Ethnicity in Africa: a road to conflict or a path to peace?

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When analyzing conflict in African, many experts consider ethnicity as a major cause of conflict, but few consider it as a potential tool for lasting peace. Past and ongoing crises in Africa like the Rwandan genocide, the crisis in Darfur, the civil wars in Nigeria, the quarrels between the whites and blacks in Zimbabwe or Tutsi and other rwandophones in Eastern in Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) show evidence of the role that ethnicity plays as a trigger of conflict in some parts of Africa. This paper will try to explain why this is the case, how this situation evolved from colonial times to after independence and which are the successful stories of stable African multiethnic States.

First of all, what is ethnicity and what does it mean within the frame of a State ? An ethnic group is a group of people whose members identify with each other through a common heritage, often consisting of a common language, culture, religion, ideology or geographical area. Ethnicity is an identity. As a result, it inevitably occupies a great space within the political arena and also it is the easiest and most natural way for people to mobilize around basic human needs such as security, food, shelter, economic well-being, inequality, land distribution, autonomy, and recognition [1]. This is why ethnicity is a powerful catalyst of violence.

 

Ethnicity, an artificial process in Africa during colonial period …

In Africa, countries are territories whose borders were drawn artificially at the Berlin Conference in 1885 by colonial powers to fit their economic conveniences. In the pre-colonial period, African communities followed the natural process of ethnicization with overlapping and alternate identities with significant movement of peoples, intermingling of communities and cultural and linguistic borrowing. 

The Africa encountered by European colonizers in the 19th century was multi-ethnic with different forms of self governing.  The colonial power destroyed those ancient African societies with slavery. After claiming landownership, the colonial power defined, classified, numbered and mapped African ethnic groups to create administrative units to facilitate better political and institutional control. Colonization also created inequalities between ethnic communities based on the manner and degree of involvement in the colonial political economy. This “decentralized despotism” meant the use of traditional and local chiefs through patronizing relationships where their loyalty was rewarded through access to resources controlled by the colonial power. These sources of wealth and power were distributed unevenly and permitted colonial powers to establish their legitimacy through the strategy of divide and rule.

The impact of these policies was new cleavage of class exacerbating existing internal differences of gender, generation and clienthood. Power was given to some at the expense of others creating frustration and competition only serving the colonial power. In a same manner, the extensive use of patron-clients networks left little basis for the development of modern States [2].  Even if we try to make generalizations, one must understand that the African experience of colonialism extremely varied across the continent.  

… but a natural political tool for its leaders after the independence

In the first decade of independences up to the end of the 1970s, the political discourse was about nation-building, development and nationalism. But this lasted a short time in most sub-Saharan African countries. Colonial patron-clients relationships remained a currant political practice and developed. The lack of governance experience and political maturity of the new African leaders was obviously due to the lack of preparation of the latter by colonial powers before and during the decolonization process [3]. A consequence of this neopatrimonial system is the creation of single party political systems to offer a “national” arena where distribution of resources between ethnic communities could be negotiated between the leaders of various groups, without having to resort to the public mobilization of their supporters. In addition, competition for power was high. Statistically until 1991, 59,4 % of the 485 post-colonial African heads of states were either killed, put in jail or forced to exile [4]. The price of the neopatrimonial system is high because the State apparatus gets hollowed out from resources and serves personal enrichment. Its administrative capability is drastically reduced and so is its reach to its own population. Therefore, state leaders saw this system as the best way to retain control

When other ethnic groups could not be bribed, ethnicity was used to denounce them as scapegoats. It was also used to distract public opinion from important issues. Examples are numerous : the expulsion of wealthy Indians and Pakistanis by President Idi Amin Dada in Uganda or the attempt of former President of Zambia Chiluba to bar his predecessor Kauda from political contest on grounds that his parents were from Malawi exemplifies this issue [5]. Also, the ongoing issue of Rwandophone (Hutu and Tutsi) in Eastern DRC is worth mentioning.

