African Studies Citizenship
Catherine Johnson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 March 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0240


Multidisciplinary scholarship in the humanities and social sciences contributes to our collective understanding of citizenship in Africa. In this dynamic area of research scholars pose questions that are answered through normative and empirical research. Among scholars, there is not universal agreement on how to define citizenship. Some scholars conceptualize citizenship narrowly, defining it by the various laws that establish and recognize the status of citizens within the established borders of a state. Other scholars encourage expanded conceptualizations of citizenship to reflect the diverse, dynamic, and often unequal ways that citizenship is experienced. Other scholars stress that citizenship is also relational, based on interactions between people and between people and the state. This lack of conceptual clarity complicates but does not preclude comparative work in the study of citizenship in different countries or across populations that differ according to autochthony, ethnicity, class, race, gender and sexual orientation, or age. While the origins of citizenship in Africa are often attributed to the continent’s European colonial past, processes of inclusion, exclusion, and differentiation characterized the operation of social life in the African empires and acephalous societies that existed before European colonial empires were established on the continent. Over time, African actors from a variety of social locations have contested, constructed, and reconstructed notions of citizenship. These processes continue in the present. Many scholars interested in citizenship in Africa are attentive to dynamics of identity and belonging over time. Historical precedents do have clear consequences for contemporary citizenship. As a broad and inclusive state-based identity, citizenship provides the foundation for political participation. Yet, paradoxically, the political liberalization that began across Africa in the 1990s set the stage for exclusionary politics to deny “strangers” the right to participate in democratic politics in many African countries. The various forms of conflict that stemmed from these exclusionary measures inspired the conceptual and empirical research that animates much of the contemporary scholarship on citizenship in Africa.

General Overviews

General overviews in scholarship on citizenship in Africa take one of two forms: collections of country case studies with a common theoretical framework to evaluate the different country experiences or a comparative discussion of legal frameworks for citizenship. Arriola, et al. 2023 takes the former approach to understand how African executives constrain citizen action and ignore external calls to be more accountable to citizens. Keller 2014 develops a theoretical framework and applies it to case studies to show how African executives’ choices matter for whether political mobilization around citizenship will be violent or nonviolent. Nugent, et al. 2007 presents a collection of country case studies to illustrate theoretical frameworks for understanding the creation of and relationships between nations, states, citizenship regimes, and discussions of belonging. Manby 2021 and Manby 2009 are both analyses of formal legal frameworks, analyzing nationality laws and citizenship laws.

  • Arriola, Leonardo R., Lise Rakner, and Nicolas van de Walle, eds. Democratic Backsliding in Africa? Autocratization, Resilience, and Contention. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2023.

    This edited volume asks why we do not see more extensive political reforms and advancement of the quality of democracy in contemporary African countries. The contributors establish a theoretical framework that examines how governments constrain citizen action through legal institutions and ignore external calls for accountability to citizens from international actors by invoking sovereignty. These dynamics are investigated across six country cases. Although democratic quality is threatened, citizen mobilization to support democracy continues.

  • Keller, Edmond J. Identity, Citizenship, and Political Conflict in Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014.

    This book argues that history, institutions, and social structures shape the environment in which political leaders make choices about democracy and development. These choices matter for subsequent mobilization around identity and citizenship issues and for whether such mobilization will be violent or nonviolent. Keller illustrates this argument by analyzing cases from Nigeria, Ethiopia, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, and Rwanda.

  • Manby, Bronwen. Struggles for Citizenship in Africa. London: Zed Books, 2009.

    DOI: 10.5040/9781350222830

    This book examines the history of citizenship laws in Africa. Then, Manby introduces examples from across Africa of what happens when people cannot access state recognition of their citizenship: they cannot participate in the electoral process as voters or candidates, obtain travel documents or work permits, or obtain state services. These issues necessitate urgent legal reform.

  • Manby, Bronwen. Citizenship in Africa: The Law of Belonging. London: Bloomsbury, 2021.

    This book examines nationality laws across Africa. It is divided into five parts. The first discusses legal and conceptual foundations; the second interrogates the invention of nationality in African and European empires; the third examines nationality laws after independence; the fourth consists of country case studies from a variety of settings and across a variety of social locations; the fifth concludes with a discussion of areas for future research.

  • Nugent, Paul, Daniel Hammett, and Sara Dorman. Making Nations, Creating Strangers: States and Citizenship in Africa. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1163/ej.9789004157903.i-280

    This edited volume is concerned with investigating the relationships between African states and nationhood, state-building, struggles over citizenship, and debates about belonging. The different chapters contribute analyses of these varied dynamics that are both synthetic and based on variation in citizenship politics and experiences of citizenship in six countries.

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