An Anthropologist’s View of Ethnicity and Ethnic Conflicts in Africa 

I.V.O. Modo 
Department of Social Anthropology/Sociology 
National University of Lesotho 
P.O. Roma 180

The paper takes an idiographic view of Ethnicity. It notes that from the onset, ethnicity was never a negative term; for it denotes an extreme consciousness of and loyalty to a particular linguistic and cultural group unidentified with any other group. It was during the process of nation-building that ethnicity assumed its negative connotation. Using Liberia, Somalia, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Lesotho as examples, the paper argues that ethnic sentiments have done a lot of harm to Africa as a continent. The paper noted that since this sentiment is normally displayed in cities as different ethnic groups meet to work; the city should also be the initial place to diffuse ethnic ethical values. The paper tensions through formal education and imbibing of progressive further argues that as these remedies are being implemented social network culture will automatically be progressive in all its ramifications. 

Ethnicity has not been a negative term from the onset. Traditional African societies played their politics within ethnic boundaries. In that pre-colonial period, the distribution of political offices, rights and privileges was determined by the tradition and customs of the people. Every community had a ruling house and non-ruling house. Ogbu (1998:55) argued that during the pre-colonial period, political processes in Africa were orderly and peaceful. There were no political parties, no organized opposition, no economically determined classes or intense competition for power, since the distribution of power was exclusively based on hereditary criteria. Politics in this period precluded election and the accompanying rigging, bribery and thuggery. The democratic elections in most African countries that preceded the hand-over of power from the colonial masters to the African political class were keenly contested and could be termed the only free and fair election since then. Many of those who rushed into politics to make a fortune lost out at the elections. In the words of Max Leaner (1963), their experience resulted in a ‘revolution of rising frustrations.’ They soon realized that, to hang on, they had to resort to unorthodox and innovative ways of playing politics. The best bet became appealing to ethnic sentiments. 
Ethnicity denotes an extreme consciousness of and loyalty to a particular linguistic and cultural group unidentified with any other group (Udoh 1998:38). Such groups usually possess myth of origin, traceable to an epical ancestor or ancestress. With a strong ruling house such ethnic groups like the Yoruba, Edo, Fante were able to organize themselves into Empire or Kingdoms, conquering and incorporating other lesser ethnic groups as vassals. With the coming of colonial masters, treaties were signed with such kingdoms wherever they existed; especially during the 17th and 18th centuries (Bradbury et al 1965; Igbafe 1972). 

Origin of ethnicity in Africa 
The colonial officers had their own agenda and so nation-states they brought into being such as Ghana, Benin, Nigeria, Angola, Cameroon, did not take into cognizance ethnic demarcations. Indeed, four hundred West African ethnic groups were brought together to form modern-day Nigeria (Okonkwo 1978) while seventy-three ethnic groups were brought together in Central Africa to form Northern Rhodesia i.e. present-day Zambia (BBC 1999 Jan 26 Network). As people from the different ethnic groups found themselves working together under the colonial civil service, they competed for a few positions, resorting to unorthodox methods and leaning more on their relatives for support to undo others (Sklar 1960). In such a social system, one’s tribe becomes important, since individuals could easily be recognized through their ancestral origins. Murdock (1959:30) describes a tribe as a community of individuals living in a designated area; who speak the same language and possess the same or similar customs and traditions. Tribe members form a distinct group of their own. In modern nation-states where many people compete for the few civil service and parastatal jobs, ethnicity takes different forms depending on circumstances, Doro and Stultz (1970:13) have even observed that the definition of an ethnic group may derive from a common occupation; like Blacksmiths or even dress rather than a common language or traditional polity. For example in spite of the numerous ethnic groups in Northern Nigeria, Southerners see everybody putting on a flowing gown Babariga as an Hausa man. Ethnicity could even be defined in terms of clan or religion. Where a nation-state is made up of almost a homogenous group as in Somalia or Lesotho, competitors fall back on clan membership (as the present Somali war lords) for political backing, or on religion as the BNP leaders in Lesotho in 1957 (Gill 1993:211). 
Ethnicity in post-colonial Africa is principally a response to the new social structure the indigenous people found themselves in during the colonial era and at independence. The cultural upbringing is seriously at variance with the social processes of the modern era. Bohannan (1957) speaks of the philosophy of limited good among the Tiv of Nigeria. All goods are communally owned and so the possession of a good by one person is the loss of that good by another. This concept is applicable to every tribe in most circumstances. Ethnic discrimination has its root in the favouritism shown to kin group members as could be seen from the principle of segmentary opposition among the Tiv of Nigeria (Bohannan 1969) or Nuer of Southern Sudan (Evans-Pritchard 1940). 

