries offer dual citizenship External link, opens in new window., participation in active civil and political life tends to privilege people considered original inhabitants (autochthons External link, opens in new window.).

Social protection includes – and excludes

With the structural adjustment programmes promoted by the World Bank and the IMF across Africa in the 1980s, and the subsequent retreat of the state from welfare and service delivery, many people – especially young people – were cut adrift from services and benefits, as the state dismantled its obligations to its citizens. More recently, since the mid-2000s, African governments have introduced new forms of social protection, including cash transfers External link, opens in new window., to support poor and vulnerable people. These social protection measures can reshape state–citizen relations, either by strengthening a sense of entitlement or by reproducing inequality and exclusion External link, opens in new window..

Within the raft of measures introduced as part of the social protection programmes is encouragement for the formal registration of births, especially in rural areas. Nevertheless, an issue standing in the way of such registration is the lack of administrative capacity (and in some cases, political will). Indeed, no African country has a complete birth registration system External link, opens in new window..

Social protection systems, like pensions – as institutionalised in countries such as South Africa and Namibia – can exclude and further disempower the marginalised: for example, Bushmen and other local communities in remote rural areas, or impoverished migrants in the informal sector. This underlines the importance of comprehensive registries that provide identification that enables people to claim entitlements. It also points to a gender-specific dimension, in so far as some countries (most notably Botswana and Namibia) have an exceptionally high proportion of female-headed households. Women often raise their children without any maintenance or other contributions from the fathers. This increases the dependence on state support, for which proper registration of all household members is a prerequisite.

A generation in the waiting

According to UN statistical projections, Africa’s population will double by 2050 External link, opens in new window.. Nearly 41 per cent of the continent’s people are below the age of 15, while 15–24-year-olds constitute almost 20 per cent. They are increasingly concentrated in major cities. As economic strategies incorporate ‘jobless growth’, and technological advances bypass those who do not have the required skills or access to technology, the majority of young people are either unemployed or underemployed and do not have access to higher education or vocational training. In its 2020 report on the development of Africa’s workforce for the future, the African Development Bank External link, opens in new window. (AfDB) says that 55 per cent of young people are indeed undereducated and 11 per cent overeducated for the labor market and of those employed, close to half perceive a mismatch be¬tween their education/skills and their jobs.

Most young Africans live in ‘waithood External link, opens in new window.’, a period of stagnation between childhood and adulthood, often lacking full citizenship rights and excluded from representation within democratic fora. While their energy could drive the economy, many face limitations and barriers that exclude them from innovating and contributing.

Urban youth vs old hierarchies

Despite rapid urbanisation, 59 per cent of people south of the Sahara still live in rural areas. For them, agriculture and other natural resource-based economic activities are the mainstay of their livelihood External link, opens in new window.. The rural population’s role and participation in civic life remains largely invisible External link, opens in new window., especially in the case of youth and women, whose interests are notoriously under-represented.

The consolidation of multi-party democracy External link, opens in new window. in many parts of Africa has generally strengthened the influence of young citizens – or more particularly, young urban voters –over the ballot. At the same time, formal political structures often continue to entrench the power of the older generations and perpetuate governance by elders. This resonates with traditional social hierarchies. Such hierarchies are challenged by emergent youth and feminist movements External link, opens in new window. that are mobilising on issues of access to services, land, jobs and resources.

A group of protesters with signs.

Lagos, Nigeria, 10 October 2020. A group of protesters calling for disbandment of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Photo: Tobi James.

Protests, music and social media

Many African states have recently witnessed large-scale political protests, with youth activists taking the lead. Street protests provide young people with a platform for political engagement. The recent #EndSARS-movement against police brutality in Nigeria should be seen in this light. Rather than being personalised or focused on party politics, such engagement is often centred on democratic principles. It includes protesting over the extended terms in office of incumbent presidents, or more broadly, the political manipulation of the constitution to facilitate elite entrenchment, as has occurred in Burkina Faso, Burundi, Guinea, Senegal, Uganda and the DRC.

Popular music can be instrumental in the way young people communicate dissent and mobilise. In Zambia, contemporary popular music with political undertones portrays the youth’s precarious and continuous efforts to try to make a living External link, opens in new window.. In Uganda, pop star-turned-politician Bobi Wine, affectionately known as the ‘ghetto president External link, opens in new window.’, could be the opposition’s most popular candidate External link, opens in new window. in next year’s presidential election. Despite widespread challenges surrounding internet access – in the information age, a citizenship issue in itself – African governments also fear activism through the potential offered by social media: during protests, governments have sought to limit access by disrupting the internet (so-called throttling) or shutting it down altogether. In 2019, at least ten African countries blocked or reduced access to digital media External link, opens in new window., according to democracy and media researcher Lisa Garbe. In mid-2020, the Ethiopian authorities imposed an internet shutdown External link, opens in new window. for close to a month in response to unrest that followed the killing of the popular Oromo singer and activist Hachalu Hundessa. Governments also seek to curb youth protests by imposing social media taxes External link, opens in new window. and stricter control of internet-based communication.