Following the classic divide-to-conquer strategy, Mobutu refused Tutsi Congolese nationality and used them as scapegoats to strengthen his regime that was losing legitimacy early 1990s. It worked because during that time violence erupted between ethnic groups in eastern DRC [6]. The second Congo war (1998-2003) although it has been proven to be a war of natural resources predation, it was ethnically motivated [7]

In Rwanda, for example, power has always been ethic centered. As a consequence, between 1959 and 1962, there is record of ethnic violence between Hutu and Tutsi.  The Hutu-led political forces succeeded to abolishing the Tutsi monarchy in 1961, and the colonial administrator, in concert with Hutu politicians, led Rwanda to independence by July 1, 1962. Hutu authorities used each attack as an excuse to strengthen their authority by massacring Tutsi civilians, causing a wave of Tutsi refugees into neighboring nations [8].  In 1990, the Tutsi exiled decided to come back home by force and this war ended in 1994 with genocide of Tutsi and unprecedented massacre of Hutus in retaliation by the newly Tutsi regime in Rwanda.

In 1947, Nigeria was divided into three political regions including the three main ethnic groups: the North with the Hausa-Fulani, the West with the Yoruba and finally the East with the Igbos counting for respectively 30, 20 and 18 % of the population. As the nation marched towards independence, the issue was reduced to the quest for ethnic dominance with minority groups rebelling and fighting for ethnic dominance. At this time, ethnic and sub-ethnic loyalties threatened the survival of both East and West, while the North was religiously divided between Christianity and Islam. It was a period of politicized ethnicity and competition for resources which worsened the relationships between ethnic groups. There was a high degree of corruption, nepotism and tribalism. Military intervention culminated in the gruesome ethnic war from 1967 to 1970 involving the Hausa-Fulani and the Eastern Ibos (Biafrans) and the Yoruba and Hausa, the minorities of the oil producing states of the South [9]

One must know that the rise of ethnic conflicts in Africa responds also to external influence that some describe as neocolonialism. Throughout the Cold War, many African leaders were blindly assisted and this gave them a total liberty to manage ethnic differences as they wanted to, and often in violence. In the ‘80s, the States’ capabilities to provide social services weakened further more. It was under pressure by International Monetary Fun (IMF) and the World Bank (WB) reforms and the loss of public revenues led to more predation on the leader’s behalf. In this chaotic context and with the Cold War, ethnically-based movements started challenging the state for effective control [10].

Beginning of the 1990’s, a wave of democratization hit Africa. Popular protests and foreign pressures pressed authoritarian regimes for political reforms and multi-party elections. Western powers and financial institutions, alarmed at the decay of African states, pushed better governance and the implementations of neo-liberal reforms. The end of the Cold War also signified the end of support to authoritarian regimes. But by the end of the 1990s, however, the tide of democratization was ebbing and many governments were receding back into ‘semi-democracies’ and a reassertion of elite control revealed serious limits of the process.

Actually, the competition between ethnically based patronage networks for access to state resources and power was intensified by open electoral competition and was now done through elections. Votes were now exchanged for a political position and expected redistribution of material benefits. Furthermore, the major use of majority elections in Africa tends to enhance this trait. What’s more is that the little variation in ideology or program between parties leaves little but their ethnic base for politicians to appeal to [11]

Politicizing and mismanaging the rich ethnic African diversity continues to be one of the causes of political crises and is often followed by ethnic wars. In a state where consciousness of nationalism is weak and ethnic rebellions prevail, only democracy is an option to bring unity.

Ethnicity as a way to unified and harmonious nations

How can we build a unified nation with many ethnicities peacefully coexisting? One of the steps is infrastructure development and economic growth. These tools have shown to be effective in fostering social harmony in places where poverty is a trigger of ethnic tensions. Also a strong state can transform ethnicity from a negative force into a positive one with democracy as a superstructure. But as we have seen, democracy in Africa has been manipulated by those who crave for power. This is why democracy means more not only elections which can be taken over by dominant ethnic groups, but a government by the people and for the people whereby citizens’ rights, duties, and representation are honored.  It also means independent courts, strong civil society participation, robust institutions, rule of law, property rights, free press and especially tolerance and open space for minorities. The process to this ideal of governance is nation building which means the subordination of all competing ethnic interests and loyalties to the state provided that it give to all a sense of security and a national identity.  

