Too Close for Comfort? Immigrant Exclusion in Africa

Claire L. Adida


Why do some minority groups involved in South-South migration integrate into their host societies, whereas others face exclusion and hostility? Why, for example, are Nigerian Hausas integrated into Ghanaian society in Accra but rejected in Niamey (Niger)? This study draws on surveys of Nigerian Hausa and Yoruba immigrants and host populations in urban Ghana, Benin and Niger. Its findings suggest that cultural similarities may worsen, not improve, immigrant-host relations in sub-Saharan Africa: cultural similarities seem to motivate immigrant community leaders to preserve their group identities by highlighting group boundaries. In addition, host societies seem to reject groups that can easily blend in because those groups can access indigenous benefits in the competition for scarce resources.

While immigrants are generally insecure in sub-Saharan Africa, immigrant-host relations vary widely across groups and localities. Further, cultural similarities between an immigrant minority and its host community can exacerbate immigrant-host relations because of the responses they provoke among immigrant leaders and indigenous members of the host society:

  • Interviews with immigrant leaders in Accra show how they seek to strengthen members’ attachment to the immigrant community. Leaders showed keen awareness of the opportunities of ‘high-overlap’ immigrants to pass as indigenous. They struck deals with local police to create an institutional mechanism – the Nigerian Embassy Identity Card – to encourage immigrant attachment to the immigrant community. In addition, leaders punish immigrant defectors.
  • Host society members seem to reject immigrants who can assimilate and enjoy indigenous benefits through shared cultural repertoires . For example, in Niamey, where Islam and Hausa are indigenous identities, the host population exhibits a greater propensity to exclude immigrants who are both Muslim and Hausa.
  • Conversely, if immigrant groups share few or no cultural traits with their host society, their leaders face a lower threat of group identity loss. They lack incentives to highlight boundaries that they perceive as already existing. In addition, hosts feel less threatened by easily identifiable ‘foreigners’ and are therefore less likely to reject them.

These findings relate to a larger debate on the determinants of political identity in ethnically diverse societies. They highlight the significance of ethnic and religious divisions and institutions for social integration:

  • In Accra and Niamey both host populations and immigrants tended to equate national identity with ethnic identity.
  • Institutions can overwhelm cultural factors in determining political identity and group relations.
  • As religious affiliations cut across ethnic categories, religious institutions could play an important role in building trust and cooperation between members of different ethnic groups. However, these opportunities are missed when religious leaders use ethnicity as a rallying point for organisation and recruitment, ‘ethnicising’ religious institutions.


Adida, C. L., 2011, 'Too Close for Comfort? Immigrant Exclusion in Africa', Comparative Political Studies, vol. 44, no. 10, pp. 1370-1396