Ethnocentrism in Africa

By Okafor, Theresa | UN Chronicle, June-August 2001 | Go to article overview

Ethnocentrism in Africa


Okafor, Theresa, UN Chronicle


A starting point in the global drive towards defeating racism is ethnocentrism. Aggressive ethnocentrism results in serious and large-scale violation of rights based on origin, gender, language and religion. Africa has played scene to many of these ethnic uprisings and genocide. Memories left behind by the horror of these ethnic conflicts m Burundi, Rwanda and elsewhere are still fresh. And when the struggle is not centred on ethnicity, it narrows down to tribalism and at times even conflicts among clans as happened in Somalia.

The 350 different ethnic or linguistic groups that populate Nigeria, for instance, are each seeking self-determination and cultural identity. Within these groups, communal crises have arisen. The Ife/Modakeke war in Osun State was barely over when people of Anambra State were thrown into panic following the deaths of hundreds of people resulting from the violent clashes between Aguleri and Umuleri--two neighbouring communities. At about the same time, more violence erupted up north in Kafanchan between the indigenous people and the Hausa/Fulani, leaving a large number of people dead. The Ijaws, Urhobos and Itsekiri in Delta State provide yet another example of such communal conflicts. A sentiment that has been expressed by many Africans is that the disease of tribalism is a scourge that we must get rid of. As Marx Kahende of the Permanent Mission of Kenya to the United Nations remarked, "we do not need tribes in power, but we need people in power"; he added, "if we do not get rid of tribalism, tribalism will get rid of us".

Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that the "conflict in Africa is a major challenge to UN efforts designed to ensure global peace, prosperity and human rights for all. Although the United Nations was intended to deal with interstate warfare, it is being required more and more often to respond to intra-state instability and conflict. ... Preventing such wars is no longer a matter of defending States or protecting allies. It is a matter of defending humanity itself."

Mary Robinson, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and Secretary-General of the World Conference against Racism, stated in December 1999 that "although ethnic conflicts may be considered autonomous and disparate, these conflicts pose a threat to international security and generate many forms of human rights violations which must be addressed".

Many Africans cannot enjoy the rights and freedom guaranteed by the African Charter of Human and Peoples' Rights. Most African countries, which have signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ratified the main human rights instruments and incorporated their principles into their constitutions, have not fully implemented them in practice. It is quite clear that progress cannot be made until the cause of disunity is re-examined and the vision of an identity that embraces and encompasses all groups is renegotiated.

The cause of conflicts is often attributed to "historical experience". The scramble and partition of African States are said not to bean outcome of free negotiation among nationalities and principalities at that time. However, the prolonged and varied nature of these conflicts goes to show that the problem stretches beyond colonialism, which may be a major factor in apartheid but not of ethnocentrism.

At the heart of these ethnic conflicts lie issues that have given rise to discontentment, some of which were examined during the Regional Seminar of Experts on Prevention of Ethnic and Racial Conflicts in Africa, in Addis Ababa in October 2000. They include cultural identity, inclusiveness factors, arbitrary delimitation of boundaries, economic disparity, competition for material resources, over-centralization, exclusive appropriation of resources of a country by a dominant ethnic or racial group, weakness of political, juridical institutions to protect rights and fundamental freedom, insufficient democratic institution and bad governance. …

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