MOST Ethno-Net publication: Africa at Crossroads


Africa at Crossroads: Complex Political Emergencies in the 21st Century,

UNESCO / ENA, 2001

The Cycle of “State-Ethnicity-State” in African Politics

Okwudiba Nnoli
Pan-African Center for Research on Peace and Conflict Resolution (PACREP) 

Enugu, Nigeria.

The Impact of the State on Ethnicity
The genocide in Rwanda in 1994 radically changed the attitudes of Africans and non-Africans alike toward ethnicity in Africa. The extent of the bloodletting shocked the whole world. In spite of the numerous cases of ethnic violence on the continent in the past, no one expected the carnage and brutality that attended the genocide. Worse still its perpetrators have shown no remorse. Both Rwanda and Burundi are still locked in genocidal wars in which the Tutsi are pitted against the Hutu. People are asking questions about the contribution of ethnicity to the state of affairs in African politics. Of particular interest is the reason why ethnic conflict in Africa has been so destructive.

This paper seeks to answer these questions. It suggests that past attempts to answer them failed because they are based on inadequate understanding of ethnicity in Africa. They tend to see ethnicity everywhere and to conceive it in a self-explanatory manner. They view ethnicity essentially as given and take very little account of its substratum. From this point of view interests arising from ethnic identities differ from one another because of socio-cultural and economic differences among the relevant ethnic groups. Hardly any serious thought is given to how and why individuals embrace ethnic identity in the first place, and the origin of the ethnic group interests.

Our view is that ethnicity in Africa arises from the projection of state power by those who control the state. The undemocratic character of the state means that in extending political authority throughout the country and organizing economic and social activities in the society those who control the state often inflict direct or structural violence on peoples and communities. Direct violence occurs when a punitive expedition is sent to perpetrate violence against a community for past misdeeds. A good example is the military expedition sent by the Nigerian government in 1999 to sack the town of Odi in Bayelsa state. This action was punishment for the disappearance of some policemen in the area. Structural violence occurs when decisions are imposed on communities without consulting them, and often against their will. An example is the imposition of the structural adjustment program (SAP) on the various communities in Africa.

As Ake argues, what occurs for the most part in Africa is violent aggression by the state against communities, ethnic groups, minorities, workers, peasants, religious groups and the political opposition in the routine business of projecting power to realize vested interests and to sustain domination (Ake, 1995). In other words, the violence does not need to arise from any articulated or perceived differences between the state and its victims. It is not necessarily related to any explicit struggle for state power. The differences and struggles emerge ex post facto from the unilateral actions of the state. A reckless abuse of power is often involved. This gradually builds up a critical mass of desperate enemies among the victims of state action. Ethnicity emerges as an inclusive framework for responding to this violence of the state.

For example, the resort to arms by the Banyamulenge ethnic group in the Congo (DRC) emerged ex post facto from the unilateral state policy of the Mobutu regime to divest them of their citizenship of the country. The result was a series of violent actions, reactions and coalitions that swept Mobutu Sese Seko from power and turned the Congo into a theatre of violent political struggles among local and foreign forces that are yet to be resolved. In Northern Ghana, the Konkomba-Nanumba war of 1981 is traceable to the generalized state-imposed structural violence that attended the country’s policy of SAP during the period 1980-1983. Those fleeing this violence to their ethnic homeland found themselves engaged in destructive socio-economic competition with neighboring ethnic groups that could not be resolved by other than violent means.

This state-ethnicity nexus dates back to the colonial period. The colonial state was undemocratic, ruthless and arbitrary. As a rule, it projected its power without consulting the people; invariably it acted against their will. Its policies completely changed the African political, economic and socio-cultural landscape. They produced a massive population shift, especially from the rural to the urban areas; alienated community land; destroyed local institutions; created new public institutions; redefined notions of physical and political space; and created new notions of citizenship. Unilateral and coercive actions of the colonial state played the leading role in forcing through these changes. This was the beginning of virulent ethnicity.

This ethnicity was reinforced by the ruthless projection of state power during the early post-colonial period. These were the heydays of the one-party sate and military rule. Increased centralization of state power, a widening of the scope of corruption, increased repression, the expansion and intensification of the process of class formation, the emergence of class factions, and massive changes in the agrarian sector formed the context for the evolution of new identities, redefinition of pre-colonial and colonial identities, and the manipulation of these identities for political and other purposes. Added to all this is the impact of the political, economic and ecological crises of the state on ethnicity and its growth.

Furthermore, the growth of ethnicity is promoted by the tendency of globalization to bring everyone into close proximity by shrinking everything into one small intimate space that has to be fought for incessantly. Shrinking physical space, increasing proximity and enforced intimacy cause tension and anxiety because they crowd people into ever-smaller space with all their differences and mutual suspicions intact. Even when globalization tries to induce common values, as for example through the global market, it does not reduce the tensions; if anything it increases them by inducing convergence on the same values and focusing demand on the same scarce resources (Ake, 1997).

Such tensions are compounded by the increasing openness of state boundaries spawned by globalization. Everyone everywhere is exposed to the unblinking view and judgment of a global society. There is no place to hide, no respite from scrutiny and assessment. One result of this trend is the tendency towards undermining the state. As the state is undermined it decomposes into its constituent linguistic, religious or ethnic components. The dismemberment of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia is illustrative. Globalization produces tensions, uncertainties and ruptures that cause serious changes in attitudes and orientations. The abstract universalism of civil identity in the nation-state is unable to contain these changes. This is because such changes elicit particularistic but holistic cultural identities such as religious or ethnic identities.

