Ethnicity and Ethnic Conflict

There is no agreement as to the exact number of ethnicities in Africa, although it is estimated to be in the thousands (Click here for a list of some of the larger ethnicities that have been identified in Africa Cataloguing Africa’s ethnic populations is difficult not only due to the vast number and variety of ethnicities, but also to the fact that individual ethnicities are in a state of constant change. Therefore, it is difficult to generalize how ethnicities come into existence, moreover identify an exact definition of ethnicity. Broadly speaking, an ethnicity is a group of people who share an identity, which is marked by a characteristic such as language, culture, leadership, or inhabited territory. One must understand that an ethnicity is, in essence, a social contract, a product of society and social interaction between people. In Africa, ethnicity as a social construct has been shaped by African and European colonial actions (Berman 9). Africans constructed ethnicity by forming communities where those in power offered protection and wealth (in the form of land and livestock) in exchange for loyalty and labor. These groups created a culture, a language and a hierarchy of power governed by rules and traditions, which made them distinct. During the process of European exploration and colonization, European powers grew attached to the label “tribes” as a reference for the indigenous peoples who had been colonized.

Ethnicity: Reshaped and Transformed

Authors Sharp and Boonazier argue that ethnicity defined in the context of colonialism can be transformed, and that people have the ability to claim and reclaim ethnicity (405). One group that reclaimed their ethnic identity in South Africa is the Nama people. Natives of Namaqualand, the Nama were seen as inferior relative to the white colonizers who took over South Africa. The Nama became a dispossessed people- stripped of their rights and land (Sharp and Boonzaier, 407). The word Nama, in and of itself, took on a negative connotation, as it was associated with being inferior. During apartheid, the National Parks Board operated with no regard for nonwhites who inhabited South Africa. White colonial settlers and their ancestors held power in South Africa, and undermined black communities living in Namaqualand. For years the Nama culture was suppressed and the natives of Namaqualand tried to assimilate to Afrikaans culture. They did so because they aspired to belong to a group that held a higher social status and hoped to be accorded similar benefits. With the establishment of the Richtersveld National Park in Namaqualand in 1991, a surge of Nama pride and identity emerged. The opening ceremony for the communal reserve included a performance by the Nama Choir, which sang Nama songs and the construction of a traditional Nama house called a matijieshuis (Sharp and Boonzaier 406). The Nama people reclaimed their identity in order to lay claim to the land. It is important to note, however, that the Nama songs that were sung were performed in the Afrikaans language. This is evidence that the Nama identity had also evolved as a result of years of Afrikaaner rule and the incorporation of Afrikaaner cultural elements into Nama ethnicity.

Ethnic Conflict Definition and Overview

Ethnic conflict is a concept that is difficult to define and perhaps, more difficult to comprehend. Conflict between ethnicities is a phenomenon that has occurred for hundreds of years and in all corners of the earth. Yet, for an in-depth understanding ethnic conflict it is critical to address the following questions: What precipitates bloodshed between ethnic groups? Why are some parts of the world more susceptible to conflict, whereas others enjoy relative tranquility? And finally, why does ethnic conflict continue to exist in modern society? In Ethnic Conflict authors Karl Cordell and Stefan Wolff define ethnic conflict as such: “ The term conflict describes a situation in which two or more actors pursue incompatible, yet from their individual perspectives entirely just, goals. An ethnic conflict is one particular form of this: that in which the goals of at least one party are defined in (exclusively) ethnic terms, and the primary fault line of confrontation is one of ethnic distinctions”(5). Throughout Africa myriad ethnic groups exist, each with its unique culture, customs, and political institutions. Given its diversity, it is not surprising that Africa has, therefore, experienced a vast number of civil wars and genocides directly related to fissures that have developed along ethnic lines.