Table 1: Segmentary Opposition among Nuer People 



Source: Evans-Pritchard E.E. (1940). “The Nuer of Southern Sudan” In, M. Fortes and E. E. Evans-Pritchard (Eds) African Political Systems 

The principle of segmentary opposition as seen among the Nuer of Southern Sudan or the TIV of middle belt Nigeria is now virtually a wide spread practice among ethnic groups in Africa. A man from Fadang section of the Bor tribe of Sudan said “we fight against the Rengyan but when either of us is fighting a third party we combine with them (Evans – Pritchard 1940:145). 
In table 1, Z1 fights Z2 with no much interference from others. But when Z1 fights Y1; Z1 and Z2 unite as Y2. When Y1 fights X1, Y1 and Y1 unite and so do X1 and X2. When X1 fights A; X1, X2, Y1 and Y2 unite as B. So when A of the Nuer raids the Dimka of Sudan (another ethnic group), A and B may unite. 
As said earlier, the emerging trend in ethnicity among Africans is that even within the same ethnic group, close cousins discriminate against distant cousins, while all cousins come together against noncousins in the wider political scene because they all compete for the limited economic resources of their post-colonial nations. 
Nwanunobi (1992:17) noted that the incorporation of the various indigenous African peoples into modern states, characterized by specialized institutions and agencies with relatively impersonal bureaucracies, has meant an attenuation of the opportunity to utilize kinship links in their traditional sense. Udoh (1998:43) also argued that in Nigeria, the old colonial urban centres aided by the rural migration, constituted the cradle of contemporary ethnicity. It is in the urban centres and urban establishments that ethnic groups acquire a common consciousness and perceive themselves as a separate and autonomous group. Lloyd (1967:288-303) even noted that it was after the colonization of Nigeria that the term Yorubaland; Igboland and Hausaland came into frequent usage. The colonial and rural origin of ethnicity therefore becomes obvious when it is realized that the phenomenon cannot exist unless individuals from the various ethnic backgrounds in a nation are in constant contact with one another in bureaucratic organizations commerce politics, et cetera. 

Ethnic conflicts and abuses in perspective 
Healand (1969) has argued vehemently that ethnic conflicts are generally related to factors associated with competition for environmental resources. This paper identifies the main cause of ethnic problems and their attendant abuses in Africa to be the nature of contact between Africa and the colonial West; and the enduring legacies of such contact. This problem has ignited other problems like inequality in socio-economic and political orientations among different ethnic groups of a country; the apparent intensification of the politics of tribal differentiation in the various administrative arms of government and the pervasive socio-economic insecurity of the so-called minority ethnic groups. This problem also overshot national boundaries thus leading to constant animosity and wars between African countries, especially since some ethnic groups and their economic resources were abruptly bifurcated into two countries by the erstwhile colonial masters. 
In Nigeria, for example, prior to independence every major ethnic group became conscious of the need to be together in order to gain as a unit. The Ibibio union was formed in 1928, the Igbo state Union in 1934, the PanYoruba Organization “Egbe Omo Oduduwa” in 1945; while the Yam ‘Lyar Mutanen Arewa’ – Northern Peoples’ Congress was inaugurated in Kano in 1949. In the Middle Belt, the Birom Progressive Union was formed in 1950 (Udoh 1998:45). Indeed Eyo Ita felt in 1945 that these ethnic associations were not healthy for Nigeria as an emerging nation. 
He observed that: 
“we need a magic wand of nature that can create a universal kinship among us, that all Nigerians are fellow citizens... the greatest need of Nigerians today is to become a community... to evolve a national selfhood. (Coleman 1960:219).  