By all indications, African peoples have sought to resist oppressive state presence by embracing new identities, sometimes different from their pre-colonial identities. They have overwhelmingly embraced primary identities such as ethnic and religious identities. Their preference for primary identities is because of the generalized and cultural nature of the threat. Such a threat demands nothing but the crystallization of the self holistically. This is precisely what primary identities do. However, as self-reflexivity this type of primary identity takes itself and all its claims for granted but does not take rival identity claims seriously except in the confrontation by which it determines and invigorates itself by negation. Therefore and unfortunately, when the struggle against the threat (state violence) is waged (ethnic conflict) it is sometimes directed against the wrong enemies, other ethnic groups rather than the rampaging undemocratic state.

Unlike pre-colonial ethnicity, the ethnicity that emanates from these rapidly changing national and global conditions is fiercely competitive and intolerant of ethnic minority views and feelings. It is not aimed at promoting production and commerce as in the pre-colonial past but the control and monopolization of power and material resources. It seeks advantage in the socio-economic and political scheme of things. These characteristics are reinforced by the partisan nature of the African state in factional disputes, the extensive intervention of the state in economic and social life that makes the state a strategic instrument for power and wealth in Africa. Thus, one can understand the intensity of the struggle among ethnic groups to control and dominate the state.

The Dynamics of Ethnic Violence
The exclusive and oppositional nature of contemporary ethnicity in Africa makes it inherently prone to conflict; it emerged in response to state violence and thrives on it. Quite often the incumbent government is on the other side of the conflict. This is reinforced by the ethnic composition of the government that controls state power. Thus the state can bring its full weight into ethnic confrontation. The coercive apparatuses of the state such as the military, police and intelligence units become involved, raising the level of violence that may be used. In fact, the participation of the state in ethnic conflict in Rwanda made possible the genocide in that country.

In the belief that it enjoys preponderant force in the conflict situation, the government often rejects overtures for mediation and other peaceful modes of conflict resolution. It invokes the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of states in order to prevent external mediation. It only changes its mind when it believes that it may lose the struggle. By then several factors that fuel violence would have complicated the situation. These include: increased distrust, negative anticipation of generalized harm from the other side, placing all the guilt for the conflict on the other side, increased identification of the other side with evil, and increased refusal to empathize with the other side. (Spillman and Spillman, 1991: 57-58). One of the possible consequences of the situation is the intrusion of irrationality into ethnic antagonism, culminating in an increasingly intense spiral of self-confirming hostile suspicions, counteractions and expectations that are virtually unrelated to the initial cause of antagonism and which may open the possibility of ethnic violence. Under the circumstance, the ethnic factor assumes a self-fulfilling and self-confirming dynamic of its own that culminates in ethnic violence (Alexander, 1938). Fear of subjugation and extermination ensures that ethnic groups make radical demands and escalate the conflict through the use of violence (UNDIR, 1995:50). The Most extreme demand is for the ethnic homogenization of society within a particular territory, which can lead to assimilation, sometimes forced. In extreme cases it may lead to the expulsion or extermination of other groups in a program of ethnic cleansing.

The world community has good reasons to worry about ethnic violence. Such violence has a more pernicious character than other forms of violence. It is a messy and no-holds-barred affair in which human lives are greatly devalued. Between 1945 and 1990, for example, ethnic violence caused greater loss of lives worldwide than all other forms of deadly conflicts combined (Stavenhagen, 1990:76). Violations of human rights are of particular gravity in conflicts involving ethnic violence (Newland, 1993). On the part of the perpetrators and victims alike, a certain xenophobic collectivism or solidarity is associated with ethnic violence. It involves a collective sense of belonging, mission, self-realization and self-affirmation. There is a feeling on the part of the individuals of seizing their destiny in their own hands akin to the dynamics of mob action. Every individual is turned into a soldier by the sole virtue of her or his group identity.

Thus one can understand the intensity of response to perceived injury by members of ethnic groups, up to and including the unleashing of extreme violence as in Rwanda, Burundi, Kaduna (Nigeria) and the Rift Valley (Kenya). The aggressive and murderous ethnic militiaman may even believe that his very existence is threatened by the perceived injury to his ethnic group. Similarly, members of the group tend to identify with their co-ethnics. Hence, a poor villager believes that a cabinet minister from his/her village represents his/her own share of the national cake even though he/she may never receive any material reward from the appointment.

How is this intensity of ethnic violence to be explained? Once people are mobilized on the basis of primary identity the conflict is necessarily intense because they are inclined to believe that they are defending their whole way of life. The tragic enormity of this point is clearly evident in Rwanda, Burundi, Bosnia, Kosovo, Algeria and Sudan. What makes identity-based conflicts so violent is the way in which the issues in the dispute are emotionally charged. They go right to the heart of what gives the people their sense of themselves, defining a person’s bond with his or her community and defining the source of satisfaction for her or his need for identity. Above all, ethnicity has the power to totalize and transcend other loyalties and obligations. When people’s multiple identities are narrowed down to a single focus, social divisions become deeper, more rigid and deeply emotional. In such a condition, identity does not merely distinguish among groups but may also cause one group to dehumanize and demonize another.

