Ethnic Essay

2475 words - 10 pages

Evaluating the role of ethnic identity in explaining the occurrence of contemporary civil conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa.

High hopes for many newly independent states of Africa became diminished as the 1990s saw over a quarter of the continent's states facing armed insurgencies within their borders (Young, 2002: 534). Commentators often point to pathological, deep-seated hatreds in an African tribal mosaic as the bases of such conflict. The fact is, however, that the continent is awash with political grudges, ethnically-framed and otherwise, but civil wars rarely break out. Thus this essay seeks to take a more nuanced approach to understand the analytical challenge posed by such ...view middle of the document...

In other words, it is subjective concept that can be constructed and transformed by actors as they see fit in a particular context. Jean-Francois Bayart underlines the fact that there is no persistent inner core to ethnic identities; “there are only strategies based on identity, rationally conducted by identifiable actors” (2005: x). Aside from the ethnocentric baggage associated with primordial discourses along the lines of Robert D. Kaplan's Coming Anarchy (2001), such arguments underestimate the prosaic economic and political roots that are fundamentally prerequisite to any outbreak of civil conflict (Keen, 1998:10-11). Even if we are to grant ethnic identity salience as a political strategy, it is still secondary to other factors. This is well illustrated in several case studies.

Taking for example the Hausa community of West Africa, numbering approximately 30 million, they are among the largest ethnic groupings on the continent. But despite alleged shared ancestries, strength in numbers, and their situation in very plural societies, Hausa villagers in both Niger and Nigeria are found to express greater affinity for fellow Muslims and for other non-Hausa compatriots than for their supposed ethnic kin across the border (Miles and Rochefort, 1991: 402). This underscores the shallow roots of ethnicity as one of many possible affinities to which individuals may allege themselves. As regards civil conflict, the case of Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda supports this view. In that instance, historic ethnic categories were systemised and codified during the Belgian colonial regime; rulership became the monopoly of Tutsis, and only then were these entrenched yet peaceable cleavages transformed into distinct, antagonistic political identities as dictated by the changing nature of the Rwandan state (Mamdani, 1996: 73; Meredith, 2006: 157-161). As with the cases of the Hausa community, the Rwandan conflict strongly illustrates the malleable, fickle nature of group identities. Even if we acknowledge that cleavages often exist along the lines of perceived ethnicity, it must be recognised that such fissures are still neither necessary nor sufficient for the occurrence of civil conflict.

Put simply, group cleavages have existed across the continent throughout history. Civil wars have not. There are over fifty states in Africa, multiple religions and scores of ethnic-linguistic divisions. Many groups harbour ill-feelings toward others and compete for scarce resources. Yet the fact of the matter is that these differences are rarely settled through violence. Since 1945, just 14 episodes of conflict have seen fatalities in excess of 100,000 (Jackson, 2002: 31, Cocodia, 2008: 12). Many studies contend that explanations based on ethnicity come to the fore when group size, power constellations and horizontal inequalities are taken into consideration (Stewart, 2000: 260; Collier and Hoeffler, 2003: 588; Humphreys, 2003: 4; Cederman et al, 2011: 114). But...

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