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European powers imposed the nation-state on Africa through colonialism. But even after African independencies, mainstream discourses and government policies have amplified the idea that sedentariness and the state are the only acceptable mode of modernity. Migration is portrayed as a menace to the societies where the migrants wish to settle

Many contemporary issues afflicting Africa — my mind goes to political persecutions, lack of economic opportunities and the so-called ethnic conflicts - derive from one great analytical obstacle which is seriously limiting our capacity to elaborate proper solutions: the sanctioning of the nation-state as the first and foremost instrument to regulate the socio-political sphere. This proviso, although retrievable in many instances of policy-making or academic research worldwide, reaches its most odd consequences there where the state itself was introduced as a novelty; such is the case of Africa, which was a land of decentralized communities or, in other cases, even of large empires, but that never was a space composed of ethnically-defined nations delimited by precise borders prior to colonialism. In this article, I’m arguing that we need to historicize the current xenophobic issues, in order to understand that they are not necessarily connected to the increased movement of people across borders, but rather to the way these flows are being seen by nationalist state’s elites.


During the XIX century, the advent of the nation-state in Europe was favored by intricate and simultaneous dynamics which, among the others, included the diffusion of capitalist economy, urbanization phenomena, the bettering of transportation means, the rise of political competition and the increasing crisis of the empire: in reaction to these events, new forms of political organization and economic competition had to be negotiated in the changing society. This is when the nationalist paradigm emerged, in the attempt of granting political spaces as well as privileges only to definite people, while excluding many others now called ‘minorities’. In order to preserve these spaces, the movement of people from one country to another was made more difficult, through strict border controls as well as ‘the invention of passports’ in the course of the XX century [1]. Under the influence of nationalist elites, migrants were seen with suspicion by national populations. In addition, the terrible experience of two wars strengthened the normativity of nation’s ideology in respect to borders, citizenship and sovereignty.

The diffusion of the nation-state in Africa took place in the absence of many of the above-mentioned circumstances, telling us something about the artificial nature of the implications which it entailed for the continent. In the course of previous millennia, Africa took different trajectories in terms of political organization, modes of economic production and philosophical interpretation of the community. It is known, for example, that in several African states (for example Chad, Niger and Somalia) nomadic life is still a relevant way of ensuring the household’s sustenance [2]. Similarly, the prevalence of communitarian lifestyles in pre-colonial Africa marked a striking difference from the constituent individualistic elements of the European societies. In addition, where and when political power was organized in the form of empires in Africa [3], multi-ethnicity was a fundamental ingredient to favor economic relations between places located in long distance one from the other [4]. Hence, when European powers imposed the nation-state through the colonial endeavor, they created first, and left behind then bounded territories which would affect local communities in different ways, including the definition of the social status of migrants. We clearly know that there was no scientific methodology to establish borders, whether political or anthropological; neither local institutions were taken into account while the principles of European power were transferred and imposed on Africa, if not to ensure further benefits for the colonizers. The creation of states was primarily meant to give order to the expansion of European powers on the continent, preventing thus the upsurge of conflicts among them. Unfortunately, academic disciplines worldwide also played a role in promoting the supremacy of the state-nation-society paradigm over alternative forms of political organization, which were defined instead as ‘primitive’ [5]. Even after African independencies, opportunism as well as imitation processes among African elites came to reinforce in much of mainstream discourses and government policies the supposition that sedentariness and the state were the single acceptable mode of modernity. These historical considerations are mentioned here to shed light on the fact that migration came under an unconstructive classification which has mainly portrayed it as a menace to the societies where the migrants in question wished to settle, or had to move because of wars. The realm of migration studies/policies/analysis entails then a story of exclusion of people. Europe has gone through it since the beginning of the XX century, to the detriment of African migrants but also, before the establishment of the Schengen area, to the detriment of Europeans themselves.

Africa is experiencing a very similar trend: the treatment reserved by authorities to the Zimbabweans in South Africa, or the Somalis in Kenya is a case in point. In the latter case especially, the turn of recent events is showing an alarming nationalization of the mainstream discourses, in terms of national integrity to be preserved, on one side; on the other, Somalis living in Kenya felt the intervention of Kenyan authorities as an economic sabotage meant to undermine the Somali business community there [6]. The key issue which is originating for the most part from this dire outcome lies in the work of the national ideology in shaping new political spaces of competition and exclusion. After the inheritance of the colonial borders, which has produced three decades of bloody territorial confrontations, governments seem to be now trying to re-align their policies along those invented borders, with the scope of nationalizing the population and regulating the access to the political space according to the national criterion. The realization of this nationalizing project would probably represent the farthest point ever reached from that continental union envisioned even prior to the decolonization wave of the 1960s. Besides, the process of exclusion of entire segment of population is at high risk of instigating violent responses within the society of the excluded.


