Mmegi Blogs :: Toxic politics of ethnicity in Africa
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Friday 23 March 2018, 22:53 pm.
Toxic politics of ethnicity in Africa

For the past few weeks I have been involved in a public education project with Gabz FM providing some insights on the political situations in a few African countries that are scheduled to go for elections in 2018.
By Solly Rakgomo Fri 09 Mar 2018, 13:43 pm (GMT +2)
Mmegi Blogs :: Toxic politics of ethnicity in Africa

These included diverse countries such as Sierra Leone, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Egypt. In my research on the situations in those diverse countries in order to make an informed analysis, I realized that issues of ethnic rivalries and mistrust are more than often manipulated by many African politicians seeking to consolidate or gain state power.

Outside those countries going for elections, some interesting political development took place in Ethiopia where Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned after a spate of ethnic violence and protests that rocked the country.

Ethiopia, being a diplomatic capital of Africa by virtue of housing the African Union headquarters, prompted Gabz FM Breakfast show host Gabriel Rasengwatse to invite me for a talk on historical background of Ethiopian politics.

Going through stacks of literature on Ethiopian politics and Africa in general, I came to a shocking realization that politicizing ethnicity in Africa is a serious source of conflicts that have claimed more than a million lives in the continent for the past two decades.

Putting it simply, if you can imagine any part of the world where political and ethnic division are the norm, a part of the world where tribalism thrives as intensely as corruption, that part of the world is Africa.

To tell the naked truth most African countries suffer from ethnic conflicts, some more than others (Kenya, Morocco, Algeria, Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan and Libya) Today one can safely say that virtually every conflict in Africa has some ethno regional dimension to it.

Even those that appear to be free of ethnic concerns involve factions and alliances built around ethnic loyalties. Even though I agree to some extent with some political analysts who argue that in actual fact ethnicity is not typically the main driving force of African conflicts, but I strongly feel it is a lever that is mostly used by many African politicians to mobilize supporters in pursuit of power, wealth and resources.

For example, Ethiopia adopted a federal republican constitution in 1995 which established regions based on strong ethno-linguistic lines. This was intended to eliminate an authoritarian Mengistu style marginalization of other ethnic groups except the Amhara who enjoyed many decades of linguistic and ethnic superiority over the other many ethnic groups (more than seventy five).

However corruption and brutal rule of Mengistu’s successor, the late Melez Zenawi, a Tigrayan failed to maintain stability in those ethno-linguistically demarcated regions.  The ruling Tigrayans (who constitute a mere six percent of the population but controls government and security forces) have been accused by largely marginalized but hostile Oromis and Somalis, Gurages, Hararis and others of deliberately starving them  any meaningful socio-economic development.

These sad situation


has led to powerful and influential political figures to stoke inter –ethno regional competition for any available resource through looting, extortion, kidnappings, mercenarism, warlordism that has resulted in deep seated inter regional  ethnic animosity and violence that has claimed thousands of lives. This ethnic violence has contributed immensely to the instability that finally led to the sudden resignation of Prime Minister Desaleign.

Politicizing ethnicity in a violent way has also played itself out in South Sudan. The world’s youngest country is bedeviled by serious ethnic violence mainly between the Dinka (who support President Salva Kiir) and the Neur (who supports Riek Matchar).

Some simple  political grievances with the central government have been ethnized by manipulative influential politicians both  from within the ruling and the opposition parties  to unleash a reign of ethnic based violent terror that has internally displaced close to two million people and forced close to one and half a million to flee the country.

Worth noting again is that some African countries especially from the north, may have had reasonable growth rates for the past decades as suggested by recent IMF and World Bank Reports, but across societies in those countries, economic growth has mostly not being inclusive.

This means that only partial modernization occurred because many state institutions are being inefficient in conveying the full advantages of that growth to a broader segment of people.

This sadly is the kind of situation that has always triggered a sense of social exclusion and eventually ethnic tensions or violence. This surely emphasizes the critical role that ethnicity is made to play in the violent mobilization of passions and interests in response to chronic inequities in economic opportunity, social protection and political influence.

Research has shown that tensions arising from ethnic diversity has been the principal trigger of genocide in Rwanda, violent riots in the DRC, mass killings in Burundi, army killings in Uganda and repeated hostilities in  Chad that have occurred during the last two decades of the twentieth century.

In this sad state of affairs it is important for African leaders, organizations and institutions to realize that creating  a continent that is accommodating people’s growing demands for their inclusion in society, for respect of their ethnicity, religion and languages takes more than democracy and equitable growth.

 What is also needed are multicultural policies that recognize differences, champion diversity and promote cultural freedoms, so that all people can choose to speak their language, practice their religion and participate in shaping their culture so that people can choose to be who they are. Multicultural policies that recognize differences between groups are needed to address injustices historically rooted and socially entrenched.

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