Eyo Ita admonished Nigerians to seek coordination among themselves in a way that would help to build a strong national consciousness. In what appeared to be the first test of consolidation after becoming a republic, Nigeria experienced ethnic genocide due to unhealthy political rivalry. Over half a million Igbo were killed in Northern Nigeria following the 1966 January 15 coup d’etat led by Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu an Ibo, accused of killing the Northern leader Sir Ahmadu Bello. This later resulted in the Biafran secession and the Nigerian Civil war July, 1967 – 1970 January (Paden 1973; Luckham 1971; Depress 1975; Harris 1972; Wolpe 1974 Salamone 1975, Smock 1971). 
Even the Rwanda genocide of 1994 is another pogrom bigger in proportion than the Ibo massacre of 1966 – 67 (Luckham 1971; Paden 1973, Lioyd 1974; Newbury 1995). Like in other African nations, political resources were monopolized by the Hutu ethnic-led government for the purpose of excluding the Tutsi and Twa. In 1994, over 800,000 Rwandan Tutsi were finally massacred in what was probably thought or conceived to be once and for all elimination of the Tutsi threat. Sympathetic allies especially Uganda assisted the Tutsi to overthrow the Hutu government in July 1994, in what should be seen as ethnic replacement. The end of the power tussle is not yet in sight but the present Tutsi government is not taking chances. 
In what looked like a show of toughness, President William Tolbert of Liberia did not accord equal opportunity to the sixteen ethnic groups in his country (Ofuatey Kodjoe 1994261). He favoured mainly American Liberians and this abuse led Master-sergeant Doe to overthrow him in a military coup d'état. Samuel Doe himself did not learn from the mistakes of Tolbert. He equally favoured only the Krahn ethnic group, thus marginalising others, especially the Gio and Mino tribes. Incidentally, Charles Taylor used these two tribes in his National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) to undermine Doe’s government (Tison 1991). 
Fedarko (1997:24) argues that ethnicity is the problem behind Democratic Republic of Congo’s decades of unrest. Since 1960 Zaire has been in conflict with Shaba (Katanga) a copper rich province attempting to secede. Kinshasa put Katanga in check even with the assistance of French troops as in 1977 and 1988. Ethnic Banyamulenge Tutsi nursed secession too. President Mobutu has been blamed for denying them their basic rights. Little wonder that Laurent Kabila was supported by Tutsi and other offended ethnic groups in the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (ADFC) in the campaign against Mobutu. 
Even where people think that countries like Somalia and Lesotho are homogenous and provide examples of peaceful nations in African, we find that emphasis is now placed on clan loyalties and religion, respectively, to sow the seeds of division. Adam (1995:72) noted that General Siyad (Siarrd) Barré’s divide and rule tactics and partisanship fuelled interclan animosity and vendetta. His was a lineage and final rule, especially as Barre’s son-in-law dominated the country’s politics. From them came the Secret Police, military intelligence, and holders of top political and administrative posts. Others faced repression and summary execution, where necessary. Indeed, Lewis (1988:222) predicted the internal warfare of the 1990s which is obviously Barre’s ending legacy; a phenomenon that has branded Somalia lawless, notoriously acephalous and ungovernable. 
Lesotho’s democratic experiment ended in 1970 and BCP’s victory, though merited, was rejected by the Catholic-backed Prime Minister Chief Leabua Jonathan (Gill 1993:211-222, 241). The Prime Minister on the advice of his close ministers – Maseribane and Peete felt that BCP with secular constitution and “little respect” for Chieftancy institution ought not to have won the election by such a clear majority of 36 seats to their BNP 23. He declared a state of emergency in January 1970 suspended the constitution and arrested most BCP members. The Prime Minister continued in this dictatorial fashion until his overthrow sixteen years later on 20th January 1986 by Major general Metsing Lekhanya. This divide based on religion and chieftancy had continued to lead to violence in Lesotho. BNP’s rejection of the BCP victory in 1998 led to the riots and Arson of September/October 1998. SADC intervention and the near destruction of the capital city Maseru by looters purporting to be supporters of the BNP are a part of the legacy of intolerance in Lesotho politics. There are catalogues of recent abuses in Guinea-Bissau, South Africa, Congo-Brazzaville, Angola, Sierra Leone that space will not permit one to dwell upon but in all the cases ethnicity in one form or the other is the root cause of the crisis. 