The Root of Ethnic Conflict

Many theories have been proposed regarding the genesis of ethnic conflict, one of the most important being the theory of rational choice (Cordell and Wolff 16). Rational choice theory builds its argument on the belief that: “Violence is predicated on the fear of an imminent violent attack by an opponent who threatens the very survival of the group and its members”(Cordell and Wolff 16). In essence, the use of violence is often practiced as a means of security. For example, if ethnic group A is worried that ethnic group B threatens their existence or security, ethnic group A may choose to destroy ethnic group B, and vice versa. Additionally, the origin of ethnic conflict is often closely associated with social status. In Ethnic Groups in Conflict, Donald Horowitz categorizes the societal precursor to ethnic conflict into two separate systems, an unranked societal system and a ranked system (26). Horowitz describes a ranked society stating, “Ranked systems typically have ritualized modes of expressing the lower status or contamination of the subordinate groups. These may include restrictions on eating, dress, marriage, and social contact” (26). Furthermore, Horowitz describes an unranked social system as a system not suffering from internal conflict, but rather scenarios in which two rival ethnicities compete for the superiority within their respective culture (27). Ultimately, the dynamic between and within ethnic groups more often then not leads to widespread exploitation and violence. Moreover, cultural heritage and religion contribute to the genesis of ethnic conflict. People from different ethnic groups immigrate and relocate to new regions or countries, often leading to an outbreak in violence. Maykel Verkuyten, author of The Social Psychology of Ethnic Identity, articulates this phenomenon stating, “ Many people from ethnic minority groups, for example, have cultural background that differs from that of the indigenous inhabitants. Immigrants…can not simply choose to do away with their childhood and everything they have learned culturally” (79). Differences in religion further exacerbate such cultural differences, as ethnicities of Christian or Muslim denominations may use their religious differences as a justification for coercion, exploitation, and violence.

Machetes utilized in the Rwandan Genocide
Machetes utilized in the Rwandan Genocide

A pile of machetes utilized by the Tutsi to slaughter the Hutu.   Machetes were a common farming tool, and a relatively cheap and effective way to kill. The nature of Machete’s being used kill Hutu, is a testament to the horrifyingly personal nature of the Rwandan Genocide.

The Shadow of Colonialism

Although globally widespread, ethnic conflict has been particularly prevalent in Africa. The pervasion of ethnic conflict within this region is due to the lingering effects of colonial rule. In what is now known as “The Scramble for Africa,” colonial powers divided Africa and subsequently reshaped the political territory constituting African states (Griffiths 207). The issue of regional reorganization has been further complicated by the colonial implementation of indirect rule. Indirect rule was a method utilized by colonial powers to control regions/kingdoms of Africa. Created by Sir Frederick Lugard, indirect rule was an “administrative system in which colonial powers used traditional African Leaders and Institutions to govern and administer”(Meert, Colonial Violence Leture). Although indirect rule initially appeared to be an innocuous form of government, the African populace soon discovered the insidious nature of such a system. In the essay, Reconsidering Indirect Rule: The Nigerian Example, author Obaro Ikime explains the danger of indirect rule stating, “ One of the major objections which some people see in accepting the warrant chief system as one of indirect rule is that the warrant chiefs appointed by the British did not represent the traditional authority of the people of the area and as such were no more than artificial creatures of the British administration” (422). The true danger of indirect rule lay in the mixture of ethnic groups traditionally tied to certain areas of land. Furthermore, corrupt minority governments (ethnic minority) often mistreated and exploited its populace based on the ethnicity of its subjects.

The Repercussions

Sadly, Africa is a continent that has been continually plagued by the effects of ethnic conflict (civil war, genocide). From the conflict between the southern Igbo and the northern Hausa in the Biafra War, to the ethnic cleansings in Darfur and Rwanda, Africa has suffered tremendously as a result of ethnic discord. The Biafra War, also known as the Nigerian Civil War, is an educative example when studying African ethnic conflict. The Biafra War began shortly after Nigeria gained independence from Great Britain, and as a young inexperienced nation the divisiveness of ethnic conflict soon engulfed the nascent country.

During British rule the northern region of Nigeria was largely secluded from the southern and eastern regions. The distribution of wealth was skewed, as the Igbo people of the southeast region had greater prosperity due to palm oil and petroleum resources (Meert, Biafran War Lecture). In contrast to the Hausa who occupied the north and Yoruba who occupied the southwest, the southeastern Igbo were geographically isolated. As a result of their decentralized location, wealth, and religion, the Igbo people were marginalized and labeled as outsiders. In 1966 after the Coup of the Five Majors, Nigeria was thrown into a bloody civil war, and the Hausa- controlled government mobilized drastic measures to eliminate the Igbo population, which had chosen to secede and form the nation of Biafra (Uchendu 395). The civil war soon evolved into an ethnic cleansing, as over 1 million Igbo were starved to death in a systematic procedure known as Kwashiorkor (Meert, Biafran War Lecture).

