Citizenship is an artifice. It’s a delicate political construction aiming to weave private freedom and public governance into social cohesion. At its most lofty, we can talk about citizenship as the foundation of entitlement, empowerment and equality: but as every good student of government knows, the inverse of such inclusion is the exclusion borne from arbitrary state control of the “right to have rights”.
And while the language of citizenship is poetic, the documents of citizenship are bureaucratic prose. Birth certificates; social security numbers; passports: all simultaneously confirming and circumscribing legal identity.
In the Western liberal democracies where national citizenship evolved, and states have the bureaucratic competency to control identity through documentation
, the practice of citizenship is complex and contradictory enough. But what does citizenship mean in an African context, when the formal identity officially bestowed by the state so often competes with alternative ideas of belonging bound in blood or tied to the soil?
Thinking about this question, I often come back to Gerard Prunier’s observation
– one of those piercing comments that in catching the truth stays with you years after the first reading, ‘The state is always somebody’s state, never the State in the legal abstract form beloved by Western constitutional law’. In many parts of Africa, the state’s version of citizenship may be arbitrary, uneven, hollow, so that everyday security and social rights – making citizenship real– actually depends upon negotiating a host of other protections and appealing to other markers of identity that are anchored to genealogy or geography: tribe, religion, language.
Yet Africa is also continent on the move and nowhere more so than in regions of conflict. If citizenship is often precarious for locals, what does that mean for refugees and other migrants from conflict? These individuals cannot claim protections from their state (either because of active hostility or the absence of effective government). The humanitarian community may offer immediate respite from persecution, but in the longer-term refugees’ freedoms are limited
, not least because the documentary identities they are given mark them out as non-citizens, and as a result heavily restrict their ability to claim basic rights.
One such basic right is freedom of movement. Camp passes are often needed to leave the humanitarian ‘spaces of exception’
that can blur the line between protection and imprisonment. Convention Travel Documents (CTDs) were originally supposed to function in parallel with the international passport regime, but in practice access to these documents is rationed: Uganda had a quota of around 500 CTDs in 2011 for a total of 200,000 refugees.Two-thirds of refugees now spend five years or more in exile
, in what the international community calls protracted refugee situations. What begins in emergency in effect becomes a form of precarious long-term international migration, without access to a passport. There’s little prospect of formal local integration, because in places like Uganda it’s extremely difficult to meet the criteria for naturalisation. Yet the majority of long-term refugees do not live in camps, but alongside locals, often in urban centres like Kampala.
Last Summer, I went to Uganda to try and write the story of how these refugees and irregular migrants negotiated their documents, identities and ability to travel beneath the ‘legal abstract form of citizenship’. Talking to both Congolese, Sudanese, South Sudanese, Rwandan and Somali refugees as well as Ugandan locals, I wanted to understand how poor and displaced Africans thought about citizenship and belonging: are these the same thing? What about the connections between citizenship and the documents, like passports, that are its modern shorthand? Was it possible that citizenship – or at least some part of it – was for sale?
A year on, I’m still sifting the findings and trying to build a coherent narrative, but it’s clear that the relationship between passports, citizenship and ‘belonging’ is at least as complex as I speculated it might be. That said, certain trends are clear. Firstly, long-term exiles continue to move even after they are labelled refugees: journeys are made to trade, to check on lands, to visit family members. These border crossings are sometimes risky, but nearly always considered too important to postpone any longer, economically or emotionally. Secondly, because of the need to travel there is indeed a vibrant market in the identity documents needed to cross borders: citizenship—or at least its markers – are indeed for sale. I met several refugees who held Ugandan passports, usually purchased for around $100 (three times the official cost for Ugandans). The general consensus – among both locals and migrants – was that ‘money is everything’, and for those with enough financial capital, the trappings of citizenship could be readily purchased.
However I also met many more long-term refugees who were priced out of the citizenship market, and had crossed Uganda’s borders using alternative forms of identity that combined monetary exchange with economies of trust. Local Chairman – LC1 officials – issue local residency cards: for a price, some will list a refugees’ nationality as Ugandan, and write letters of recommendation to facilitate travel across borders. Institutes of Higher Education also issue ID cards, and are often willing to list a migrant student as a Ugandan – providing fees are paid on time. What was most interesting was that these were not new networks created by, or for, refugees. Rather, they were pre-existing local alternatives, developed to facilitate travel for the many Ugandans who also could not afford a passport. Here was an informal, hybrid market that depended upon accepted social norms – in particular, the social status afforded to local officials and universities – to lower the costs associated with freedom of movement.
Yet both locals and refugees were emphatic: facilitating travel and providing the documentary evidence of a legal identity was not the same as belonging. Both groups recoiled from idea that documents they exchanged for money were about identity or collective entitlement – a passport did not make you ‘one of us’. Instead, what seemed to emerge was a bifurcated view of citizenship, in which the protections and entitlements of social belonging were separated off from individual, private freedoms. The attitude was often that trustworthy refugees should, at their own risk, be able to enjoy negative liberty. Building a system that circumvents state control of passports simply helped to facilitate that and avoid the inconvenient demands of a corrupt, inefficient state. But no simple document could entitle a stranger to positive freedoms like entitlement to land: that depended upon blood and brotherhood.
For these locals, the state did indeed appear as an abstraction: distant, irrelevant and largely unconnected to the poor. This may help explain both the ready willingness of locals to bypass state control in issuing identity documents, and their clear understanding of the limits of the good they were selling: belonging and social rights were jealously guarded in part because of the very weaknesses of state – because this meant the poor had to rely on other forms of reciprocity.
This leads me to conclusions mired in ambiguity. If refugees are the victims of the nationalised distribution of basic rights, the poor are the victims when citizenship is monetized. While some refugees were able to purchase papers to escape refugee status and build social security, set free by market principles, the corrosive effect of market prices acted to diminish the claims of many poor citizens upon the state. Corruption affected Ugandans too: when rights have a price, why should the state provide them for free? As one women I interviewed reflected, ‘life is the same for poor Ugandans and Congolese refugees, the big difference is whether you are rich, or poor, not whether you are foreign or Muganda…’
In Uganda I saw how resourceful, energetic and ingenuous approaches to citizenship could overcome the bureaucratic failings of state and humanitarian regime, allowing refugees to build a tolerable life in exile. But in the end, I find myself needing to strike a sombre note. This self-crafted citizenship was in effect a privatised citizenship, not eliminating but simply re-fashioning the lines of inclusion and exclusion. The stories of Uganda’s refugees warn us all that if the only choice we create is one between arbitrary exclusion based on nationality, and arbitrary exclusion based on poverty, the promised freedoms of citizenship will remain, instead, the rationed privileges of a few.