Africa: Politics and Societies South of the Sahara

Book Review: Contested Identities

Posted in African Politics, Cote d'Ivoire, DR Congo, Kenya, Liberia, Reviews by ruben eberlein on June 21, 2013

Read here an English version of my review of Politics of Origin in Africa. Autochthony, Citizenship and Conflict by Morten Bøås and Kevin Dunn which is published by the journal Welt-Sichten in its June edition.

Conflict between (sub-)ethnic groups about land, the eligbility to vote or to be voted for and other rights are pervasive in sub-Saharan Africa. A recent publication by Morten Bøås and Kevin Dunn is dedicated to these phenomena with a discussion about discourses about autochthony and citizenship in selected countries.

On the basis of four case studies – Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Kenya and the Côte d’Ivoire – the authors reveal how deep the oration of the ‚son of the soil’ (that is the ‚original’ settler feeling himself marginalised by migrants) is anchored within the conflict dynamics of the respective countries. They interpret these narrations as a conscious strategy, often employed by big men, in order to position themselves in local power struggles.

Repeatedly Bøås and Dunn emphasise the role of colonialism and its agents which consolidated and froze formerly rather fluid identities by way of connecting ethnic identities and geographical territories. A well-known example is the so-called ‘hamitic’ theory that plays a prominent role in the east of the DRC. It stipulates that Bantu people were the original settlers in central Africa and that other ethnic groups like the Tutsi or Hima immigrated at a later date.

Within the discourses about autochthony, Bøås and Dunn discover a melancholy, a strong desire for a assumed ‘good old time’. For the local population, they explain in the theoretical part of their book, which is concerned with coming to terms with a soaring difficult everyday life, the discourse about autochthony provides a politics of reminiscence that enables them to make sense of the cumbersome circumstances of their lifes.

The importance of land and its distribution in Africa should not be underestimated. In the end, the continent still is mostly agrarian. This becomes clear in all four case studies employed by the authors. If you talk about the cacao plantations in the Côte d’Ivoire, the highlands in the east of the DRC or the Kenyan Rift Valley – the access to fertile land is a indispensible requirement for a reasonable living.

This publication is a welcome and essential extension within the discussion about conflict causes at the African continent. The authors refute unidimensional explanations for violence and war and advocate a differentiated approach rooted within special localities. The importance of the politics of autochthony becomes clear if one realises that there are a lot of other case studies – in and out of Africa – that fit easily with their arguments.

At their concluding recommendations for policy makers and development cooperation workers, Bøås and Dunn, inter alia, point to the fact that the state is regarded by most of its citizens in the countries discussed as the main source of insecurity. Nevertheless, the international diplomacy still focuses on the uncritical strengthening of state structures. ‘Thus, dominant strategies of conflict resolution and rebuilding may end up exacerbating situations in which authochthonous violence is at work’, they caution.

Morten Bøås, Kevin Dunn 2013: Politics of Origin in Africa. Autochthony, Citizenship and Conflict. Zed Books, London, New York, 149 pp. Pdf of the original article here.

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