Beyond national citizenship

‘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 ‘allogí¨nes’ 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-Franí§ois, 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.

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13 thoughts on “Beyond national citizenship

  1. I’m quite favorably disposed in both intellect and temperament to regional citizenship. However, I find in this article sparse material or argument to support its central thesis.

    I’m not sure how Michaela Pelican proposes the achievement of regional citizenship among countries that can’t even protect or recognize their own nationals or for people who don’t even have a place to call their own. If you don’t belong anywhere, and given that a region is territorialised space, what region then are you going to be able to claim as your own?

    Moreover, this article tends to over-simplify the Mbororo story in a rather complex Cameroon. The Mbororo experience in north-west Cameroon is not just an identity issue but also an age old livelihoods tension familiar all over Africa and beyond, that pits their pastoralist livelihood against that of the sedentary populations – the Banso are the single largest ethnicity in NW Cameroon - with and among whom  they co-exist in NW Cameroon. The landholding system here is heavily beholden to Native Authority system controlled by the much feared Fons who are the paramount chiefs of the sedentary populations. The Ardos – the community leaders among Mbororo – don’t have equivalent status to the Fons in this system.

    Again the ethnic composition of Cameroon comes out here a bit more confusing than I had understood it. Pelican suggests that “In Cameroon they (Mbororo) are represented in many parts of the country, where they generally constitute a regional minority.” Cameroon has a population of about 16-17 million people and over 220 ethnicities. There is no majority ethnic group in Cameroon. Everyone is indeed a minority relative to the rest. Isn’t that one of the reasons the majority-minority configuration in Cameroon is cast in linguistic terms – as a contest between Francophones and Anglophones?

    This is essential to understanding the Mbororo predicament because, although the default position for every group on Cameroon is minority status, the Mbororo are often in a multiple bind. Their pastoralist lifestyle is minoritarian in all but two of Cameroon’s ten regions/provinces (Adamawa & Far North). They are also minority among minority in the North-West which is English Speaking. The majority of Camroon’s Foulah communities with whom they claim affinity, speak French. Also, as a pastoralist population, the Mbororo don’t have easy access to education. And their settlements are mostly not well served by roads and communications, meaning that they are unable to convert their livestock into economic currency.

  2. Dear Achidi, thanks for your comments which help to further contextualize the situation of the Mbororo in northwest Cameroon.
    I agree that the issue of regional citizenship is far more complex than I could possibly outline in this limited space. But my primary aim was to draw attention to the fact that (at least in some contexts) national citizenship alone may not be sufficient to realise one’s citizenship rights. However, as illustrated by Bayart et al. (2001), discourses of autochthony and regional citizenship have their downsides which should not be ignored. 
    Truly, in the multi-ethnic setting of Cameroon in general and the Northwest Region in particular, the Mbororo are a minority among minorities. However, I would query your assumption that the Anglophone-Francophone divide plays such a crucial role in their context. For example, the problematic relations between Mbororo and settled Town Fulbe (in northern Cameroon) are rooted in differences that predate the colonial period (Burnham 1996). At the same time, there is constant exchange and flow between Mbororo communities in different parts of the country.
    Finally, I agree that not everyone is able or wants to claim a place of his/her own. For example, the Hausa community in northwest Cameroon has made no attempts to claim regional citizenship, although they share similar predicaments with the Mbororo (Pelican 2006). Thus, the situation remains complex.

    Additional references:
    Burnham,Philip. 1996. The Politics of Cultural Difference in Northern Cameroon. Edinburgh & Washington DC: Edinburgh University Press and the Smithsonian Institution for the International African Institute.
    Pelican, Michaela. 2006. Getting along in the Grassfields: interethnic relations and identity politics in northwest Cameroon. PhD thesis. Martin-Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, Germany.

  3. Just three things in response to Michaela Pelican’s helpful clarifications. First, it is indeed the case that formal possession of national citizenship in some contexts may be insufficient to guarantee full enjoyment of citizenship rights. The converse is even more true: that it is more difficult to enjoy any citizenship rights when even formal recognition of national citizenship is both unavailable and inaccessible or either.

    Part of the Mbororo problem is the location of the borders between Nigeria and Cameroon, the history of post-colonial adjustment of boundaries between Nigeria and Cameroon following the referendum of 1961 and the fact that as a transboundary pastoralist community they straddle an international boundary and are often unable to effectively prove nationality on either side of the border even if they have facility of movement across that border.

