Ethnicity: An African Predicament

Francis M. Deng
Francis M. Deng Former Brookings Expert

June 1, 1997

History has stripped Africa’s people of the dignity of building their nations on their own indigenous values, institutions, and heritage. The modern African state is the product of Europe, not Africa. To attempt at this late date to return to ancestral identities and resources as bases for building the modern African nation would risk the collapse of many countries. At the same time, to disregard ethnic realities would be to build on loose sand, also a high-risk exercise. Is it possible to consolidate the framework of the modern African state while giving recognition and maximum utility to the component elements of ethnicities, cultures, and aspirations for self-determination?

The Challenge of Ethnicity in Africa

Ethnicity is more than skin color or physical characteristics, more than language, song, and dance. It is the embodiment of values, institutions, and patterns of behavior, a composite whole representing a people’s historical experience, aspirations, and world view. Deprive a people of their ethnicity, their culture, and you deprive them of their sense of direction or purpose.

Traditionally, African societies and even states functioned through an elaborate system based on the family, the lineage, the clan, the tribe, and ultimately a confederation of groups with ethnic, cultural, and linguistic characteristics in common. These were the units of social, economic, and political organizations and inter-communal relations.

In the process of colonial state-formation, groups were divided or brought together with little or no regard to their common characteristics or distinctive attributes. They were placed in new administrative frameworks, governed by new values, new institutions, and new operational principles and techniques. The autonomous local outlook of the old order was replaced by the control mechanisms of the state, in which the ultimate authority was an outsider, a foreigner. This mechanism functioned through the centralization of power, which ultimately rested on police and military force, the tools of authoritarian rule. This crude force was, however, softened by making use of traditional leaders as extended arms of state control over the tribes or the local communities, giving this externally imposed system a semblance of legitimacy for the masses. Adding to this appearance of legitimacy was the introduction of a welfare system by which the state provided meager social services and limited development opportunities to privileged sectors. National resources were otherwise extracted and exported as raw materials to feed the metropolitan industries of the colonial masters.

This new system undermined the people’s indigenous system, which provided them with the means for pursuing their modest but sustainable life objectives, and replaced it with centrally controlled resources that were in short supply and subject to severely competitive demands. Development was conceived as a means of receiving basic services from the state, rather than as a process of growth and collective accumulation of wealth that could in turn be invested in further growth. The localized, broad-based, low-risk, self-sustaining subsistence activities gave way to high-risk, stratifying competition for state power and scarce resources, a zero-sum conflict of identities based on tribalism or ethnicity. Independence removed the common enemy, the colonial oppressor, but actually sharpened the conflict over centralized power and control over national resources.

Today, virtually every African conflict has some ethno-regional dimension to it. Even those conflicts that may appear to be free of ethnic concerns involve factions and alliances built around ethnic loyalties. Analysts have tended to have one of two views of the role of ethnicity in these conflicts. Some see ethnicity as a source of conflict; others see it as a tool used by political entrepreneurs to promote their ambitions. In reality, it is both. Ethnicity, especially when combined with territorial identity, is a reality that exists independently of political maneuvers. To argue that ethnic groups are unwitting tools of political manipulation is to underestimate a fundamental social reality. On the other hand, ethnicity is clearly a resource for political manipulation and entrepreneurship.

Africa’s Response to the Challenge

After independence Africans were eager to disavow tribalism as divisive. Unity was postulated in a way that assumed a mythical homogeneity amidst diversity. Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana outlawed parties organized on tribal or ethnic bases. Houphouet-Boigny of Côte d’Ivoire coopted ethnic groups through shrewd distribution of ministerial posts, civil service jobs, social services, and development projects. Julius Nyerere, a scion of tribal chieftaincy, stamped out tribalism by fostering nationalistic pride in Tanganyika and later, Tanzania, born out of the union with Zanzibar. Jommo Kenyatta of Kenya forged a delicate alliance of ethnic groups behind the dominance of his Kenyan African National Union party. In South Africa, apartheid recognized and stratified races and ethnicities to an unsustainable degree. Post-apartheid South Africa, however, remains poised between a racially, ethnically, and tribally blind democratic system and a proud ethnic self-assertiveness, represented and exploited by Zulu nationalists, spearheaded by the emotive leadership of Chief Buthelezi.

