Saturday, 24 October 2009

The relationship between conflict and ethnicity in Africa (by Nkanyiso Sibanda)


In most conflicts in Africa, ethnicity and contested identities seem to be at the core. Ethnic affiliations often structure the composition of groups in conflicts. There is little doubt that one of the main reasons why people fight and kill each other is who they are and the identities they represent (Braathen, Bøås and Sæther, 2000:3). Ethnicity has been blamed for passé ethics and regressive acuity, for nurturing corruption and destructive conflict. There is currently concern that the process of democratization in Africa may release the politically disintegrative potentialities of ethnicity. Some pundits[1] conceive ethnicity as something constructed, imaginary or created. Analogous to this idea is the notion that ethnicity is not a concrete existence but rather, a figment of the human imagination (Ake, 1992). While it is true to some extent that ethnicity is an imaginary construction, it is also a reality which has subsequently been linked and blamed for some conflicts in Africa.

This essay will discuss the relationship between conflict and ethnicity in Africa. A brief definition of the concept ethnicity will be made. Focus will shift to three examples[2] of conflicts in Africa with the aim of ascertaining whether there was (is) a relationship between conflict and ethnicity. The term conflict will not be defined in detail here as its meaning is generally not contested. It will be used interchangeably with the term war[3].

What is ethnicity?
There is no single universally accepted definition of ethnicity. Max Weber once remarked that ‘the whole conception of ethnicity is so complex and so vague that it might be good to abandon it altogether’ (Weber, 1922). The term is defined in many different ways by different people from different backgrounds with different life experiences. However, while there is no single and universally accepted definition, the definitions that are given usually emphasize the sharing of some learned standards for behavior, social ties by reference to common origins, memories of a shared historical past, shared cultural heritage, religious affiliation, language and dialect forms as well as tribal affiliation. Ethnicity is an important means by which people identify and categorize themselves. (It) is a fundamental factor in human life: it is a phenomenon inherent in human experience (statistics Canada, 2008). Ethnicity has been held to be multidimensional because it includes such aspects as race, origin or ancestry, identity, language and religion. Other dimensions such as culture, the arts, customs and beliefs and even practices such as dress and food preparation can also be included when dealing with the definitional elements of the term. It is also dynamic and in a constant state of flux. It will change as a result of new immigration flows, blending and intermarriage, and new identities may be formed (ibid). Origin or ancestry, race as well as identity are key in understanding ethnicity (ibid).
Although Weber, (1922), admitted that the conceptualization of ethnicity was problematic, he nevertheless proposed a definition of ethnicity that has become the backbone for many contemporary definitions. He propounded,
Ethnicity refers to that human group that entertains a subjective belief in its common descent because of similarities of physical type or of customs or both, or because of memories of colonization and migration; this belief must be important for group formation; furthermore it does not matter whether an objective blood relationship exists between members of the group.
Harold Isaacs (1975) identified other diacritics of ethnicity which include among them physical appearance, name, language, history, and religion. Evidently, while there is no universal definition of the concept, it is usually defined in terms of shared genealogy. It often also connotes shared cultural, linguistic, behavioral or religious traits.
Conflict and ethnicity in Africa
With the exception of Algeria where religious extremism was cited, in many African conflicts, ethnicity was held to be the cause.

