The African is Not at Home

African migrants within the continent bear the contradictions of binding African identity to land.

In April, Mozambican migrant Emmanuel Sithole was callously pursued, overran, and brutally murdered in the streets of Alexandra township in Johannesburg, South Africa. It was, for many, the high watermark of the latest season of brutality against African foreigners in South Africa – this one characterized by random attacks against businesses owned by Somali and Ethiopian migrants and refugees, of remarks by South African politicians and public figures seemingly in support of some kind of action against foreigners, if not outright support for the ever-increasing xenophobia.

Professor Achille Mbembe, himself a migrant in South Africa and one of the foremost African scholars, offered these words as a sort of beacon of reason in the chaos:

Finally, one word about "foreigners" and "migrants." No African is a foreigner in Africa! No African is a migrant in Africa! Africa is where we all belong, notwithstanding the foolishness of our boundaries. No amount of national-chauvinism will erase this.

Mbembe’s words struck a chord with many Africans and were repeated and even turned into memes as observers tried to craft an anti-xenophobia logic. The instinct was right, powerful and necessary, but flawed and unrepresentative of the reality of life in Africa for many Africans. Africans are not at home everywhere in Africa. We are just as unhomed and othered here – as migrants, refugees, internally displaced persons – as we are anywhere else, a fact that is important to recognise if we are to move away from empty platitudes about solidarity and actually start building just and equitable societies.

An appeal to a universal African identity is a laudable attempt to undo the creeping Europeanisation of African governments’ policy on mobility and migration, lately shaped by Islamophobia. It rightly challenges the idea that identity – national, ethnic, or religious - can be a basis for exclusion for Africans in Africa. It is premised on anti-colonial identities that proto-Pan Africanists created as a united front against the colonisers divide-and-rule tactics. It’s a form of reclamation, in that the European created the identity of the “African Negro” and populated it, but the anti-colonial movement negated the content of the definition but retained the politically expedient idea of a single identity. Many of the best-known anti-colonial writers and thinkers – Cabral, Biko, Sankara – refer to “The African” or “Blacks” as a unitary identity in the process of appealing for transnational and trans-generational identity.

The problem is that this casual distillation of African identity irrevocably binds African identity to something external, mainly land. This might provide comfort in the short term but in the long term sustains prejudiced efforts to exclude Africans in other parts of the world. Perversely, it gives credence to cries of “Africans go home”; the xenophobia that many people of African descent struggle with around the world. It suggests that a person can never “leave” Africa – the fact of blackness means we take that Africa with us wherever we go. This has one set of implications for those who were and are made to leave by force – it keeps the hope of return alive - but it isn’t necessarily a welcome presumption for those choose to leave. It overlooks the fact that embedded in the concept of home is a notion of choice.

Moreover, several distinct events in April alone undermine challenge this idea that Africans are fundamentally at home everywhere in Africa. Consider Somalia, and its relationship with its neighbours Kenya and Ethiopia. Even though historians assert that the Somali arrived in East Africa before Bantu and Nilotic groups, Somalis are today treated as unwanted foreigners and second-class citizens in Kenya and Ethiopia, while enduring the risk of generalised violence in much of Somalia. Some of this is political and related to specific historical events; some of it is simply a function of ethnic hatreds aggravated by both countries’ hypercapitalist economies. Somali Kenyans therefore doubly suffer the tribalism that dogs the public sphere in Kenya and the complications of being a visible, physically distinct minority in a world where “blackness” is itself a variable and malleable construct. Anywhere else in the world, we would all be black Africans – but in Africa some of us are more black than others.

Kenya’s Somali community is transnational and highly fluid. Cross-border migrations between Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia are historical and common. We should all be in awe of the many ways Somali cultural identity has transcended geographical lines, survived trying historical events, and acutely demonstrated how futile and ultimately meaningless state-based identities can be. Instead, Somalis in Kenya are perpetually othered – foreigners and migrants in their own homes.

In part this unhoming is a consequence of the long-running conflict in Somalia. Since the 1989 conflict broke out, Kenya has had one of the largest refugee communities in the world: until last year the largest refugee community in Africa, and the fourth largest in the world. The vast majority of these refugees are hosted at the Daadab and Kakuma refugee camps. An oft-cited fact is that if Daadab were recognised as a city, it would be the third or fourth largest in Kenya. For many Kenyans, the Somali identity has become inseparable from the refugee identity, even though Kenya hosts refugees of 32 different nationalities and has a sizeable native Somali population of its own.

Partly, the unhoming is due to Kenya’s own history of tension with her indigenous Somali population and residual complications of colonialism rarely contended with in simplified history book narratives. Although today we blithely accept that Kenya was a British colony, colonialism was not a uniform process across the country. Resistance happened, to varying success, from the coastal city-states that were never officially colonised, to the internment of Nandi and Kikuyu communities in concentration camps, to the Somali resistance in the Northern Fronteir District.

In the 60 odd years that Britain declared itself sovereign over “Kenya,” and for majority of the 50 years that Kenya has been independent, the area formerly known as the NFD has been contested territory. The legacy of this rebellion and its mismanagement by the colonial and independence governments is mutual suspicion between the Somali community and the government, and punitive underdevelopment. The average Kenyan doesn’t study this part of the country’s history, instead collapsing into government-propagated tropes that perpetuate the divide-and-rule tradition of governance in Kenya.

And so the Somali identity in Kenya exists across these underlying fissures, in some ways unchanged over millennia but un-homed by history and contemporary governance strategies that perpetually frame them as an “other” in contrast to a schizophrenic and itself deeply fractured core.

