The inequality in citizenship status leads to ethnic tensions, social unrest, clientelism, weak tax compliance, exclusion from services, and unequal access to land and other natural resources. This shows up in many ways – for example, in outbreaks of xenophobia and in politicians exploiting migration issues to gain electoral mileage.
The African youth’s attempts to challenge the hierarchies – e.g. the Arab Spring or the Rhodes Must Fall movement – should also be viewed through the lens of citizenship inequality.
Social contract in Africa: what is it about?
A social contract is a reciprocal affair. The state must fulfil duties, such as ensuring public services and the rule of law. In return, citizens must accept duties too, such as paying taxes and obeying laws, which should be fair and just. Citizens’ rights contribute to political stability in places where nationhood is supported by a social contract that ensures a minimum sense of inclusiveness. It is worrisome that, in Africa’s multi-ethnic societies, the general public’s understanding of both nationhood and citizenship tend to be rather weak.
The need for civic education
There is an even more fundamental challenge. If teaching people about how rights and duties interact is to make sense, government agencies must fulfil at least some of their obligations. Masses of youngsters are living in “waithood”. That is the period of suspension between childhood and adulthood. They have very little scope for making a difference in society and lack political representation. They are thus denied full citizenship, but long for opportunities and would much appreciate effective support. They are increasingly concentrated in major cities.
In his article former research director of the Nordic Africa Institute, Henning Melber quotes the human-rights scholar Bronwen Manby who has pointed out that “citizenship is not just a legal concept but also a profoundly political question of self-definition”. He said:
Policymakers must pay attention to these matters if they want to consolidate sustainable states marked by strong social cohesion.Henning Melber, former research director of the Nordic Africa Institute and the director emeritus of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation.
The UN Economic Commission for Africa has suggested that civic education might have a positive impact on the attitude of younger generations. Systematically informing young people about citizenship will not be enough, however. Governments must do more to educate the general public on issues of citizenship. As even members of the civil service are often ignorant, awareness-raising efforts should target them too.
Original article written by Henning Melber, D+C Development ad Cooperation. Original publication by Melber, H., Bjarnesen, J., Hallberg Adu, K., Lanzano, C., Mususa, P., “The politics of citizenship: social contract and inclusivity in Africa for Nordiska Afrikainstitutet/The Nordic Africa Institute (December 2020). Edited by SweDev Secretariat.