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Reviewed by:
  • Identity, Citizenship, and Political Conflict in Africa by Edmond J. Keller
  • Damien Ejigiri
Keller, Edmond J. 2014. IDENTITY, CITIZENSHIP, AND POLITICAL CONFLICT IN AFRICA. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. 208 pp.

Edmond J. Keller, a distinguished professor of political science at UCLA, here offers enlightened reflections on identity and the processes of citizenship and nation-building in Africa. Looking at the nuances of what constitutes a national polity, he quotes Chief Obafemi Awolowo, an indomitable Nigerian politician, as asserting that Nigeria is not a nation, but “a mere geographical expression” (p. 3). For confirmation of what makes one a bona fide citizen of a place, Keller quotes a Human Rights Watch interview with Zangon-Kataf, a resident of Warri, Nigeria, lamenting the fact that people are dissatisfied when, though they know of no other place, they are told they “are not of this place” (p. 3).

Keller asks why, after half of a century of independence, the goal of national political integration or unity seems to be as elusive as ever. Questions confronting him at the start of his research were:“Will the nation-building project in most African states be under construction forever?” and “How necessary is it for the persistence and consolidation of African states for there to be developed an exclusive sense of national identity that is the primary political identity for citizens?” Instead of answering these questions, Keller asserts “What my research reveals is that no matter what the answers to these questions are, one of present-day Africa’s most burning political issues is the establishment of widely accepted notions of national citizenship that apply equally across ethnic communities,” and he postulates that citizens “want to solidify their rights as individuals and as ethnic groups to belong to a particular national community” (p. x).

This book focuses on Nigeria, Kenya, Rwanda, Ivory Coast, and Ethiopia to lay the foundation for what can be seen as a new understanding of political transition in modern or contemporary Africa. Without mincing words, Keller points out (just as Rene Dumont had pointed out decades ago in False Start in Africa and other works) that from their “inception as independent polities, African states have struggled to manage identity politics,” and adds that, apart from Europe’s scramble for Africa between 1884 and 1885, colonial powers imposed “their own artificial criteria to create states in Africa” (p. 3).

The foregoing scenarios go a long way to buttress earlier assertions by nationalist leaders decrying false moves at boundary creations. Keller, in chapter two, provides a sophisticated discussion of theoretical and formal-legal dimensions of the concept of citizenship in Africa. Here, he delves into philosophical dimensions of citizenship, tracing “the concept of citizenship . . . back to Western philosophers such as Aristotle, Machiavelli, Locke, and Rousseau” (p. 18). He goes on to discuss “Western Origins of the Concept of Citizenship” (pp. 19–22) and then what he considers to be the emergence of national citizenship and the persistence of subnational citizenship. In colonial Africa, he says, Africans “could not claim to be ‘citizens’ of particular [End Page 149] colonies” (p. 22); however, exceptions occurred, in post-1946 French Africa and post-1961 Portuguese Africa. Though social conflict in Africa has many sources, Keller focuses on “conflicts rooted in disputes over citizenship and citizenship rights,” conflicts that no amount of extant general theory or analytical framework “can help us explain” (p. 36).

In a discussion of indigeneity and citizenship, Keller points out scenarios in Nigeria (pp. 51–66), while in regard to the essence of the politics of late nation-building and the national question, he draws on Ethiopia, which, as a specialist in the Horn of Africa, he notes “traces its history back some three thousand years” (p. 67). For issues of societal citizenship, land, and ethnic cleansing, he draws examples from Kenya, “which secured independence from British rule on December 12, 1963” (p. 103). Although the indigenous Kenyans’ conflict (known as Mau-Mau) with their British colonial authorities seemed to have dragged on for a while, Keller shows that “the colonial era [in Kenya] had lasted less than one hundred years” (p. 103). The topical discussion of exclusionary nationalism, democracy...


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pp. 149-150
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