Ethnicity and the Cycles of Conflict in Africa

Crisford Chogugudza

London, UK - Jul 2007

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Ethnicity is a very broad term which can be defined in different ways depending on the context. However, in this context ethnicity is defined as a shared cultural identity involving similar practices, initiations, beliefs and linguistic features passed over from one generation to another.

In Africa today and indeed elsewhere in the developing world, issues of ethnicity and identity continue to be of great importance in politics and other aspects of life. Ethnicity can also be explained in terms of race, people and tribe; these are fundamentals that are at the nucleus of African social, cultural and political organisation.

Since Ghana in 1957 became the first country south of the Sahara to gain independence from colonial rule, issues of ethnicity which were once suppressed by colonial administrations suddenly became prominent thus raising prospects for a myriad of conflicts in the ensuing independent states.  Ironically prior to independence, some colonial administrators manipulated ethnic rivalries amongst indigenous populations by employing a strategy of ‘divide and rule’.

Many politicians across Africa have conveniently used ethnicity to promote themselves and inflict maximum political damage on their opponents.  The advent of multiparty politics was characterised by the emergence of ethnic or tribal based political parties.  The main objective being to protect kith and kin at the expense of a genuinely inclusive democracy and political pluralism.  Today ethnicity and conflict have replaced diversity and development.

In Zimbabwe at Independence in 1980 there was bitter conflict involving the major players in the liberation struggle, Zanu PF and PF Zapu; this resulted in the stalling of much needed political, social and economic development.  Almost a decade of development was lost as a result of civil war and tens of thousands of people are reported to have died.  Since then political formations in Zimbabwe have always had an ethnic dimension.

The current fractious opposition is now threatened with further division as accusations and counter accusations of tribalism have been levelled at each other.  More recently, issues of ethnicity took another turn when the Zimbabwean government compulsorily acquired farms from members of the white community who constitute less than one percent of the population.  There was chaos and heightened ethnic tension between members of the black and white communities, and this has resulted in the increasing isolation of the Mugabe regime.

In Uganda in the 1970s the expulsion of the wealthy Asian merchant class was another example of a situation where ethnicity was used as a political tool.  In Zambia in the 1990s, the then President Fredrick Chiluba tried to bar political opponent and former president Dr Kenneth Kaunda from standing for office on the grounds that his parents were from Malawi and therefore he was adjudged not to fully be a Zambian citizen.  This again was a clear case of ethnicity being used as a political tool. The same situation occurred in Côte d’Ivoire where presidential aspirant and former Prime Minister Alassane Quattara was barred from contesting elections on the grounds that his parents came from Burkina Faso.

In many other African countries the story remains the same.  In Rwanda over the years the dominant minority (Tutsi) held sway over the majority (Hutu).  This among other factors resulted in the appalling Rwandan genocide of 1994.  Again, in many other African countries some people from minority groups have been marginalised to the extent that their political status is predetermined even before any electoral contest.

The issue of protection of minority rights cannot be guaranteed in African politics today as long as ethnicity is allowed to show its face.  In Sudan the Darfur crisis is another example of the extremes that can arise due to differences in ethnicity.  The peoples and tribes in the south have over the years suffered at the hands of the powerful northerners.  In Nigeria issues of ethnicity coupled with religious tensions and the North/South divide has been a major factor in presidential and state politics.

It is sad to state that political conflicts in Africa are synonymous with ethnicity which is often abused or manipulated by failed politicians lacking practical agendas for their people and countries’ development.  These politicians have in some instances bribed and coerced traditional leaders, thereby tarnishing or destroying the credibility of these once respected traditional institutions.

It is a fact that ethnicity or issues related to it are essentially the major cause of political instability, chaos and blood shed in Africa.  It is unfortunate that in some countries these ethnic tensions are fuelled by foreigners/ other nation states.  Take for instance the situation in Somalia where the makeshift government there has received substantial logistical support to prevail against its opponents, the so called Islamic militants.

Contemporary African politicians are faced with the monstrous task of trying to balance ethnic consciousness and national patriotism as well as ensuring that development surges ahead within the same context.  However, some believe that ethnicity can only be effectively addressed or possibly tamed by having a leadership that embodies good governance, education and awareness, inclusive policies, social justice and economic development policies that guarantee equal opportunities for all.