The recent development of the academia seems to have well established that migration is a typical phenomenon of human history: neither good nor bad, but typical, because many groups have routinely moved from one place to another over time. The nation-state, which is today the prevalent form of government in the world, has historically tried to control and limit movements of people, through the invention of borders, passports, citizenship and other measures. All of this has happened in the last couple of centuries, during which millennia of human migratory phenomena as well as centuries of transnational connections were instead hidden, discouraged or negated in order to let the ‘borderification’ of the world emerge as the norm and the natural. Therefore, we live today under the ‘tyranny of the exception’ in terms of how migration is seen and defined. Since the beginning of the 1990s, the transnational paradigm has emerged in social sciences to alternatively explain current phenomena; it was a rather late development, because much of the earlier studies have been limited by the (aware or unaware) persistence of the nation-state as primary unit of analysis: a reductionist tendency labeled as ‘methodological nationalism’ by some scholars [7]. Theories of transnationalism, shortly followed by the cosmopolitan ones, recovered the idea of a world made of transnational connections among people, as it appeared after the end of the Cold War. The focus of analysis shifted to the people: moving to new places, yet tied to their respective homelands by dense relations. Eventually, many migrants could mirror themselves in these studies, rather than in government’s definitions, in which they ranged from alleged threats to the national identity, to the identification with terrorism and thus to questions of national security. What is more interesting, migration was revealed as a ‘natural’ feature of human life, not even new, while the role of the nation-state in the globalized era became then the one to be questioned [8]. Necessarily, I argue, Africa steps up like the most natural location to talk about transnationalism and transnational spirit, in virtue of its history; Africa is the right place to recover the notion of interconnectedness in world history.


I stated in the title that thinking beyond the national box is an urgent need. Why is this the case? I argue that the urgency is dictated by historical contingencies. As it is often said, Africa is entangled in a process of negotiation between its traditional values and the external ones: more than twenty years ago, Mudimbe referred to it with these words [9]: ‘a dichotomizing system has emerged (…): traditional versus modern; oral versus written and printed; agrarian and customary communities versus urban and industrialized civilization; subsistence economies versus highly productive economies’. In more recent times, this dichotomy has enlarged at the same pace of the expansion of the nation-state in Africa, to include new fields of political contestation. In line with some scholars of transnationalism, I argue that there is now also a tension between democratic rules and capitalism to be taken into account [10]. In the West, it is claimed that this tension led to inequality, and to the consequent establishment of social policies meant to counteract it: however, the provision of social assistance at different levels came about regulated by the tenets of social citizenship, which mean that only national citizens— again, could have access to it.

What implications for Africa? The question of migration and the exclusion of outsiders are of chief importance: several African states, perhaps those with the most efficient bureaucratic apparata, are moving towards the dilemma of social citizenship, and are possibly elaborating solutions using national categorizations. Putting it shortly, African states are imitating once more the West: is this one an appropriate strategy? Western governments, as we know, look at diasporas with suspecion; they accept inclusion of migrants only under specific and often strict rules while they are increasingly barricading behind its borders. I argue then that it’s time to reflect on how African governments are going to deal with the internal migration phenomena and the diaspora. What’s the future of the African state? — we shall also ask. In the ‘global’ background, we assist the rise of transnational analyses; the elaboration of transnational policies; the inclusion of ‘diaspora’ in the policy-making of some governments; the setting up of more and more international organizations. There seems to be a crossroads which forces us to ask if the national criterion is going to regulate the access to national-defined spaces of competition for resources. In this case, we would expect a perpetuation of exclusive social dynamics, and we can also predict that any sort of social citizenship question would be articulated in nationalist terms. This last process reinforces the production of social inequality, preventing the migrant from finding an equal space in the society. When this happens, migrants tend to become the target of governments’ repressive or control policies: this is the artificial circle which African states are entering. Alternatively, the recognition of the prevalent transnational connections linking the world today would be the first step in the direction of alleviating the nation’s fictional creations in relation to border controls, citizenship rights, migration policies and so on. Similarly, to think analytically beyond the state means to give legitimacy back to a number of local institutions as well as practices which are now considered ‘informal’ simply because they are out of the nation’s framework of political actions: in the corpus of traditional norms throughout Africa, of course, there are also specific provisions regulating the relation of the community with outsiders. This is also a development to be considered in the analysis of migration phenomena.


