‘Belonging’ is a pertinent trope in Africa and beyond. However, in many parts of Africa belonging is not only understood in national terms but also, and most importantly, as belonging to a place or a group; e.g. a village, a region, a clan or an ethnic group. In the context of democratisation processes, belonging gained salience in political discourse, and in many countries has been coupled with the notion of autochthony as a criterion for privileged access to natural and state resources (Bayart et al. 2001).
Drawing on the example of the Mbororo (pastoral Fulbe) in Cameroon, I argue that national citizenship alone does not necessarily enable individuals or groups to realise their political or land rights. Only as regional citizens and accepted members of a community are they entitled to participate in the joint management of the region’s political and natural resources (Pelican 2008). Moreover, certain population groups may feel entitled to more than average citizenship rights, claiming preferential treatment as minorities or, as in the case of the Mbororo, as an ‘indigenous people’ (Pelican 2009; see also Kymlicka 2004). Thus struggles over citizenship in Africa may well go beyond claims for equal rights for nationals.
The Mbororo belong to the ethnic category of Fulbe whose members are dispersed over the Sahel and Savannah belt from West to East Africa. In Cameroon they are represented in many parts of the country, where they generally constitute a regional minority. In the Northwest Region, for example, they account for roughly 10% of the population, the majority of whom are farming peoples here subsumed under the category of Grassfields groups.
The Mbororo may be regarded as a prime example of a stranger population. They are a minority, thought to have emerged from somewhere else in Africa. Having settled in the region in the 19th and 20th century, they are considered ‘late-comers’ by their long-established neighbours. Furthermore, they are seen as religiously and culturally different. Finally, as cattle pastoralists they are perceived as ‘nomads’, i.e. people constantly on the move and with no permanent home.
Due to their late arrival in the region and their mobile lifestyle, Mbororo citizenship has been an issue of contention. During the colonial period, they were classified as ‘strangers’ and subordinated to ‘native’ Grassfields authorities. Subsequently, under the regime of Cameroon’s first President Ahmadou Ahidjo, they qualified as Cameroonian citizens. However, on account of their Muslim identity and Fulbe ethnicity, they were subsumed under the cultural category of ‘northerners’. Consequently, Mbororo who were born and grew up in the Northwest Region still counted as ‘strangers’ to the area with limited rights to the region’s natural and state resources.
A wind of change set in with Cameroon’s democratization in the 1990s and the integration of autochthony discourses in national politics. As argued by Geschiere & Nyamnjoh (2000), the introduction of a multi-party system raised significant problems regarding criteria of electoral entitlement and eligibility. Taking into account the high degree of internal mobility and labour migration that characterised Cameroon’s economy since the pre-colonial period, a number of conflicting interpretations of citizenship and belonging emerged. The interpretation endorsed by the government defined belonging in terms of ‘roots’ and ‘origins’. Political priority was given to ‘autochtones’ and ‘indigenous minorities’, meaning members of local ethnic groups. ‘Strangers’ or ‘allogènes’ were instructed to vote or stand as candidates in their home area, since they were thought to represent primarily the interests of their group of origin. At the same time, the Cameroonian government encouraged the formation of ethnic and regional elite associations as vehicles of political representation. This novel political avenue was also explored by young, mostly educated Mbororo who founded the Mbororo Social and Cultural Development Association (MBOSCUDA). The organisation challenged the widespread perception of the Mbororo as a stranger population and claimed recognition of their national and regional citizenship rights. Equivalent to their neighbours, the Mbororo should not just be seen as Cameroonians, but as members of specific communities. Formally, this was achieved by indicating individuals’ actual birth place (instead of an imaginary place in northern Cameroon) in the new computerised identity cards. Practically, it required negotiations with regional and local authorities to promote the integration of Mbororo representatives in decision making processes.
Concurrently, MBOSCUDA reckoned that reversing the historical marginalisation of the Mbororo required more than average citizenship rights. Benefiting from international contacts with development and human rights institutions, the organisation succeeded in claiming international recognition of the Mbororo as an ‘indigenous people’. While the Cameroonian government does not acknowledge the international concept of ‘indigenous peoples’, it has recognised the Mbororo as a ‘marginalised population group’ in need of national integration and concerted development efforts. Thus, in their struggle for citizenship the Mbororo – represented by MBOSCUDA – have gone beyond confirming their Cameroonian nationality, and have successfully claimed regional citizenship as well as minority status.
* Michaela Pelican is lecturer and post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Anthropology, University of Zurich.
Bayart, Jean-François, Peter Geschiere and Francis Nyamnjoh. 2001. Autochtonie, Démocratie et Citoyenneté en Afrique. Critique Internationale 10: 177-194.
Geschiere, Peter and Francis Nyamnjoh. 2000. Capitalism and Autochthony: The Seesaw of Mobility and Belonging. Public Culture 12(2): 423-452.
Kymlicka, Will. 2004. Nation-building & minority rights: comparing Africa and the West. In: Bruce Berman et al. (eds.). Ethnicity and Democracy in Africa. Oxford: James Currey. pp. 54-71.
Pelican, Michaela. 2008. Mbororo claims to regional citizenship and minority status in northwest Cameroon. Africa. Africa 78(4): 540-560.
Pelican, Michaela. 2009. Complexities of indigeneity and autochthony: an African example. American Ethnologist 36(1): 149-162.