Ethnic conflict and state formation in post-colonial Africa: a comparative study of ethnic genocide in the Congo, Liberia, Nigeria, and Rwanda-Burundi.

Author:Badru, Pade


It is an undeniable reality that the 20th century was perhaps the most challenging century for Africa since the era of the Atlantic slave Wade and the colonization that followed. Besides crushing economic woes that plagued most of the continent, political instability and wars were the hallmark of the 20th century. One indicator of this crisis is the failure of state in most parts of Africa as authoritarian rule became the norm. The history of state formation in Africa has been a very difficult history in comparison to other states in other developing countries of the Third World. However, if one looks at the origin of colonial states in Africa, one can see that these neo-states were conveniently put together to further European metropolitan economic interests. The fragmental nature of these states created the conditions for abuse by local elite and their metropolitan bosses. As the continent continues to decline, economically speaking, its political landscape also continues to be marked by a plethora of dictatorial regimes, military autocracy, and one-party states. From the horn of Africa to the cape of southern Africa, where multi-racial democratic rule continues to reinforce the economic power of the old white oligarchy, the quest for true independence remains as elusive as ever. In Zimbabwe and South Africa, where multi-racial democracies are presided over by former freedom fighters, hope of true independence has since been dashed while self-rule has turned into a nightmarish dream for the majority of the African poor.

The failure of the majority of states in Africa represents a classic example of how European colonization fostered and exploited ethnicity in Africa with dire consequences for state formation. (1) For instance in Nigeria, the civil war of 1967 to 1970 resulted in the massacre of one million Igbo ethnic group of southeast Nigeria. The world recently witnessed organized ethnic pogroms of unimaginable proportion in Rwanda where more that a half a million people lost their lives to ethnic violence in less than three months. The nightmare that Rwanda represents still haunts the continent today. For several years, Liberia lapsed into chaos with the rule of gun undermining the rule of law. The question then is how do we explain the dynamics of ethnicity and its persistence in state formation in Africa without a reference to some ontological notion of inevitability? Perhaps, if we examine each of these cases separately we might be able to ascertain a common denominator or pattern for this development, which in turn, will enable us to provide answers to this question.

The paper is divided into three parts. The first part looks at the Belgium colonization of the Congo and the continuing crisis of state and society in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The second part traces the roots of ethnic crisis in Nigeria with emphasis on the role that British colonialism played in facilitating ethnic rivalries that resulted in the Biafran war, which claimed a millions lives. Finally, the third part reviews the events that led to the pogroms that took place in Rwanda-Burundi pitching Hutus against the Tutsis with tragic consequences and the degeneration of civil society into chaos in Liberia under the rule of its brutal rulers Doe and Charles Talyor. The paper ends by examining ways these tragic events can be ended through the building of democratic structures and state transparency that would reflect the needs and aspirations of African people in the continent.


Many Africanist scholars are surprised as to why the dethronement of the autocratic government of General Mobutu Sese Seko in the late eighties did not produce the much-needed peace in this resource rich nation of Central Africa. Like the rest of Africa, the turbulent history of the Belgium Congo is little known to the people of the Western World. In fact, Europeans often perceive whatever goes on in the Congo, like the rest of Africa, as exotic primitivism having no bearing on their western way of life. But hardly can the history of the West be written without a reference to the crucial role that the Congo Free State played in the development of western industrial might especially that of the Belgian imperial state. But this much is clear: The Congo and its turbulent history are both the creation of the West, and as such, the economic interests of the West in most part, determine the content and form of the political and social developments there. Thus, the West cannot morally excuse itself from the prevailing turmoil in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

