African countries are opening their borders. What does this mean for security, identity and trade?

Published: 13/Aug/2019
Source: Washington Post (Monkey Cage blog)

On July 10, authorities from Niger and Burkina Faso signed an accord to ease interstate cooperation on issues of counterterrorism, economic development and natural resource management.

“There will be a border but we will act as though there really isn’t one,” explained Burkinabè diplomat Alpha Barry.

It’s a significant step between two countries with a history of disputed borderlands. In 2010, Nigerien and Burkinabè delegates asked the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to settle a decades-old territorial dispute. The ICJ’s 2013 ruling delimited a new international boundary between Niger and Burkina Faso to replace the vague line on French colonial maps.

As part of that resolution, people living near the border got to choose their citizenship. But our research suggests that people in the borderland still strongly cling to their national identities, even when government officials seek to minimize the divide between nations. According to surveys that we conducted in the border zone in 2016, few Nigeriens jumped at the opportunity to become Burkinabè, finding the thought of switching nationalities preposterous.

Here’s how we did our research

This tenacity of national identity is striking in remote communities that receive almost no benefits from the national government. In 2016, we surveyed 208 people in villages straddling the border between Niger and Burkina Faso. We asked respondents, mostly Nigeriens, whether they had heard of the ICJ ruling – and, if so, whether they intended to switch citizenship.

We found that knowledge of the ruling was nearly universal, but less than 6 percent of respondents who answered the question said they wanted to switch to become citizens of Burkina Faso.

Here was one big reason: Respondents said they wished to remain in the nation of their parents and grandparents, who provide a social safety net in the absence of government support. Instead of claiming ties to a nation-state, respondents professed attachment to a nation-family, explaining their decision to remain Nigerien in terms of ancestral roots.

We also surveyed roughly 200 people in the capital cities of Niger and Burkina Faso and conducted focus groups on the meaning of national identity. In contrast with the borderland respondents, urban respondents were more likely to frame their nationalism in terms of benefits they receive from the state. This makes sense, given that urban residents were more likely to receive public goods – education, health care, etc. – than people in remote villages.

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Themes: Acquisition of nationality, Identity Documents
Regions: West Africa, Burkina Faso, Niger
Year: 2019