Historical Migrations in Africa: From Flexible Configurations to Transgressive Mobilities

Cover image depicting nomads in Northern Cape, South Africa, via Flickr.

by Rose Jaji

Stating that Africa’s past and present socio-political landscapes have been shaped by a history of migration and mobility is banal. Yet, this statement provides insights into longstanding patterns of mobility that persist on the continent despite efforts to curb them in modern African states. Mobility in Africa dates as far back as the hunter-gatherers who built their livelihoods around movement. One of the most significant mobilities on the continent is the Bantu migration (1000 B.C-1100 A.D), which saw dispersal of people from West-central to East and Southern Africa. A more recent example of migration is Mfecane or “the crushing”, a time of political turmoil which occurred in the 19th century in Nguniland in present day South Africa and led to migration by factional political and military leaders and their followers. The impact of Mfecane migration is observable in the demographic composition of modern states in Southern Africa; the different factions settled in present-day Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Historical mobilities in Africa challenge the conceptualisation of mobility and immobility as binaries. In this post, I elaborate on how contemporary migration governance on the continent can be traced back to the transplantation of Western notions of statehood and nationhood to Africa through colonialism, and how these ideas transformed migration and non-migration from continuums to binaries.

Speaking back to Theory

In March 2023, 25 AMMODI members and associates met to discuss the research, topics, categories, theories and methodologies of Africanist migration research, including structural inequalities that play into what is researched, written and heard about. The workshop, entitled “Speaking Back to Theory. Africanist Migration Research Beyond the Categories”, took place in Accra and Cape Coast and was funded by the DFG Point Sud programme. This post is based on the author’s presentation during the workshop, and is part of an AMMODI blog series in which we summarise and showcase examples from our discussions. The workshop programme is available here.

Historically, precolonial African societies fell into a continuum involving nomadic, semi-nomadic, and sedentary constellations. Among pastoralists, nomadism and transhumance involve constant mobility and seasonal migration in search of pasture and water as well as to minimise risks deriving from climate, livestock diseases, political economy, and ecological degradation. Opposite to this, sedentary societies settle in one place for longer periods that imply permanence because they combine livestock rearing with farming. Sedentary societies in Africa existed in a continuum of configurations of political organisation. For example, there were highly centralised states such as Songhai Empire in West Africa, the Luba Kingdom in Central Africa, the kingdoms of Buganda and Ankole in East Africa, and Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe in Southern Africa. There were also large chiefdoms and loose alliances represented by the Ewe and the Wolof in West Africa and acephalous societies organised only up to village level exemplified by the Nuer of South Sudan or the Konkomba in Ghana and Togo. 

Map of 19th century Mfecane states, based on illustration by MattSouth.

While these categories suggest established patterns and characteristics or norms that endure across time and space, the societal configurations mentioned above were fluid. Migration, which is the norm in nomadic societies, and settlement, which is characteristic of sedentary societies, occasionally alternated in both societies. Thus, people in nomadic societies would temporarily settle during lush seasons. Similarly, settlement in sedentary societies did not preclude transhumance especially during droughts or migration and settlement in new areas due to economic, ecological, and political factors. Sandwiched between nomadic and sedentary societies were semi-nomadic people who straddled the classificatory boundary between the two. The fluidity between migration and settlement characteristic of this continuum of societal configurations was a prerequisite for survival in the face of uncertainty and variability in the natural environment or for adaptation to internal, external and ecological pressures. This meant that the exception was an integral part of the norm in the sense of mobility and settlement interludes in sedentary and nomadic societies respectively. Migration and mobility, instead of being the antithesis of nationhood and statehood, played a significant role in the rise and fall of precolonial states such as Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe, Mutapa, Rozvi, Ndebele, Gaza as well as of the Ngoni, Sotho and Swazi kingdoms among others in Southern Africa. As one state collapsed due to abandonment, the migrants would build a new and thriving state at the destination. 

Main trajectories of Bantu-speaking peoples (1000 BC – 1100 AD). Map based on illustration by TimeGraphics.

The examples cited above demonstrate that in precolonial Africa, people moved when they deemed it necessary to do so. Their mobility was not sanctioned or constrained by the political and social groupings or systems they belonged to. Migration provided a channel through which to diffuse internal societal pressures particularly where people moved as breakaway factions and sought to create new societies, which they could control without interference from the entities from which they had broken away. Mlambo attributed this to a fluidity in ethnic boundaries, which enabled people to move easily out of ethnic clusters. This explains how breakaway factions from states, empires, and kingdoms could easily migrate and establish new political and social entities. The availability of space and settlement through consent or subjugation of earlier inhabitants also facilitated mobility.

