Citizenship and the Myth of Indigeneity in Congo, Zambia, Malawi and Beyond

by Elias Munshya

A proposal is currently making its way through the Democratic Republic of Congo’s national assembly to change Congolese citizenship laws. The changes, if passed, will restrict Congolese citizenship to “pure” Congolese and ban those perceived to be “impure” Congolese from contesting for the presidency of the republic. The attempt, of course, is to try and stop one Moise Katumbi Chapwe from ever contesting to be President of the Congo. Mr Katumbi is believed to have been born of a Lunda-Kazembe mother and a father of Jewish origin. Recently, the royal tribe of the Basanga, also claimed to be the direct lineage of Mr Katumbi’s mother. Just how one person can be claimed by both the Lunda-Kazembe and the Basanga royal lineage deserves an epoch of its own. But for now, we must dwell on this draconian law being contemplated by the national assembly of Congo D.R.

Stopping Katumbi is one thing. But using the law to desecrate the sacred instruments of Congolism is not only evil but unacceptable. What is happening in Congo is not different from what Zambia tried to do regarding Kenneth David Kaunda. It is pretty shocking that just in the same month that Zambia was mourning the passing of Kenneth Kaunda, Congo DR was causing to be debated a law that would repeat the injury that the likes of Kenneth Kaunda suffered all their lives. But where does the story begin? To answer this question, we must go back to the beginning or the middle of the story – the myth of being indigenous.

After independence, much of Africa adopted a myth of indigeneity. Under this myth, African countries came to collectively believe that to foster national unity – there was the need to create some national solidity. And where none existed, the leaders of African countries decided to invent the myth. It went like this. Zambia has become an independent country. To belong to this country – we must be “pure” Zambians. And those perceived to be impure should have no role whatsoever in the country’s governance or should be treated as second-class citizens. Even if such citizens legally became citizens of Zambia, they would still not be pure enough, and the society shall continue to discriminate against them and punish them for not being “indigenous” enough.

And so, after independence, both Malawi and Zambia, as former British protectorates, came up with these strict laws of indigeneity as a path to legitimate citizenship in the respective countries. However, this test of indigeneity did not comport to African realities. To fit into this narrative – Africans had to lie or to live a lie. It was apparent that colonial boundaries had divided peoples and tribes into two or three colonial boundaries a few years earlier. That being the case, it would be disingenuous, to say the least, to insist on pure citizenship because there was no way that the cross-border tribes and their people would belong to only one country. And so, to fit into this narrative – people from neighbouring tribes had to fit in and shepherd their stories accordingly. Kenneth Kaunda, who had clear Malawian lineage, was no longer Malawian – but became a Bemba of Chinsali, and he insisted on this identity and this identity alone. Any mention of Malawi was unacceptable, and when pressure mounted – Kaunda was forced to “renounce” his Malawian citizenship in 1972. And why would this be necessary? Because in a nation that defines citizenship in puristic and puritanical terms – being a Malawian was unwelcome and could not comport with being a Zambian. Indigeneity was citizenship, and citizenship had to be pure!

Just as African leaders were promoting this indigeneity as a precursor to citizenship, they were at the same time promoting a united Africa. Nationalists, indigenizers at home, but unifiers and pan-Africanists when in Addis Ababa. This is perhaps the most remarkable cognitive dissonance to be suffered by the collective memories of all Africans. The idea that we exerted the same energy on dividing ourselves while at the same time giving into the myth of trans-continental unity.

And so, whatever was happening in Malawi and Zambia – was also happening in non-common law Africa. The Congo – at it was then – came up with citizenship laws that were equally indegeneitous. A person would qualify to be Congolese if that person is born in Congo and related to some tribe in Congo. Those who do not meet this indigenous test could be Congolese quite alright – but they will always be second class citizens. And so – Congolese of Rwandan, Zambian or Angolan heritage were not “pure Congolese”, and so were the Congolese of Belgian or Jewish origin. Therefore, to some Congolese, Katumbi will always remain a second-class citizen because his mother is Lunda-Kazembe; and his father is Jewish.

There was a time when this was the issue in Zambia as well, with the President we have just been mourning. The solution to this predicament is not denial. Denial of notorious African realities will only lead to more ambiguity and exploitation of common sense. How about if we changed the narrative and removed this burden of indigeneity and accepted perhaps that being African has nothing to do with indigeneity but hybridity? The fact that there are a good number of our fellow citizens who do not fit into our definition of indigeneity, but they are citizens nevertheless – and with full responsibility and accountability of citizenship? We should perhaps de-escalate the lie and live with the truth that a Malawian Kaunda is Zambian – as any other Zambian, and hybridity is not a disability. If we have to apologise to Kenneth Kaunda – it is this myth he and his friends had built around Zambianism, Malawianism, or even Congolism, which gave no room whatsoever to the celebration of the dual or hybrid heritage of his own father.

In the case of Congo, a multi-tribal huge country of Congo DR still disallows dual nationality today. In other words, even as complicated as the country is and as diverse are its people – the Congo still lives the lie that all Congolese must be citizens only of Congo – and this citizenship must be based on some shades of indigeneity.

This myth, this shame, has led to this current proposed law, which will continue to degrade the Congolese in particular, and Africans in general, into different classes of citizenship and disqualify those who do not make the grade. In a normal way of looking at these things – Felix Tshisekedi is no different from Moise Katumbi Chapwe – they are both citizens of their beloved biso. And no matter the hybridity, Katumbi-Chapwe remains as Congolese as they come. It is, therefore, time for the President of Congo DR to categorically put a stop to the rumours of this proposed law, as it is honestly nauseating.

We cannot be African – and yet continue to do things that betray the very hybridity of an African identity.

The author, Elias Munshya, can be reached at elias@munshyalaw.com

Elias Munshya


Categories: Political Theology

3 replies

  1. Until African countries begin to accept the plurality of identities that exist in each single state as being one nation, we cannot achieve the dream of a united Africa. Nationality and citizenship must move beyond the legal boundaries of state definition to recognize the cultural heritage of African people.

  2. Dear Elias, thank you for the article. This issue has long troubled me, and it is amazing how people quickly forget. We are still living with the generation of people who survived Hitler’s concentration camps, but now we are making the same mistakes that led to the deaths of millions of innocent people on the basis of fake notions of racial superiority. We have replaced racism with tribalism and ethnicity, but the damage that both can do is the same that was done to the Jews. We just have to look to Rwanda in 1994. The stupidity of it all is that, as you have correctly stated, the issue of “pure” nationality is contrived – it is ot supported by historical facts. The truth is that before colonialism, the most important national identifier was the chiefdom, and that is why even today, some chiefdoms span across national borders.

    The other important fact to consider is that ethnographic studies, especially for those of us in Eastern and Southern Africa who are Bantu peoples, we must have come from a single family tree. Just look, for example at the many Congolese names and words that are similar to our own in Zambia. Recenlty I watched a BBC documentary about the the insecurity in the town of Palma in the North of Mozambique. I was surprised that, although I have never been to Mozambique, I could make sense of what the people were saying in the local language. The other day I was following a live feed on youtube of a funeral of an acquantence in Uganda. Most of the funeral proceedings were conducted in the Baganda language. But again, I was surprised that I was making sense of what was bieng said.

    The irony of it all is that just at the time that we Africans want to start these discriminatory practices, the rest of the world is turning attention to fighting racism. How can we tackle racism, when we can discriminate amongst ourselves on the basis of contrived differences when we look the same and even speak the same languages?

  3. Very interesting article,thanks ba Munshya,

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