In other words, the problem with ethnic conflicts is that some of the key issues in it are not about material resources that can be negotiated. They often involve status, culture and identity. However, identity and beliefs are non-negotiable. They involve symbolic, cultural and moral values that are not amenable to compromise. Therefore, ethnic conflicts are much less amenable to compromise, negotiation or trade-off. A conflict that threatens the very sense of a people’s identity is much more difficult to manage than other types of conflicts. Furthermore, in the absence of ethnic diplomats, ethnic armies and standard negotiating frameworks, ethnic conflicts are more difficult to handle. They are less amenable to diplomatic intervention or standard methods of crisis management and peaceful settlement of disputes (Carment, 1993). These characteristics explain why ethnic conflicts are often very prolonged, bloody and inimitable, and why unlike conflicts over material issues they are often closed to compromises. 

Types of Ethnic Violence
State violence creates an atmosphere in which socio-economic insecurity, environmental crisis, physical danger and cultural alienation breed ethnic identities, reinforce them and pit them against the state and one another. When this situation is not properly managed ethnic violence explodes. In Africa such violence has exploded along five lines: against the state, against local and foreign investments, against other ethnic groups over scarce resources, against other ethnic groups in reaction to government policy, and involving foreign powers. 

Since state violence is the source of insecurity for ethnic groups, some of them react directly against the state. Ethnic violence in the Niger delta region of Nigeria is illustrative. While the people of the Niger delta have faced the hazards of oil production, they have in general also failed to gain from the oil wealth produced in their area. The region remains poorer than the national average. The people constantly complain of neglect and environmental degradation. They demand a greater part of the revenue derived from oil, control of the economic resources of the region, and a greater degree of political autonomy, up to and including the right to self-determination. Underlying the resultant ethnic violence against the state and the multinational companies is the absence of democratic consultation of the people by the state on matters pertaining to the transnational corporations; the non-participation of the people in decisions related to the activities of these corporations; the absence of democratic dialogue in relations between ethnic groups and the state; and the indifference of the government to the interests of affected communities as it projects state power. 

In effect, therefore, the struggle of the people of the Niger delta against the state overlaps with their struggle against the multinational oil companies operating in the area. In its investigation of the oil industry Human Rights Watch found out that the people of the oil-producing areas were brutalized by agents of the state for attempting to raise grievances with the oil companies. In some cases the state security forces threatened, beat and jailed members of community delegations even before they presented their cases. Many local people were repressed by state agents simply for putting forth an interpretation of a compensation agreement, or for seeking effective compensation for land ruined or livelihood lost as a result of the operations of these oil companies (Human Rights Watch, 1999:2).
Activities of oil companies damage the productive forces of the local community. Occasional oil spills pollute waters and degrade farming land. The mangrove forest of the delta is particularly vulnerable to oil spills, because the soil soaks up the oil like a sponge and re-releases it every rainy season. Official sources estimate that about 2,300 cubic meters of oil are spilled in 300 separate incidents in the Niger delta every year. Between 1976 and 1996, a total of 4,835 incidents resulted in the spillage of 2,446,322 barrels of oil, of which an estimated 1,896,930 barrels were lost to the environment. Another source of oil pollution and environmental degradation is the oil leak from high-pressure pipelines that spurt out over a wide area, killing people and destroying crops, fishing ponds, economic trees, and other income-generating assets. For example, pollution from a major Texaco spill of 1980 led to 180 deaths in one community alone (Human Rights Watch, 1999).

Apart from oil spills other activities of the oil companies damage the capacity of the local community to sustain its livelihood. Road construction destroys trees and fishing ponds; and disrupts seasonal fishing. The construction of canals disrupts the delicate hydrological system of the delta, especially when they are constructed in the border zone between fresh water and brackish water. Such disruption can destroy long-established fishing grounds. For example, the canal dug by Chevron near the village of Awoye in Ilaje/Ese-Odo local government area of Ondo state caused accelerated erosion of land by sea, and destroyed the local hydrological system by allowing salt water into fresh water areas, creating a salt water marsh in place of the much higher biodiversity fresh water swamp. Similarly, site preparation for drilling often involves clearance of vegetation and dredging of rivers that destroy the ecology of the area. Unfenced flow stations and other oil facilities have claimed lives. For example, in 1997 five children drowned in Esit Eket in Akwa Ibom State in an unfenced flooded pit. Finally, gas flaring of about 95%of the gas associated with crude oil and 75% of total gas production in Nigeria, the highest in the world, contributes greatly to the world’s total emission of greenhouse gases. The low-lying Niger delta is particularly vulnerable to the potential effects of the rising of sea levels as a result of these greenhouse gases. 

These destructive consequences of the activities of the oil companies generate conflict between them and the local communities in which the government usually takes sides with the oil companies. In this way conflicts between the people and oil companies become automatically violent conflicts with the government, as the latter uses force to repress the people on behalf of the oil companies. For example, in October 1990 the youth of Umuechem community demonstrated against the Shell Petroleum Development Company demanding electricity, water, roads and other compensation for its pollution of cropland and water supplies. On October 29 and 30, 1990 the company repeatedly requested security protection from the government. It specifically requested the notorious Mobile Police Force. On October 31, the Mobile Police attacked peaceful demonstrators with tear gas and gunfire. They returned at 5am the next day shooting indiscriminately in a purported attempt to locate three of their missing members. At the end of their operation 80 unarmed persons had been killed and 495 houses in the community destroyed.