· Rwanda, genocide
Rwanda, a small Central African country, is comprised of two main ethnic groups, the Hutus and the Tutsis. Although the Hutus account(ed) for 90 percent of the population, historically, the Tutsi minority was considered the landed gentry of Rwanda and dominated the Hutus for a long time. In 1994, Rwanda experienced mass killings of hundreds of thousands of Rwanda's Tutsis by Hutu militia. Over the course of approximately 100 days, from the assassination of the then president Juvénal Habyarimana on April 6th through to mid July, at least 500,000 people were killed (Alisson, 1999). Most estimates indicate a death toll between 800,000 and 1,000,000 (ibid). The genocide was perpetrated by two Hutu militia groups, the Interahamwe, the militant wing of the National Republican Movement for Democracy and Development (MRND), and the Impuzamugambi, the militant wing of the Coalition for the Defence of the Republic (CDR) on one side, and the Tutsi rebel group, the (Rwandan Political Front) RPF, on the other side. The killings took place throughout most of the country. The mayor of the northwestern town of Gisenyi, was the first to organize killings on the scale characterizing a genocide when on the evening of April 6th, he called a meeting to distribute arms and send out militias to kill Tutsis (Alisson, 199).
Most of the genocide victims were killed in their villages or in towns, often by their neighbors and fellow villagers. The militia members characteristically murdered their victims by hacking them with machetes while members of the army used rifles. Often, victims were found hiding in churches and school buildings, where Hutu gangs massacred them. Ordinary citizens were called on by local officials and government-sponsored radio to kill their neighbors, and those who refused to kill were often killed themselves. ‘Either you took part in the massacres or you were massacred yourself. (Prunier, 1995).’ One such massacre occurred on April 12, 1994. More than 1,500 Tutsis sought refuge in a Catholic church in a place called Nyange (ibid). Local Interahamwe and other local authorities found out and used bulldozers to knock down the church building. People who tried to escape were hacked down with machetes or shot. In another case, thousands sought refuge in a school in Kigali where Belgian soldiers were stationed. However, on April 11, 1994, Belgian soldiers withdrew from the school and members of the Rwandan armed forces and militia killed all the Tutsis who were hiding there. (ibid)
Can the slaughter of perhaps as many as a million people in three months of the 1994 Rwandese civil war be given an understandable explanation? (Braathen, Bøås and Sæther, 2000:68). How could this disaster take place in a community comprised of two groups that …, share the same religion, belong to the same clans and inhabit the same hills? (ibid). Was there a causal link between the ethnicity of the two groups and the conflict that erupted? Did the conflict start because of ethnic identities?
From the surface, there is a clear nexus between ethnicity and the conflict that erupted. One can argue that because the conflict was between the Hutus and the Tutsis there was a relationship between ethnicity and the conflict. Were it not for the ethnic differences, there would not have been violent fighting. There had to be a causal link between ethnicity and the conflict. However, arguing thus would be giving the conflict only a colonial epithet. Lema (2000) argues that focusing on ethnicity on the Rwandese conflict is to miss the point. According to him, to understand the social forces underlying the civil war in Rwanda, there is a need to uncover the socio-structural conflict underlying the Rwandese society. If there was a direct relationship between conflict and ethnicity in the genocide, then Burundi too should have experienced a similar, if not worse, genocide because the ethnicity factors advanced to explain the Rwandese war were just a present in Burundi in the beginning of the 1990s (Lema, 2000).
While there may be a relationship between ethnicity and conflict in Africa, this relationship should not be overemphasized. Ethnicity may help one gain a surface level understanding of a conflict. However, it is important and certainly helpful to have a deeper intrinsic investigation of the historical, structural and socio-cultural conflict between groups struggling for social justice by means of securing political power and social prestige within the socio-cultural framework of a society in conflict such as the Rwandese society during the genocide. The deep-rooted social rank disequilibrium arising from the time-honored socio-cultural supremacy of the Tutsis, and leading to frustration and aggression among the Hutus, (was) the principal cause that transformed … Rwandese socio-political struggles engendered by the economic crisis into recurrent armed struggles including the genocide (Lema, 2000). For one therefore to understand that there was no direct link between ethnicity and the conflict in Rwanda, one has to go beyond looking at the surface and uncover the socio-cultural conflict dimensions that underlay the genocide.