In April 2015, Garissa University College, the first institution of higher learning ever built in all of what used to be North Eastern Province in Kenya, was brutally attacked by Al Shabaab militias. The siege lasted for hours, facilitated by the many tactical errors of a systemically corrupt law enforcement apparatus. To date, 144 students at the university are confirmed dead, although more remain unaccounted for. The government responded to the siege by threatening to close the nearby Daadab refugee camp (even though all of the attackers so far identified are Kenyan), a strict and harshly enforced curfew in Garissa town, and punitive measures against Somali citizens and refugees in Nairobi.

Collective punishment is perhaps the most brutal face of the un-homing of Kenyan Somalis and Somalis in Kenya. It is neither new nor surprising. In 2015, again in response to a terror attack at Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, the government issued a directive that forced all refugees back to camps. Critically, a “security operation” in the city rounded up Somali refugees and Kenyan citizens who were not able to pay bribes demanded by police officers at Kasarani, the city’s largest stadium. Many were held for days. One woman’s infant, who had been at home unsupervised during the raid, died while she was in detention.

Almost exactly thirty years earlier, in response to the Shifta rebellion in the region, the government massacred almost 5,000 ethnically Somali Kenyans at the Wagalla airstrip near Wajir. The country’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee, formed after the 2008 post-election violence recognized it as the worst human rights violation in the country’s history. And even though the massacre is a matter of public record in the country, the government only issued a formal apology for the massacre in 2015.

This physical violence is the culmination of a more insidious systemic violence that otherises Somalis in Kenya daily: in ethno-chauvinist discourse, in derogatory remarks and representations in popular culture, in economic and political marginalisation. Government rhetoric around the terror attacks has only exacerbated it, increasing incidences of “jokingly” accusing Somalis of belonging to Al Shabaab. For Somali refugees, it has meant a dramatic contraction of the protection space available in the country – that margin for empathy and acceptance that refugees need to feel safe after their flight. For Kenyan Somalis, it means a presumption of foreignness until proven otherwise.

Kenya’s fractured relationship with its Somali population is neither unusual nor atypical in Africa. Consider Mauritania’s treatment of its non-Arab population; Egypt’s treatment of its ethnically Sudanese population; caste hierarchies in the Indian Ocean islands – the list goes on. The reality is that like any other continent, Africa is a complex and fragmented place. Africans are just as capable of otherization as people from any part of the world, and just as capable of resorting to dramatic violence in its service. Ideally, Pan Africanism should be an ideological safeguard against this structural violence, but today’s Pan Africanism as praxis is an ethically compromised ideology that even facilitates this unhoming.

In fact, the tendency to over or understate our African capacity for violence is dehumanising because it excuses us from the complexities of human nature. It says we are different, not because of active choices we make or outcomes we will, but because of who we are – a deeply flawed proposition that allows political leaders especially to collapse into empty platitudes instead of actually having to confront the exigencies of modernity.

Consider also that hundreds Africans have this year dared death, crossing the Sahara and the active war zone in Libya, only to meet untimely death in the Mediterranean. This should remind us all that unhoming of Africans not only persists but drives individuals to increasingly desperate methods of seeking home. Economic unhoming – denying individuals opportunities to carve out a basic livelihood – is just as disastrous as social or political unhoming, especially in a society where wealth or property are a barrier to other opportunities or social networks, e.g. education or marriage. Ego and greed by African leaders have this year driven hundreds of thousands of Burundians and South Sudanese into refugee camps, where they have consequently died from preventable diseases or further attacks. That unidentifiable quantity that makes home – peace, settledness, regularity – pried violently from them by fellow Africans.

The reality is that millions of Africans are foreigners and migrants in Africa, unhomed by power and abandoned to physical or structural violence. In fact, xenophobia seems to be an inevitable by-product of the contemporary, capitalist state. As resources become increasingly scarce, identity – ethnic, religious, national – has become a basis for determining who can get a piece of the pie. Contestation – structural or physical – becomes inevitable, and xenophobia is one manifestation of this contestation. This isn’t an African phenomenon, but neither is it European or American, and it cannot be resolved by well meaning but ill-informed appeals to a constructed supra-identity.

I like the idea of a Pan African identity, but such an identity should be grounded in the reality on the continent today, and guided by a shared belief in our humanity. I dream of a Africanism that is pulling towards something instead of merely covering up or obfuscating very real and dangerous failures. A solution to the wave of violence against Africans in Africa should be premised on remaking the African state. Do we need new forms of political organisation? Maybe. But we can’t accelerate over the problems created by the political decision to embrace the capitalist state in a rush to get to a supra-national utopia.

For now, we should reject the current trend towards systems that can only exist based on unchecked accumulation by few. We should stop fighting other people’s wars – reject international engagements or interventions that encourage unhoming local populations based on other countries’ problems. Pan Africanism was born of people who believed strongly in the power of the grassroots; that liberation for Africa had to start with those who bore the heaviest burdens of oppression. Most contemporary African states haven't done that – yet. To be at home, we need societies that are seized with the needs of the most vulnerable, providing those amenities and supports – rights – that those of us with more often take for granted. Safety. Adequate healthcare. Meaningful education. A place to lay down at the end of the day. We’re not there yet.

By definition, a foreigner is a person who lacks some fundamental right to make claims on the territory in which s/he is foreign. Today, too many of Africans are unable to make these claims of their own countries. Too many are still foreigners and migrants in Africa.