Which way out in the new millennium 
This paper has observed that ethnicity is mainly an urban phenomenon and its solution must be largely urban in outlook. Ethnicity is a very virulent disease that cannot be wiped out overnight. It requires a long process of education, Ethical orientation based on social justice, fair play and nationality, and finally, social networking. 

It is our belief that education is the most potent force that can liberate most Africans from the ignorance, deceit and suspicions that characterise social relations in multi-ethnic societies. Except in Lesotho (UNICEF 1998) more males than females attend schools in African countries. For various reasons including patriarchy, marriage bethrotals, religion, and poverty, the rate of school dropouts was about 40 percent in the 1990s. No country in Africa can today boast of a 60 per cent literacy rate. This leaves more than half of the continent open to ethnic manipulation and descent in the hands of a few well-to-do disgruntled politicians. Education makes someone to be broad-minded. It makes one to be critical, logical and rational in the approach to issues. An educated individual cannot just accept any information about other individuals without asking questions. If every African country enforces compulsory education for its citizens to Junior Secondary School level, Africans will then have the basic tool to cooperate with one another. An illiterate can never understand what democracy entails. Patriotism to such a person could only means favouring the candidate from the nearest lineage in his or her ethnic group. Such a person can never be open to discharge his duties in any bureaucratic set up. Redfield (1947) argues that people of this category are of the folk culture, lack systematic knowledge, believe in personal relations, and are largely emotional. Talcott Parsons (1951) has stressed that education helps members to behave appropriately. It helps them to fit into roles expected of them. An enlightened office messenger in a parastatal or civil service should understand his limited role (specificity) and should treat everybody or client with the same measure, not favouring his relatives (i.e. universalism), knowing that he was employed because of his qualification and not because of his connections (i.e. achievement) and therefore should give equal attention to everyone, irrespective of a person's ethnic origin (affective neutrality), especially as he ought to be concerned mainly with his own needs (i.e. self-orientation). 
Education liberates one from servile attitudes, indecisions and irrationality. It makes a person regenerated and in a position to take a stand. Fafunwa (1974) has observed that education prepares a person for leadership at every level. He also observed that education makes one mobile, closes social distance between individuals and makes one rational. Only an educated person can appreciate a politician’s objective viewpoint especially when that politician hails from another ethnic group. African governments have started to tackle the problem of ethnicity, but how the problem could be brought to its barest minimum without massive education of the citizenry is the problem. Ogbu (1998:57) observes that in Nigeria, for example, the 1979 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria provides that for one to become the President of the country, one must obtain at least a two-thirds majority vote of at least two-thirds of the states of the Federation. This is to ensure that a President is not just supported by one or two ethnic groups, but is somebody whose popularity and acceptability cut across ethnic boundaries. Besides, the intermittent creation of more states in Nigeria is to diffuse some of the ethnic problems and to allay the fear of domination of the minority ethnic groups by the majority ethnic groups. Similarly, the introduction of the Federal character formula in the distribution of the national resources; the establishment of Unity schools (Federal Government Colleges) and the introduction of National Youths Service Corps in 1973, are all aimed at difusing ethnic sentiments between the various ethnic groups in Nigeria. 
Unfortunately, some of these policies aimed at mitigating ethnic hostility have inadvertently reinforced ethnic consciousness. For example, creation of more states in Nigeria has reinforced ethnic identity and cleavages. Similarly, tribesmen in urban areas are depended upon by job-seekers to use their privileged positions as government officials to get them jobs. 
In spite of the foregoing, education is still the key to the understanding of one's position, and one's interrelationship with others. Education will reduce ethnic prejudices and bring cultural differences to the fore. Once such understanding is taking place in the country's metropolis, the effect will trickle down to the rural ethnic groups, as more rural areas receive modern education. Without this education as the infrastructure, all ethical reorientation campaigns on honesty, social justice, fair play, such as War Against Indiscipline (WAI) of 1983/84 in Nigeria, et cetera, will not achieve their goals. 

