Marking ethnic and national differences in African national-day celebrations

Subproject of the DFG 1939 Research group „Un/doing Differences. Practices of human differentiation

The project examines how the production of ethnic and national differences plays out in African national-day celebrations. Inextricably intertwined with state-making, nation-building is a process in which higher-level differences (between nations) are made to downplay cross-cutting, and potentially competing, differences (such as those between ethnic groups and regions) by recasting them as complementary, lower-level internal variations. Important to the making of higher-level national differences is the definition of external enemies and internal minorities, as well as the deployment of discourses and performances of national unity and shared national identity. The project, which emerged from the doctoral research group ‘The poetics and politics of national commemoration in Africa’, explores how national and ethnic differences are downplayed or emphasised in symbolic representations and performances of the nation during national-day festivities in Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.

Because rituals and symbols are inherently polyvalent, they generally allow participants and addressees to experience, at least temporarily, a sense of accord and unity. They thus constitute important tools in the nation-building process. At the same time, national symbols and performances of nationality are often highly contested, and become arenas for conflict and debate about the role of ethnic or regional versus national belonging. The project examines how national-day celebrations both reflect and produce the conflict-ridden processes of inclusion and exclusion that constitute the making of the nation.

The project studies national days in a comparative perspective, paying special attention to the relationship between centre and periphery (festivities in the capital vs. in regional centres), as well as the relationship between national-day celebrations and other festivities, such as cultural festivals. Furthermore, it explores how different nation-states deal with internal ethnic heterogeneity, investigating the cases of Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, three neighbouring countries with distinct colonial experiences and divergent trajectories of nation-building and state-making.

Foto: Burkina Faso 2010 © Carola Lentz