Tuesday, September 16, 2014

How are citizens made? By Lahra Smith

Most of the discussion around citizenship considers the laws or rules determining eligibility. Americans debate whether there should be an expansion of “pathways to citizenship” for immigrants. In Nepal, rights activists are bringing attention to a proposed provision for the new constitution that would limit citizenship to be biased against women.  Though eligibility rules are foundational to understanding citizenship, the process of making citizens can be just as important in shaping a country’s future.
What does it mean to be a citizen of a state that has written a new constitution, one that radically reordered social life?  In that sense, whomakes citizens and how are citizens made?  Across the world, and particularly in Africa, a wave of new constitutions was written in the 1990s and 2000s and the Ethiopian constitution is one striking example of this. A unitary country with an ancient political culture and a tumultuous process of political reform from at least the 1960s through the ‘70s and ‘80s, the Ethiopian state and political elites crafted a ‘compromise’ constitution in the 1990s.  A federal state was constructed, one that recognized the right to self-determination of ‘nations, nationalities and peoples’, meaning ethnic groups, and provided for fundamental human rights for children, women, minorities, and all Ethiopian citizens.  But how did Ethiopians themselves become the citizens of this political order?

I argue in “Making Citizens in Africa” that citizenship is a process, a set of practices and an identity created by the action of the state as well as citizens themselves.  And of course, this is as much about the ways that citizens affirm laws and norms of the state as well as the ways that they contest them.  The book examines language policy, social movement groups around ethnicity and gender and interpretation of Ethiopian history to demonstrate the ways in which citizenship is dynamic in a changing landscape of politics.  Meaningful citizenship is about how citizens engage in the citizenship-creation process, how they make themselves citizens.  This is especially true for Ethiopians and other African citizens, who are members of fairly new nation-states and who are rapidly acquiring skills like literacy, access to media and information and other tools of citizen-engagement.
This is not only true in Ethiopia.  Multi-ethnic, multi-religious states — like Nigeria, for example — have many competing visions of citizenship. Politicians, religious leaders, insurgent groups all make claims for citizens, and so too do ordinary Nigerians.  Day-to-day politics, education and everyday participation like news consumption, changes in family dynamics—all these things involve restructuring of the terms of citizenship. Meaningful citizenship is the social citizenship that ‘makes citizens’ out of people who were previously meant to be silent observers of a political and social process driven by elites.
This means that formal political institutions regarding citizenship are important but insufficient conditions for democratic outcomes. Formal rules must be accompanied by new forms of inclusive and meaningful citizenship to contribute to genuine democracy. “Meaningful citizenship” goes beyond the legal status of possessing a nationality or associated rights to signify the effective practice of citizenship, the ability and environment for exercising the various rights of citizenship and discharging citizen duties in a way that has practical and lived implications in one’s life, both on an individual and community level. The process of citizenship construction is iterative and episodic, fitful and contentious. It is shaped by domestic political elites and influenced by international actors such as donors, activists, and even social scientists, but always only meaningfully realized by the citizens who themselves vest power in those leaders and institutions. Without that process, democratic reforms can be undermined or even abandoned by citizens who find little usefulness in their provisions. Without meaningful citizenship some groups within the political community, notably women, may be left out of the national conversation about the realization of citizenship gains, and families and communities may be unreformed, even while major changes are occurring in formal places of power.
For instance, the Ethiopian state pursued a dominant language policy that privileged Amharic through education and the law for most of the period of the so-called ‘modern Ethiopian state’ — that is, the last 150 years or so.  But when federalism was introduced in 1995, Ethiopian communities were allowed, through locally elected political channels, to incorporate other languages into education, courts and the media. This was a radical departure as it acknowledged Ethiopia’s diversity and challenged the dominance and privilege of certain ethno-linguistic groups.  I argue in the book that this was both the result and a further development of ‘meaningful citizenship’ in Ethiopia in that these communities saw their demands recognized, accommodated and at least in some respects, integrated into the national polity.  This is the foundation of a new national identity, a citizenship that is meaningful both for members of formerly marginalized groups, but also of the larger national collective.  Ethiopian-ness has been made more relevant, more inclusive for all Ethiopians.
The outcome for women’s citizenship in Ethiopia questions assumptions of gender equality.  The 1995 Constitution in Ethiopia has radical commitments to gender equality and subsequent legal provisions and reforms went a long way in institutionalizing those principles. Yet outcomes for women and girls lag far behind and the national dialogue about equality and participation tends to focus on ethnicity and language communities (and recently religious communities) much more than gendered inequalities.  Still, I think that the potential for a more meaningful citizenship in Ethiopia exists not only for both types of claims, but actually at the intersection.  That is to say, ethnic equality can actually be a tool for greater gender equality and vice versa, even if this has been an underappreciated avenue for civil society organizations or activists to pursue.  And I think the implications of these sorts of outcomes have relevance far beyond Ethiopia.
There is tremendous work to be done.  In particular, on questions of women and girls we have a really narrow understanding of how ethnic and religious identity groups intersect with women and gendered identity in Africa.  We tend to acknowledge regional and ethnic difference, while bemoaning gender inequalities, without ever considering the potential ways that ethnic communities provide protection, care and empowerment to women and girls.  We need to understand how modern legal and advocacy tools in support of women and families could incorporate and accommodate ethnic, regional and religious mechanisms as well.  At the same time, the question of the influence of the state, the dominant political party and the wider political culture loom large in Ethiopia, even more so since the book was completed.  Moreover, meaningful citizenship requires a minimum of state tolerance of participation and debate, something that has dramatically decreased in the years since I did the research for this book.
Lahra Smith is an associate professor in the African Studies Program at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Her research focuses on the questions of equality and citizenship in contemporary Africa. Her book, “Making Citizens in Africa: Ethnicity, Gender and National Identity in Ethiopia,” was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.