Ensuing Statelessness as (Post) Colonial Effect: Dynamics of Formal Identification Denial among the Fulani in Ghana

Isaac Owusu Nsiah

June 2023

In this blog, Isaac Owusu Nsiah critically discusses the dynamics of the Ghanaian state's recognition of the Fulani community as migrants and thus non-Ghanaians. He considers how such categorizations are institutionalised in citizen-identifying institutions, translating into widespread exclusions and discriminatory realities in accessing National IDs and citizenship. Focusing on the work of the National ID in socially sorting, classifying, and categorising differentiated citizenship, Nsiah ultimately contends that Indigeneity as a colonial construct is integral to the regimes and infrastructure of (modern) Ghanaian citizenship.

In this blog, I consider how the case of citizen-making illuminates the continued legacies of colonialism in the case of Fulani in Ghana. It does so through post-colonial legal frameworks that reify the foundations of ambiguous constructions of citizenship or legal political identities. Specifically, I draw on the second and third generation Fulani who were born before Ghana's independence in 1957 and their descendants. The Fulani have all the required documents to claim to be Ghanaians, having lived all their lives in the country, yet nevertheless continue to face challenges in accessing the National ID and are thus at risk of statelessness.

Formal Citizenship, the Ghana Card and Exclusions among the Fulani

Conventionally, citizenship is conceptualised as a formal statutory confirmation of membership that facilitates rights granted by the state. Facilitating such membership, rights and participation which entail some form of citizen-state engagement, states have resorted to identification and citizenship certifications. This is because, as David Lyon argues, ‘the advent of modern forms of citizenship assumes identification’. The recent biometric National ID, also known as the ‘Ghana card’, has been introduced as a foundational ID system and a de jure proof of citizenship. Broadly and in line with Sustainable Development Goal 16.9, the introduction of biometric IDs has been justified as a means of eradicating statelessness — by ensuring proof of identity and citizenship particularly among marginalized groups, and guaranteeing inclusive development. Paradoxically, the second and third-generation Fulani (those born before Ghana’s independence in 1957) and their descendants, who continuously assert themselves as Ghanaians, face discrimination and exclusions in accessing the National ID (Ghana card). Such members of the Fulani community possess all required documents and basic procedural requirements that make them eligible to access the Ghana card. But the experiences of the Fulani regarding their access to this new National ID reveal deliberate and unapologetic gestures and attitudes by registration officials constituting offensive processes.

The Fulani are purposely disqualified by bureaucrats based on their ethnic identity. In certain cases,  when a bureaucrat discovers an applicant's Fulani identity during the process of registration,  their identification cards are seized and some even face detention. Speaking at a news conference organized by the leadership of the Fulani in Ghana on the 9th of March 2020, Yakubu Musa Barry, the General Secretary, addressed the media on the need for state institutions to recognize the Fulani minority group as Ghanaians. Mr Musa Barry stressed the irregular conduct of some registration officials and unfair treatment against a sizeable number of eligible Fulani or legitimate Ghanaian Fulani (who have all the required documents) qualified to be registered for the national identification card. He added that they are being ‘treated as refugees’, face continuous discrimination and are disqualified from registering at the mention of their Fulani origins. In an interview, Ahmed Barry, the youth organizer for the Fulani association in Ghana, said that most of the eligible Fulanis are becoming stateless because they cannot access certain rights and are thus reduced to bare life. He added that even for those who managed to get the cards, some cards were ceased after immigration officers realised they were Fulani and accused them of obtaining the cards illegally (field notes, 2022).

The second or third-generation Fulani and their descendants, despite their long inhabitancy in the country, are perceived by bureaucrats, just like preceding post-colonial governments, as non-Ghanaians. In a recent population and housing census, the Fulani community was not recognised as one of the indigenous ethnic groups in Ghana and was listed under ‘all other tribes’. This ideology stems from the fact that indigeneity or ancestral affinities, with the grandparent or parent clause in the constitution, supposedly prevents them from accessing Ghanaian citizenship because they are considered as not having their traditional homeland or ancestral home in Ghana. Steve Tonah argues that the state categorises indigenous ethnic groups as those who existed before colonialism dating back to the 15th century. While such classification is problematic, it is argued that the Fulani migration to Ghana dates back to colonialism and the Fulani are thus classified as migrants, strangers and non-indigenous. Foundationally, aside from other means of acquiring Ghanaian citizenship through registration, adoption (foundling) and naturalisation, jus sanguinis and descent underpin citizenship acquisition (Article 6, 1992 constitution of Ghana; see also Citizenship Act 2000 [Act 571]).

The Perils of Long-term Migrants: (Post) Colonialism and Differentiated Citizenship

How does one understand the dynamics of non-recognition of Fulani as an institutionalized ethnic group in Ghana; their continuous processes of ‘othering’,  and the ensuing dynamics of exclusion from the national ID? In my PhD thesis, I look at three intersecting factors: the politics of colonial and postcolonial constructions of citizenship, the Ghanaian state’s relation with the Fulani, and the dynamics of stereotypes and prejudice structurally levelled against the Fulani in Ghana. In this blog, I focus on the first of these three themes. I illustrate how the colonial administration drew virtual boundaries of political identities within existing group relations and consequently, post-colonial governments re-institutionalised such differentiated citizenship.