Social networking 
It is our contention that, once the required minimum educational level is achieved in any African country, the social network perspective would definitely be a methodology for mitigating or improving ethnic relations. In a community of educated people, a person treats every other person as important, irrespective of ethnic affiliations (universalism) without even the slightest discrimination (affective neutrality) since actors are concerned with their personality and self-respect (self-orientation). Indeed, every actor sees himself as an individual. According to Rand (1964:38) to be an individualist is to be “a man who lives for his own sake and by his own mind, sacrificing neither himself to others nor others to himself. He deals with man as an honest trader not as a looter; as a producer, not as an Attila.” Udoh 91998:47) argues that an individualist is first and foremost a man of reason. Men who reject the responsibility of thought and reason exist only as parasites on the thinking of others and may only be induced to practise what others think. 
Indeed, we should see individualism as a progressive trait for it does not consist merely in rejecting the belief that a man should live for the tribal group; the individualist uses his reason to determine right and wrong, what is true or false. In a community of individualists, people rise up en masse to condemn barbaric acts. For example, the European Community has utterly condemned Serbian President’s (Slobodan Milosevic’s) ethnic cleansing of the two million Kosovo Albanians from Yugoslavia Republic. According to NATO sources, within a year, more than 760,000 Kosovar Albanians had fled the Serbs' campaign of ethnic cleansing (South African Sunday Times 1999, April 4 page I). The European Union under the NATO alliance has been responding adequately to stop Yugoslavia from committing such attrocities, thus ridding the Balkans of ethnic sentiments. 
Once this level of “cohesive individualism” has been attained, social networking can then be used to see how well individuals relate in large-scale societies. 
Social networking is more of a methodology than a theory. The author finds it particularly useful in the study of complex societies, especially urban settings where the traditional techniques for studying small rural societies; particularly description of kinship and other institutions, are inappropriate (Uzzell and Provencher 1976:61). Most accounts of the development of network analysis place its formal origin with a publication by Barnes (1954) but others say it is an older notion. According to Wolfe (1970:229) a social network is any model in which actors are linked in social situations. He refers to any part of that network as a set; and thus identifies 5 sets: 
i) Personal set – limited to the links of one person; 
ii) Categorical set – limited to links involving a type of person; 
iii) Action set – limited to links purposefully created for a specific end; 
iv) Role system set – limited to links involved in an organized role system; 
v) Field set – limited to links (relationships) of a certain kind; 

These categories will definitely call for certain explanations but what should really be of major interest to Anthropologists should not be static structures but the ways in which individuals and groups manipulate the parts of the structures that affect them. Aronson 91970:262) explains this by saying: 
... “we want to know how (action sets)... are selected from extended networks, that is how “assets” or “resources” or “social capital” are converted to use in particular situations. What are the relative values of assets he has, and what restrictions are placed on their conversion? Why more specifically are some ties more potent than others?... (Action sets) in this sense are clearly the result or embodiment of purposive strategies and choice making (in allocating line, cultivating linkages, cementing alliances, proffering deference and so on) which are the key assumptions in Barth’s optative theory of society. (Aronson 1970:262). 

