Conflict, Social Dislocation
and the Search for a New Order in Africa
In the explanation
of the socio-political crisis in Africa, one factor which has continued
to surface is the phenomenon of ethnicity. The term ethnicity, following
Abner Cohen, refers to strife between ethnic groups in the course of which
people stress their identity and exclusiveness (1969:4). The dominant
view is that the cause of ethnic strife in Africa is the socio-cultural
configuration of Africa and the fact of the divisive tendency of ethnic
or tribal plurality (Nnoli 1 9S0: Ekeh 1980: Osaghae 1992). Against this
background is the view that the divisive structure of ethnic groups is
one of the "several manifestations of a more fundamental problem on the
socio-political landscape in Africa (Uroh 1998: 94). According to this
view, ethnicity is not the cause but a consequence of a more serious problem
in Africa. This problem is that "ethnic conflicts in Africa are a product
of the declining capacity of the state in Africa to justify its existence
by pursuing the common good" (Ibid.). That is the failure of the state
in fulfilling its obligations has caused its citizens to seek social fulfillment
in their primordial enclaves.
This paper is a development of these two dominant opinions on the question
of ethnic conflict in Africa. By development, we mean whichever way we
may want to look at the two opposing views above, they do not undermine
the fact of the existence of diverse ethnic groups and the fact that from
time to time these groups conflict with one another. Our contention here
is not with the fundamental problem of what has been identified as regime
legitimization (Uroh 1998: 94), but rather that of how, in spite of the
diversity of ethnic groupings and their attendant conflicts, we can harmonize
our differences and live like brothers. We believe that it is only after
we have effectively managed our differences that the whole question of
the legitimacy of the state in Africa can be meaningful. This means that
even if the state is responsive to the common good of the society, because
of the socio-cultural differences in African societies, social relations
will not annihilate ethnic conflict. In other words, "because our societies
comprise a multitude of religions, ethnic… groups with competing interests,
competing values and needs, conflict is inevitable and natural to most
societies" (West Africa, 1996:939). If conflict is inevitable in this
sense, then "the challenge is how to develop within African political
processes, institutions and cultures that can mediate these competitions
peacefully routinely in a way that does not plunge our society into the
spiral of conflict and violence" (lbid:938). This is because societies
throughout the world which are stable are not those with an absence of
conflict, but rather those which are able to manage conflicts in stable
ways. The question to ask at this juncture is how can effectively manage
ethnic conflicts in African societies, in spite of the diversity of ethnic
or tribal groups and their values.
Before we begin to look into the issue of the management of ethnic conflict,
let us first see how these conflicts are generated in Africa. Many answers
no doubt vie for attention. We shall, however, be concerned with two here.
The first one is what we may call the colonial dimension in the crisis
of the African state and the implication of this on social cohesion and
There is no doubt that ideas vary about the structures and institutions
bequeathed to us by our colonizers. But it has been suggested that ethnic
crisis in Africa is a product of the way ethnic groups were, as a result
of colonial conquest, chaotically crammed into African states (Ake, 1993:
32, Uroh, 1998:98). The reasoning here is not that something is inherently
conflictual about social or cultural pluralism (Uroh 1998;98). This is
because there are some culturally plural societies that do not have or
are not as crisis-ridden as African Societies. Yes, this is correct, but
it is equally misleading in the sense that if we look at the issue in
this light, we are likely to overlook the intention of the colonizers
concerning state formation and its implication for social cohesion. According
to Oladipo, "what the colonizers did with regard to state formation was
to combine the 'territories of formerly distinct people' to form colonial
territories (1998: 108); a thing which was done because they needed to
separate the sphere of influence of different European rulers” (Ade Ajavi
1992:8). In other words, the aim of the colonizers was not the creation
of new states in the colonies for social and economic development; rather
in the words of Oladipo, the demarcation was meant to "ensure that colonial
control and dispossession could be achieved without undue rivalry among
colonizers (ibid). Hugh Clifford, Nigeria's colonial Governor in the 1920s,
also attested to the fact that the idea of "claming together of territories
of formerly distinct peoples to form colonial territories" was a deliberate
policy of the colonizers. He told the members of the National Council
for British West Africa that he was:
convinced of the rights, for example, of the people of Egbaland...
of any of the great Emirates of the North ... to maintain that each one
of them is, in a sense, a nation... (and that) it is the task of the government
of Nigeria to build and fortify these national institutions. (cited in
citation indicates the colonizer's recognition of the differences of the
many ethnic groups they clammed together, the implication of which was
the dispossession of the people of those values and practices which hitherto
served as vehicles for social identity and cohesion. The point of this
"cultural and social dispossession" was to put the people of the colonies
under a term of control that would make them unable to question colonial
practices and the assumptions on which they were based (Oladipo 1998:108).
