Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Ethnic Loyalties Are on the Rise Globally ETHNICITY AND AFRICAN POLITICS

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Ethnic Loyalties Are on the Rise Globally ETHNICITY AND AFRICAN POLITICS

Article excerpt

THERE are no fewer than 1,000 distinct "ethnic groups" among the more than 50 countries on the African continent. There is no way to give an exact accounting because these categories are dynamic ones, as people define themselves and their ethnic boundaries in response to changing circumstances.

These groups rest on language, religion, precolonial social and political divisions ("tribes," chiefdoms, kingdoms), region, and, sometimes, modes of subsistence (farmers versus herders, for example). More than 500 languages are said to exist in Nigeria alone, and Ethiopia has more than 75. Each one can be the basis for an ethnic identity and a self-conscious group. Many of today's African states - such as Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, Ethiopia, and South Africa - contain the still-remembered loyalties, and perhaps the structures, of older kingdoms.

It is popular to blame the European colonial powers that ruled most of Africa from the 1890s to the early 1960s for creating these divisions, but while they certainly exacerbated many situations, the bases for most of the groups were there before they came. Ironically, rather than dividing groups (though they certainly did split some between two or more countries), the major impact of the colonial enterprise was to bring peoples together for the first time in sustained interaction within single political entities. This often had the effect of forcing people who might previously have had no direct contact with each other into economic, political, and social competition.

The colonial powers created the boundaries of today's African states and enclosed within them populations that are supposed to live together regardless of differences, enmities, and conflicting interests. The colonial officials drew the boundaries of the political units they created in order to maximize their own power and glory. And the peoples within those borders must now get on as best they can. The more people become educated and involved in the "modern sector" - studying, teaching, participating in the military and government service, in commerce and political activity - the more reasons there seem to be for ethnic conflict.

From the time Africans began regaining their independence at the end of the 1950s, the threat of "tribalism" (as ethnicity is too often called in the African context) has been haunting the leaders of all these new nations. Even though their borders were drawn by the colonial rulers, no matter how many actual or potentially feuding groups each state contained, no African leader would countenance the loss of any land, no matter how "troublesome" the groups that lived on that land might be. From the beginning, African leaders, through the Organization of African Unity, declared their opposition to changes in their borders.

Often they tried to deny that any problem existed, that there were ethnic inequalities or antagonisms. They usually insisted on unitary states and, very often, single-party rule. "Tribalism" was not only a threat to the integrity of virtually every African state, it also seemed to represent a backward and embarrassingly "primitive" force. In the 1950s and 1960s, politicians, social theorists, and ideologues all over the world widely believed that "parochial" loyalties to ethnic and religious groups, to anything other than "nations" (i.e. "states") or "classes," was "primitive," and "atavistic."

For liberals these narrow, primordial loyalties were not only destructive of progress and national unity but ethnic chauvinism was also seen as belonging to an earlier "pre-modern" era that would be transcended naturally as a result of "modernization." But the theories have been proven, so far, to be grossly oversimplified if not plain wrong. …

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