Networks have been studied by a variety of methods. Sociometrists are interested in friendship cliques, leadership and association for task performance. They ask individuals about whom they prefer to associate with or avoid in a particular situation. Peil (1977:65) observed that this method was successfully used by the Volta Resettlement Authority in Ghana to give villagers displaced by the Volta Dam a chance to choose which resettlement village they would go to; which families would like to continue living together. Another type of network study uses participant observation and detailed interviews to trace all the key members of a chosen individual’s network as an aid to explaining his behaviour. A successful businessman will have a wide variety of individuals included in his network. These may be in categories with some falling into more than one category (i.e. a client who is also an affine and a co-church deacon). 
Peil (1977) observes that the businessman’s behaviour in any given situation can be explained in terms of single and multiple role relationships between himself and other participants. In a large-scale society, it will be necessary to focus on his partial networks and this could be done by examining his relationships within a particular event such as wedding, funeral, election or dispute or one can look at relationship between individuals within a particular organization. 
Interest in social networks has developed in response to the inadequacy of structural/functional theories for analyzing relationships in large-scale societies. Mitchell (1966:51 – 5) suggests that three types of social relationships must be distinguished: structural, categorical and personal. Within the structural, behaviour is interpreted according to the position an individual holds within a corporate group: family, association or workplace. Mitchell (1966:51 – 5) also says that in an unstructured situation, behaviour is interpreted in terms of social stereotypes such as sex, age, or ethnicity. He says that in a situation where we must deal with strangers without a common structure or culture, we usually interact in terms of categorical identification: not as an individual but as a type. In addition to these types, Peil (1977:67) adds that behaviour in either structured or unstructured situations may be based on personal links between individuals: ties of kinship, friendship, neighbourhood, et cetera. She further explains that in attempting to move from social reality in particular situations to abstract generalizations about behaviour, we need to examine the structural, categoric and/or personal aspects in order to fully understand the meaning of behaviour to the individuals involved. Thus the study of social networks (the personal order or set) provides an important dimension of analysis especially in studies of social change concerning ethnicity and ethnic conflicts in Africa. 
Mitchel (1972:26) applauds network research for being particularly useful for studying normative behaviour because members of a network constantly evaluate the behaviour of other members and press them to uphold the norms of the group or community. Mayers (1961) report, specifically illustrates the normative quality of networks. He found that Xhosa migrants to East London, South Africa could be divided into two types according to the nature of the networks, they established in town. He called these ‘Red’ and ‘school’ referring to the red blanket traditional Xhosa wear and the fact that most of those in the second category had attended school. The Reds built up close-knit networks of people from the same rural area, encapsulating themselves against urban influence. Members are under considerable pressure to conform to traditional norms and remain essentially conservative in their approach to urban life (Peil 1977:75). The school Xhosa on the other hand have accepted schooling and Christianity and tend to use whites as a reference group. Their networks are loose-knit and often based on single-stranded links. They are therefore more open to influences of cultural change. Some ‘Reds’ become ‘school’ in town and their social networks change. Education, as earlier said, will make the big difference in one’s attitudes towards people from other ethnic groups and this will certainly be reflected in one’s networks. 

The arguments and observations made above by seasoned scholars prove that ethnicity, though deeply rooted was not initially a dysfunctional phenomenon. The competitive spirit between different ethnic groups following the coming into being of nation-states engendered this unhealthy rivalry which has manifested itself in different ways – Ethnic strife, clan tussles, religious struggles, etc. Since the war theatre for ethnicity is mostly the new urban African centres where the different people of different ethnic groups meet for business, it is essential that the norms and values of friendship, social justice, respect for one another, etc., be cultivated. Education has proved to be a valuable asset in bringing such culturally diverse peoples together. It helps purge their minds of the biases, prejudices and other ethnocentric values imbibed during Socialization process. With high societal level of Education, the new values of oneness, progress or pattern variables of development (Parsons 1951) will eventually emerge and even trickledown to rural centres of population. This will manifest in the high quality of social network of individuals and the society in which individuals find themselves will be a better place to live in. 


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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. 

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