The process to this ideal form of government, nation building, must be the center of all efforts. It means the subordination of all competing ethnic interests and loyalty to the state provided that the latter offers to citizens the necessary climate conducive to build a strong sense of national identity [12]. It follows the idea of governmentality developed by the French philosopher Michel Foucault who suggests thats a State should treat its own population as its most valuable asset in the same way as a good father would take good care of his family. It doesn’t seek to put in place hastily institutions that can easily be shattered but to resolve the problem at its core.

There are examples of countries whose nation building policies have prevented ethnic violence. In Tanzania, the country’s first president, Julius Nyerere insisted on creating a nation of citizens who would only be identified as Tanzanians and banned ethnicity from official records. To this day, as multi-party state, Tanzania still doesn’t allow political parties founded on religion, race, color or gender. Under the “Ujuma” policy, people from different places were displaced and gathered in collectivized farms. While the moral and economic prospects of this plan may be controversial, it enhanced national unity and cohesion [13]. Another factor which facilitated the cohesion of ethnic groups in Tanzania and later a national identity is Kiswahili, one of Africa’s languages widely spoken Eastern and Central Africa. 

Kiswahili was not the language of a particular ethnic group, but it was a medium of communication between traders of different race and ethnic background namely Arabs, Africans and Europeans. It facilitated the establishment of social cohesion, peace and stability between different ethnic groups and religions. Colonial policies promoted the language but it was after independence that Kiswahili was able to evolve and develop as a national language under the government patronage [14].

At its independence, Ghana was deeply divided. Many negative stereotypes and prejudicial attitudes existed between ethnics groups from Southern and Northern parts of the country. The colonial and post-colonial political economy and the distribution of educational and development opportunities benefited more the resource-rich South. In addition, discrimination in employment, and the allocation of social services favored “southerners” [15]. However, Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of the Republic of Ghana implemented an Accelerated Development Plan with in-built elements of corrective affirmative action. This plan included the construction of structures of development such as factories and schools, all of which aimed at facilitating the expeditious development of the North. Also, Ghana’s Fourth Republican Constitution (1992) provides the legal framework for the pursuit of socio-economic development and nation building. 

Furthermore, on the list of other practical policies that permitted unity we cite the introduction of boarding schools which allowed inter-ethnic friendships to be forged and respect for religious diversity and tolerance to be fostered. Conflict resolution classes for young people were also introduced and cultural exchanges and courtesies between opposing traditional leaders were encouraged.  Finally, Ghana has made a lot progress in nation-building by adopting democracy as their form of government and implementing decentralization [16]

As we’ve seen, the implications of ethnicity within politics can be extremely versatile and if it’s not well managed, it can destroy national harmony and cohesion. The frontier between nation-building and ethnic policies is very thin especially in less structured or mature African states. For example, in Ivory Coast, the recent violence as a result of contested presidential elections is in part rooted in ethnic political manipulation. In 1945 in Dakar, the concept of “Ivoirité” was introduced by students to push forward national pride. Their idea was to generate a national consciousness based on common cultural notions. This same nation-building political concept was reused by President Henri Konan Bédié in 1994 to foster a common identity in a nation of many ethnicities many of which are immigrant from neighboring nations. But this political tool got recycled by political opponents to fit their own nationalistic and xenophobe views by accentuating antagonism between Muslims in the north and Christians in the South. They also rejected internal immigrants from Mali and Burkina Faso. One of the outcomes was the disqualification of the northern presidential candidate, now Ivory Coast ‘sPresident, Alassane Ouattara twice in 1995 and 2000. This certainly explains in part current trends in this country [17]

The mismanagement of the richness of ethnic diversity is often linked to the absence of visionary, civic-minded and nationalist leaders. This is particular the case of apartheid in South Africa. However, the first black South African President, Nelson Mandela and Frederik de Klerk, the 7th South African white President were able to walk through the painful legacy of apartheid and chose the path of peace and democracy. Even if a country possesses one strong national identity, it doesn’t necessarily mean the absence of conflict. We continue to analyze violence through as many perspectives as possible.

