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Nation-state or nation-family? Nationalism in marginalised African societies

  • Abhit Bhandari (a1) and Lisa Mueller (a2)


Scholars have long puzzled over strong nationalism in weak African states. Existing theories suggest that (a) incumbent leaders use nationalistic appeals to distract people from state weakness; or (b) citizens use nationalistic claims to exclude rival groups from accessing patronage and public goods. But what explains robust nationalism in places where politicians seldom visit and where the state under-provides resources, as is true across much of Africa? We propose a theory of familial nationalism, arguing that people profess attachment to a nation-family instead of to a nation-state under conditions where the family, and not the state, is the main lifeline. We substantiate it using surveys from the border between Niger and Burkina Faso, where an international court ruling allowed people to choose their citizenship, thus providing a test for nationalism in marginalised communities. We supplement the border data with surveys and focus groups from the capitals of both countries.


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For invaluable research assistance and data collection we thank Thierno Mamadou Sow, Bachirou Ayouba Tinni, Adam Malah, Roukiatou Nikiema and Mohamed Tidjane Kinda. We thank Amadou Tankoana for insight on his role in the ICJ border dispute case and Issa Abdou Yonlihinza for his input on mining in western Niger. For helpful comments we thank seminar participants at ASA, APSA, Northwestern and WGAPE. The DeWitt Wallace Fund provided generous fieldwork funding. This project was approved by the Institutional Review Boards of Macalester College and Columbia University (IRB-AAAQ5013).



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