The capacity to decide who can move, who can settle, where and under what conditions is increasingly becoming the core of political struggles over sovereignty, nationalism, citizenship, security and freedom. With western colonial expansion, and more decisively with the advent of capitalism, the raison d’être of the border attends to key questions such as: to whom does the earth belong? Who can lay what type of claims to what part of it and to the various beings who inhabit them? Who determines its distribution or partition?  In this essay, first delivered as a Tanner Lecture on Human Values at Yale University in March 2018, Achille Mbembe argues that the power of the border lies in its capacity to regulate the multiple distributions of populations on the body of the earth, and in so doing, to affect the vital forces of all kinds of beings.

As the 21st century unfolds, a global renewed desire from both citizens and their respective states for a tighter control of mobility is evident. Wherever we look, the drive is towards enclosure, or in any case an intensification of the dialects of territorialisation and deterritorialisation, a dialectics of opening and closure. The belief that the world would be safer, if only risks, ambiguity and uncertainty could be controlled and if only identities could be fixed once and for all, is gaining momentum. Risk management techniques are increasingly becoming a means to govern mobilities. In particular the extent to which the biometric border is extending into multiple realms, not only of social life, but also of the body, the body that is not mine.

I would like to pursue this line of argument concerning the redistribution of the earth. Not only through the control of bodies but the control of movement itself and its corollary, speed, which is indeed what migration control policies are all about: controlling bodies, but also movement. More specifically I would like to see whether and under what conditions we could re-engineer the utopia of a borderless world, and by extension, a borderless world, since, as far as I know, Africa is part of the world. And the world is part of Africa.

It is important to attend once again to what is obviously a utopian intent, the question of a borderless world.  From its inception “movement” or more precisely “borderlessness” has been central to various utopian traditions. The very concept of utopia, refers to that which has no borders, beginning with the imagination itself. The power of utopianism lies in its ability to instantiate the tension between borderlessness, movement and place, a tension—if we look carefully—that has marked social transformations in the modern era. This tension continues in contemporary discussions of movement-based social processes, particularly international migration, open borders, transnationalism and even cosmopolitanism. In this context, the idea of a borderless world can be a powerful albeit problematic resource for social, political and even aesthetic imagination. Because of the current atrophy of an utopian imagination, apocalyptic imaginaries and narratives of cataclysmic disasters and unknown futures have colonised the spirit of our time. But what politics do visions of apocalypse and catastrophe engender, if not a politics of separation, rather than a politics of the humanity, as species coming into being? Because we inherit a history in which the consistent sacrifice of some lives for the betterment of others is the norm, and because these are times of deep- seated anxieties, including anxieties of racialised others taking over the planet; because of all of that, racial violence is increasingly encoded in the language of the border and of security. As a result, contemporary borders are in danger of becoming sites of reinforcement, reproduction and intensification of vulnerability for stigmatised and dishonoured groups, for the most racially marked, the ever more disposable, those that in the era of neoliberal abandonment have been paying the heaviest price for the most expansive period of prison construction in human history. I refer to the prison here, the carceral landscapes of our world, precisely as the antithesis of movement, of freedom of movement. There is not a more dramatic opposition to the idea of movement than the prison. And the prison is a key feature of the landscape of our times.

In proposing to re-examine the question of a borderless Africa and a borderless world, I would like to stay away from dominant ways with which this issue has been dealt. That is under the sign of Kant and his promise of unbounded cosmopolitanism, and under the sign of liberal individualism understood as an antidote or to the deeply ingrained fascist impulses of European governance and bureaucracies. Although they seem to be worlds apart, both of these approaches are articulated around the concept of the fourth freedom.



In classical liberal thought there are three core freedoms: First of all, freedom of movement. Within freedom of movement, there is freedom of movement of capital, priority number one. But, since there is no capital without goods, there is freedom of movement of goods. Number three is services, and especially in these times of ours, the freedom of movement of those who can provide services. Those are the three core freedoms. So the concept of the fourth freedom has to do with freedom of movement of persons. Traditional engagements with the idea of a borderless world aimed at precipitating the advent of that fourth freedom. Within that configuration a borderless world would be a world of free movement of: capital, goods, services and persons. Such movement, such freedom of movement would not be restricted to the core economically rich countries or states, which is the case as we speak. The Schengen system, for instance, is limited to the core European countries. In fact, if you have an American passport you can basically go wherever you want. The world belongs to you. But this is not the case for every inhabitant of our planet. So in the configuration I have just referred to, the fourth freedom, the ability to move around the planet would no longer be limited to Europeans and Americans. It would be a radical right that would belong to everybody by virtue of each and every individual being a human being. It is a right that would be extended to poor members of the earth. So we keep going back to the question of the earth. There would be no visas, in some instantiations of the fourth freedom of movement there would be no quotas, and no bizarre category to fill in, because you would not even have to apply for a visa. One could just get on a plane, a train, a boat, on the road, or on a bike. Rights of non-discrimination would be extended to all. I will give you one little example. In Cameroon, until the beginning of the 1980s, it was possible to travel to France with one’s national identity card. Most people went to France and came back. They did not go because they wanted to settle there. Most people want to live where they “belong”. But they want to be able to come and go. And they are more likely to come and go when the borders are not hermetically closed. So,  a borderless world imagined by the fourth freedom of movement is premised, therefore on this right of non-discrimination and on this circulatory and pendular set of migrations.