Throughout Africa, the goal of safeguarding unity within the colonial state has preserved the stability of colonial borders while generating ethnic tensions and violence within those borders. Sudan offers an extreme example. The dominant North, a hybrid of Arab and African racial, cultural, and religious elements, is trying to resolve its identity crisis by being more Arab and Islamic than its prototypes. Worse, this distorted self-perception, heightened by the agendas of political elites, is projected as the framework for unifying and integrating the country, generating a devastating zero-sum conflict between the Arab-Muslim North and the indigenously African South, whose modern leadership is predominantly Christian.

The decision of the Founding Fathers of the Organization of African Unity to respect the colonial borders established a normative principle that has been followed with remarkable success. Secession movements have met with strong resistance from the OAU. Katanga tried to break away from the Congo (which became Zaire, now back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo) but failed. The secessionist Biafran war in Nigeria also failed. Somalia’s attempt to take the Ogaden from Ethiopia was decisively thwarted. Southern Sudan struggled for 17 years to break away from the North and in the end settled for autonomy in 1972. When the fighting resumed in 1983, the stated goal was and remains the creation of a new Sudan that would be free from any discrimination based on race, ethnicity, culture, or religion.

Eritrea’s breakaway from Ethiopia is seen not as a case of violating colonial borders, but of upholding them, since Eritrea had been a colony under Italian rule. Likewise, the de facto breakaway of Northern Somalia is seen as a restoration of colonial borders, since the North had been governed separately by the British. Even in the Sudan, often said to be a good candidate for partition, should the country be divided, the division might be rationalized as an extension of the British colonial policy that governed the Sudan as two separate entities, one Arab-Islamic and the other indigenous African with rudiments of Christian Western influences.

In most African countries, the determination to preserve national unity following independence provided the motivation behind one-party rule, excessive centralization of power, oppressive authoritarian regimes, and systematic violation of human rights and fundamental liberties. These in turn have generated a reaction, manifested in heightened tension and the demand for a second liberation. Managing ethnic diversity within the unity of the colonial borders is a challenge that African states are reluctant to face, but cannot wish away.

Ethiopia, after Eritrea’s breakaway, can claim credit for being the only African country trying to confront head-on the challenge of tribalism or ethnicity by recognizing territorially based ethnic groups, granting them not only a large measure of autonomy, but also the constitutional right of self-determination, even to the extent of secession. Ethiopia’s leaders assert emphatically that they are committed to the right of self-determination, wherever it leads. Less idealistically, it can be argued that giving the people the right to determine their destiny leads them to believe that their interests will be provided for, if only to give them a reason to opt for unity.

The only sustainable unity is that based on mutual understanding and agreement. Unfortunately, the normative framework for national unity in modern Africa is not the result of consensus. Except for post-apartheid South Africa, Africans won their independence without negotiating an internal social contract that would win and sustain national consensus. The constitutions for independence were laden with idealistic principles developed outside the continent. The regimes built on them lacked legitimacy and in most cases were soon overthrown with no remorse or regrets from the public. But these upheavals involved only a rotation of like-minded elites, or worse, military dictators, intent on occupying the seat of power vacated by the colonial masters. Such leaders soon became their colonial masters’ images.

At the moment, for the overwhelming majority of African countries the quest for unity underscores the intensity of disunity. As long as the Africans avoid confronting the issue of ethnicity and fail to develop norms and means for managing diversity within the framework of unity, peace and stability will continue to elude the pluralistic state.

Models of Ethnic Configuration

African governments have responded to the challenge in varying ways, ranging from pragmatic management to blind neglect and catastrophic mismanagement. The particular form the ethnic policies of a country take may in large measure be dictated by the characteristics of its identity configuration.

A few states in Africa enjoy a high degree of homogeneity or, at least, a relatively inconsequential diversity. Botswana, for example, reflects exemplary cohesiveness, democracy, stability, and sustained growth.

Most African countries, particularly those in West Africa (possibly excepting Nigeria), Kenya, and southern African countries (exclusive of South Africa), fall into a second category. These countries face significant ethnic pluralism that is nevertheless containable through an effective system of distribution that upholds the integrity and legitimacy of the state. The way the nations in this group perceive themselves is consonant with the self-perceptions of their component groups.

A third group of countries, including Zimbabwe, Namibia, and modern-day South Africa, suffers racial, ethnic, religious, or cultural divisions severe enough to require special arrangements to be mutually accommodating in an ambivalent form of unity in diversity. Burundi and Rwanda, as well as Sudan, are candidates for this category, though all also have aspects of the fourth, and final, category.

