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Public Culture 12.2 (2000) 423-452

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Capitalism and Autochthony:
The Seesaw of Mobility and Belonging

Peter Geschiere and Francis Nyamnjoh *

IMAGE LINK= A striking aspect of recent developments in Africa is that democratization seems to trigger a general obsession with autochthony and ethnic citizenship invariably defined against "strangers"--that is, against all those who "do not really belong." Thus political liberalization leads, somewhat paradoxically, to an intensification of the politics of belonging: fierce debates on who belongs where, violent exclusion of "strangers" (even if this refers to people with the same nationality who have lived for generations in the area), and a general affirmation of roots and origins as the basic criteria of citizenship and belonging.

Such obsessions are all the more striking since historians and anthropologists used to qualify African societies as highly inclusive, marked by an emphasis on "wealth-in-people" (in contrast to Europe's "wealth-in-things") and a wide array of institutional mechanisms for including people (adoption, fosterage, the broad range of classificatory kinship terminology). In many African political formations, prior to liberalization there was an important social distinction between autochthons and allochthons, but its implications were strikingly different from today. Often rulers came from allochthon clans who emphasized their origin from elsewhere, yet had privileged access to political positions. Since the late 1980s, in contrast, autochthony has become a powerful slogan to exclude the Other, the allogène, the stranger. Political liberalization seems to have strengthened a decidedly nonliberal tendency towards closure and exclusion (cf. Bayart 1996). [End Page 423]

In certain respects, issues of autochthony and their violent impact in politics are a continuation of a much older preoccupation with ethnic differences: at least in some parts of Africa, the increasing currency of slogans about autochtones versus allogènes can be seen as marking a new form of ethnicity. In principle, ethnicity evokes the existence of a more or less clearly defined ethnic group with its own substance and a specific name and history. Precisely because of this specificity, ethnicity is open to debate and even to efforts towards deconstruction by alternative interpretations of history. Notions of autochthony have a similar effect of creating an us-them opposition, but they are less specific. They are equally capable of arousing strong emotions regarding the defense of home and of ancestral lands, but since their substance is not named they are both more elusive and more easily subject to political manipulation. These notions can be applied at any level, from village to region to country. Autochthony seems to go together very well with globalization. It creates a feeling of belonging, yet goes beyond ethnicity's specificity. Precisely because of its lack of substance it appears to be a tempting and therefore all the more dangerous reaction to seemingly open-ended global flows.

This emphasis on autochthony and belonging in politics is certainly not special to Africa: everywhere in our globalized world the increasing intensity of global flows seems to be accompanied by an affirmation of cultural differences and belonging. Unfortunately, eruptions of communal violence seem to be the flip side of globalization. For instance, there is a striking parallel between, on the one hand, attempts in Ivory Coast, Tanzania, and Zambia to disqualify eminent politicians--including Kenneth Kaunda, the father of the Zambian nation--on the grounds of foreign ancestry and, on the other hand, the strenuous efforts of politicians like Jean-Marie Le Pen in France or Jörg Haider in Austria to exclude "strangers" from citizenship (although both politicians run into great difficulties when they have to define who really belongs). In other modern democracies, and in Europe and North America as well, autochthony and roots have become major issues. They always were so in the Caribbean and other "plural societies" that can be considered products par excellence of globalization. [End Page 424]

How is this upsurge of autochthony in very different parts of our globalized world to be explained? It may be reassuring to explain it away as the last flickering of some sort of traditionalist resistance against modern developments...


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pp. 423-452
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