In nations with long history of ethnic conflict, the search for the perfect framework to foster peace may seem out of reach, but it not the case. Democracy can be a solution to ethnic conflicts, but it must go beyond elections. It must be a true nation building tool with social, political and economic policies that promote social harmony. Leaders such as Mandela, Nkrumah and Nyerere have shown the path forward in their own nations and it is up to each generation to take their achievements to the next level.

By Sebastien Porter

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[1] Herbert Kelman. “Social-Psychological Dimensions of International Conflict” in Peacemaking in International Conflict: Methods and Techniques, ed. I. William Zartman, United States Institute of Peace Press, Washington, DC, 2007, p 64-65.

[2] Bruce J. Berman, “Ethnicity and Democracy in Africa”, JICA Research Institute, No. 22, November 2010, p 6-10. Paper available here: http://jica-ri.jica.go.jp/publication/assets/JICA-RI_WP_No.22_2010.pdf

[3] Idem, p 12-14.

[4] William Reno, «Warlord Politics and African States», Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc, London, 1998, p 19

[5] Paul Mbatia, Kennedy Bikuru & Peter Nderitu, “The Challenges of Ethnicity, Multiparty Democracy and State Building in Multiethnic States in Africa”, October 17, 2009, http://thefutureofafrica.wordpress.com/2009/10/17/the-challenges-of-ethnicity-multiparty-democracy-and-state-building-in-multiethnic-states-in-africa/

[6] Denis M. Tull, « The Democratic Republic of Congo: Militarized Politics in a Failed State » in «Africa Guerrilas: Raging Against the Machine » edited by Morten Bøas & Kevin C. Dunn, Lynne Rienner Publishers, Bouler & London, 2007, p 123.

[7] Berman, op.cit, p 28.

[8] Ethnicity background and issues : The case of Rwanda” , October 16 2009, http://thefutureofafrica.wordpress.com/2009/10/16/ethnicity-background-and-issues-the-case-of-rwanda/

[9] Emmy Godwin Irobi, “Ethnic Conflict Management in Africa: A Comparative Case Study of Nigeria and South Africa”, May 2005, http://www.beyondintractability.org/case_studies/nigeria_south-africa.jsp?nid=6720

[10] Kidane Mengisteab, « Globalization and Autocentricity in Africa‘s Development in the 21st Century », Africa World Press, Inc., Trenton , 1996, p 30-35.

[11] Berman, op.cit, p 22-26.

[12] Idem

[13] Commonwealth of Nations, “Report of the Commonwealth Observer Group: Tanzania General Elections”, 31 October 2010, p 3-9, http://www.thecommonwealth.org/files/232431/FileName/FinalReport-TanzaniaCOG.pdf

[14] Huruma Luhuvilo Sigalla, “Ethnic Diversity in East Africa: The Tanzania Case. The role of Kiswahili language as a unifying factor”, October 16 2009http://thefutureofafrica.wordpress.com/2009/10/16/ethnic-diversity-in-east-africa-the-tanzania-case/

[15] Emily Wax, “Reaching out a cyber-hand from Africa to the workd: Ghana’s vice president seeks to broadcast thye country’s benefits”, The Washington Post, June 22nd 2011.

[16] Agyemang Attafuah, “Ethnic Diversity, Democratization and Nation-Building in Ghana”, October 16 2009, http://thefutureofafrica.wordpress.com/2009/10/16/ethnic-diversity-democratization-and-nation-building-in-ghana/.

[17] Berman, op.cit, p 27-28.

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