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Making Movements Possible: Transportation Workers and Mobility in West Africa

International Migration

Published online on


This article concerns the social process of mobility control in four West African countries: Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, and Ghana. Migration has long been an important aspect of West African social, cultural, and political life. This study explores everyday enforcement of international and internal mobility control, and the ways in which Africans respond to and resist the actions of security agents. I accomplish this using ethnographic evidence gathered when travelling over 10,000 miles in Burkina Faso, Mali, Ghana, and Côte d’Ivoire over a period of nine months. In addition, data were gathered through participant observation while crossing international borders 23 times in a sub‐region of West Africa, and participating in 169 security control checkpoints in total. This evidence is supplemented by 29 interviews with transportation workers across the four countries studied. Augmenting the traditional social science literature on migrant networks with an approach proposed by development economists, this article shows that transportation workers play an essential role in mobility control in West Africa. The theoretical insights derived here contribute to a larger project of bringing borders and transportation into the same frame of reference as migration in academic study. This project sees movement through interaction, rather than simply through the systems approach so commonly applied in the literature and shows that in the countries under study there exist unstated, implicit social norms among transportation workers, their clients, and security agents, which constitute a key mechanism for migration. These actors operate in a series of structured relationships, which can be described as institutionalised, and which create a series of important exchanges governing movement in the sub‐ region.