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Diverse identities find platform in the World Cup

Friday June 13 2014

The opening ceremony of the 2014 Fifa World Cup at the Corinthians Arena in Sao Paulo prior to the opening Group A football match between Brazil and Croatia on June 12, 2014. AFP PHOTO / POOL / FABRIZIO BENSCH

The opening ceremony of the 2014 FIFA World Cup at the Corinthians Arena in Sao Paulo, Brazil prior to the opening Group A football match between Brazil and Croatia on June 12, 2014. AFP PHOTO / POOL / FABRIZIO BENSCH 

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Even in this connected age, moments that are genuinely shared across the world are rare, indeed.  But on Thursday night, the world stopped to watch the beginning of the biggest football extravaganza.

With the demise of American agnosticism, the World Cup has become a truly global event.  Once the last great frontier, football has conquered the US to such an extent that more tickets have been sold there than in any other country, except Brazil.

But as the sea of yellow shirts and pockets of the Croatian red and white in the stands in Sao Paolo suggested, having an ever keener sense of belonging to a global community does not mean that our other forms of identity are collapsing.

Over the next four weeks, we will witness demonstrations of different sorts of identities.  A surviving sense of Pan-Africanism means the continent’s five teams will receive the backing of its one billion people.

Most commonly, national rather than transnational identities will be exhibited.  In each of the competing countries, national flags are flying and television stations are replaying past moments of triumph and despair. In other words, in this global age, national identities are still alive and well.


Recent elections across the European Union suggest something even more interesting.  Nationalism, particularly in its most xenophobic and racist forms, is thriving, and not just surviving, in a Europe of free trade and movement of people.

At the end of last month, voters from across the member states of the EU cast their ballots in unprecedented numbers for right-wing nationalist parties.  In Britain and France, the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) and the National Front, respectively, defeated traditional parties.

Both parties rely on the support of globalisation’s discontents.  In Britain, UKIP’s support is made up of people blind to the benefits of European integration and global trade.  The party’s voters are often motivated by suspicion towards immigration and the demise of relatively well-paid, lower-skilled jobs that have moved offshore.

Our era of globalisation is producing reactionary local identities among voters in Britain and France.  Realisation of this relationship has come of something as a revelation to analysts in Europe, but we should not be surprised.

Five years ago, the brilliant Dutch anthropologist, Peter Geschiere, published his great book, The Perils of Belonging.  In that book, Geschiere explores the relationship between globalisation and the emergence of local exclusionary identities. 

His refreshing comparisons between the Netherlands and Cameroon show how these identities are emerging in developing and developed countries alike in response to globalisation.


Geschiere’s arguments and recent events in Europe should give Kenyans pause for thought.  Although nationalism in Kenya and other parts of the wider region has historically been free of the xenophobia of their European counterparts, the same cannot be said of ethnic identities.

Kenya has not been so outward looking since the 1960s.  Through infrastructure, joint security operations and trade, the EAC, Igad, Amisom and Lapsset are tying Kenya ever more tightly into the region’s economics and politics.

As Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed’s visit to the Seychelles this week illustrated, the government is anxious to increase Kenya’s influence in the western Indian Ocean.  And this is to say nothing of the much-discussed relationships with western powers, India and China.

There can be little doubt that Kenya accrues great benefit from most, but not all, of these global ties.  Investment, jobs and, some claim, security have increased as a result.  But although the potential rewards of this wide web of foreign relations are great, the less positive effects on domestic politics may also be significant.

Policy makers often assume that modernisation and economic growth will extinguish ethnicity.  It is commonly argued that more wealth will encourage the newly expanded middle class to work together across ethnic lines for reasons of mutual interest, but if Geschiere is right, a more globalised Kenya may also be a more ethnicised Kenya. 

Such a development is obviously discomforting, given the country’s history since independence.  Further, ethnic polarisation only serves to suit the current crop of political leaders from Jubilee and Cord. 

Ethnic voting patterns and devolution seem to have further consolidated the centrality of ethnicity to political debate.  But there is little obvious resistance to this trend, despite widespread consensus that it is dangerous.

In particular, the absence of influential pan-ethnic political figures is a striking feature of contemporary Kenya.  The likes of Kenyatta, Odinga and Ruto have lost the ability to speak effectively to audiences outside their own communities.  What is even more disappointing is the failure of any county governor to become a national figure.

Developing such arguments in more detail can be left for another time.  For one month every four years, the World Cup provides an escape from discussing more serious matters.  I, for one, intend to take that opportunity.

Prof Branch teaches history and politics at the University of Warwick.