A Brief Case Study: Rwanda

The African country of Rwanda has a long history of ethnic conflict. The most horrific display of violence occurred from April to July of 1994, between two of Rwanda’s ethnic groups: the Tutsi and the Hutu. The Rwandan Genocide, as it came to be known, was one of the bloodiest ethnic conflicts in history. The attempted extermination of the Tutsi by the Hutu people resulted in 800,000 deaths, the majority being Tutsi (Powers 386). One tool used to perpetuate the genocide was the radio, from which anti-Tutsi propaganda was transmitted. The program Kangura, which translates to “Wake Up,” broadcasted “The Ten Commandments of the Hutu.” This propaganda device declared “All Tutsis are dishonest in business,” and “Hutu must stop taking pity on the Tutsi,” along with other disparaging statement (Powers 338-39). (Click here for a list of the “Ten Commandments of the Hutu” Four of these commandments referred to women, and Kangura portrayed Tutsi women as dangerous seductresses who thought that they were superior to the Hutu (Nowrojee 13). This anti-Tutsi propaganda served to exaggerate the differences between the Hutu and Tutsi, and cause people to strongly identify with their own ethnicity. Therefore, when Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana was killed after his plane was shot down on April 6, 1994, the Tutsi militia (The Rwandan Patriotic Front, a.k.a. the RPF) was blamed, and all Tutsis became the target of extreme violence. Both organized Hutu militia, as well nonmilitary citizens who were armed with clubs and machetes, participate in the mass killing of Tutsi. Hutu turned against their Tutsi neighbors, as no Tutsi was to be spared, including women and children (Nowrojee 13). One aspect of the genocide involved the mass rape of Tutsi women. These women were raped, forced to watch the murder of other family members, and then often killed. Tutsi women who managed to survive these atrocities claimed that their Hutu rapists mentioned their ethnicity either before or during the act of rape. The words of the rapists reflected anti-Tutsi propaganda, as victims recall their perpetrators saying, “We want to see if a Tutsi woman is like a Hutu Woman,” and “You Tutsi women think that you are too good for us” (Nowrojee 13). It is clear that much of the sexual violence was ethnically motivated, and that the Hutu who participated in the mass rape of Tutsi women were trying to humiliate and degrade the Tutsi people as a whole.

Hutu Corpse
Hutu Corpse

This photo was posted in the 2001 edition of the Atlantic Monthly. In this picture one may see the skeleton of a Hutu, with fragments of his skull missing. Human Rights experts acknowledge that the chipped skull was due to the bludgeoning of a machete.

A Difference In Opinions

In his review of The International Politics of the Nigerian Civil War 1967-1970, Scholar Douglas G. Anglin critiques certain aspects of author John J Stremlau’s interpretation of the Nigerian Civil War. In reference to Stremlau’s analysis of the Nigerian Civil War Anglin states, “He has explicitly chosen not to dwell on the righteousness of either side. As a result, his judgments of crucial moral issues are at most implied; on many issues, he remains, as he frankly admits, ambivalent”(Anglin 322). Anglin identifies Stremlau’s inability, or rather unwillingness, to condemn the genocidal actions of the Hausa, an action that Anglin suggests delegitimizes the suffering of the Igbo People. Anglin continues to articulate his criticism stating, “Thus, Colonel Ojukwu is at no time openly denounced as a power-hungry politician who, at least in the later stages of the war sacrificed his people on the altar of his insatiable personal ambitions”(Anglin 322). Anglin furthermore criticizes Stremlau’s relative indifference in regards to the Nigerian Commonwealth: “Dr. Stremlau’s researches have been less than exhaustive is with respect to the Common Wealth—an organization for which he displays a curious antipathy, dismissing it rather disparagingly as the remnant of a former imperial system”(Anglin 333).

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