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Ethnicity Main Cause of Instability, Civil Conflict and Poverty in Africa

In Uganda, in the 1970s the expulsion of the wealthy Asian merchant class was another example of a situation where ethnicity was used as a political tool. In Zambia in the 1990s, the then President Fredrick Chiluba tried to bar political opponent and former president Dr Kenneth Kaunda from standing for office on the grounds that his parents were from Malawi and therefore he was adjudged not to fully be a Zambian citizen. This again was a clear case of ethnicity being used as a political tool. The same situation occurred in Côte d’Ivoire where presidential aspirant and former Prime Minister Alassane Quattara was barred from contesting elections on the grounds that his parents came from Burkina Faso.

Ethnicity is a very broad term which can be defined in different ways depending on the context. However, in this context, ethnicity is defined as a shared cultural identity involving similar practices, initiations, beliefs and linguistic features passed over from one generation to another. In Africa today and indeed elsewhere in the developing world, issues of ethnicity and identity continue to be of great importance in politics and other aspects of life. Ethnicity can also be explained in terms of race, people and ethnic group, these are fundamentals that are at the nucleus of African social, cultural and political organization.

Issues of ethnicity or ethnic divide once suppressed by European colonial governments in Africa have become resurgent raising prospects for a myriad of conflicts in most African states. Paradoxically, prior to independence, some colonial administrators manipulated ethnic rivalries amongst indigenous populations by employing a strategy of ‘divide and rule’. This strategy created enmity and suspicions among African peoples and the situation has not significantly changed.

Many politicians across Africa continue to use ethnicity to promote themselves and inflict maximum political damage on their opponents. The advent of multiparty politics was characterised by the emergence of ethnic based political parties. The main objective being to protect kith and kin at the expense of a genuinely inclusive democracy and political pluralism. Today ethnicity and conflict have replaced social harmony, diversity and development. Some argue that ‘dictatorships contained ethnic clashes to a large extent’ and that democracy has again revived ethnic clashes as politicians make it an issue to gain political mileage. The above point is debatable though. The situation in Kenya today is evident of how far politicians are prepared to go in abusive the ethnic card in politics.

In Zimbabwe following Independence from Britain in 1980, almost a decade of development was lost as a result of a short but brutal civil war that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent people. Since then political formations in Zimbabwe have always had an ethnic dimension.
In South Africa, ethnicity and the divide and rule strategy was for a long time at the nucleus of the apartheid system. Today, racial and thnic differences still threaten the stability of this revered rainbow nation. The recent dethroning of President Thabo Mbeki by his flamboyant deputy Jacob ‘Jay Zee’ Zuma from the leadership of the powerful ANC party may have been influenced by ethnic dimensions.

The current fractious opposition is now threatened with further division as accusations and counter accusations of ethnicism have been levelled at each other. More recently, issues of ethnicity took another turn when the Zimbabwean government compulsorily acquired farms from members of the white community who constitute less than one percent of the population. There was chaos and heightened ethnic tension between members of the black and white communities; this has resulted in the increasing isolation of the Mugabe regime.

In Uganda, in the 1970s the expulsion of the wealthy Asian merchant class was another example of a situation where ethnicity was used as a political tool. In Zambia in the 1990s, the then President Fredrick Chiluba tried to bar political opponent and former president Dr Kenneth Kaunda from standing for office on the grounds that his parents were from Malawi and therefore he was adjudged not to fully be a Zambian citizen. This again was a clear case of ethnicity being used as a political tool. The same situation occurred in Côte d’Ivoire where presidential aspirant and former Prime Minister Alassane Quattara was barred from contesting elections on the grounds that his parents came from Burkina Faso.

In many other African countries the story remains the same, in Rwanda over the years the dominant minority (Tutsi) held sway over the majority (Hutu), this among other factors resulted in the appalling Rwandan genocide of 1994. Again, in many other African countries some people from minority groups have been marginalised to the extent that their political status is predetermined even before any electoral contest. The issue of protection of minority rights cannot be guaranteed in African politics today as long as ethnicity is allowed to show its face.

In Sudan, the Darfur crisis is another example of the extremes of ethnicity and its resultant effects of poverty and human displacement. The peoples and ethnic groups of South Sudan have over the years suffered at the hands of the powerful Northerners. In Nigeria, issues of ethnicity coupled with religious tensions and the North/South divide has also been a major factor in presidential and state politics.

It is a pity to state that political conflicts in Africa are synonymous with ethnicity which is often abused or manipulated by failed politicians lacking credible agendas for their people and countries’ development. These politicians have in some instances bribed and coerced traditional leaders, thereby tarnishing or destroying the credibility of these once respected traditional institutions.

It is a fact that ethnicity or issues related to it are essentially the major cause of political instability, chaos and bloodshed in Africa. Unfortunately, in some countries these ethnic tensions are instigated by powerful foreign elements with vested interests in Africa. For instance, in Somalia the makeshift government there has received substantial logistical support from Ethiopia and allegedly the USA, to prevail against its opponents, the so called Islamic militants. Ethnic Warlords are in control of much of the country and this has worsened any chances of rebuilding the war ravaged country.

Contemporary African politicians are faced with the huge task of trying to balance ethnic consciousness and national patriotism as well as ensuring that development surges ahead within the same context. However, some believe that ethnicity can only be effectively addressed or possibly tamed by having a leadership that embodies good governance, education and awareness, inclusive policies, social justice and economic development policies that guarantee equal opportunities for all.

Unless and until Africa develops to a stage where ethnicity becomes irrelevant in politics and political organisation, regrettably, poverty, instability and the cycles of conflict will continue to inflict the continent. Lessons should be learnt from how the Europeans have dealt with ethnic group, race and development.

Crisford is a political commentator based in London, England.

(January 8, 2008) 

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