Sub-Saharan ethnic attachment and civil conflict: a methodological approach to state-building and ethnicity.

Author:Saha, Santosh C.
Position:OTHER PAPERS - Report


"People go to Africa and confirm what they already have in their heads and so they fail to see what is there in front of them," Chinua Achebe, Nigerian author. (1)

Owing to the prevalence of persistent and vexing violence, communal conflict and occasional genocides in several countries in sub-Saharan Africa, which has about 1500 distinct ethno-linguistic groups, historians, political scientists, and public policy-makers, trying to understand the synergy of ethnic forces and state-building have complicated many social-political issues related to ethnicity. I argue that the ethnicity issue has mostly been described in terms of narrow ethnic immorality versus supposedly liberating forces such as democratization, statism, and controversial cultural globalization, ignoring that Africans usually define their interests as citizens in terms of where they live. The socio-economic basis, including the class system, has little effect on their identification. My argument is that ethnicity, which is mostly language-based in Africa, should be viewed as a civic identity, not a primordial ancient vice. Bantu Africans' efforts to reinvent both the older affective ethnic identities and embrace new trendy national identities that, even if fragile, have often proved to be remarkably resilient. The demise of the state has greatly been exaggerated.

Both the indigenous intellectuals and Western educated politicians have advanced various strategies in state-building in Africa, but the frame of reference for much policy debate should be what tools are there to better attack ethnic conflict and state-failure? In this context, two issues come to our mind. First, why and how do most sub-Saharan Africans chose ethnic identification so intensely? Second, is this identification gravely harmful to state-stability, as alleged in the mainstream literature? It is argued in this study that an ethnic identification might matter when African structural constraints, including corruption, poverty, and adverse climate, hugely affect the building blocs of state-building. Any positive enterprise must begin by considering how citizens' full range of resources, including community spirit or ethnic attachments, can be used for people's general well-being. Ethnic resources, such as ideas, practices, experiences, and organizations, may be discussed to relate them to the issue of state-building. Initially, it is enough to recognize that ethnic groups are never static in Africa, including Rwanda, Burundi, and Liberia, where continuing forced migrations and politically generated instability worked to blur ethnic lines. In cities there is an emergence of new ethnic groups due to intermarriages, often dictated by the shortage of "people of my ethnic group." In short, state-building through Weberian bureaucratic rational "fixes" may be helpful to a certain extent but state-building demands a social reordering to bring about just interrelationships between citizens, not "subjects," and the faceless formal rational state. As implied by Chinua Achebe, historians will do better if they take into consideration some affective ties in national identification process.


My methodological impulse here draws upon the assumption that ethnic conflict has no moral sanction in Africa's consensus-based societies; nor has ethnicity become a political ideology as has been the case in Kosovo. Although the pro-Yoruba "Action Group" in Nigeria was successful in obtaining majority support among Yorubas in the Western Region in 1960, it failed, despite ethnic appeal, to win the support of Yorubas in Ibadan, Ilesha, and Oyo, and its vote share was cut in half four years later to the satisfaction of statists. Yet unfortunately, Nigeria has been a textbook example of ethically divided politics. Divisions between the Yorubas, the Hausa-Fulanis and the Igbos have been highlighted during that period. The umbrella concept of ethnic identification should rigorously be scrutinized to understand the mood of people in state-building in Africa. (2) Social scientists, who study frequent civil and political conflicts, focus their research on the presumed connections between ethnicity and violence. Thus, Mengistu regime in Ethiopia is characterized by the hegemonic Amahara ethnic group, ignoring the fact that Mengistu regime was multi-ethnic in its composition. While one cannot discount ethnic factors in a theoretical analysis of the origin of violence, one should not at the same time overlook the empirical evidence that the Megistu regime promoted religious, economic, and ethnic equality for the precise purpose of weakening Amhara domination of Ethiopian polity. Likewise, in the 1994 and 1999 general elections, the pro-Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party (IEP) in South Africa obtained the support of a majority of Zulus in the province of Kwazulu-Natal but not in the provinces of Gauteng and Mpumalanga; even in Natal, a substantial percentage of Zulus did not support the IEP. (3) Ted Robert Gurr and his associates report that between 1960 and early 1990s there were eleven "genocides" and "politicides" in Africa compared to twenty-four in other parts of the world, suggesting that sub-Saharan ethnicity is not uniquely widespread and vicious. (4)