To elucidate or pose differently the question of a borderless world, is to contrast two paradigms. On the one hand, examine the liberal idea of a borderless world through the free movement concept and contrast it with African precolonial understandings of movement in space. Contrasting these two paradigms will hopefully give us conceptual resources to expand on this utopian project of a borderless world.



When I say liberal classical thought, of course it is extremely complicated, we understand that. I am giving you an archetype, which itself needs to be properly deconstructed. And here I will rely in particular on a recently published work called Movement and the Ordering of Freedom published by Hagar Kotef, an Israeli scholar who teaches at School of Oriental and African Studies  in London. You might let your imagination work and understand why it is an Israeli who is interested in this. What Kotef shows in that work is the extent to which liberal political thought has in fact always been saddled with a contradiction when it comes to imagining the possibility of a borderless world. Her argument is that this contradiction stems from its conception of movement. She shows that, in fact, two dominant configurations of movement constantly come into conflict with one another, cancelling each other at times within classical liberal thought. Movement here is seen both as a manifestation of freedom and as an interruption, as a threat to order. One of the functions of the state is, therefore, to craft a concept of order, stability and security that is reconcilable with its concept of freedom and its concept of movement. That is the contradiction. Kotef argues, the liberal classical state is the enemy of people who restlessly move around.  Such people are configured as an unassimilable other. You cannot assimilate them. They are constantly on the move. There are colonial repercussions to all of this. The biggest problem of the colonial state in the continent of Africa from the 19th century onwards was to make sure people stayed in the same place. It had a hard time achieving this. They were constantly on the move. They were “uncaptured”.

So, the business of the state is how to capture them. Without capturing them, sovereignty does not mean anything. Sovereignty means you capture a people, you capture a territory, you delimit borders and this allows you, in turn, to exercise the monopoly of territory, of course, monopoly over the people and in terms of the use of legitimate force and, very importantly—because everything else depends on that—monopoly over taxation. You cannot tax people who have no address. The state sees such people as enemies, both of freedom, because they do not exercise it with restraint, and of security and order. You cannot build an order on the basis of that which is unstable.

The same state is a friend of self-regulated movement. Why? Because freedom here is understood as being about moderation, about self-regulation. It’s not about excess—excessive movement immediately conjures problems of security. So, as Kotef argues, movement not only has to be restrained via an array of disciplinary mechanisms, it has to be reconciled with freedom and to some extent self-restraint, but the ability to restrain or regulate oneself is not assumed to be the share of all subjects. Not everybody is able to restrain him- or herself. Some movements were therefore configured as freedom, and others were deemed improper and were conceived as a threat. That is the bifurcation we have in classical liberal thought. It is the spectre that haunts classical liberal states, from those years up to now. We have not gotten rid of that spectre.

The way in which classical liberal states have tried to resolve this contradiction has been by managed mobility, which is back on the agenda right now as I speak, in Europe and even in South Africa where I have been doing some work with the Department of Home Affairs on recalibrating inter-African migrations. The key concept is “managed mobility”. So, within the framework of managed mobility, certain categories of the population are constantly seen as posing a threat, not only to themselves and to their own security, but also to others’ security. Such a threat, it is thought, can be diminished if their movements are confined and if they are domesticated and subject to some type of reform.



In the classical liberal model security and freedom came to be defined as a right of exclusion. Order within that model is about securing the unequal ordering of property relations. Asserting the boundaries of the nation goes hand in hand in that model with the assertion of the boundaries of race. Now, defining the boundaries of race within that model requires a proper definition of the boundaries of the body; the centrality of the body in the calculus of both freedom and security.

First of all, let me say that pre-colonial Africa might not have been a borderless world, at least in the sense in which we have been defining borders, but where the existing borders were always porous and permeable. The business of a border is, in fact, to be crossed. That is what borders are for. There is no conceivable border outside of that principle, the law of permeability. As evidenced by traditions of long-distance trade, circulation was fundamental. It was fundamental in the production of cultural forms, of political forms, of economic and social and religious forms. The most important vehicle for transformation and change was mobility. It was not class struggles in the sense that we understand it. Mobility was the motor of any kind of social or economic or political transformation. In fact, it was the driving principle behind the delimitation and organisation of space and territories. So the primordial principle of spatial organisation was continuous movement. And this is also still part of present day culture. To stop is to run risks. You have to be on the move constantly. More and more, especially in conditions of crisis, being on the move is the very condition of your survival. If you are not on the move, the chances of survival are diminished. So dominance over sovereignty was not exclusively expressed through the control of a territory, physically marked with borders. It was not.  How was it then? If you do not control a territory, how can you exercise sovereignty? How can you extract anything, since as far as we know, power expresses itself also, if not primarily, through one or the other form of extraction.

