Withholding Citizenship

Angela Khaminwa 

Program Officer for Outreach and Communication at The Coexistence Initiative

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

A: Yes, that touches on a project I'm currently working on, the Open Society Justice Initiative. And citizenship is being used -- has been and is being used -- as a tool by certain governments to basically tailor their electorate. If they feel that a particular ethnic group may vote against them during an election, or is giving them particularly strong political opposition, it's an expedient way for them to eliminate some of that opposition. This is something that has occurred in Mauritania. Much of the conflict in the DRC surrounds the issue of citizenship. And just to take a step back, thinking about citizenship is a notion that's particularly difficult to do in the African context, just because of the arbitrary nature of borders. And the fact that many people still have primary allegiance to their family and the family extension, which is the clan. And secondly, the extension of that clan which is the ethnic group. And then thirdly and sometimes a further thirdly, is the nation. The notion of the nation is - you know, we can't say it's "new" because we're in 2004 now - several decades after independence in many African countries. But the allegiance to both the clan and the ethnic group is primary. So when we talk about citizenship, we're also talking about belonging - who belongs in this space. In many African countries the "space" (i.e. the nation state - I'm sorry, the state) hasn't been very well defined, and there hasn't been a lot of work to foment a strong national sensibility. So it is actually quite easy to identify a group of people and say, "These people don't belong here, they're strangers here, they're aliens." So the discourse happens at all these different levels.

Q: They're aliens, therefore we're going to remove their right to be citizens.

A: Exactly. There's a fabulous theory on moral exclusion which - social psychology theory - which talks about the kind of moral communities that we've built. And if you look at this kind of exclusion, citizenship exclusion or ethnic exclusion, it's a very interesting way to see how this works, because if your primary allegiance is your ethnic group and maybe there's a neighboring ethnic group that they speak a different language, they might look a little differently, and then a third person comes in - a kind of administrator figure that says, "These people don't belong here," of course they don't belong here. I shouldn't say that - it's easier for you to agree they don't belong here because they're not a part of your moral community. Your moral community is your ethnic group and these people are different. So that's kind of part of the dynamic that goes into exclusion. Citizenship is one of them.