These instances reinforce our argument against inclusion of presumed all-important ethnicity in causing conflicts. Synthesizing insights from both the materialist and socio-psychological approaches can be helpful in tracing the building blocs in state reconstruction in sub-Saharan Africa in recent decades. People cannot be programmed by the history of their communities to act in specific ways only, but the patterns which they see around them and the principles in which they are educated as children have implications. This essay is not, however, a romantic crusade to bring the state under a single indigenous value system.


Sub-altern historiography, undercutting the narrow European Marxist methodology and minimizing social scientific analyses, gained respectability in Bengal, India, among many historians. During the 1970s, the methodology was widely used in analysis of civil conflict in Australia, U.K. and India. Dipesh Chakravarty, a Bengali and a profound sub-altenist, argues that anachronistic repetitive formulations of the past are necessarily subordinate to the contemporary realities and as such Eurocentrism in analysis must be ignored. Ranajit Guha, a leftist from Bengal who taught in Australia, among other places, adds that the nationalist histories in the developing world are still written from within the implicit paradigm of a history whose theoretical subject is a modelized Europe. The twin objectives of this historiography are: (a) to challenge elitism in historiography and (b) to emphasize popular initiatives in causing events. (5) Without entering into the controversy of the sub-alternists' profound analysis, I agree with their historiography that ignores the derivative methodology in explaining ethnic conflict and state-building in sub-Saharan fluid conditions.

In the African context, Kwame Gyekye, a culture historian, argues that there is cementing personalized bonds through associational groups for mutually beneficial reciprocity in hostile conditions. In consensus, he seems to suggest, logical explanation presupposes dissent, an existence of opposing views. In African consensus, which is a political value, it is the different views that need to be reconciled. Perhaps, this bold claim to a consensus-directed solution to state-building needs to be characterized as "sufficient consensus," enough to hold the diverse elements in society together, while leaving the composite members free to pursues their own agendas. For Claude Ake (Ake,) a prominent Nigerian social scientist, "African democracy" is a "negotiated compromise," with evidence of harmonious coexistence between ethnic groups. (6) It is a "cognitive illusion" to assume that a particular group, such as the Tutsi, who, with more sophisticated weapons migrated south from Uganda and Ethiopia in search of grazing land, has antipathy for only a specific group such as the majority Hutus, a Bantu group who are communal farmers. The notion that the ethnic group such as the Bemba, opposing Nyanja or Tonga in Zambia, or Kpelle, opposing the Mandingo in war-worn Liberia, can have only conflicting attitudes because of ethnicity is untenable. We need to move away from almost completely cognitive focus of anthropological identity theory of the great interactionists, such as Cooley (1902), Mead (1934), and Blumer (1969), who saw diversified society as unorganized, ignoring the significance of the economic disparity and regional/geographic instinct.

Indeed, an argument blaming the ethnic identity itself is misleading because it rests on the assumption that ethnic society is unitary, a relatively undifferentiated phenomenon with few internal barriers. This geographical myth of unity hampers our logical analysis and may lead to questionable subjective derivative judgment on the ethnic value system. Mahdis and Acholis in the Ugandan-Sudan border have retained multiple and overlapping ethnic identities with one geographical region. Mwangi Kimenyi refers to this issue as "geoethnicity" which, he correctly assumes, may be non-conflictual. Although the boundaries are not clearly specified, the "ethnic nations," nevertheless exist and, to great extent, are respected by groups that live next to each other in peace. (7)


Endorsing Schwartz's, "value domains of universalism," a cultural modernity approach suggests that Western stereotypes...

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