Anthropologist’s View of Ethnicity and Ethnic Conflicts in Africa
of Social Anthropology/Sociology
University of Lesotho
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
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).
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).
1: Segmentary Opposition among Nuer People
Evans-Pritchard E.E. (1940). “The Nuer of Southern Sudan” In, M. Fortes
and E. E. Evans-Pritchard (Eds) African Political Systems
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
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
Once this level of “cohesive individualism” has been attained, social
networking can then be used to see how well individuals relate in large-scale
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
iv) Role system set – limited to links involved in an organized role
v) Field set – limited to links (relationships) of a certain kind;
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).
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
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
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.