The general problem in African politics is the weak capacity of citizens to realize citizenship rights within their own country. While it is bad, for instance, that immigrant Nubians must pay bribes to obtain birth certificates and passports in Kenya, some native-born Kenyans must pay these same bribes to achieve these same ends. The denial of citizenship – to immigrants, or dissidents — is a much smaller problem, though denial is often a tool to silence politic dissenters or the economically marginal (and sometimes the advantaged “foreigner” as in the case of the Lebanese of West Africa or the South Asians of Uganda). Remedies for Africa’s citizenship “deficits” suffer from a lack of global context; for instance, much of what African nations “need” to do regarding naturalization and harmonization of citizenship rules and practices are not yet done in such developed countries as Japan, Germany or Poland. What is gained by imposing on African societies a much higher standard for the politics of immigration than, say, Ireland.
Much of the formal problems with obtaining citizenship in specific African countries also occur in Latin America. As I’ve described in my 2003 book, “The Diversity Advantage,” on diversity, migration and nation-states, Germany and Japan lack clear rules on naturalization and tie citizenship closely (if not wholly) to ancestral ties to land. So why can’t African nations do the same?
I believe African nations should not base citizenship on “blood ties,” because whatever benefits of citizenship can be earned. The flip side of “earned” citizenship, or post-racial models of citizenship, can be seen through forms of institutionalized discrimination, either of affirmative action for some or “affirmative limits” on others. An interesting comparison also could be drawn between the status of Lebanese and South Indians in certain West African countries and the status of overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia; for instance, ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, while afforded citizenship, must comply with regime that makes it harder for them to access certain public services (such as university education) and gives “native” Malays more opportunities in employment. Might not a similar approach to citizenship be tried in say Zambia, where many white Zimbabwean farmers have moved in the past ten years and where Chinese migrants have also settled in recent years. Why should these advantaged immigrants be given equal rights to those ordinary Zambians born and raised in the country? On the flip side, why should nonwhite Zimbabwean farmers, who bring knowledge and wealth and enterprise to another African country receive a pathway to citizenship benefits that are afforded the very people born in Zambia.
My main point is there is not only one legitimate political response to migration when there are actually many.
The two most interesting problems in African citizenship:
(a) the most need to recognize sub-national affiliations (either ethnic or territorial) as part of formal, legal citizenship and to accept (in the manner of Will Kymlicka, the distinguished Canadian political philosopher) the inevitability of “asymmetric” forms of citizenship whereby one set of citizens may possess different rights (notably language rights) than others. Avant-garde citizenship structures might enliven discussions about the achieving working political arrangements in such critical multi-ethnic nations as Nigeria, Congo or Sudan. Asymmetric forms of citizenship could promote national unity while at the same time enhance regional autonomy and local power.
Many African countries could take specific small steps, such as permitting dual citizenship and making naturalization of spouses automatic, that would at least put them on par with European countries, most of whom do not permit anything like the wider entitlements that the author presumes (but doesn’t document) would benefit African societies. Asymmetric forms of citizenship, which some also call “multicultural citizenship,” are an increasingly important tool for accommodating diversity among citizens, whether “natives” or “settlers.”
(b) the need for members of the Diaspora to achieve dual citizenship in order to facilitate their expanded involvement in their countries of origins (alas many African countries wish to strip their own citizens of their passports after they naturalize in the US or Europe).
None of what I say above precludes the creation of a “common African citizenship.” One passport for every African is an appealing idea. But there is no need for one-size-fits-all approaches in a world where multiple identities coexist. That there can be multiple types of belonging – to ethnic group, nation, continent, race, gender and adopted places – is a sociological fact and increasingly a political given.