Exclusive Preview: Banal Nationalism, Football, and Discourse Community in Africa

In our second last instalment on nationalism, ethnicity and sport, SEN Journal: Online Exclusives is pleased to present a preview of Bea Vidac’s ‘Banal Nationalism, Football, and Discourse Community in Africa. 

Photo credit: US Army Africa/ Flickr


The article argues that despite the continuing relevance of ethnicity, the idea of the nation has taken root among Africans. This is due to a combination of factors, including the universal ideology of the nation-state, the impact of the existence of such national borders on the imagination, and the influence of national symbols and icons, which naturalise the idea of the nation. Applying Michael Billig’s notion of banal nationalism to Cameroon, the article focuses on linguistic practices as well as on popular appropriations of national symbols as contributing factors to the creation and maintenance of national consciousness. The analysis of a call-in radio program broadcast on Cameroonian national radio during the 1994 FIFA World Cup illustrates that football created a discourse community that reinforced the idea of the nation both explicitly and implicitly. By participating in the debate, journalists and listeners alike – regardless of the tenor of their remarks – reinforced and further contributed to imagining the Cameroonian nation.


During the early 1990s, Cameroonians were suffering from an all-encompassing economic crisis that was made even worse by the collapse of their aspirations for greater democracy. A general strike, aiming to force the government to hold a Sovereign National Conference, proved to be unsuccessful, and, amidst widespread suspicions of electoral fraud, the country’s president was re-elected in 1992. During my 1994–1995 fieldwork exploring the social and political significance of football in Cameroon, people expressed vocally their mounting dissatisfaction, disillusionment, and desperation in distinctively Cameroonian terms.

One afternoon, a university student – one of a loose group of friends hanging out at the street corner news vendor – turned to me, a foreign anthropologist, and said ‘I am ashamed of being Cameroonian’. On another occasion at the same street corner, an official working at a government ministry, listening to yet another discussion of corruption and political scandal, exclaimed sardonically, to no one in particular: ‘Oh, notre beau pays, le Cameroun!’ [Oh, our beautiful country Cameroon!]. Another friend, a university professor of international renown, bemoaned the fact that this rich country, which had everything to make it prosper, was becoming poorer and poorer every day. All of these speakers took for granted the notion of Cameroon as an entity and point of reference. It was as Cameroonians that they were disgruntled, and it was as Cameroonians that they felt disappointed. Although the three speakers each came from a different ethnic group (one from the north, one Bassa, and one Bamileke),1 they still seemed to express the same sentiments. Anglophones are supposed to be the group most likely to question the ideology of national unity in Cameroon.2 Yet upon hearing from me the news that Cameroon’s controversial goalkeeper, Joseph Antoine Bell, had resigned from the national squad during the 1994 World Cup, an Anglophone intellectual, keenly aware of his separate identity as a minority in a sea of Francophones, immediately asked whether this meant that Bell had resigned from being Cameroonian.

The limited discussion of nationalism in Africa is often focused exclusively on the anti-colonial nationalism that inspired the independence struggles of the late 1950s and early 1960s (Thomas 1997). The anti-colonial struggle required cooperation among disparate elements against the common colonial enemy, but once that battle had been won, particularistic ethnic interests replaced the notion of a common good expressed in the ideal of the nation. While African governments wished to promote national integration and a sense of national identity on a rhetorical level, what was happening in practice was the prebendalisation of the state and, accompanying this, the creation of particularistic interests often expressed in ethnic terms. To explain this stark division it is often argued about present-day Africa that the exhortations of governments for national unity increasingly ring hollow, as independence struggles recede into memory and in view of how African politics have since unfolded. Africans are rightly questioning the sincerity of their leaders’ claims to nation-building as they witness the leaders’ personal corruption and the extension of this corruption to the ethnic confrères of the leader. This situation leads to increasing cynicism on the part of Africans, even as they themselves continue or begin to rely on trustworthy ethnic networks to get things done. This is what has led John Lonsdale (1996) to argue that moral ethnicity prevails among people of the same ethnic group whereas political tribalism dominates between different ethnic groups within the same state. While the former is characterised by trust among members of the group, the latter typically pits different groups against each other in bitter competition over resources and power (Berman, Eyoh, and Kymlicka 2004; Lonsdale 1996).

In this article, I argue for a more nuanced perspective. I suggest that focusing solely on ethnicity has led us to overlook the significance of national consciousness and the idea of the nation in Africa. Although it is clear that ethnicity is highly relevant to an understanding of the continent, concentrating on it to the exclusion of all else obscures the concurrent unfolding of another process: the taking root of the idea of the nation. Although African governments’ rhetoric of nation-building has neither created homogeneity nor legitimacy, I will attempt to demonstrate that the notion of the nation has succeeded on a deeper, unconscious level. For the most part, Africans take for granted the nation as an entity, and use it as a point of reference.

This article is divided into three parts. In the first part, I discuss briefly why it is that the idea of the nation has been deemed to be irrelevant on the continent. I will then examine why, on the contrary, the idea of the nation persists, as can also be seen from the continued endurance of political boundaries. I argue that three things combine to make the nation the unit to identify with: (i) the universal ideology of the nation-state (the ‘national order of things’ [Malkki 1992]); (ii) the impact that the existence of such borders has on the imagination; and (iii) the influence – perhaps artificially created but constantly present – of national symbols and icons on the people themselves. In other words, the idea of the nation becomes naturalised, and what started out as arbitrary comes to seem inevitable.

The second part of the article, making use of Michael Billig’s (1995) notion of banal nationalism, examines some of the ways through which ‘people become national’. I propose that the concept can be usefully applied in the case of African countries to understand this process. Billig has demonstrated convincingly that everyday physical, discursive, and conceptual markers of the nation are pervasive in Western countries. He argues, moreover, that these are more effective in creating national identification – what he labels banal nationalism – than explicit forms of nationalist discourses because, to a large extent, they go unnoticed. Applying this concept to Cameroon, I examine the role of linguistic practices in naturalising the nation for Cameroonians, as well as how people appropriate some of the national symbols that the state bombards them with.

This article was originally published in Volume 11 Issue 1 of SEN.  Click here to keep reading.

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