The fourth category, the zero-sum conflict situation, consists of states embroiled in acute crisis with no collective sense of identification, no shared values, and no common vision for the nation. The framework of the nation-state is perceived as an imposition by the colonial invaders, now perpetuated by the dominant group whose identity defines the national character. Such definition might be explicit, as in apartheid South Africa, where race and ethnicity were factors in allocating or denying the rights of citizenship, or in the Sudan, where the identification of the country as Arab and Islamic carries inherent stratification and discrimination on racial, ethnic, and religious grounds. These conflicts are the most difficult to manage within the unity framework; depending on the particular circumstance of the case, they may call for fundamental restructuring and perhaps partition.

Policy Implications for Nationbuilding

At present, most African countries are addressing the racial and ethnic identity issues through a pacifying system of distribution and allocation—a form of ad hoc pragmatic management rather than a strategic approach. What makes the issue of identity particularly acute for the continent is that it touches not only on politics, but also on economics and the organizational capacity for a self-generating and sustainable development from within.

There are four policy options for managing pluralistic identities. One is to create a national framework with which all can identify without any distinction based on race, ethnicity, tribe, or religion. This option, of course, best suits those countries that are highly homogeneous. The second option is to create a pluralistic framework to accommodate nations that are racially, ethnically, culturally, or religiously diverse. Under this option, probably a federal arrangement, groups would accommodate each other on the basis of the principle of live and let live, but with a more uniting commitment to the common purpose of national identification. In the third case, for more seriously divided countries, some form of power sharing combined with decentralization, with identities being geographically defined, may be the answer. In the zero-sum conflict situations, federalism would expand into confederalism, paradoxically trying to reconcile unity with separation. Where even this degree of accommodation is not workable, and where territorial configurations permit, partition ought to be accepted.

The Role of the International Community

How are these options to be brought about? Deciding which option to adopt is, of course, in the first place part of the sovereign right of the people of the country. But regional and international actors also have a responsibility that cannot be abdicated in the name of national sovereignty. By its very nature, sovereignty implies a tension between the demand for internal solutions and the need for corrective remedies from the outside. In other words, the responsibilities of sovereignty require both internal and external accountability, which are inherently at odds, especially since the need for external involvement is commensurate with the failure of internal systems. Given the ambivalence of the international system about intervention, this responsibility should belong first to the subregional and regional actors, with the international community, through the United Nations, as the ultimate resort.

The interconnectedness of the conflicts of neighboring countries means that preventing, managing, or resolving conflicts is becoming recognized as a matter of interest and concern not only to the countries directly involved, but also to the region as a whole. Regional awakening to the common threat of internal conflict is still nascent, but the importance of the shared threat is being increasingly realized, especially in view of the tendency toward isolationism in Europe and the United States, the only powers still capable of effectively intervening for humanitarian reasons or for the cause of peace, security, and stability in other parts of the world.

Reconciling Two Conflicting Paths

Final accountability for the responsibilities of sovereignty must ultimately fall on the international community, more specifically the United Nations. The intervention of international financial institutions in the affairs of sovereign countries to ensure more efficient management of their economies has now become a truism. International concern with issues of governance, such as democracy and respect for fundamental human rights, has also become widely accepted, despite the lingering resistance of vulnerable regimes. Beyond the issue of protection of minorities, long recognized as a legitimate concern for the international community, the politics and conflicts of identity and their impact on the prospects for peace, stability, development, and nation building must also be recognized as critical items on the agenda of a responsible and accountable sovereignty.

Insofar as the modern African state is the creation of European conquest, restructuring the continent, linking it to the international system, and reconceptualizing and reconstituting the state will require the cooperation of Africa’s global partners. Outside actors can offer an objective and impartial perspective that can be pivotal to balancing the concerns of the internal actors. In addition, the international legitimacy of any new arrangements, which is necessary for building support from outside sources, can best be ensured by enlisting international partners in the search for effective solutions to these internal crises.

Post-colonial Africa stands poised between rediscovering its roots—its indigenous values, institutions, and experiences—and pursuing the logic of the colonial state in the context of universalizing modernity, primarily based on Western experience. The resulting tensions cannot be easily resolved. But an eclectic process that fashions a system in which ethnic groups can play a constructive role in the modern African state could significantly reduce the tension, foster cooperation, and facilitate the process of nation building.