Ethnic politics in Africa

Durbar-Festival in the north western Kano district of Nigeria
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Africans of have been denied the opportunity to build their nation-states based on their own values, institutions, and heritage due to the influence of historical circumstances, of which European colonialism is prime. Trying to go back to original ancestral identities and territories now would precipitate the downfall of many countries on the continent. Nonetheless, ignoring inherent diversity would also be risky. Is it possible to create a model for a stable, united, and modern African state that respects and draws benefit from ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious differences, as well as desires for self-determination?

Complicated nature of ethnic politics in Africa

Ethnicity encompasses more than just physical attributes or language and traditions. It represents a people’s values, institutions, and way of life, reflecting their history, aspirations, and worldview. When ethnicity and culture are taken away from a group, their sense of purpose and direction is also lost.

In the past, dating back to the time of antiquity, African societies and states functioned through a complex system that revolved around family, lineage, clan, tribe, and larger groups sharing common ethnic, cultural, and linguistic traits. These social units formed the basis for economic, political, and social interactions between communities. These grouping were also quite fluid in many places, and so were the physical boundaries separating groups.

However, during the colonial era, groups were often divided or forced together without consideration for their shared characteristics or unique identities. They were placed under new administrative systems that operated on different values, institutions, and principles. The authority governing these systems was held by outsiders, foreign rulers, who relied on centralization of power enforced by police and military forces, leading to authoritarian rule. To give this externally imposed system a sense of legitimacy, traditional leaders were sometimes utilized as intermediaries between the state and local communities. The state also provided limited social services and development opportunities to certain privileged sectors, creating an illusion of legitimacy. Meanwhile, the country’s natural resources were exploited and exported as raw materials to support the industries of the colonial powers.

The Omo Valley in southern Ethiopia is the oldest continually inhabited community in the world.

Most African states, which succumbed to colonial rule were subjected to artificial forms of government imposed by Europeans. The one nation that somehow or another escaped the European scramble for Africa was Ethiopia. Through a series of engagements, diplomatic as well as military, its leaders were able to keep colonial powers at bay. Ethiopian leaders such as Tewodros I, Yohannes I, and Menelik II pragmatically pivoted, pushed, expanded territory, and at times conceded to keep foreign powers at bay. This despite ever-present internal wars among elites, conflicts which often took on ethnic, as well as religious overtones. Colonial powers were never shy to leverage these internal squabbles to gain territory. In the end however, Ethiopia was spared direct colonization, but is did not escape the entanglements of colonialism on the continent, which it grapples with to this today.

The introduction of the new colonial state structure undermined existing indigenous system of the people, which provided them with the means to pursue modest yet sustainable life goals. Instead, they were subjected to centrally controlled resources that were scarce and fiercely competed for. Development was redefined as receiving basic services from the state, rather than a process of collective wealth accumulation and growth. The localized, inclusive, and low-risk subsistence activities were replaced by high-risk competition for power and limited resources, leading to conflicts based on tribalism or ethnicity. While independence removed the colonial oppressor, it intensified the struggle for centralized power and control over national resources.

Presently, nearly every conflict in Africa has some ethno-regional aspect to it. Even seemingly unrelated conflicts involve factions and alliances formed around ethnic loyalties. Analysts have held differing views on the role of ethnicity in these conflicts. Some view ethnicity as a root cause of conflict, while others see it as a tool used by ambitious politicians. It is both. Ethnicity, particularly when combined with territorial identity, is an inherent social reality that exists independently of political manipulation. To argue that ethnic groups are merely pawns in political games underestimates this fundamental social reality. However, it is evident that ethnicity can be exploited and manipulated by political entrepreneurs for their own gain.

