Bronwen Manby says this book is an excellent contribution to the growing body of scholarships on issues of citizenship, belonging and political community in Africa.

The diverse set of essays in this useful and engaging volume centre around two core themes, the continuity of claims to participate and challenge authority over the longue durée of African history, and the tensions between citizenship as a concept that places the individual in a direct relationship with the state, or one that is mediated via membership of a group. The book’s asserted unique selling point is to offer a dialogue between historians and social scientists. This diversity of approaches is indeed one of the book’s strengths; though it also creates challenges to the coherence of the collection.

Emma Hunter, who coordinated the visiting fellow’s programme at the Cambridge University Centre of African Studies on which the volume is based, and is herself the author of interesting works on this theme in Tanzania, kicks off the collection with an editor’s introduction.  Acknowledging the very different understandings of citizenship among the contributing authors, she proposes three “thematic axes” that shape the book: struggles for participation and incorporation; the relevance of deep history to contemporary debates; and the continuing persistence of ethnic identities, in defiance of modernisation theory. The book is then organised in three parts, roughly chronological, from the colonial era, transition to independence, to contemporary challenges.

John Lonsdale, emeritus professor of African history at Cambridge, sets up the subsequent essays with a masterful chapter on the relevance of both European and pre-colonial African political thought and constitutional arrangements for contemporary debates. He makes the, perhaps controversial, point that the postcolonial states established at independence were “a greater break with history than colonial rule had been”, concluding that “[f]or greater citizenship responsibility and entitlement to be achieved, …Africa awaits the constitutional history of its future.”

Victoria Falls Carnival. Photo Credit:

Part I then contains chapters by Nicole Ulrich on anticolonial action by the Khoisan in the 18th century Cape of Good Hope; by Cherry Leonardi and Chris Vaughan on the mobilisation of the colonial state’s own mechanisms against misrule in condominium Sudan; and by Aidan Russell on the mutable nature of citizen-subject roles in colonial Burundi and in the immediate independence era, as the new state transitioned from a monarchy to a republic.

Part II features informative analysis by Henri-Michel Yéré of the failed efforts by Félix Houphouët-Boigny to create a regional citizenship centered on post-independence Côte d’Ivoire, and by Samantha Balaton-Chrimes on the way that the ambiguous pre-independence status of Nubians settled in Kenya by the British then translated into continuing ambiguity about their status as Kenyan citizens thereafter. Ramola Ramtohul sets out the very different context of Mauritius, where there had been no “indigenous” population, and contests over political power were rather between different categories of immigrant—whether French, British or from the Indian sub-continent.

The three chapters of Part III by V. Adefemi Isumonah, Solomon M. Gofie, and Eghosa E.Osaghae consider the challenges of managing ethnic diversity in contemporary Africa, through the lens of constitutional arrangements in Nigeria, Ethiopia, and more generally. Finally, Frederick Cooper, author of important historical studies of the development of concepts of citizenship in West Africa, wraps up with reflections on citizenship as a “powerful and protean” concept.

There is much here that those interested in the different case studies will find valuable. As is the nature of such collections, there is variability in the nature of the research and the framing of the analysis. Hunter, Lonsdale, Cooper and others refer to the slippery nature of the concept of citizenship and argue that the authors’ diverse interpretations are one of the book’s  strengths. This is true; there are many valid lenses through which to discern the varied ways in which claims to belong and participate are articulated. However, for this reader at least, an effort to come up with a shared definition of citizenship, and then to consider the application of that definition in different contexts would have created a more powerful set of comparative studies. As it is, each author has such a different conceptualisation of the core idea that at times it seems as though the common thread is simply politics in African states, set in historical context.

This lawyer-historian would also have liked more attention to the accuracy of legal definitions over time, even while recognizing that there is much to the concept of citizenship that is not captured by law. For example, the distinction popularised by Mahmood Mamdani between “citizen” and “subject” in colonial Africa is confused by the fact that “British subject” was until 1948 the highest status of membership in the British empire, with the term “citizen” only introduced at that date. It was only in the French territories that “citoyen” and “sujet” matched the basic dichotomy proposed by Mamdani.  This may seem like legal quibbling, but the analysis is undermined if terms are incorrectly described, even if their relevance is to be challenged.

Despite these small complaints, this book is an excellent contribution to the growing body of scholarships on these issues in Africa and provides a very useful corrective to the often overly ahistorical perspective of social science.

Citizenship, Belonging and Political Community in Africa: Dialogues between Past and Present. Emma Hunter Eds. Ohio University Press. 2016

Bronwen Manby (@BronwenManby is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Human Rights at LSE.

The views expressed in this post are those of the authors and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.