In Ghana’s Gold Coast, the boundaries of critical distinctions of constructed identities were undergirded by legal frameworks. This was against the backdrop of fluid and unregulated international migration, demand for labour and colonial administration’s classification and categorisation of the population for supposed administrative efficiency and political expediency. In 1914, the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act clearly distinguished between natives and migrants. The natives were mainly from one of the indigenous ethnic groups whose ancestral homeland was in the Gold Coast. The ‘migrants’ were identified as ‘immigrants’ or ‘aliens’. The ‘migrants’ were persons from neighbouring French colonies who were liable to deportation and their continuous stay was conditioned upon good conduct. The Fulani were caught in such classification because they originated from the Sahel countries, like Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. Such a hierarchized form of citizenship continued for many decades. In 1948 a new British Nationality Act was introduced which in fact reinforced and perpetuated the constructed political identities, where the status of the ‘migrants’ remained as ‘aliens’.

In post-colonial Africa, most governments reinforced the foundation of legally inscribed political identities. Indigeneity (ethnic, communal and ancestral affinities) and jus sanguine, with a significant force of centralised state power, influenced citizenship laws in post-colonial Africa. This was to establish who 'legitimately' lived in their societies and who did not. Thus, most new post-colonial states, in their attempt to manage diversity, create an egalitarian and pluralistic society; in effect re-constructed and re-institutionalised political markers of strangers. Supposed aliens and strangers would thus face exclusions and experience expulsion due to weaponized and discriminatory nationality laws and documentation practices.

For example, in post-independence Ghana and under Nkrumah, the alien identity as a colonial construct was re-institutionalized by the Aliens Act of 1963. Under this act, all foreigners or non-indigenous immigrants (whose migration occurred under colonialism) whose ancestry or ethnic origin is traced outside Ghana, irrespective of their long inhabitancy, were required to obtain residence and work permits for formal recognition in the country’s social and economic life. The Alien’s Act was a reinforcement of the Ghana Nationality Bill of 1957 (Ghana Nationality Act) and the Deportation Act. These Acts were discriminatory and exclusionary and were weaponized against foreigners. Under these Acts, an individual was a citizen if any of his or her parents or grandparents were born in Ghana. However, some scholars contend that the grandparent clause was strictly enforced along with the deportation act to selectively victimize political opponents who were migrants or foreigners. And since the Fulani's migration dated back only to the 1900s, most of them were born in Ghana but their grandparents were not. Fulanis were thus caught unfavourably under such legal constraints.

In November 1969, under Busia’s administration in Ghana’s second republic, an Aliens Compliance Order (ACO) demanded that non-indigenous Ghanaians obtain working and resident permits. Between 300,000 and 400,000 persons who could not obtain the permits, especially in the rural areas, left the country within about four months for their parents' and grandparents' countries of origin. The Fulani pastoralists also suffered from this citizenship legislation and the ACO. Most of the Fulani herders in the northern region forcefully left the country because of the ACO. Through my research, I found that others also chose a different livelihood and migrated southwards as labourers, particularly to Agogo. The political order that followed colonially constructed identities and differentiated groups of people as aliens needing to be expelled.

The Fulani, just like other ethnic minorities in Africa, have been caught between a combination of unfavourable citizenship legislation and perceptions by supposed indigenous populations on the re-constitution of ‘us’(indigenes) and ‘them’(immigrants). These dynamics continuously spurred and shaped the discourse of othering - where even second or third generation immigrants and their descendants are seen and categorized as non-Ghanaians and thus strangers. In contemporary Ghana, indigeneity still defines a true Ghanaian based on ancestry claims. Foundationally, aside from other means of acquiring Ghanaian citizenship through registration, adoption (foundling) and naturalisation, jus sanguinis and descent underpin citizenship acquisition (Article 6, 1992 constitution of Ghana; see also Citizenship Act 2000 [Act 571]). Thus, the legacies of indigeneity as colonial construct and reimagination of ethnic solidarity and mobilization have become so pervasive they form integral parts of Ghana’s citizenship infrastructure.

Concluding Thoughts: Decolonizing and Democratizing citizenship?

The introduction of digital biometric ID is arguably underpinned by universalism and equality and ensuring an equal engagement in societies, therefore curbing statelessness and widespread exclusions. Paradoxically, Ghana’s national ID, also known as the Ghana card, as proof of citizenship and means of enjoying rights and other privileges has exacerbated existing social and institutionalised exclusions. Today, some members of the Fulani in Ghana are on the verge of becoming stateless due to the entrenched recognition of the Fulani community as migrants and strangers.

Despite the orthodoxy and centrality of formal citizenship granted by the nation-state, arguably undergirded by liberalism, I echo some scholars that ‘citizenship for everyone is a ‘false universalism’. After centuries of the Fulani’s residence, they are not recognised and encounter problems of discrimination and exclusion in national ID registration. The complexities of indigeneity as a colonial construct and an integral part of modern citizenship in Ghana continuously cripples the realisation of equality and further creates statelessness.


More from the Critical Statelessness Studies Blog Series

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