Progressively, these conflicts evolved to involve the entire ethnic group. For example, the Ogoni articulated and pursued their grievances against the oil companies through an ethnic group-wide organization, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). This organization was formed in 1990. Its leaders, activists and followers are drawn from the entire Ogoni ethnic group. In August 1990, it adopted the Ogoni Bill of Rights that listed the grievances of the Ogoni people against the oil companies and the Nigerian state. These grievances included compensation for environmental damage caused by oil companies, and the control by the ethnic group of a fair share of the resources of Ogoni land, as well as a large measure of political autonomy. The political demands were addressed to the state but Shell was accused of full responsibility for the genocide of the Ogoni people by its pollution of their environment.

In December 1992, MOSOP presented its demands to Shell, Chevron and the Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC), the partners of the joint venture operating in Ogoni land. These demands were accompanied by an ultimatum to the companies to pay royalties within 30 days or quit Ogoni land. They were followed by a series of militant Ogoni demonstrations that forced Shell to cease production in Ogoni land in January 1993, effectively shutting off 3% of its production in Nigeria. However, active Shell pipelines continued to traverse Ogoni land, carrying oil produced at other fields.

Brutal state repression ensued. A Rivers State Internal Security Task Force, a military unit, was created in January 1994 specifically for this purpose. In 1995 Human Rights Watch published a report on the Ogoni crisis that documented detentions, harassments and extra-judicial executions of MOSOP activists by the Task Force and other security agencies. This state repression culminated in the judicial murder of Ken Saro Wiwa, the MOSOP leader and eight of his colleagues. In spite of the domestic and international protest of this murder, MOSOP activists continued to be extra-judicially executed, beaten and detained by members of the state security forces until the death of General Sani Abacha, the Nigerian dictator, in June 1998 (Human Rights Watch, 1999).

The activities of MOSOP influenced the Ijaw ethnic group to organize themselves around the Movement for the Survival of the Izon (Ijaw) Ethnic Nationality in the Niger Delta (MOSIEND). In October 1992 it adopted an Izon People’s Charter that demanded, among other things, compensation for oil revenues derived from their territory, as well as a separate state. In November 1992 another ethnic movement, the Ogbia (Ijaw sub- group that occupies the area of the nation’s first oil well, Oloibiri), joined the struggle against the state and oil companies. In a charter of demands drafted by the Movement for Reparation for Ogbia (MORETO), the movement called for the repeal of constitutional provisions giving ownership of minerals to the state, and a “restoration of our rights to at least 50 percent of all oil exploited in our land” (Human Rights Watch, 1999:129-130).

In December 1998, Ijaw youths from different communities adopted the Kaiama Declaration that claimed that all land within Ijaw territorial area belonged to Ijaw people. It demanded the immediate withdrawal from Ijaw land of all military forces of occupation belonging to the Nigerian state. It warned that any oil company that employed the armed forces of the state to protect its operations would be viewed as an enemy of the Ijaw people. However, its demands did not include secession from the Nigerian state. By 1997 the struggle of the Niger delta people against the oil companies and the Nigerian state had assumed a pan-ethnic character. The Chikoko (Mangrove Soil) Movement was launched in August 1997. It sought to unite all ethnic groups of the delta, and defined ethnic minority rights of the Niger delta people, as well as their enemies, namely: the Nigerian state, Nigeria’s ruling elite (military and civilian) and their collaborators and the oil companies. It demanded an immediate end to all environmentally damaging economic activities by the oil companies and the right to self-determination of the ethnic nationalities of Nigeria.

In the further pursuit of their objective, the youth of the area have organized themselves along ethnic lines to wage a struggle against the state and its agencies. The youth seize oil workers and block oil production, while the government responds with bullets and other instruments of repression. During the later half of 1998, the Abdulsalami Abubarkar regime billeted thousands of troops in the Niger delta in an attempt to contain the situation. This action led to a running battle between the local youth and the soldiers in which many soldiers and civilians were killed. It was this pattern of ethnic violence that led to the Odi massacre of 1999.

Ethnic violence in the separatist province of Cassamance in Senegal is illustrative of conflict between an ethnic group and the state over material and political resources, without the involvement of foreign or local companies. The conflict pits the Joola ethnic group against the Senegalese state. Its causes are varied and its dynamics complex. Economic crisis, social instability, historical neglect and political problems linked up with geography and colonial history to make the situation complex. However, the years 1980-1983 saw an escalation of the conflict. This is because of the hardship imposed by the Structural Adjustment Program. As resources became scarcer than before, the struggle for them became more intense, leading to increased ethnicity and ethnic identity. Under the circumstance, land assumed a great deal of importance in the scheme of things.

The increasingly massive immigration of northerners to the Cassamance entailed the expropriation of landed estates and property in the region by Northerners, non-Joola peoples. During 1980-1981 alone, for example, about 2000 parcels of land were expropriated or allocated exclusively to non-indigenes in the Boucotte, Lyndiane, Peyrissac and Tilene districts of Ziguinchor, the capital of Senegal. Driven to the undeveloped outskirts of the urban center, where there is no electricity, running water and health care facilities, the native population was denied the right to the good things of life in their city by the state; instead, the state enabled the ethnic groups of the North to enjoy these privileges (Diaw and Diouf, 1999:266).

