Diasporas and the Transnationalization of African Politics
- Terrence LyonsTerrence LyonsSchool for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University
Political outcomes in Africa are increasingly shaped by ideas, actors, and processes that are transnational in character. Diasporas and transnational communities living in new host countries but still connected to homelands provide resources, leadership, and other forms of support that shape political outcomes in the country of origin. African politics take place in these transnational spaces, less restricted by the need to be close geographically. From civil war in Burundi and Somalia, electoral outcomes in Liberia, Ghana, and Kenya, and civil society initiatives in Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo, actors and processes that are globally distributed and linked through transnational networks are increasingly at the center of African politics.
Much of the literature on diasporas emphasizes cultural links or specific forms of identity whereby residents at a distance remain deeply connected with their kin back home in a form of “long-distance nationalism.” From the perspective of seeking an understanding of the transnationalization of African politics, however, it is more useful to see diasporas as the outcomes of processes of political mobilization, constituencies activated by political entrepreneurs to advance specific political agendas. Leaders invest in creating and sustaining diasporas because these networks are strategic assets that allow them to deploy specific identity frames and categories, to make claims for resources and loyalty, and to engage in diverse activities in dispersed locations to maximize impact.
In many cases African governments wish to engage with diasporas in order to encourage remittances and investments in the homeland. Many have created special directorates for diaspora affairs and some have considered different forms of dual citizenship or overseas voting in order to build these linkages. Diasporas play important roles in lobbying new host governments to either increase pressures on homeland regimes or to increase donor support.
In addition, politically mobilized populations in the diaspora often play key roles as sources of financial support for opposition political parties and through diaspora media that can shape the nature of political debates. Liberian and Ethiopian politicians often campaign and fundraise in the United States. In authoritarian settings such as Zimbabwe and Togo, the closing of political space at home makes the diaspora even more important as a means to fill the vacuum. Civil wars always have transnational dimensions as both rebels and incumbent regimes reach beyond their borders for political support and resources. Whether it is African National Congress’s (ANC’s) de facto embassies during apartheid, diaspora support for the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, refugee recruits to rebel movements in the Mano River region of West Africa, or exiled politicians attempting to stage-manage peace talks in Darfur from Paris, the contentious politics of armed conflict is rarely contained by borders. Extended civil wars and political crises that generate substantial refugee flows, particularly to Europe and North America, have created cases where transnational politics is most pronounced. “Conflict-generated diasporas” may be more categorical in their political positions and therefore limit options for homeland politicians dependent on the diaspora’s support.
A complete analysis of African politics therefore requires consideration of how transnational mobilization can shape outcomes. Political actors on the continent, whether they are governments, opposition parties, civil society organizations, or rebels, recognize that linking their goals to the resources and ideas based in diasporas provides advantages in their struggles at home. Increasingly, scholars have recognized that understanding political processes and outcomes in Nigeria, Cameroon, or Zimbabwe entails consideration of transnational dimensions. This seems to be even more the case in countries that have experienced conflict, such as Liberia, Somalia, or Eritrea.