Misinterpreting ethnic conflicts in Africa

Ethnic conflicts in Africa are often portrayed as having ages-old origins with little prospects for resolution.

This piece challenges that notion arguing that a re-diagnosis of the underlying drivers to ethnic violence can lead to more effective and sustainable responses. There is a general perception that Africa is trapped in a never-ending cycle of ethnic conflict.

The Rwandan genocide, Darfur, northern Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, 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 democratisation. In fact, ethnicity is typically not the driving force of African conflicts but a lever used by politicians to mobilise 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 in Africa co-exist peacefully with high degrees of mixing through inter-ethnic 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 2007 elections because of a political power struggle that found it useful to fan passions to mobilise support. It was not an autonomous driver of this post-electoral violence, however. While Daniel Arap Moi’s 25 years in power 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 of these 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 in 2002 to break the one-party stranglehold on power.

Inter-group cooperation, in fact, is the norm rather than the exception. Inter-marriage 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.

Clement Aapegno states that, “Misdiagnosis of African conflicts as ethnic identity ignores the political nature of the issues of contention.” If you take a country such as 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 shifted 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, Clement Aapegno states that the military government of General Acheampong decided in 1979 to vest all lands in the northern region in four 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 mobilisation of ethnic groups such as the Konkomba and Vagla in the name of developing their area.

The first inter-communal 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.

Such a classification, in Ghana as in many other African conflicts, is an over-simplification. Indeed, many conflict scholars find the ethnic distinction baseless. Often it is the politicisation of ethnicity and not ethnicity per se that stokes the attitudes of perceived injustice, lack of recognition, and exclusion that are the source of conflict. The misdiagnosis of African conflicts as ethnic identity ignores the political nature of the issues of contention.

People do not kill each other because of ethnic differences; they kill each other when these differences are promoted as the barrier to advancement and opportunity. The susceptibility of some African societies to this manipulation by opportunistic politicians, it should be noted, underscores the fragility of the nation building enterprise on the continent.

In many cases, the political choices made by states lay the foundation for ethnic mobilisation. In other words, “ethnic conflicts” often emerge in multi-ethnic, underdeveloped societies when the behaviour of the state is perceived as dominated by a particular group or community within it, when communities feel threatened with marginalisation, or when no recourse for redressing grievances exists. Ethnic thinking and mobilisation generally emerge from the resulting inequitable access to power and resources and not from an intrinsic hatred.

Recognising that ethnicity is a tool and not the driver of inter-group conflict, should refocus our attention to the political triggers of conflict. That there is a mobilisation stage in the lead-up to conflict, moreover, highlights the value of early interventions before ethnic passions are inflamed.

As a way of solving this security challenge, African leaders must understand that state institutions and structures that reflect ethnic diversity and respect for minority rights, power-sharing, and checks and balances reduce the perception of injustice and insecurity that facilitates ethnic mobilisation.

The justice system is key. In societies where justice cannot be obtained through public institutions, groups are more likely to resort to violence for resolving their grievances. A just society is more than the legal system, however.

A genuine separation of powers and the rule of law are needed to prevent abuses of State power. Such measures prevent State functionaries from using their powers to benefit their ethnic groups to the detriment of other groups. In much of Africa, the executive rather than the legislative branch determines most land policies. Invariably, the ethnic group of the president benefits from these policies.

In addition, an even-handed legal system also creates space for civil society organisations to coalesce around issues of common concern, such as development, accountability, and human rights transcending ethnic affiliations. This, in turn, facilitates exchanges between groups. Business associations, trade and professional associations, sports clubs, and artist groups, among others, are all civil society organisations that can cut across ethnic lines and engage government in productive ways.

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