Response of African states

After gaining independence, Africans were eager to reject tribalism as something that divides people. They aimed for unity, imagining a unified identity despite their diverse backgrounds. For example, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana made it illegal to form political parties based on tribe or ethnicity. Houphouet-Boigny of Côte d’Ivoire strategically included ethnic groups by giving them positions in government, civil service jobs, social services, and development projects. Julius Nyerere, who came from a tribal leadership background, promoted national pride in Tanganyika and later in Tanzania, which was formed through a union with Zanzibar. Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya formed a delicate alliance of ethnic groups under the dominance of his Kenyan African National Union party.

Men on horseback at the Durbar-Festival in the north western Kano district of Nigeria

In South Africa, apartheid policies categorized races and ethnicities in a way that was unsustainable. Although post-apartheid South Africa now strives for a racially, ethnically, and tribally blind democratic system, there is still a tension between this approach and a proud expression of ethnic identity, particularly among Zulu nationalists.

In Africa, the aim of maintaining unity within the borders established during colonial times has led to stability but has also caused ethnic tensions and violence within those borders. Sudan provides an extreme example of this. The dominant North region, which is a mix of Arab and African racial, cultural, and religious elements, is trying to address its identity crisis by emphasizing its Arab and Islamic characteristics even more than its predecessors. This distorted self-perception, fueled by the agendas of political elites, is promoted as the framework for unifying and integrating the country. Unfortunately, this approach has resulted in a destructive conflict between the Arab-Muslim North and the predominantly Christian South, which identifies more with its indigenous African roots.

In the end, founders of the African Union made a significant decision to respect colonial borders, and this principle has been remarkably successful in practice. Thus, the AU strongly opposes secession movements. For example, Katanga attempted to separate from the Congo (which later became Zaire and now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), but it was unsuccessful. The secessionist Biafran war in Nigeria also failed. Somalia’s endeavor to take control of the Ogden region from Ethiopia was decisively stopped. Southern Sudan endured a 17-year struggle to break away from the North and eventually settled for autonomy in 1972. When fighting resumed in 1983, their goal remained the creation of a new Sudan that would eliminate any form of discrimination based on race, ethnicity, culture, or religion. The African Union largely thwarted South Sudan, which eventually achieved independence in 2011.

Eritrea’s separation from Ethiopia is perceived not as a breach of colonial borders, but rather as its preservation, given that Eritrea was formerly an Italian colony, despite it having very close linkages to the Ethiopian state going back centuries. Similarly, the unofficial separation of Northern Somalia is viewed as the restoration of colonial borders, as the North had been under separate British governance. Even in Sudan, which is often suggested as a potential candidate for division, if the country were to be split, the division could be justified as an extension of the British colonial policy that governed Sudan as two distinct entities—one Arab-Islamic and the other indigenous African with elements of Christian Western influences.

In many of the newly independent African states, the commitment to maintain national unity after gaining independence led to the establishment of of authoritarianism, excessive concentration of power, and aborted democracies. These actions, in turn, provoked a response characterized by increased tension and a call for a second phase of liberation movements. Some of these liberation movements were successful in co-opting power, but their actions thereafter did not evolve politics or make governance democratic. Most remained client states for external powers and embezzled developmental funds, which were offshored in financial capitals around the globe.

For instance, Ethiopia, following the separation of Eritrea in 1993 tried to actively address the issue of tribalism and ethnicity by acknowledging territorial-based ethnic groups. These groups were purported to have a significant degree of autonomy and even the constitutional right to self-determination, including the possibility of secession. The country’s constitution firmly declared the principle of self-determination, regardless of its outcome.

Considering Ethiopia’s recent tumult however, we can say the experiment has been a failure. Warnings that the seemingly lofty goal of Ethiopia’s constitution was largely a gimmick used to divide and rule a large and restive nation under the tutelage of a small minority-led government were indeed prescient. Under this system, the very concept of self-determination deteriorated into ethnic patronage and hyper identity politics, making governance and security evermore difficult.