Mobility in Africa dates as far back as the hunter-gatherers who built their livelihoods around movement

The overall picture, which emerges from the fluid societal configuration and the mutual inclusion and sustenance between migration and settlement or mobility and immobility, is that the norm and the prototypical, apart from its existence in a continuum, also relies on the exception for its adaptability and durability. Migration and mobility as a survival strategy are inherent to the sedentary norm in the same way that temporary settlement is integral to the migration norm. In this sense, migration (mobility) and non-migration (immobility) are mutually constitutive as Jónsson’s research in West Africa attests to. The intertwinement of mobility and immobility in nomadic and sedentary societies challenges the conceptualisation of the two as binaries.

However, the transfer of the Western conceptualisation of the nation-state to Africa through colonisation saw the imposition of what Agamben refers to as “the trinity of state, nation […] and land” or, in Malkki’s words, “the national order of things” underpinned by (re)territorialisation in total disregard for indigenous notions of nationhood, statehood, and territoriality. Supported as it was by the idea that “the sedentary itself is superior to and more attractive than mobile forms of subsistence” as Scott contends, the colonial state strove to normalise settlement and urbanisation under its “civilising” and modernising agenda as Lattimore observes. The new political and socio-economic order deemed nomadism anachronistic and inimical to modernisation and development. Immobility became a prerequisite for “positive” societal transformation driven by the conviction that modernisation required the targeted population to be rooted in territorial space. Thus began the transformation of migration or mobility and non-migration or immobility into binaries as opposed to complementary and intertwined strategies that had underpinned the sustenance of various societal configurations in Africa.

The establishment of the colonial state and implementation of biopolitical strategies intended to subdue and control the conquered peoples curtailed mobility opportunities for nomadic, semi-nomadic people, and even sedentary societies that had existed with the possibility of moving when the need arose. Writing about mobilities in the twenty-first century, Urry refers to transformation from “the social as society” to “the social as mobility”. In reverse order of Urry’s wordplay, the colonial system embarked on transforming the social as mobility into the social as society. Situated within Africa, the “social as mobility” is not necessarily a new, twenty-first century development, but a reflection of the continent’s precolonial history. The colonial state split some precolonial nations and states into different countries and merged others into one country thus dissolving the oneness of nations that straddled the new borders. It governed mobility by inhabitants of the new countries through binary categorisations such as citizens and foreigners, domestic and transborder as well as legal and illegal migration.

Colonial borders thus produced what Raghuram aptly describes as “enduring legacies around which migration categories are centered”. Migration and mobility were accordingly subjected to the state’s regulatory, policing, and punitive functions and cloaked in legalistic terminology evident in categorisation of mobile people as either conforming to or transgressive of territorial jurisdiction and national migration policies. Post-independence states in Africa have managed in most cases to hold together states bequeathed to them as the colonial legacy. Migration governance in contemporary Africa maintains the insiders (citizens) or outsiders (foreigners) binary and interprets migration and mobility along the contours of conformity to and transgression of laws governing transborder migration and mobility. Even so, acceptance of these states or resignation to their existence is interspersed with episodic or constant resistance to and transgression of the borders especially in border regions where the state is invisible or lax in its control of the borders.

The precolonial intertwinement of mobility and immobility continues to influence (non)migration decisions in many communities around Africa where migration and non-migration are mutually sustaining

In this regard, the modern nation-state in Africa has not effectively erased precolonial loyalties manifesting themselves as transborder ethnic affinities and even some calls for disintegration of the postcolonial state into its ethnic components. Defiance of the borders in contemporary times is indicative of the persistence of the very precolonial lifeworlds and worldviews that the modern state sought to replace. Indeed, the precolonial intertwinement of mobility and immobility continues to influence (non)migration decisions in many communities around Africa where migration and non-migration are mutually sustaining. The continuum that characterised precolonial societal configurations and the role of migration and mobility therein persist especially in border regions where communities straddling the borders often view them as “artificial”. At policy level, this resistance to binary categorisation of migration (mobility) and non-migration (immobility) suggests the need for re-examination and alignment of migration policies with the realities obtaining in border regions as well as some of the grievances and divided or conflicting loyalties in regions where ethnic groups straddle national borders.

About the author

Rose Jaji is senior researcher at the German Institute of Development and Sustainability (IDOS). Her research areas of interest are migration/refugees and conflict and peacebuilding. She has published peer-reviewed articles on migrant/refugee masculinities and femininities, refugees and social technology, identity and refugee hosting, asylum seekers and border crossing, return migration as well as gender and peacebuilding. She is the author of Deviant Destinations: Zimbabwe and North to South Migration and Non-migration amidst Zimbabwe’s Economic Meltdown.

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