· Kenya, post election violence
When post-election violence erupted in Kenya at the end of December 2007, U.S. journalists described the events as ‘savage tribal killings’ (L.A. Times, 1/2/08), ‘gruesome ethnic killings’ (Washington Post, 1/6/08) and ‘tribal riots’ (Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, 1/3/08). ‘This is a tribal situation,’ explained CBS (Early Show, 1/2/08). ‘And what is terrifying is that the veneer of this country is so thin, that there’s so much tension and hatred that has been here all along.’
The conflict in Kenya began after the country’s December 27, 2007 presidential election. As the final votes were being tallied, trailing incumbent Mwai Kibaki, a member of the Kikuyu ethnic group, suddenly and suspiciously pulled ahead of opposition leader Mr Raila Odinga, a Luo, who had been leading in the polls. Protests and violence broke out, particularly in poor urban neighborhoods and the more rural Rift Valley, and intensified after Kibaki had himself hastily sworn in as the victor despite widespread accusations and protests against vote-rigging.
The number of lives that the conflict claimed, the brutal way with which the murders were committed[4] and narrations of the conflict increasingly focused on the importance of ethnicity. Although reports initially focused on a likely fraudulent political election, this soon changed when it was realized that most of Mr Kibaki’s supporters, who is a Kikuyu were also Kikuyu who were fighting with Mr Odinga’s supporters who, like him, were Luo. Jim Lehrer (2008) characterized the violence as a contest between rival ethnic groups.
Yet again, a surface analysis of Kenya’s post-election conflict points to a strong relationship between ethnicity and conflict. However, just days after the violence erupted, former United Nations chief Mr Koffi Annan remarked, ‘We must tackle the fundamental issues underlying the disturbances -- like inequitable distribution of resources -- or else we will be back here again after three or four years.’ ‘The characterization of the Kenyan conflict as ethnic enmity is simplistic -- access to land, housing, and water are the real issues that appear in the guise of ethnicity and are triggered by political disputes,’ said a Danish aid worker who was part of an emergency assessment team in the Rift Valley. ‘There is an unmistakable class dimension to the turmoil in Kenyan society,’ the aid worker said[5].
The clue to whether there was a direct link between ethnicity and the conflict in Kenya lies in the fact that, it is the poor marginalized people in the society that were involved in the violence. ‘Have you seen any middle-class person of any tribe shouting slogans against either Odinga or Kibaki?’ asked Raphael Karanja[6], a radio journalist. ‘It is only the people who had a misplaced faith in the power of the ballot, and who genuinely believed that their vote can lead to a change of guard and better economic policies that might alleviate their basic problems of land, housing, and drinking water that have risen up in protest,’ he continued. Had the conflict been rooted along ethnic lines, everyone in the society would have taken part in the fighting, rich and poor alike. However, it was only the poor people from the two ethnic groups that fought and this gives a clue on whether the conflict had a link or not with ethnicity. In the capital Nairobi, violence was experienced only in the poor areas such as Kibera, Mathare and other shanty towns. This pattern (was) visible also in other troubled regions, such as Kisumu in Odinga’s home province of Nyanza, and in the Rift Valley towns of Eldoret, Molo, Nakuru, and Naivasha (Mushtaq, 2008).
Beneath the simplistic and apparently ethnic conflict lay historic patterns of uneven resource distribution that were manipulated and expressed through the violence that erupted after the elections. Land distribution was unequal, access to water, housing and health facilities was not the same for everyone and the gap between the rich and poor had so widened that even if a common Kenyan raised resources to build a proper house, he found bureaucratic hurdles at every step which could not be overcome without extra money for corrupt officials (ibid). The poor thought that democracy and elections would help them influence government policy. Mr Odinga raised expectations by campaigning as the people’s candidate and a champion of the poor. He received votes across tribal divides (ibid) and if ethnicity had been the real issue, this would not have been the case. When there was alleged ballot tempering, violence erupted, perpetrated mostly by angry and hungry poor people in the society due to the socio-economic disparities between them and the rich.

· Zimbabwe, gukurahundi
Gukurahundi is a traditional Shona[7] word, which means ‘the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains.’ It is the word chosen by the Mugabe regime to describe a military operation against a civilian Ndebele population during the early 1980s. A few months after Zimbabwe’s Independence, Robert Mugabe signed an agreement with the North Korean President Kim II Sung to have the North Korean military train a brigade for the Zimbabwean army. Training of the 5th Brigade lasted until September 1982. The objective of the 5th Brigade was to kill and eradicate all the Ndebele people that were loyal to PF ZAPU (Zimbabwe African People’s Union).
An estimated 30 000 Ndebeles lost their lives during Gukurahundi (Magoma, 2008). Most of the gukurahundi victims were shot in public executions, often after being forced to dig their own graves in front of family and fellow villagers. The largest number of dead in a single killing was on 5 March 1983, when 62 young men and women were shot on the banks of the Cewale River, in Lupane (Magomana, 2008). Seven survived with gunshot wounds, the other 55 died. Another way the 5 Brigade killed large groups of Ndebele people was to burn them alive in huts. They did this in Tsholotsho and also in Lupane (ibid).
The 5th Brigade also would routinely round up dozens, or even hundreds, of civilians and march them at gun point to a central place, like a school or bore-hole. There they would force them to sing Shona songs praising ZANU PF, at the same time beating them with sticks. These gatherings usually ended with public executions. These atrocities took part in Matabeleland against the Ndebele who were loyal to PF ZAPU and their Ndebele leader Mr Joshua Nkomo. The perpetrators, the 5 brigade was made up of mostly the Shona people who were loyal to ZANU PF and their Shona leader Mr Mugabe.
Again, a surface analysis of this conflict reveals that it was ethnic. The Shona were fighting and killing the Ndebele. One can easily be compelled to think that there was a relationship between ethnicity and the killings that occurred. However, a deeper analysis of the conflict yields different results. It has to be remembered that during gukurahundi, prominent Ndebele leaders held prominent positions in government. The then Minister of Home Affairs was Mr John Nkomo, who was a Ndebele. He was in charge of the police in his ministerial portfolio and if the conflict was ethnic, he too could have ordered the police to act consequent to gukurahundi against the Shonas. Other prominent Ndebele leaders who were in government include Kembo Mohadi[8], Obert Mpofu[9] among others. The main reason why gukurahundi occurred was because Mugabe wanted to graft PF ZAPU into ZANU PF and make Zimbabwe a one party state. When Joshua Nkomo agreed to this in 1986, the massacres stopped. If indeed there was a direct relationship between ethnicity and the gukurahundi conflict, the killings would have continued still, until probably such time when the Ndebeles were obliterated.