For the colonialist, to do the contrary would mean to "mould one citizenry
from the many peoples" (Ibid) which will amount to the "formulation of
policies whose implementation would be geared towards the development
of a new consensus among the various peoples they brought together to
form new colonial territories" (Ibid). This is an option the colonizers
were not prepared to accept because it could eventually be used to question
the legitimacy of their authority. Hence, the colonizers adopted the divide-and-rule
system in their territories which sufficiently disunited the people in
Governor Clifford emphasized this disunity in 1920 when he said that his
administration would seek to secure:
to each separate people the right to maintain its identity, its individuality
and its nationality, its chosen form of government, and the peculiar political
and social institutions which have been evolved for it by the wisdom and
the accumulated experiences of generations of its forebears. (Coleman,
on the separation of ethnic groups created a new sense of communal identity
for the people where none existed, and provided a new symbolic and ethnocentric
focus for each group. This, of course, did not only complicate the task
of welding diverse elements in each colony into a coherent whole, it also
became the "source of many life-threatening conflicts which were to proliferate,
and consequently, impede the process of community development, in many
African countries a few decades after independence" (Oladipo 1998:109).
We have examples of these conflicts in Liberia, Somalia, Zaire, Rwanda,
Burundi, Algeria, Congo, Sudan and recently in Sierra Leone.
In all, we can say that the "divide-and-rule" mechanism adopted
by the European colonizers widened the social distance among the communal
groups, consequently reinforcing the ethnocentric factor in the emergence
Although colonialism was a system geared towards the exploitation
and oppression of the African peoples, it also created a bourgeoisie class
in Africa, in the term of nationalist whose policies and activities we
can also say is partly the source of ethnic conflict in Africa today.
When many African states gained independence, the nationalists that took
over the mantle of leadership from the colonialists were not only "interested
in replacing Europeans in leading positions of power and privileges" (NzongolaNtalaja
19896:76) they created opportunities for themselves and their cronies
that enabled them to plunder the economy and make sure that existing opportunities
and benefits in the state were reserved for themselves and people from
their ethnic or tribal enclaves. This is how NzengolaNtalaja poignantly
puts this view in his The Crisis in Zaire:
It is the national ruling class itself that constitutes the principal
obstacle to economic growth and development through the privatization
of the state, depriving it of these essential means and capabilities with
which to generate economic growth, improve the living conditions of the
an example of those nationalists who plundered the economy of their states
for personal benefit. As documented in one monthly magazine:
Since he came to power Mobutu has been alleged to hold about US $4
billion in a numbered SWISS bank account he owns. Documentary evidence
of the extent of corruption also testified to the fact that Mobutu, his
family and friends own twenty-six extensive properties in Belgium and
France... (quoted from Adesina 1998:83).
the story is not completely different from that of Mobutu. Between 1960
and now, the North has used its control of the seat of power in the country
to promote itself by the initiation and execution of policies and programmes
that secure for them key positions in the politico-economic spheres of
the country. This move is now supported by the much-disputed Federal character
clause in the 1979 constitution (section 14 (3) (a)) which states that:
The composition of the government of the federation or any of its affairs
should be carried out in such manner as to reflect the federal character
of Nigeria and the need to promote national unity and also to command
national loyalty thereby ensuring that there shall be no predominance
of persons from a few states or from a few ethnic or other sectional groups
in that government or in any of its agencies.
what the principle of federal character states is simply that Nigerian
affairs should be conducted in such a way that they are not dominated
by persons from a few states or ethnic groups. Although the point of the
inclusion of this principle in the constitution is to reflect the multi-ethnic
character of the Nigerian states, the application of this principle by
the Northerners who control the political power has brought more problems
than good to the Nigerian society.
To start with, the principle of federal character which has been used
by the Northerners to place their kinsmen in strategic positions is faulty
in the sense that unlike the principle of affirmative action in the United
States which was meant to compensate certain groups of people because
of the wrong done them in the past is not completely applicable to the
Nigerian scene. The reason being that the Northerners cannot be said to
have been wronged or have been denied opportunities and benefits by any
of the other ethnic groups in the society that now "suffer". Therefore,
we can say in the words of Bodunrin that the Northerners:
cannot be described as victims of past discriminatory government or
social policies by any group. Here, there 'is no guilty group which is
morally bound to make reparation for past misdeeds (Bodunrin 1989: 304).