    Second, the point you make about the problems between the Mbororo and settled town Fulbe itself supports the argument that the Mbororo problem is substantially a livelihood issue rather than one of territorialisation of political authority and allegiance. The settled Fulbe made a major livelihood adjustment/choice in becoming quasi-sedentary to accommodate the pressures of living amongst mostly sedentary peoples and as a way of achieving accommodation with the existing settled populations in places where they found themselves.

    Thirdly, Cameroon, as you well know, is the one territory in Central and West Africa that was never quite colonized by anyone moving from a German Protectorate before becoming a League Mandate and then a UN Trust Territory. The territorial adjustments that were made in the course of the various legal arrangements that had to be made through these transitions still haunt populations caught by the histories of this political geography. The Mbororo are one of such peoples.

    PS: Please note my name is “Chidi” not “Achidi”. The latter would make me a national of a Central African country (which I will probably aspire to sometime), instead of a West African country (which I presently am).

  4. With the degree of dissention inside of most countries and the poor record keeping even inside of nations I am not sure how citizenship amoung a nomadic people?  It would be difficult to decide which countries they were born in or where they could vote?

  5. This piece strongly resonates a similar problem in Nigeria where the Constitution grants ample rights to citizens, but also reserve some opportunities for ‘indigenes’ without defining who is an indigene. The implication is that groups who consider themselves indigenous have termed others ‘settlers’ and try to exclude them from elective and public office – which they consider their exclusive preserve as indigenes. This has resulted in many conflicts. The pastoralist Fulani groups are also caught in this web. Perhaps a continental Africa citizenship will be the answer to these citizenship and indigeneity problems.

  6. Dear Michaela and Chidi! Let me find out please what make Chidi to think that Banso people are the original settlers in that region and that Mbororo pastoralists in NW region are nomads not sedentary. Legacies of colonialism and history reveals that all ethnic groups in Cameroon migrated into the country.Banso a sub division of the Tikar migrated some where around the Bornu in Lake chad region and were pushed by the Jihads of Modibo Adama. The Mbororo people are said to have originated from Futa Toro in Sene-Gambia and entered NW Cameroon in 1905 under lamido Sabga. if these people co-exist today, then they should have equal rights as peoples who once migrated regardless of who arrived first. In the context of cameroon, what does Chidi mean by nationals and pastoralists not knowing their home land?. if any ethnic group claims exclusive ownership of the land, then the mbororo people also have the right to claim exclusive ownership of the land where they occupy because every one is a migrant unless people can admit that they created the land they leave in which is not possible. We should also understand that all ethnic groups in Cameroon with the pastoralists inclusive were present in the territory before independent and even colonialism and by the constitution of the country, any one present before independent makes him a citizen thereby making all ethnic groups nationals of the country. I will also query what Chidi mean by there is no majority ethnic group but all minorities, in the NW region, many tribes like the Nso, Kom, Bali and Noni constitute the majority and in the West, the bamileke are the majority. Two ethnic groups constitute the minorities which are the Mbororo and the pygmies and are recognised as minorities by the state, so why are pygmies seen as nationals and Mbororos seen as foreigners by their farming neighbours. I only know that the lack of concern by the Mbororo people on western education and ignorant of the law makes them vulnerable and victims of discrimination and extortion.

  7. I believe that the right of citenzenhip is important,  It cannot be allowed that people have no country to call home.  Even for nomadic people a sense of home is necessary.  With the present lack of adequate record keeping for births and few laws regarding how people who travel can become citizens of one or more countries it will continue to be difficult to have a sense of country and pride in it.

  8. It is unimportant which tribes initially settled a region of Africa.  It is important that if a people moves they are allowed to retain both the tribal identity and the national identity they choose to belong to.  If a tribe has no national home then it would become impossible to obtain passports to travel to other countries or other government services.  All others in the world retain a national identity no matter what country they are living in at the time.

  9. @Michaela Pelican: An interesting read. I’m curious, you mention that:

    “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).”

    To what extent did the Mbororo claim preferential treatment? What benefit has it brought them over just national citizenship?

  10. @Michaela Pelican: An interesting read. I’m curious, you mention that:
    “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).”
    To what extent did the Mbororo claim preferential treatment? What benefit has it brought them over just national citizenship?

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    I don’t understand what exactly the Mbororo ethnic is. What I understand is that the African governments must guarantee effective citizenship and stop foreignizing Africans. They have rights to live in their own country.

  12. The Mbororo experience in north-west Cameroon is not just an identity issue but also an age old livelihoods tension familiar all over Africa and beyond, that pits their pastoralist livelihood against that of the sedentary populations – the Banso are the single largest ethnicity in NW Cameroon – with and among whom they co-exist in NW Cameroon

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