The relationship between conflict and ethnicity has been imperfectly construed in many other African conflicts such as in the Niger delta region in Nigeria, Angola, DRC, Mozambique, Sudan and many other African conflicts. While it can not be totally denied that there is a relationship between ethnicity and conflict, this relationship must not be overemphasized. A thorough historical, analytical and pragmatic approach should be adopted in analyzing the conflicts and in unearthing and understanding the relationship between ethnicity and conflict in Africa.
In order to understand the relationship between ethnicity and conflict in Africa, one has to uncover the social forces underlying the conflict and in the process, uncover the prevailing socio-structural variances. People do not start conflicts because of ethnicity; instead, ethnicity helps to explain the mobilization of people in the conflict (Lema, 2000). In Congo-Brazzaville for example, ethnicity was used by political leaders in the struggle for power. Natural resources were the object of power struggles and ethnic identity became a potent means to this end (ibid). Braathen (2000:188) suggests that the lead thread in researching on the relationship between ethnicity and conflict in Africa should be the struggle over distribution in society that evolves around the post-colonial state. Just as nationalism does not constitute the essence of politics in European countries, ethnicity does not define the essence of politics in Africa (ibid).
While ethnicity plays a role in most conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa, African conflicts are not an automatic process facilitated but ethnic identity. Instead, it is the expansion and subsequent retreat of the neo patrimonial state, followed by widespread social exclusion (ibid). That most civil wars in Africa are centered around ethnic identities as the subjectification of power does not in itself explain the causes behind the violence (ibid). As has been shown in the essay, ethnic affiliations often do structure the constitution of conflict; however, it is too simplistic to characterize African conflicts as ethnic. Various conflicting groups and armed factions must be understood in the light of the socio-economic context in which they operate and within this context, ethnicity is just one among numerous variables. It is not enough to discuss ethnicity without alluding to its precise historical and geographical context. Thus, the significance of ethnicity is a function of the circumstances under which it becomes salient (ibid).


Ake, Claude,. 1992. ‘What is the problem of ethnicity in Africa?’ Online at (15.11.2008)
Annan, K, quoted in POLITICS: Kenya’s Problem Goes Beyond Ethnicity and Elections Analysis by Najum Mushtaq. online at (18.11.08).
Antoine, Lema,. ‘Causes of Civil War in Rwanda: the Weight of History and Socio-Cultural Structures’ In ‘Ethnicity Kills? The Politics of War, Peace and Ethnicity in Subsaharan Africa.’ By Braathen, Einar,. Boas Morten,. And Saether Gjermund,. 2000 McMillan Press Ltd.
Braathen, Einar,. Boas Morten,. And Saether Gjermund,. 2000. ‘Ethnicity Kills? The Politics of War, Peace and Ethnicity in Subsaharan Africa.’ McMillan Press Ltd.
Des Forges, Alison (1999),. ‘Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda’ Arrow Books.
Gérard, Prunier,. 1995,. ‘The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide.’ London: Hurst.
Isaacs, H. 1975. ‘Idols of the Tribe: Group Identity and Political Change’ New York: Harper.
Jim, Lahrer (2008), in ‘Ethnic Dimension of Kenya’s conflict’ (ed) David Dryer, online at (15 November 2008).
Lopez, S. 2008. ‘Violence in Kenya’ in Los Angeles Times, 1 February: 4.
¨Statistics Canada¨ (17 November 2008).
Max, Weber,. [1922]1978 ‘Economy and Society’ eds. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich, trans. Ephraim Fischof, vol. 2 Berkeley: University of California Press, 389.
Magomana, Trymore,. 2008. ‘Mugabe urged to form a Truth & Reconciliation Commission for Gukurahundi.’ Online at on19.11.08.
Najum, Mushtaq,. 2008. POLITICS: Kenya’s Problem Goes Beyond Ethnicity and Elections’ analysis. Online at -18.11.08

[1] Such as Barm, 1969; Anderson, 1983; Saul, 1979; Sharp, 1988; Cohen, 1978.
[2] Looking at all conflicts in Africa is beyond the scope of this paper (3 000 words).
[3] Civil war.
[4] Like the 50 people that were torched in a church in Eldoret.
[5] No name was given as the aid worker chose to remain anonymous.
[6] Source found on (18.11.08).
[7] A native Zimbabwean language.
[8] Also a former Minister of Home Affairs.
[9] Current Minister of trade and Industry.

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