Northerners are not alone in this power "show". Leaders in other major
ethnic groups who held key positions in the society have also been found
wanting in this regard. According to the Western Nigeria White Paper of
1964, an Easterner (Dr Ikejiani) who was the Chairman of the Nigeria Railway
Corporation was responsible for the fact that of the 431 senior posts,
270 were manned by Ibos. Similarly, of the 104 staff in the Nigerian Ports
Authority, 73 were Ibos. (Bamisaye 1976:90). The case is also the same
for Chief Obafemi Awolowo, who by virtue of his closeness to General Yakubu
Gowon, Nigerian Head of State (1967-1970), and as a result of the vacuum
created by the Ibos who were displaced by the civil war (1967-1970), further
advanced the educational, economic, industrial and bureaucratic interests
of the Yoruba people (Adesina I 998:89, Nnoli 1981:129-30).
However, as these leaders created opportunities and benefits for
themselves and members of their ethnic groups, others who were not so
placed or were not represented in the scheme of things, inevitably felt
alienated from the state; the result of which was the complete lack of
confidence in the state. And as the state becomes derelict in its responsibility
to its citizens, that is being unable to cater for the common good of
its citizens, they gradually begin to withdraw into their tribal or ethnic
enclaves for social fulfillments. This withdrawal is enhanced because
of the great value traditional Africans attach to their communal way of
life. When individuals recoil into their ethnic enclaves like this, we
can then say that the "moral' bond that tied the citizens to the state,
the real basis upon which the state could justify its power over the citizen,
has been slackened, if not totally cut (Uroh 1998:101). What happens in
this circumstance is that the state is "no longer at ease", things really
'fall apart", that is, a kind of social dislocation.
In this situation of people not being able to realize their wishes
and aspirations within their state, what we find is a case of frustration
which eventually degenerates into a situation of complete disregard for
anything called state authority. Consequently, the state becomes an arena
of ethnic conflict; where social relationships can no longer generate
"important common goals, interests and values in terms of which a sense
of good neighbourliness can be developed among them and national identity
forged (Oladipo 1998:115).
Now, if our foregoing discussion of the social predicament of the African
state is anything to go by, it is obvious that what we face in today's
African is uncertainty and despair.
It should be obvious, however, from the above discussion that central
to the realization of the needs and interests of the diverse ethnic groups
is the need to ensure a healthy harmonization of the differences of all
ethnic groups in African societies by allowing even representations in
decision making bodies. This is what Wiredu calls formal representation
(1995:58). But this, in itself, can also generate disaffection among the
groups as it is likely for one group to "place any one group of persons
consistently in the position of minority whose right to representation
is periodically violated" (Oladipo 1998:116). In other words, representation
in decision-making bodies cannot guarantee a healthy relationship without
ensuring the representation of the will of the representative in decision
making. To achieve this requires a new social order for Africa. The point
of this new order would be to ensure that the pursuit of individual or
group interests through the oppression and exploitation of others is discouraged.
To realize this, we need a kind of consensual democracy (to use Wiredu's
term) where opinions of all the ethnic groups in the state can be harmonized.
We may not be able to arrive at this form of consensus without the existence
of a democratic atmosphere that will ensure the full representation of
all ethnic groups. Here, we are not referring to the Western type of democracy
where the game of numbers is highly prized. This is so because the Western
conception of democracy which emphasizes majority rule constantly, puts
"some groups periodically to be in substantively under-represented minorities."
(Wiredu 1995:58). Thus, rather than promoting cooperation among ethnic
groups, this form of democratic arrangement generates conflicts and disaffection
among the groups.
In what follows, we suggest after Wiredu, that the Western model
of democratic arrangement can be undermined because it is inadequate for
Africans' democratic aspirations. This inadequacy is as a result of the
fact that the Western democratic tradition does not square properly with
Africa's "specific historical institutional terms of democratic practice"
(Ake 1992:6). Is there anything wrong, for instance, with our devising
creatively new institutional forms and practices relevant to African political
experiences yet imbibing the values and principles of democracy? For example,
it is possible for us to "accept the necessity of pluralism without necessarily
adopting the criteria for differentiating between the pluralities (ibid.).
The idea here is to say that we can conceptualize political formations
based on tribal or ethnic groups, communities or nationality rather than
on political parties. This is because the reason that political parties
can be said to be in the interest of national solidarity, political security
and progressive consciousness flies in the face of the fact that African
societies are notable for their primary group loyalty and multinationality
(ibid.). The problem one can imagine from this is that of whether such
social formations are not the sources of social cleavages or group solidarity
and potential conflict, especially as it can be exploited by political
elites for their self-centered goals. We do not undermine the possibility
of this problem. Yet, to ignore such important social pluralism is problematic
for Africa's socio-political development, because it cannot be mediated,
if we do not see them as vehicles of political expression. For, to overlook
it may elicit some form of "anemic interest articulation, communal violence
and centrifugal tendencies..." as we find in many African states today.