This migration into Joola land not only entailed economic consequences for the indigenous population, it also changed the ethnic and linguistic configuration of the region. Economic domination by northerners translated linguistically into the increasing use of the Wolof language at the expense of the Creole and Joola languages. In addition, the Baol-Baol merchants, known for their very aggressive methods, invaded Ziguinchor market with their way of life that is dominated by Mouride religious values and orientation (Diaw and Diouf, 1999: 266). Thus the Joola were increasingly marginalized in their own region by influences and faces from outside it. They have since retained a feeling of having been invaded. The intensification of the struggle for independence from Senegal during this period may thus be understood.

Ethnic groups sometimes fight among themselves for resources as a result of policies unilaterally adopted by government. The case of ethnic violence in northern Ghana from 1981 to 1989 is illustrative. In order to be eligible for financial assistance from the rich countries the regime of Jerry Rawlings adopted the Structural Adjustment Program (SAP). By that very unilateral action the government increased the hardship of the people through a 990% devaluation of the national currency, a 65% decrease in the price of cocoa, a doubling of the retail price of gasoline, a massive public sector retrenchment and the removal of controls from prices. As a result of the unpopularity of these policies they could only be implemented by force, state violence. The resultant hunger and misery reached such disturbing levels that protruding neck bones, dubbed “Rawling’s chain” became prominent in the population.

 A number of people sought relief in the primary group. In the northern regions, the more open access to freehold tenure facilitated the return to the land there of urbanites withdrawing from the state sector and returning to their indigenous homeland. The result was pressure on land and the customs attached to it. Urban Konkomba who returned to the village found it difficult to accept the feudal system of allegiance to the Nanumba chiefs. Although the Konkomba outnumbered the Nanumba in Nanum (land of the Nanumba), they were regarded as settlers on land that originally belonged to the Nanumba. Therefore, they were required individually to: supply the Bimbilla Naa (Nanumba chief) hind legs of animals killed at funerals, work on the chief’s farm, submit their disputes for adjudication by the chief, and sell their yam produce at low prices to Nanumba middle women. The Konkomba resented these feudal obligations, especially the incessant demands on them for bribes during the adjudication of their complex and peculiar marriage custom that the Nanumba chiefs did not understand but settled on the basis of the highest bidder (Brukum, 1999).

Under the leadership of the urban returnees, especially through the Konkomba Youth Association (KOYA), most Konkomba refused to pay the traditional homage and tributes, organized an alternative marketing of their yams, culminating in the establishment of their own market place in Accra. They dismissed the old ways as antiquated and exploitative. On their part, Nanumba chiefs and traders were greatly angered by this Konkomba insubordination that adversely affected their livelihood and, through it, that of the Nanumba at large. The consequence was an ever-escalating spiral of tension that eventually exploded into armed confrontation that was fought intermittently between 1981 and 1994.

The 1981 war is illustrative of the character of the conflict. It started on April 23, 1981 and by the end of the month four Nanumba chiefs had been killed, a full lorry load of corpses had been generated and hundreds of Nanumbas and their Dagomba allies had fled to neighboring Togo or tried to return to Nanum proper through land across the Mo River that belongs to the Nanumba (Brukum, 1999). Between April and June 1981, the Nanumba planned their revenge. During the latter month, their forces crossed the Oti River at Salnayili and tried to push the Konkomba out of the Chichagi area. This would have enabled them to cross the Mo River into Kpasaland to attack the Konkomba. However, the Nanumba warriors were bogged down in Chichagi and later surprised by well-organized Konkomba warriors in the area of Wulerisi that appeared to be defenseless at the time. Estimates of those dead at Wulerisi varied from two thousand to five hundred while estimates for the whole of this second round of fighting put the dead at two thousand.

Although the state intervened eventually to end the bloodshed, its action seemed biased. The Ghana Army and Police stopped the fighting only when Bimbilla (Nanum capital) itself was in danger of being overrun by Konkomba forces. Although President Liman whose political base lay in the north virtually condemned the feudal practices that precipitated the war, the sympathy of the state bureaucracies, including the army and police seemed to lie with the Nanumba. More than their Konkomba adversaries they were better educated, and therefore, occupied more and better positions in the state institutions. They used their influence to support their co-ethnics in the struggle. There were allegations that this support included the use of official channels to ship arms to Nanumba warriors. Therefore, it is not surprising that the state authorities merely put a lid on the conflict without resolving it. Consequently, the conflict exploded into greater violence in 1992 and 1994.

In the Niger delta region of Nigeria, some ethnic violence is associated with the struggle for resources but not in response to some general public policy. Ethnic groups fight over matters related to the oil wealth produced in the area. One of the most violent of these fights is between the Ijaw and Itsekiri ethnic groups in Delta State. Both claim ownership of the most productive oil producing areas of the state, and demand compensations and economic privileges as a result. They fight each other for these privileges. For example, in March 1997, violence flared up in Warri, the second largest ‘oil’ town after Portharcourt, over the arbitrary location of a local government headquarters from Ogbe-Ijaw, an Ijaw town, to Ogidigben, an Itsekiri town. The location of such headquarters is usually associated with economic and other privileges.

From March to May, widespread clashes occurred during which hundreds of lives were lost on both sides. During this period six Shell flow stations were seized and 127 Shell staff held hostage by Ijaw youth who claimed that the company favored and supported the Itsekiri. A seventh flow station was later closed down. Consequently, the company lost 210,000 barrels a day of its crude oil production. It even suspended the export of crude oil from its Bonny terminals for several days, and from April 29 till May 28, 1997 the export of cargo from its Forcados terminal. Invading oil installations was seen as a good way of bringing attention to protester’s demands.

