Academic journal article Journal of Third World Studies

Sub-Saharan Ethnic Attachment and Civil Conflict: A Methodological Approach to State-Building and Ethnicity

Academic journal article Journal of Third World Studies

Sub-Saharan Ethnic Attachment and Civil Conflict: A Methodological Approach to State-Building and Ethnicity

Article excerpt


"People go to Africa and confirm what they already have in their heads and so they fail to see what is there in front of them," Chinua Achebe, Nigerian author. (1)

Owing to the prevalence of persistent and vexing violence, communal conflict and occasional genocides in several countries in sub-Saharan Africa, which has about 1500 distinct ethno-linguistic groups, historians, political scientists, and public policy-makers, trying to understand the synergy of ethnic forces and state-building have complicated many social-political issues related to ethnicity. I argue that the ethnicity issue has mostly been described in terms of narrow ethnic immorality versus supposedly liberating forces such as democratization, statism, and controversial cultural globalization, ignoring that Africans usually define their interests as citizens in terms of where they live. The socio-economic basis, including the class system, has little effect on their identification. My argument is that ethnicity, which is mostly language-based in Africa, should be viewed as a civic identity, not a primordial ancient vice. Bantu Africans' efforts to reinvent both the older affective ethnic identities and embrace new trendy national identities that, even if fragile, have often proved to be remarkably resilient. The demise of the state has greatly been exaggerated.

Both the indigenous intellectuals and Western educated politicians have advanced various strategies in state-building in Africa, but the frame of reference for much policy debate should be what tools are there to better attack ethnic conflict and state-failure? In this context, two issues come to our mind. First, why and how do most sub-Saharan Africans chose ethnic identification so intensely? Second, is this identification gravely harmful to state-stability, as alleged in the mainstream literature? It is argued in this study that an ethnic identification might matter when African structural constraints, including corruption, poverty, and adverse climate, hugely affect the building blocs of state-building. Any positive enterprise must begin by considering how citizens' full range of resources, including community spirit or ethnic attachments, can be used for people's general well-being. Ethnic resources, such as ideas, practices, experiences, and organizations, may be discussed to relate them to the issue of state-building. Initially, it is enough to recognize that ethnic groups are never static in Africa, including Rwanda, Burundi, and Liberia, where continuing forced migrations and politically generated instability worked to blur ethnic lines. In cities there is an emergence of new ethnic groups due to intermarriages, often dictated by the shortage of "people of my ethnic group." In short, state-building through Weberian bureaucratic rational "fixes" may be helpful to a certain extent but state-building demands a social reordering to bring about just interrelationships between citizens, not "subjects," and the faceless formal rational state. As implied by Chinua Achebe, historians will do better if they take into consideration some affective ties in national identification process.


My methodological impulse here draws upon the assumption that ethnic conflict has no moral sanction in Africa's consensus-based societies; nor has ethnicity become a political ideology as has been the case in Kosovo. Although the pro-Yoruba "Action Group" in Nigeria was successful in obtaining majority support among Yorubas in the Western Region in 1960, it failed, despite ethnic appeal, to win the support of Yorubas in Ibadan, Ilesha, and Oyo, and its vote share was cut in half four years later to the satisfaction of statists. Yet unfortunately, Nigeria has been a textbook example of ethically divided politics. Divisions between the Yorubas, the Hausa-Fulanis and the Igbos have been highlighted during that period. The umbrella concept of ethnic identification should rigorously be scrutinized to understand the mood of people in state-building in Africa. …

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