Hence, we believe that any viable democratic arrangement for Africa must
reflect the socio-cultural and historical realities of African societies.
What we require therefore as Wiredu suggests is a democratic framework
that is based on consensus, as it is practiced in many traditional African
setting, for instance, the Ashanti of Ghana. There are two main advantages
of this term of political system that is based on consensus. First, because
the democratic arrangement will be such that it will accommodate all the
opinions of all ethnic groups, it means that it will have to be representative
of all such opinions. Secondly, since all ethnic groups will be duly represented,
decisions that will be arrived at will, through "dialogic confrontation"
to use Baktin's phrase, be based on consensus. The point therefore of
the adoption of this framework is to ensure that in "working out solutions
in a situation of conflict of opinion or disagreement, account should
be taken of all the interests involved" (Wiredu 1995:54).
As indicated earlier, basing decision-making in plural societies
on majority opinions places some people permanently out of the scheme
of things. This invariably leads to the imposition of the majority views
on the minority ethnic groups; the result of which is the denial of basic
needs, opportunities and benefits. This majoritarian kind of decision-making
is what is responsible for the well known inclemencies of adversarial
politics in Africa. The Niger Delta crisis in Nigeria is a case in point.
The minority ethnic groups in the Niger delta where over eighty-five percent
of the oil wealth of Nigeria is generated today suffer from socio-economic
and ecological problems because those who control the political power
have not only neglected the "hen that lays the golden egg", they are people
from certain ethnic groups who are simply interested in exploiting the
offices of the Nigerian state rather than its transformation. This, as
one can see presently in Nigeria, generates a kind of alienation that
destroys the foundation of any social cohesion.
The point therefore of the management of ethnic conflict through
consensus is to eliminate the problem inherent in the practice of keeping
some people or groups permanently out of schemes designed to resolve conflicts
in which they are involved. Put differently, any state that adopts this
principle of consensual democracy in the resolution of ethnic conflict
stands to benefit because that would ensure that all the "voices" of the
diverse groups would be heard, and through conversation (not confrontation)
to use Rortian phrase, they will come to a unanimous decision. Here, "unanimity
and all the rigorous processes and compromises that lead to it are all
efforts made to contain the wishes …"(Nwala 1 981:1 68) of the majority
and the minority ethnic groups in the state. In fact, it is a design to
arrive at the "general will of the people in conflict" (ibid.). In other
words, consensus becomes desirable not as a means through which the majority
imposes its will on others but as the "process of regulating normal life
among brothers" (Loc. cit).
Now, since our consensual model of democracy presupposes a situation
where claims and counterclaims can be heard, consequently resolving conflicting
claims in a nonviolent manner, it means that such a democratic arrangement
is characterized by undistorted communication among the participants as
well as tolerance of each other's views (Irele 1998:43). It also means
that the participants in this arrangement deliberate on issues under a
condition of equal advantage. The fact that representatives of ethnic
groups are equal, at least in terms of their status in the course of their
discussions, provides an opportunity for a fair deliberation. The outcome
of this deliberation is likely to be acceptable to all parties involved.
If the contrary, then decisions can be reached by voting by all representatives.
The idea of voting here should not be confused, as Wiredu says with the
decision making principle of the supreme right of the majority. This is
because in Wiredu's words:
Consensus as a decision procedure, requires, in principle, that each
representative should be persuaded, if not of the optimality of each decision,
at least of its practice necessity, all things considered (1998:62).
is to say that the parties whose views do not prevail need to be convinced
about the logic underlying the decision of the majority. In other words,
"they prevail upon them to accept the decision arrived at, not just to
live with it. "(Ibid.). This is not a case of the oppression of the weak
group by the strong as such, rather, what we have is a case of one group
convincing the other to see the practical necessity of their point.
We need to add at this point that decisions reached through rational
conversation of this sort would enjoy the support of all ethnic groups.
This is so because the whole process requires that all representatives
operate under a condition of equal advantage and the toleration of all
shades of opinion in decision-making.
The attempt this far has been that of how, in spite of the differences
of ethnic groups and their attendant conflicts, we can effectively control
or resolve our ethnic differences. In doing this, we have deliberately
avoided the question of whether the ethnic crises in the African states
are products of the socio-cultural configuration of the African society
or those of the state's inability to fulfil its obligation to her citizens.
This is because ethnic conflict is a human phenomenon and as social beings
that must of necessity interact with one another, we must seek viable
ways of transcending our differences and live like brothers. This is what
we have attempted in this essay.
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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 cette article sont
celles de l'auteur
et n’engagent pas la responsabilité de l´UNESCO.