Government responded as usual with force. A dusk-to-dawn curfew was imposed for several weeks on the area in March 1997; and a fast navy attack ship was sent in late April to restore order. Nevertheless, the Warri refinery was closed down for several days in May when the violence prevented vessels from reaching the port. But it was re-opened when the navy provided escorts for ships loading refined products. In October 1998 a curfew was again declared in Warri town following the death of five persons and the burning of a large number of houses. Yet the violence continued with attacks on the leaders of the communities. As recently as June 2, 1999 the situation erupted once more into violence causing the death of over 200 people. Similarly, in September 1998 violence broke out between the Ijaw and Ilaje people of Ondo State laying competing claims to Apala, an area in which oil wells are located in the Ilaje-Ese-Edo local government area of the state. Over fifty persons died and thousands were displaced in the ensuing armed clashes between the two communities.

In Congo (DRC), ethnic violence arising from the struggles of the Tutsi and Hutu in Rwanda, and the struggles of the ethnic groups of the north against those of the south of Uganda have complicated inter-ethnic violence within the country to generate foreign intervention in the country. Both Rwanda and Uganda have invaded the country in pursuit of ethnic wars in their respective countries. In the process they have stimulated ethnic violence within the Congo itself. The state violence associated with the regimes of Mobutu and Kabila have facilitated this development. The ensuing violence and confusion have led to the fragmentation of the state, an orgy of bloodletting and the plundering of the country’s natural resources. 

Implications of Ethnic Violence for State Failure
In Africa ethnic violence pollutes the political process and upsets economic activities. Where and when they degenerate into low level or large-scale civil wars, they waste human lives, generate refugees and other displaced persons, lead to the proliferation of small arms and land mines within the country and region, cause the spread of war consciousness and militarism among the population, and impact negatively on the socio-economic and political life of the countries in the region. Such civil wars turn people’s attention from creative production to creative destruction. Apart from the destruction of human lives, bridges are blown up, roads and railways destroyed, airports and seaports immobilized and business enterprises as well as schools and hospitals destroyed, abandoned or forced to operate below capacity.

Violent ethnic conflicts exert their most significant impacts on the loss of lives. Many combatants and civilians are killed by direct military action, as well as by land mines, famine and starvation. Many others die from inadequate medical care and the shock of fighting. In Burundi and Rwanda, the continual eruption of ethnic pogroms culminated in genocidal massacres in Rwanda in 1994 during which an estimated one million Tutsi were brutally murdered by their Hutu compatriots.

Even when human beings survive the war, they often retain its physical and psychological scars. Apart from children who are mentally deformed as a result of severe malnutrition, others become alienated from society, including those forced to migrate from their houses either as refugees or internally displaced persons. Women and children are the most vulnerable because of their relative powerlessness in the largely patriarchal societies of Africa. Forced female migrants are vulnerable to physical and sexual attacks during flight as well as in their places of refuge. They are often victims of abuse and abandonment by their spouses, military related violence and forced recruitment, sexual exploitation and forced prostitution.

Children require special attention during periods of forced migration because their tender age makes them especially vulnerable to the physical and psychological dangers of war and refugee life. Yet very often children get separated from their families or become orphaned or abducted during the commotion associated with war and refugee life. It is not uncommon for children to witness the murder of family members, suffer physical and sexual abuse, lose all contact with family and home, survive shelling and military attacks or be forced to become soldiers. They also lose opportunities for basic education, and are the first to die of malnutrition and disease.

In various ways, death-causing activity is a pernicious contributor to the growth of ethnic tension and hostility. More than any other factor it leaves behind the longest-lasting bitter memories of ethnic conflict. Its message is clear and unambiguous. It is often dramatic and easily observable by the population. Therefore, it cannot be mystified. It sharply demarcates ethnic lines, reinforcing feelings of being different and being able to count only on members of one’s group for understanding, action, security and welfare. The inevitable consequence is greater orientation to the ethnic in-group, leading to growth in ethnicity. A shared history of achievement on the part of the perpetrators of violence and of suffering by the victims becomes an important component of the ethnic equation. Such a history increases the exclusiveness, feeling of uniqueness and importance and, therefore, the solidarity of the group. The antagonism of the two histories leads to the intensification of ethnic tension and the consequent growth in ethnicity.

The direct or indirect involvement of the state in ethnic violence together with its consequences has negative impacts on the state. These include: loss of state legitimacy, paralysis of state, break up of state, destabilization of state by refugee flow, destabilization of state by foreign forces, and increased state repression, leading to increased ethnicity. Thus the cycle of state violence-ethnicity –state violence is completed. As this cycle repeats itself again and again, often at an increasing level of intensity of ethnicity and ethnic violence, the failure of the state becomes inevitable. 

Ethnic violence and its consequences severely weaken the legitimacy of the African state and its ability to hold together. Ordinarily, the African state is weaker than the incumbent government realizes. In general its legitimacy is low, it is driven by corruption and it is unable to organize and manage a reasonable level of material existence for the people. Therefore, it is unable to bring violent conflicts swiftly to an end. A band of few rebels can easily challenge its authority as in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Rwanda. Sooner or later the few rebels grow into a rebel army that is able to defeat the government. This may lead to the replacement of one ethnic group by another in the domination of the state. The respective histories of the National Resistance Movement of Uganda and the Rwandan Patriotic Front are illuminating. Ethnic violence further erodes this legitimacy. State violence that generates it hardly endears people to the state.