A brief look at the history of modern Congo shows that the country was a product of an intense negotiation among the leading European powers in the later part of the nineteenth century. King Leopold began to show interest the Congo as far back as 1879, and with the formation of the International Association of the Congo, and the Committee for the Studies of the Upper Congo, funded by the king, Belgium imperial ambition in Central Africa was beginning to take shape. In pursuance of his ambition, Leopold organized and funded the Berlin Conference of 1884 to partition Africa. At the conclusion of the conference in November 26, 1885, The Congo Free State, a large chunk of African mineral rich land, was offered to King Leopold of Belgium as a gift for his initiatives in facilitating the conference. However, it should be stated that much of the area had been fraudulently purchased or forcefully acquired by Dr. Henry Morton Stanley for the Belgian king. (2) The principal beneficiaries of the conference were the British, French, Portuguese, and German imperial states who divided the entire continent, and its vast resources, among themselves.

In 1886, King Leopold organized an army of the most brutal officials to run The Congo Free State on behalf the imperial state. What was at stake in The Free Congo State was the King's vast properties especially numerous rubber plantations and copper mines. The King's army ran Congo with the most brutality ever known to mankind. Leopold's military commanders in the Congo Free State demanded that lesser officers bring to them maimed body parts of Africans who had either refused to pay taxes arbitrarily imposed by the king or those who refused to work without pay on the rubber plantations. Such were the brutalities of King Leopold's heavy-handed rule of his private property (Congo) in Africa.

Embarrassed by public exposure of these brutalities, the Belgian parliament was forced to take over the Congo Free State from King Leopold in November of 1908, and then re-named the colony Belgian Congo. Even though the Belgian parliament passed a colonial charter in October of 1908, removing direct control of the Congo Free State from the King, his majestic appointees continued to run the administration of the Congo with more severe brutality much the same way the King's disbanded army. President Mobutu Sese Seko's rise to power, after the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, marked a new chapter in the colonial history of the Congo. Indeed, it was the brutality of the Belgian colonial rule that eventually gave rise to a violent resistance against colonial rule, and the repression of this resistance resulted in the decimation of the population by more than a third by the time the Belgian state let its colony achieved political independence. Africans' protests against Belgian rule intensified immediately after the end of the Second World War. Rebellious Congolese peasants took up arms against settler Europeans, especially in the northeast and southeast where the Azande and the Yaka reside. The Belgian army and European vigilante groups forcefully repressed these protests. However, with the economic recession of 1956-1959 in the Congo, anti-European consciousness spread from remote regions of the colony to major cities. The unemployed educated African elite and labor unions were able to ride on the tide of these anti-European sentiments to achieve their own political agenda and began to push for decolonization.

These agitations led the Belgian parliament to agree to a decolonization talk in the 1950's. Of the 45 political parties that emerged during this period, it was Patrice Lumumba's Mouvement National Congolaise (National Congolese Movement, NCM) that really had a mass support, and the only party that gave the Belgian imperial state the most concern. For example, in December of 1958, a mass rally addressed by Patrice Lumumba in Leopoldville was viciously disrupted by the Belgian Force Publique (armed riot police) killing scores of Congolese trade union workers and their sympathizers. This massacre marked the beginning of the end of Belgian rule, and it was shortly after this event that the Belgian parliament agreed to a decolonization timetable.

Fulfilling its commitment to de-colonization, the Belgian government organized "The Round Table Conference" on January 20, 1960 in Brussels. The conference was attended by as many as forty-five political parties from the Congo. While very little was achieved at this conference in terms of the future of the economic control of the Congo, it however, succeeded in forcing the Belgian state to set up a six-month timetable for the transfer of power from Belgium to the Congolese elite. As history will now re-call, it was Patrice Lumumba's National Congolese Movement that won the election under guidelines set up in the Loi Fundamentale (Fundamental Law); a sort of self-serving constitution approved by the Belgium parliament. Patrice Lumumba was not particularly agreeable to the West, especially, Belgium and the French governments because of his populist rhetoric. By June 30, 1960, Patrice Lumumba was sworn in as the first African Prime Minister of the republic of the Congo. However, once Patrice Lumumba became president of independent Congo, efforts to de-stabilize Lumumba's government became a...

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