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date: 21 October 2019

Summary and Keywords

The renewed relevance of “autochthony” and similar notions of belonging in many parts of Africa is symptomatic of the confusing changes on the continent since the “post-Cold War moment.” Africa is certainly not exceptional in this respect. The “new world order,” so triumphantly announced by President George H. W. Bush in 1990 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the apparent victory of capitalism turned out to be marked by intensifying global flows, as expected, but also by an increasing obsession with belonging all over the globe, which was less expected. Yet, it may be important to emphasize as well that this upsurge of struggles over local belonging took on special aspects in Africa. The notion of autochthony has its own history on the continent, going back to the impact of colonialism, but building on older distinctions. However, it always sat uneasily with what many historians and anthropologists see as characteristic for African social formations: a heavy emphasis on mobility and inclusion of people: wealth in people. Since the last decades of the 20th century, there seems to be an increasing closure of local communities in many parts of the continent: a growing emphasis on exclusion rather than inclusion of newcomers, immigrants, or “strangers.”

After a brief sketch of the history of autochthony on the continent, also in relation to parallel notions like ethnicity and indigeneity, the focus is placed on the factors behind such a tendency toward closure: increasing land scarcity, and especially the changing global context since 1990. In many parts of the continent, the neo-liberal twin of democratization and decentralization had the effect that the feeling of belonging to the village became of crucial importance again, as well for people who had already lived for generations in the cities. The implications of such a growing preoccupation with autochthony and local belonging for national citizenship and notions on civil society are highly variable and depend on historical context. However, one recurrent trait is the paradox between a promise of basic security (how can one belong more than if one is rooted in the soil?) and a practice of deep uncertainty. The receding quality of these claims to belong—autochthony as a basic denial of history, which always implies movement—allows that they always can be contested: One’s autochthony can always be unmasked as “fake,” with someone else belonging more. Autochthony can be institutionalized in various forms and to various degrees, but its basic uncertainty gives it a violent potential.

Keywords: belonging, wealth in people, post-Cold War, democratization, decentralization, ethnicity, indigeneity, national citizenship, African politics

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