One of the consequences of ethnic violence is the paralysis of the state.  A good example is the Somali state. The state violence unleashed by the regime of Siad Barre led eventually to an internecine war among the Somali clans that has virtually destroyed the Somali state. Today there is no central authority in the country. Instead, various clans maintain their own armies and govern their respective territories. They also wage war against one another. All attempts so far to reconstitute the Somali state have failed. It has remained paralyzed.

In other circumstances ethnic violence has led to the break up of the state or unsuccessful attempts to break it up. The independence of Eritrea is illustrative. Following decades of structural violence imposed by the imperial government of Ethiopia and its successor military regime on the people of Eritrea, a thirty-year war ensued that led to the creation of the sovereign state of Eritrea out of Ethiopia. Examples of secession that failed include the attempt by Katanga to secede from the Congo (DRC) and Biafra to secede from Nigeria.

 In cases of extreme state weakness such as in Chad, Southern Sudan, Angola and Mozambique, the prevailing scarcity of material resources and skills means that in the face of ethnic violence state military forces are unable to guarantee effective state control over all parts of the country. Therefore, something amounting to de facto ethno-regional autonomy prevails (Rothchild and Foley, 1983: 317). Only increased reliance on physical force backed by external powers committed to the sanctity of existing African state boundaries can hold the country together as in the case of Katangese and Biafran secession. Where external support is lacking or is as weak as in Sudan and Ethiopia, the state is unable to maintain social coherence.

Ethnic violence may generate refugee flows that may destabilize the state. Refugees may pose a military threat to the host country in a number of ways. Combatants may mix with the refugees and use the haven of the host country to launch attacks into their own country. They thus invite retaliatory attacks that impose hardship not only on the refugees but also on the host country. In the case of the host country, Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Uganda have invaded the country to flush out these armed refugees. Refugees may also become embroiled in the domestic politics of the host country by supporting opponents of the regime. Also, violent conflict may arise between the refugees and their host population, or among the refugees themselves, spilling over into the host community.

In another respect, refugees often make exorbitant demands on the resources of the hosts. Water, food, fuel and land are often affected. Even when the international community helps out, a great deal of the burden is still borne by the host state. These include environmental damage caused by large concentrations of people in an area; wages may be forced down where refugees join the labor force; or refugees may create inflation if they compete for scarce goods in the market or for housing in the urban areas. Resultant domestic resentment may translate into anti-regime political action and domestic conflict. 

As is clearly illustrated by the Congo (DRC), the existence of ethnic violence in a region may lead to the destabilization of a state in the region by local and foreign forces in the region. In this case a combination of structural violence in the Congo and refugees entering the country from Rwanda precipitated an internal and international crisis that has led to a region-wide war. The result has been the destabilization of the Congo; at the same time the wider war has imposed tension and socio-political dislocation in Zimbabwe, Uganda, Angola, Rwanda and Namibia. There is no peace in the central African region as a result.

Thus, associated with state violence is ethnic violence. It gives rise to escalating conflict, tension and more violence that make it difficult to return to the original level of tension. Instead, equilibrium is achieved at a different and higher level of hostility. Such an upward shifting of the equilibrium of inter-ethnic tension accounts for the continued growth of ethnicity and ethnic violence. This is particularly so when successive violence reinforces memories of previous ones. The respective histories of Nigeria, Congo (DRC), Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and Sudan are illustrative. If the state responds with repression and more state violence, the state violence-ethnicity-state violence cycle is not only completed but also nourished. The task of conflict resolution is to break this cycle. 

Conclusion: Democratic Solution to Ethnic Violence
The African state plays an essentially causative role in African conflicts. Its unilateral and non-dialogic decision-making style, its arrogance, propensity to project power and its monolithic conception of state sovereignty impel it to act in ways that call forth resistance to its policies, or indirect aggression among non-state groups. The power of the African state relative to other organizations in the society feeds the confidence of the managers of state power in Africa with the belief that they can do and get what they want. It drives their aggression, promotes their intransigence in conflicts that they provoke and in which they are directly or indirectly involved (practically all conflicts), and renders such conflicts intractable whenever the state finds it difficult to prevail over its adversaries. 

 Thus the African state’s view of conflict management is one of suppression of conflicts. It assumes that its political structures are sacrosanct; it is unable and, oftentimes, unwilling to realize, until it is too late, that it may be the inappropriateness of these structures for addressing the needs and aspirations of the people that generates conflicts; and that restructuring them and defining new objectives is important for conflict prevention, management and resolution.

To restructure this autocratic African state is to democratize it. The goal of this democratization is to empower the people. The resultant democratic state should, among other things, lead to greater responsiveness, accountability, transparency and negotiation of consensus with the people over policies. It should address both the social and economic spheres, as well as the political sphere, in an effort to uplift the masses, including their incorporation into decision-making over and above the formal consent of electoral choice.

Among other things, the democratization of the African state must involve the decentralization of social power in the society. The goal is to empower other social and political groups than the state, and to make them independent of the state. Civil society organizations are important centers to be so empowered. Part of the task of civil society organizations is to impress on the state the need for it to be democratized and for the resolution of conflict to be democratized as well. Among other things, democratization involves creating channels for non-violent communication, including an emphasis on the reconstruction of political institutions and the economic infrastructure in a manner that is people-friendly. The local expertise and contacts of these organizations, their access to areas out of reach of government officials, their sensitivity to, and knowledge of, the underlying causes of conflicts together with their ability to respond flexibly and rapidly to crises are obvious assets for peace-building efforts.