The main point of this article is that the national ideology has consequences on migration issues we must be aware of: to complain about political exclusion or persecution of specific groups is to blame the nation-state and the way it works. Diasporas, or minorities, as a category are such only when there is a counter-balancing nationalizing core which fosters inclusive and exclusive ideas of the society. As a result, the pan-Africanist ideal is today still substantially confronted by the colonial inheritance. Again, I will refer to the history of the nation-state in the attempt of explaining the potential institutional trend of some African states. Welfare states are characterized by the provision of social assistance to certain segments of the population; of course, it’s not the total population who can have access to these services, but usually only those people entitled with citizenship rights. In Europe, the cradle of nations, right-based welfare systems only emerged after the Second World War: it has been said in fact that ‘the history of social assistance is a history of growing institutionalization’ [11]. In other words, the welfare state can only emerge in the advanced phase of nation-building; it can only be established when there is both a vertical solidarity institution-citizen and a horizontal citizen-to-citizen solidarity. Unavoidably, many people will not be granted the right of entry into the social assistance program, and it would accentuate inequality as well as the ideological identification of migrants and diaspora members, the ‘others’, with the source of society’s issues (lack of security; terrorism and so on) as a consequence of the lack of solidarity. In Africa, the International Labour Organization has underlined an increasing public expenditure in the last 15 years which brings concerns for the future of the welfare states in the making [12]. In the cases of South Africa and Kenya, now in the spotlight, the question of national solidarity and public expenditure is becoming significant, with a remarkable violent character and boiling tensions within the society.


The entrenchment of politics and social policing behind the argument of national solidarity brings about extremely relevant consequences. On the one hand, it fosters internally the practice of differentiating between those who belong to the nation and those who don’t; on the other, it is responsible for the state’s external intervention in controlling migration. Even the patrolling of the Mediterranean Sea by the European Union is the result of the mounting pressure over security as well as the proclaimed invasion by ‘Others’. The reorganization of African politics around the notion of national solidarity, in a continent historically composed of highly decentralized polities, generates only fictional affiliations: since the colonial experience, there has been a substantial heteromorphism between the institutions and the society. On these bases, any nationalist claim is likely to end up by being monopolized by a specific group to the disadvantage of the others, creating a renewed wave of scramble for the state’s resources. In this bloody political game, migrants are the most vulnerable portion of the society, victims of scapegoat strategies in the name of, again, political calculations. The solution to ease these pressures in time before they reach the boiling point is to use the available political space to question and challenge the role of the nation-state in Africa. In the light of transnationalism theories, many scholars are moving the attention back to the people, to migrants, seen as the primary unit of analysis of contemporary times. Then, it takes migrants themselves to be aware of their potential as catalyst of change, and to act accordingly within the (transnational) political space they can access: from national governments in the homeland, to the institutions in the host land, international organizations, migrant associations and so on. However, even those national citizens persuaded by the Pan-African ideal, or again academic milieus, shall act from their privileged position in the society to raise similar claims. The common goals they should share are those of rejecting the normativeness of the nation as well as mitigating the fictional legislation it has created. Through the dismantling of the ideological association between solidarity and national populations, those who are now classified as migrants can find legitimate space to participate into the society, and from here there would be also ground for reducing the artificial inequality created over time. Africa and Africans in the diaspora could lead the way of this transnational, cosmopolitan approach to governance, and many other migrants worldwide could be freed from the ‘national cage’.

* Marco Zoppi is a PhD Fellow in Histories and Dynamics of Globalization at the University of Roskilde, Denmark. He is currently researching on the Somali diaspora in Scandinavia. He holds a MA in African Studies pursued at the University of Copenhagen. His personal interests include Geopolitics, history of Africa and colonialism. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


[1] Torpey, John (2000). The invention of the passport: Surveillance, Citizenship and the State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

[2] Data can be found, for example, on the CIA World Factbook website:

[3] Few examples of African pre-colonial empires: Mali; Songhai; Ashanti; Lunda

[4] Cf. Cooper, Frederick (2014). Africa in the World: Capitalism, Empire, Nation-State. Harvard: Harvard University Press

[5] Cf. Sachsenmaier, D. (2011). Global Perspectives on Global History Theories and Approaches in a Connected World. New York: Cambridge University Press and Kuper, A. (1988). The invention of primitive society. New York: Routledge

[6] See:

[7] See for example: Wimmer, A., and N. Glick Schiller (2003). “Methodological Nationalism, the Social Sciences, and the Study of Migration: An Essay in Historical Epistemology”. International Migration Review 37 (3): 576–610

[8] Foner, N. (1997). What’s New About Transnationalism?: New York Immigrants Today and at the Turn of the Century. Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies, 6(3), 355–375

[9] Mudimbe, V.Y. (1988). The invention of Africa. Indiana University Press, p. 17

[10] See Faist, T. (2009). “The transnational Social Question”. International Sociology, 24(1), 7–35

[11] Leisering, L. and Barrientos, A. (2013). “Social Citizenship for the Global Poor? The worldwide spread of social assistance”. International Journal of Social Welfare, 22, p. 55

[12] International Labour Organization (2014). World Social Protection Report 2014/15. Geneva: International Labour Office



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