Institutionalized Networks: The Role of Transportation Workers in West African Mobility (Working Paper #164)

Tim Mechlinski, University of California, Santa Barbara

Abstract: This paper concerns the social process of mobility control in four West African countries: Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, and Ghana. Mobility has long been an important aspect of West African social, cultural, and political life, although now mobile people cross the borders of what are relatively newly-defined nation-states. Most migration research in this region considers international boundaries as merely theoretical and unimportant to the lives of migrants, and empirical research on borders focuses on the ethnic groups living in border zones. This study explores everyday enforcement of international and internal mobility control, and the ways in which mobile Africans respond to and resist the actions of security agents. I do this using ethnographic evidence gathered when traveling over 10,000 miles in Burkina Faso, Mali, Ghana, and Côte d’Ivoire over a period of nine months.

Data were gathered through participant observation at 23 international borders in West Africa, and 175 security control checkpoints in total. This evidence is supplemented by twenty-nine interviews with transportation workers across the four countries studied. Based on the notion that border interactions entail important socio-economic, cultural, and political processes affecting individuals differently based on their social positions, this paper explores the roles and responsibilities of transportation workers in assisting Africans to negotiate border crossings. Augmenting the traditional social science literature on migrant networks with an approach proposed by development economists, this paper shows that transportation workers play an essential, institutionalized role in mobility control in West Africa. It demonstrates the strength of weak ties and the need for a re-conceptualization of migrant networks that is more attuned to the realities of an African context.

Working Paper #164 »