All of that was expressed through networks. Networks and crossroads. The importance of roads and crossroads in African literature is astounding. Read Soyinka, read Achebe, read Tutuola. Roads and crossroads are everywhere in their literature. So crossroads, flows of people and flows of nature, both in dialectical relationships because in those cosmogonies people are unthinkable without what we call nature. So while the Anthropocene’s turn seems to be a novelty in parts of our world today, we have always lived in that. It is not new. Because you cannot think of people, without thinking of nonhumans. Read Tutuola, it is a world of humans and non-humans, interacting, acting with others. I do not want to exaggerate this. Fixed geographical spaces, such as towns and villages did exist. People and things could be concentrated in a particular location. Such places could even become the origin of movement and there were links between places, such as roads and flight paths, but places were not described by points or lines. What mattered the most was the distribution of movement between places. Movement was the driving force of the production of space and movement itself, if we are to belief some of those cosmogonies. Here I have in mind the Dogon cosmogonies that were particularly studied by Marcel Griaule, or other cosmogonies in Equatorial Africa dealt with by anthropologists and historians like Jan Vansina, John M. Janzen and others. Movement itself was not necessarily akin to displacement. What mattered the most was the extent to which flows and their intensities intersected and interacted with other flows, the new forms they could take when they intensified. Movement, especially among the Dogon, could lead to diversions, conversions and intersections. These were more important than points, lines and surfaces, which are, as we know cardinal references in western geometrics. So, what we have here is a different kind of geometry out of which concepts of borders, power, relations and separation derive.

If we want to harness alternative resources, the conceptual vocabulary type, to imagine a borderless world, here is an archive. It is not the only one. But what we harness are the archives of the world at large, and not only the western archive. In fact, the western archive does not help us to develop an idea of borderlessness. The western archive is premised on the crystallisation of the idea of a border.

In this configuration, wealth and power, or lets say wealth in people, always trumped wealth in things. There are two forms of wealth. You could be wealthy in terms of your capacity to agglomerate around your clients, family members, and so on. Or, you could be wealthy just by virtue of having accumulated a huge amount or quantity of things. So you see here a dialectics of quantities and qualities. And multiple forms of membership were always available. How is it that one belonged? Through what window is it that you can enter the house? There were multiple forms of membership, not rigid classifications where you are either a citizen or a foreigner. In between being a citizen and being a foreigner there was a whole repertoire of alternative forms of membership—building alliances through trade, marriage or religion, incorporating new commerce, refugees, asylum seekers into existing polities—that was the norm. You dominated by integrating foreigners. All kinds of foreigners. And peoplehood—not nationhood—included not only the living, but also the dead, the unborn, humans and non-humans. Community was unthinkable without some kind of foundational debt, two principal forms of debt. There is a kind of debt that is expropriatory. Some of us are indebted to banks. But in these constellations, there is a different kind of debt that is constitutive of the very basis of the relation. And it is a kind of debt that encompasses not only the living, the now, but also those who came before and those who will come after us that we have obligations to—the chain of beings that includes, once again, not only humans but animals and what we call nature.



I would like to end by putting forward a notion that I take from the Ghanaian constitution. The constitution of Ghana has developed a concept that I have not found anywhere else. It is the concept, a new right they call the right of abode as a fundamental right that they want to add to the list of traditional human rights. It seems to me that this idea of the right of abode is a cornerstone for any re-imagination of Africa as a borderless space. At a deep historical level, African and diasporic struggles for freedom and self-determination have always been intertwined with the aspiration to move unchained. Whether under conditions of slavery or under colonial rule, the loss of our sovereignty automatically resulted in the loss of our right to free movement. This is the reason why the dream of a free redeemed and mighty African nation has been inextricably linked to the recovery of the right to come and go without let or hindrance across our colossal continent. In fact our history in modernity has, to a large extent, been one of constant displacement and confinement, forced migrations and coerced labour. Think of the plantation system in the Americas and the Caribbean. Think of the Black Codes, the Pig Laws or the vagrancy status after the failure of the reconstruction in the United States in 1887. Think of the chain gangs, labouring at tasks such as road construction, ditch digging, tearing and deforestation. Think of the Code de l’indigénat, think of the Bantustans and labour reserves in Southern Africa and of the carceral industrial complex in today’s United States of America. In each instance, to be African and to be black has meant to be consigned to one or the other of the many spaces of confinement modernity has invented.

The scramble for Africa in the 19th century, and the carving of its boundaries along colonial lines, turned the continent into a massive carceral space and each one of us into a potential illegal migrant, unable to move except under increasingly punitive conditions. As a matter of fact, entrapment became the precondition for the exploitation of our labour, which is why the struggles for emancipation and racial upliftment were so intertwined with the struggles for the right to move freely. If we want to conclude the work of decolonisation, we have to bring down colonial boundaries in our continent and turn Africa into a vast space of circulation for itself, for its descendants and for everyone who wants to tie his or her fate with our continent.


 This and other stories and maps are available in the new issue of the Chronic, On Circulations And The African Imagination Of A Borderless World, which maps the African imagination of a borderless world: non-universal universalisms, the right to opacity, refusing that which has been refused to you, and “keeping it moving”.


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