Struggles for Citizenship in Africa

Manby, Bronwen
Zed Books, London and New York, 2009, ISBN 978-1-84813-352-5, 198 pp.
Reviewed by or other comment: 

Brain, Thea

'Is your passport right?' This question was posed by the BBC in 2007 in a discussion forum on its website for readers in Africa. Responses from across the continent described the trials of obtaining a passport: discriminatory practices and the difficulties of producing documentation proving the right to nationality. This deceptively simple question revealed what Manby terms an 'ocean of discrimination and denial of rights' (p. 2) beneath the dry detail of the rules for obtaining papers - papers signifying the right to full social, economic, and political participation within a state. Manby's work, with its genesis in research conducted by the Open Society Institute, brings together new material and skilfully weaves together detailed case studies and personal accounts to describe vividly the plight of those deprived of citizenship rights, the right to vote, cross borders, and access state health and education services, in the countries in which they were born and raised.

Manby does not limit her analysis to any particular type of citizenship restriction. Rather, her work is attentive to the breadth of possible forms that restriction can take. She explores mass denationalisation and manipulation of citizenship laws that exclude individual rivals from political participation, with examples of political leaders seeking to bolster support among sections of their populations by excluding others from the right to belong at all. Manby locates the issue in its historical context and, in so doing, provides a broad, confident, and accessible overview of some of the key processes which have informed current practices. She does this without resort to oversimplification. Through this examination, the book exposes the disparity between citizenship laws founded on a concept of racial or ethnic purity - the logic of 'I was here first' (p. 19) - and the realities of historical and contemporary migration. The book illustrates the many ways in which laws and concepts born from colonial history and the transition to independence continue to exert an impact upon the possibilities of achieving basic rights and participation for millions of African people. In spite of the difficulties of obtaining exact figures, it powerfully communicates a sense of the scale of the problem.

One of the key aims of the book is to illustrate the destructive consequences of discriminatory citizenship practices. In this respect it is highly effective. Given the impressive breadth of countries and circumstances with which it engages, many of the descriptions of the consequences are embedded in the numerous case studies that enrich the text. The direct consequences for the people involved are vividly captured in the personal accounts which feature throughout. These accounts emphasise the profound costs to livelihoods and well-being, to prospects for formal employment, and to personal security. At a broader level, Manby effectively illustrates the disastrous economic and political effects of the denial of citizenship. Notably she demonstrates the ways in which discriminatory laws and practices are used to subvert democratic processes, and the ways in which they underpin and exacerbate tensions in many regions of the continent.

By the author's own admission, 'the stories told in this book are partial histories' (p. 21). Conflicts such as that in the Congo are not restricted to issues of citizenship; they are extremely complex in their causes and their effects. Violence, discrimination, and exclusion can and do occur without any abuse of citizenship laws to support their deployment, and there exists a vast corpus of literature which engages with these broader issues of identity, race, ethnicity, gender, nation-building, and 'the politics of belonging' (p. 21). One key strength of the book is that it recognises this and skilfully places the concept of citizenship in direct dialogue with these broader issues. In so doing, Manby demonstrates a nuanced understanding of the ways in which the issue of citizenship is manipulated for political purposes, and she illustrates convincingly that the citizenship issue has a central role to play in many current conflicts.

The book concludes with a call for a serious discussion of current African citizenship laws as part of the wider pan-African debate. Citizenship laws, Manby contends, need to be harmonised in line with principles of equality and non-discrimination before an African citizenship can be created. Although urgent in her call for discussion, Manby is not na ve in her appraisal of the measures needed to address the highly complex issues which can give rise to and be exacerbated by citizenship discrimination. She is aware that more is required. In particular she cites limits on executive power, a greater respect for the independence of the judiciary across all African states, and better design and management of electoral systems as measures to enable individuals to engage with equal autonomy in both the public and private spheres. She maintains, however, that in the affected countries measures to address citizenship-law discrimination will be at the centre of these efforts.

This conclusion is, perhaps, not surprising. For Manby, the issue of citizenship is not to be sidelined merely as a cause or effect of grander political narratives. Rather, she places it at the front and centre, as a crisis facing the continent in various forms and manifestations, and as worthy of critical examination in its own right. This she does in a style that is both accessible and open. As such, Struggles for Citizenship in Africa constitutes an extremely important contribution to what is a relatively small body of existing research. The book should raise the profile of the issue and instigate a highly productive debate regarding means of addressing the problem.