Abstract – The Social Life of Identity Documents in Africa

The Social Life of Identity Documents in Africa – PIAF is a comparative research project, coordinated by Richard Banégas (Sciences Po – CERI) and Séverine Awenengo Dalberto (CNRS – IMAF), and supported by the French National Research Agency (ANR).

This project aims to study “the governmentality of papers” in Sub-Saharan Africa from the post-war period to the current era of globalized biometric identification norms. The starting point of the research was the observation that a vast majority of current crises experienced by contemporary African societies are crises of citizenship, centered around issues of rights and the judicial and political frameworks that recognize them, of which “papers” (such as identity cards, voter cards, residency permits, certificates of nationality, land titles, and title deeds) are a key element. Some conflicts have even been described as “ID wars” (Côte d’Ivoire).

The growing “biometricization” of societies can facilitate securing rights, yet it also produces new tensions around censuses and the issue of titles. The project thus seeks to interrogate the seeming correlation between identification apparatuses and political violence. This project exceeds an analysis solely of situations of conflict; it also aims to shed light on the use of papers in times of crisis and in times of stability to analyze everyday relations between citizens and the public sphere. The goals are to study practices of citizenship at work and the extent of “bureaucratic reason” in societies often represented as resisting it.

Embracing both a historical and sociological perspective, PIAF wants to explore how the “dipositifs” of tangible identification and identity assignation have, on one side, contributed to the project of state formation by including, excluding, or controlling individuals and, on the other side, how such apparatuses have fostered the emergence of new political and moral subjectivities. The project gives full consideration to the historicity and ambivalence of these processes, and explores many institutions producing documents as well as the complex relations individuals develop with such documents and institutions. Moving beyond an analysis of identity documents as a technology of power, PIAF will focus on “the social life of papers.” By relying on a perspective “from below”, the project will contribute to a better understanding of ordinary/everyday practices of citizenship.

This is a collective, comparative cross-case project based on research carried out in a dozen of African countries: South Africa, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Uganda, Rwanda, Senegal and Chad. PIAF is involving two institutional partners in France (The Center for International Studies – CERI at Sciences Po and the Institut des Mondes Africains – IMAF), collaborations with African Universities (including Wits University in Johannesburg), and fifteen researchers in history, politics, and anthropology, all experts in the study of citizenship and identity in their respective countries of reference.