By their very existence, growth and effectiveness in their respective areas of life, civil society organizations undermine the propensity of the managers of state power to project power unilaterally and to feed state aggression by doing so. They provide alternative and competing information, ideas, perspectives, policies and job opportunities to those of government. They encourage the government, through dialogue or pressure, to consult the people before making decisions that affect them. Such consultations minimize the ex post facto enemies often generated by government policies and whose hostility fans the embers of the conflict process.

In comparison with the state, civil society organizations are more amenable to the peaceful resolution of conflicts. First, they do not have armies and, therefore, must rely on non-coercive means of conflict resolution. States have armies and “to him who has a hammer, the world looks like a nail”. In other words, states tend to see problems as military problems. By seeing them as military problems they sooner or later create them as military problems. Second, civil society organizations are less secretive than states. The latter inherited this secrecy from the feudal ages. Therefore, they lack the openness that is by and large good, at least in the negotiating room, in a conflict-transformation process. Third, states tend to see themselves as causa sua, their own cause. As a result military policy is yet to be democratized in any state. Secrecy remains the pervasive technique of that policy. Civil society organizations have a different and more democratic dynamic. Fourth and finally, states tend to be patriarchic. On the other hand, conflict resolution seems better suited to female rather than male undertaking since male-dominated groups and institutions have traditionally been largely responsible for the outbreak of violent conflicts. A major reason why civil society organizations have the potential to make progress in conflict resolution is that they are less patriarchic than states, opening their gates to women. Therefore, relevant civil society organizations should be encouraged to participate in conflict resolution.

While devolving power to civil society organizations it is also necessary to ensure that civil society is decentralized. This is because some elements of civil society have links with government or are outright government agents. Therefore, the concentration of power within civil society may lead to the domination of civil society by these government forces. This would constrain civil society from playing its rightful role in the process of democratization and conflict resolution. Furthermore, this society is not necessarily democratic, being a terrain for the contestation of power and influence. It also needs to be democratized.

A viable and active mass media would be another pole of power in society. It has the capacity to provide alternative viewpoints, ideas and policies to those of government. By surveying the political scene at both the center and periphery of society, and bringing an agenda of issues to the arena of pubic discussion, the media can generate informed and considered public opinion. Through nudging certain issues into the limelight the media can also affect political agenda, and influence political leaders to discuss the issues on that agenda among themselves and with their followers. Similarly, by reflecting the distribution of opinion, it can exercise influence and control over government in the name of the people. However, in order to play this role effectively the media itself must be decentralized sufficiently to reflect the diversity of views and policies in the country, and to prevent government-owned media from dominating the formation and expression of public opinion. 

At the level of the state itself, there is need to decentralize that power that accrues to the state from the decentralization of the total power of the society. Such decentralization should take place both functionally and spatially. Functionally, the executive, legislative and judicial powers need to be strengthened and made independent of one another, as well as people-oriented. This includes providing each of them with enough resources to perform its functions, and protecting the rights of the population through the mutual balancing of the powers and interests of one another of these powers.

In addition, state power needs to be decentralized spatially. It should be shared between the central, regional and local governments. This would bring government closer to the people, and stimulate their participation in governmental processes and decision-making, because of their proximity to the government. In this way the activities of government will have direct relevance to the lives of the people on a daily basis. Such grassroots politics is capable of empowering the people, and removing the mistrust and alienation between them and their leaders.

 Apart from the decentralization of state power there is need to develop and enforce social checks and pressures as core aspects of the governmental process to reinforce the constitutional and institutional checks and balances in the constitution. This is to say that the structure of political practice in Africa as currently expressed needs to be modified to put high premium on tolerance, reciprocity and mutuality in government’s relations with the people, and a corresponding rejection by the political leaders of an ideology of power and its projection. The electorate and the generality of the citizenry (civil society) must be active protagonists in the governmental process, playing the role of an ever vigilant and biting watchdog, exhibiting what Machiavelli calls “virtu”, the determination to compel the political leaders to uphold the rule of law and the canons of republican and constitutional government.

Finally, the democracy of popular empowerment envisaged by the democratization of state power must show genuine concern for the removal of the constraints of poverty on the political behavior of the people. Under the prevailing multi-party democracy it has been difficult for the people to exercise their will at elections. Their votes have not translated into their choices. This is because unscrupulous politicians exploit their poverty and powerlessness. Through intimidation, bribery and ballot rigging they frustrate the electoral choices of the people. Every effort should be made to empower the people sufficiently to ensure that voting and choosing coincide.

Thus if an undemocratic state is responsible for state violence that breeds ethnic conflict and violence in Africa, then the solution to ethnic violence on the continent must start with a thorough-going democratization of the African state. Such a process should be initiated and sustained by the vast majority of the people. Its goal should be the empowerment of the masses. The government will then see the people as equals and will eschew arrogance in its dealings with them. By relying on transparency, accountability, responsiveness, the rule of law and continual dialogue with the people in the formulation and implementation of policies, the government will only very rarely resort to state violence. The cycle of state violence-ethnicity-state violence would then be broken. 

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© The ideas and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author
and do not necessarily reflect the views of UNESCO.

© Les idées et opinions exprimées dans cet article sont celles de l'auteur
et n’engagent pas la responsabilité de l´UNESCO.