The middle class calls for inclusion…

A growing number of Africans have moved from poverty or economic precariousness into (lower) segments of the so-called middle classes External link, opens in new window.. The shift upwards in terms of level of education, professional activities and lifestyle goes hand in hand both with promoting active citizenship and with a greater awareness of what citizenship means in terms of enhancing one’s protection, opportunities and mobility. However, despite the expansion of higher education, enrolment in most African countries remains low in global comparison. In addition, subsidies for public higher education are vanishing. Students and their families end up having to pay full fees at private institutions, which at times tend to place less priority than public schools and universities on fostering civic skills.

16 % was the share of enrolment in private higher education institutions in Africa in 2017, a five-fold increase since 2007. In a global comparison, the private sector holds 33 per cent of the world’s total higher education enrolment. Source: African Development Bank (2020) and Levy/Prophe (2018).

Educational advancement and citizenship awareness often lead to political engagement and a stronger civil society. The new middle-class citizens require 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 quid pro quo: ‘I pay my taxes and follow the law, and in return I expect the state to provide access to justice and welfare services.’

…but not necessarily for all

A growing middle class does not automatically call for democratic inclusiveness for all: it may just as well advocate the 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 External link. that as the level of education rises, so ‘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”’. Socioeconomic advancement can foster claims for status-related citizenship rights. Social differentiation promotes perceptions of different categories of citizenship.

The situation in rural northern Mozambique serves as an example External link, opens in new window. of the fact that people who benefit from the power structures are unlikely to criticise the social contract with the state, while those who are excluded from benefits are more prone to protest. Older, better-off Mozambicans are reluctant to risk the privileges secured for them by governo papa (‘father government’). The youth, who are often unemployed or underemployed, are more inclined to protest or even to become radicalised External link, opens in new window.. Quite a number of them have joined Islamist terror groups in Cabo Delgado – not for religious reasons, but out of despair, frustration and alienation.

Resource nationalism

Historically, in many parts of the continent, access to land has depended on membership of lineages, ethnic groups and similar forms of belonging. Customary norms remain one of the generation tensions External link, opens in new window., hindering young people in their quest to make a livelihood in rural contexts External link, opens in new window.. Land ownership and access to land reflect the unequal inter-generational correlation between citizenship and property External link, opens in new window.. They are also fundamental factors that affect other, resource-extraction activities. For example, artisanal and small-scale mining employs an increasing number of young people who call for land formalisation External link, opens in new window., 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 are forcing foreign companies to offer more local benefits. These include higher rates of local employment, subcontracts for local businesses and more taxes on profits. These are manifestations of what is dubbed resource nationalism. This emphasises citizenship as collective rights and entitlements to the natural wealth of one’s country, rather than foreign investors having unfettered access. Political discourses motivated by this orientation can take an exclusionary form, such as the anti-Chinese rhetoric in former Zambian president Michael Sata’s 2011 election campaign, or Ghanaian president Nana Akufo-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.

30,000 is the estimated number of illegal miners colloquially known as Zama Zamas, who operate in ownerless and disused mines in South Africa. The Minerals Council of South Africa estimates that 70 per cent of them are undocumented foreigners. Source: Enact (2019).

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 External link, opens in new window.. In South Africa, a large proportion of the artisanal gold miners, the Zama Zamas External link, opens in new window., are undocumented migrant workers. Xenophobic sentiments against foreign traders have, from time to time, escalated into the looting of shops, and migrants have been the victims of mob lynching.

The need for civic education

A UNECA report suggests civic education as a means of influencing the attitudes of younger generations External link, opens in new window.. Governments should grasp the opportunity to reach out, through school curricula and public awareness campaigns. They ought to address not only pupils, but all members of society, briefing them on citizen rights and civil liberties. After all, such education could be institutionalised as an integral part of decentralisation programmes at the regional and local level, extending beyond public and private schools. Training should also include public servants, state officials and members of political parties, and it should secure the participation of grassroots organisations and social movement activists, in order to encourage an institutionalised state–citizen dialogue.

Promoting inclusive citizenship

Inclusive citizenship and civic rights are key to anchoring 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 all inhabitants with a sense of belonging – and the necessary documents. It instils the values of a rights-based social contract. For the state, this comes with obligations, such as ensuring services and the rule of law; for citizens, it includes duties, such as paying taxes and limiting dispute resolution to non-violent means. The common status requires an administrative infrastructure for people to register their children, acquire birth certificates and obtain identity documents.

Regional cultural identities would not be eliminated, but would instead continue to be respected in various forms of ‘peaceful co-existence’, with citizenship underlining an all-embracing form of commonality. By stressing bonds, rather than dividing lines, it offers the opportunity to reduce conflicts that stem from people viewing those who are different as ‘other’. Hence, clientelist relations rooted in ethnic affinities and claims would lose traction. This holds out the potential to open up the space to a wider notion of belonging.