Misinterpreting Ethnic Conflicts in Africa

By Aapengnuq, Clement Mweyang | Joint Force Quarterly, July 2010 | Go to article overview

Misinterpreting Ethnic Conflicts in Africa


Aapengnuq, Clement Mweyang, Joint Force Quarterly


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There is a general perception that Africa is trapped in a never-ending cycle of ethnic conflict. The Rwandan genocide, Darfur, northern Nigeria, Cote d'lvoire, and the violent aftermath of the controversial Kenyan elections, among other cases, seemingly substantiate this perception. As grievances accumulate and are defined at the group rather than individual level, the motivation for reprisals is never ending. The centuries-old inertia behind these animosities, moreover, defies resolution. The seeming implication is that Africa's complicated ethnic diversity leaves the continent perpetually vulnerable to devastating internecine conflict. This, in turn, cripples prospects for sustained economic progress and democratization.

Ethnicity, Ethnic Mobilization, and Conflict

In fact, ethnicity is typically not the driving force of African conflicts but a lever used by politicians to mobilize supporters in pursuit of power, wealth, and resources. While the ethnic group is the predominant means of social identity formation in Africa, most ethnic groups coexist peacefully with high degrees of mixing through interethnic marriage, economic partnerships, and shared values. Indeed, if they did not, nearly every village and province in Africa would be a cauldron of conflict.

Ethnicity became an issue in Kenya's recent elections because of a political power struggle that found it useful to fan passions to mobilize support. It was not an autonomous driver of this postelectoral violence, however. While Daniel arap Moi's 25 years of governing through an ethnic minority-based patronage network did imprint group identity on Kenyan politics, there are many instances of cross-group cooperation. Most prominent were the formation of the Kenya African National Union by the Kikuyus and Luos in the 1960s to fight for independence and the creation of the National Rainbow Coalition to break the one-party stranglehold on power in 2002. Intergroup cooperation, in fact, is the norm rather than the exception. Intermarriage is common, and many of Kenya's youth, especially in urban areas, grew up identifying as Kenyans first, followed by ethnic affiliation. This is not to suggest that ethnically based tensions do not persist--rather, that the post-election bloodshed in 2007-2008 was not an inevitable outburst of sectarian hatred.

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In Rwanda, Hutus and Tutsis have intermarried to such an extent that they are often not easily distinguished physically. They speak the same language and share the same faith. Indeed, ethnic identity was closely associated with occupation (farmer or herder), and one's identification could change over time if one changed occupation. Violence in Rwanda has usually been over resources and power. Political manipulation of these resource conflicts led to the well-orchestrated 1994 genocide. Politicians, demagogues, and the media used ethnicity as a play for popular support and as a means of eliminating political opponents (both Tutsis and moderate Hutus).

In Ghana, the military government of General I.K. Acheampong decided in 1979 to vest all lands in the northern region in 4 of the 17 indigenous ethnic groups that lived in this area. At the time, the military was seeking an endorsement of one-party government. Since the proposal was subject to a national referendum, the government needed a "yes" vote from the north to counter a "no" vote from the south. The land arrangement was the deal some northern politicians cut with the government for their support. The issue became a defining moment in the mobilization of ethnic groups such as the Konkomba and Vagla in the name of developing their area. The first intercommunal violence began shortly thereafter--and continued for the next 15 years, culminating in the Guinea Fowl War of 1994-1995 in which some 2,000 people were killed. During that time, more than 26 intercommunal conflicts over land (resources) and chieftaincy (power) occurred in northern Ghana, all characterized as ethnic conflicts. …

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