Effectively managing the diversity of ethnic groups within the confines of colonial borders presents a formidable challenge that African countries are hesitant to confront, yet it is an issue they cannot continue ignore, partly because of population growth and largely due to climate change, which will increase tensions and competition for resources.

The key to sustainable unity lies in mutual understanding and agreement. Unfortunately, in modern Africa, the framework for national unity is not based on consensus. Except for post-apartheid South Africa, African nations gained independence without negotiating an internal social contract that would establish and maintain national consensus. The constitutions adopted during independence were influenced by idealistic principles from outside the continent. The resulting regimes lacked legitimacy and were often overthrown without public remorse or regret. These upheavals merely led to a rotation of like-minded elites or, in some cases, military dictators who aimed to seize power after the departure of colonial rulers. Eventually, these leaders became replicas of their former colonizers.

Currently, the quest for unity in most African countries highlights the extent of disunity. If Africans avoid addressing the issue of ethnicity and fail to develop institutional norms for managing diversity within the framework of unity, peace and stability will continue to elude. For this, many African states need a deep dive into national dialogue and reconciliation that go beyond superficial politics, to give birth to a common shared framework. Only then can African states move forward and thrive in peace. This is especially true for large states like Nigeria and Ethiopia.

A man from the desert tribes of the Sahel in Western Africa

Managing ethnic politics.

As briefly mentioned, African governments have approached the challenge of ethnic diversity in different ways, ranging from pragmatic management to neglect and disastrous mismanagement. The specific ethnic policies adopted by a country often depend on its unique identity configuration.

Some African states exhibit a high degree of homogeneity or, at least, relatively insignificant diversity. Botswana, for instance, stands as an exemplary model of cohesiveness, democracy, stability, and sustained growth.

Most African countries, especially those in West Africa (excluding Nigeria), Kenya, and southern African countries (excluding South Africa), fall into a second category. These countries face significant ethnic diversity, but they have established effective systems of distribution that uphold the integrity and legitimacy of the state. The self-perception of these nations aligns with the self-perceptions of their constituent groups.

There is a third group of countries, including Zimbabwe, Namibia, and modern-day South Africa, which grapple with racial, ethnic, religious, or cultural divisions that necessitate special arrangements to achieve a mutually accommodating form of unity in diversity. Burundi, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Sudan are potential candidates for this category, although they also exhibit aspects of the fourth and final category.

The fourth category comprises states embroiled in acute crises characterized by a lack of collective identification, shared values, and a common national vision. The nation-state framework is perceived as an imposition by colonial powers, perpetuated by the dominant group that defines the nation’s character. This definition can be explicit, such as in apartheid South Africa, where race and ethnicity influenced the allocation or denial of citizenship rights, or in Sudan, where Arab and Islamic identity inherently leads to racial, ethnic, and religious stratification and discrimination. Managing conflicts within the unity framework becomes exceptionally challenging in these cases, often necessitating fundamental restructuring and, in some instances, partitioning.

Policy implications for nation building

Currently, most African countries are approaching the challenges of racial and ethnic identities through a pragmatic system of distribution and allocation, focusing on pacification rather than adopting a strategic approach. What makes the issue of identity particularly crucial for the continent is that it not only affects politics but also has implications for economics and the capacity to generate sustainable development from within.

There are policy options available for managing pluralistic identities. One option is to establish a national framework that allows everyone to identify without any distinction based on race, ethnicity, tribe, or religion. This option is most suitable for highly homogeneous countries. Another option is to create a pluralistic framework that accommodates racially, ethnically, culturally, or religiously diverse nations. This approach, potentially through a federal arrangement, encourages groups to coexist based on the principle of live and let live, while still maintaining a shared commitment to national identification.

The Rakshaida who inhabit the north eastern coastline of Eritrea and Sudan are an African tribe with a distinctive Arabian decent

In yet another scenario, for countries facing more significant divisions, a combination of power-sharing and decentralization may be the answer, with identities being geographically defined. In zero-sum conflict situations, federalism could evolve into confederacies, paradoxically seeking to reconcile unity with separation. In cases where even this level of accommodation is unfeasible, and where territorial configurations allow, partition may be considered as a viable option.

These options are however generalizations. They don’t take into consideration the many nuances and circumstances of each nation state in Africa. Some countries like Ethiopia and Nigeria have deep divisions and surprisingly a historical sense of unity and greatness, one that sometimes trumps the divisions. And so there are many similar cases like this. The aim of generalizing here is to simply, and not merely to pontificate.

The role of the African Union

How can these options be implemented? The decision on which option to adopt primarily rests with the sovereign right of each country and people. However, regional, and continental actors also bear a responsibility that cannot be relinquished in the name of national sovereignty. Sovereignty inherently involves a tension between the demand for internal solutions and the need for external corrective measures. In other words, the responsibilities of sovereignty necessitate both internal and external accountability, which can be conflicting, particularly when external involvement becomes necessary due to internal system failures.

Given the African Union’s ambivalence and lack of critical agency for intervention, the responsibility is increasingly falling on regional and subregional actors. The sheer size of the continent demands the coming together of regional bodies, such as the East Africa Union (EAU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). This is not to say the African Union is less relevant. The recent Cessations of Hostilities (CoH) between the Government of Ethiopia and the northern Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is a good example of African Union initiatives for peace. Despite its many shortcomings, it the the AU remains a pragmatic mechanisms for resolving continental issues in Africa.

Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has taken a lead in addressing regional political as well as economic issues in West Africa. Similar organizations have been growing in other pars of the continent.

The interconnectivity of conflicts in neighboring countries should lead to the recognition that preventing, managing, or resolving conflicts is not only a concern for the countries directly involved, but also for the entire region. For example, currently ongoing fighting between the national army of Sudan and the country’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) is an area where regional bodies like IGAD have at the very least dissuaded regional countries from involving themselves. A positive outcome. Therefore, regional awareness of shared threats posed by internal conflicts is growing. The importance of addressing common challenges is increasingly being realized. This handling of matters regionally allows for the African Union to keep more powerful non-continental states, who have historically played a deleterious role at bay. Most African states agree with this stance.

Reconciling two conflicting paths

The ultimate responsibility for upholding sovereignty lies with the international community, specifically the United Nations, which African states have sought to reform. African states also support reforming international multilateral financial and development institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF. Concerns regarding governance, including democracy and respect for human rights, are also recognized at the international level, but have increasingly become politicized tools for intervention by more powerful states like the U.S and U.K. Apart from the longstanding issue of protecting minorities, the politics and conflicts related to identity and their impact on peace, stability, development, and nation-building must be acknowledged as crucial matters that demand responsible and accountable sovereignty.

Considering that the modern African states emerged through European conquest, the restructuring of the continent, its integration into the international system, and the reimagining and reconstruction of the state will require collaboration with Africa’s global partners. However, history has repeatedly demonstrated external actors have not been able to provide an objective and impartial perspective, which is essential for balancing the concerns of internal stakeholders in Africa. On the contrary external powers have tended to dump fuel on identity politics on the continent. This argument was recently presented by Dr. Lonzen Rugira, in his paper entitled, “How West promotes destructive politics in Africa“. International partners have not been objective. Hence one reason why the mantra “African Solutions to African Problems” is gaining traction.

On this eve of the new scramble for Africa between Western and Eastern powers, Africa finds itself at a crossroads between rediscovering its indigenous values, institutions, and experiences and pursuing the logic of the colonial state within the framework of a globalized modernity largely influenced by Western experiences. Resolving the resulting tensions is no easy task. However, an inclusive process that allows diverse groups to play a constructive role in the modern and more united African state can significantly alleviate tension, foster cooperation, and facilitate the nation-building process.

Oromo men from Ethiopia preparing for the Gedaa ceremony which is an indigenous system of governance and dispute resolution

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