Ethnicity, Violence and Multi-party Democracy in Africa since 1989 

Tata Simon Ngenge  
History Department, University of Yaounde I

The African continent is made up of multi-ethnic groups. These ethnic groups lived and interacted peacefully with each other through marriage and trade. The European partition of Africa following the Berlin West Africa Conference of November 1884 to February 1885, (Crowe, 1942) marked the emergence of ethnic nationalism. In an effort to maintain peace in the colonies, the colonies adopted the medieval European principles of goverment (Maning, 1988). To avert opposition to colonial rule, the colons in some colonies perpetuated antagonism within and among some ethnic groups. This was the case in Rwanda between the Tutsis and Hutus, and in Cameroon between the Shoa Arabs and the Kotokos. In most cases, they favored minority groups, rather than the major ethnic groups that were a threat to their authority. From this point, ethnic groups in Africa started perceiving themselves as potential power brokers. This paper wiII therefore discuss how from the colonial era, ethnic groups were systematically politicized to serve their personal interests rather than the national interest. It will also demonstrate that, in post-colonial Africa, those in possession of military and political power have politicized and misused ethnic identities and social disparities to maintain themselves in power. It wiII also illustrate that those in power have ethnicised political parties in an attempt to reduce them to worthless ethnic associations and to block multi-party democracy. 

Effects of European Partition 

African ethnic groups since 1884 
The conclusions of the Berlin West Africa Conference gave the European imperial powers the green Iight to effectively partition Africa. The arbitrary partition did not take into account the conglomeration of the existing ethnic groups. Ethnic groups were split in two or more colonies; the case of the Somali, continuous area partitioned into British, French and Italian colonies; the Yoruba and the Aja each divided between Nigeria, Benin and Togo; the Wolof and the Serers between Senegal and the Gambia (Asiwaju A.l 1984). The boundaries that divided the cultural areas did cut across well established lines of communication. This entailed, in most cases, cutting across a dominant or active sense of community based on traditions and common ancestry, with strong kinship ties that shared socio-political institutions and economic resources, common customs and practices, and sometimes acceptance of a common political control. 
Further balkanization, which arose routinely from the mere location of artificial boundaries, set in motion by different states, further pulled apart partitioned ethnic groups. These processes have tended to make the partitioned ethnic groups to look in different political, economic and social directions because of the distinct policies which the various states pursued in matters of trade and currency, politics and administration, ideology and education (Asiwaju, 1976). 
By setting up administrative structures in the various nation-states, ethnic groups were further partitioned. Thus, ethnic conflicts emerged as far back as the colonial period when the colonial administration favoured particular ethnic groups over others. Such favoritism did rot have a scientific justification as in Rwanda. The colonial policy of divide-and-rule by investing administrative powers into the hands of minority ethnic group sowed seeds of ethnic conflicts in Africa. Ethnicity thus became a political tool that regimes used to govern and stay in power. Although during the fight for decolonisation, ethnic groups were mobilised by nationalists for the Liberation struggle, which, according to Frantz Fanon (1964), had a legal justification, these ethnic affiliations remained a destructive element to national integration and development after decolonisation. The immediate post-colonial governments ran into this syndrome leading to the establishment of the worse dictatorships, the world had ever witnessed: Siad Barre of Somalia and Mobuto of Zaire, to mention a few. 

The emergence of multiparty democracy and ethnic violence 
The emergence of multiparty democracy after decades of one-party dictatorship was unanimously welcomed. The democratic forces emerged when the continent was plagued by the economic recession. Dictatorial governments and bad governance were singled out as the remote causes of the said recession. The end of the CoId War, the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the events in Eastern Europe motivated the middle class in Africa to call for democratically elected governments. Following this wind of change which was a deadly political influenza to the dictators, ethnic conflicts suddenly came to the fore. Thus, the new and emerging issues took on an increasing ethnic character, because political leaders found it relatively easy to mobilize the masses by stimulating a sense of collective identity (Carment, 1994). The appeals of new political leaders were crucial in the ousting of the entrenched elite (Seidman, 1992). Never in the history of the continent had people wielded such extensive power above ethnic affinities in the quest for liberalisation and democratisation: upbraiding the state and mandating to destroy itself; but with a humanising motive, the revolutionary competence. They learnt to revolt against the absolute inclinations of their leaders. The universal quest for good governance through democratically elected leaders was a pointer to the revolutionary competence of the new man (Nwankwo, 1992). The advocacy for democratisation was the concern of all the underprivileged people, irrespective of race or ethnic group. In some countries, the rallying cry of multiparty democracy culminated in something other than effective pluralism; which led to an upsurge in rampant ethnic pluralism, elite replacement or the shattering of fragile democratic institutions. With the emergence of democratisation, political scientists have projected that with the current geopolitical "map", there is a high potential degree for ethnic politics to become even more pervasive (Carment, ibid). The economic crisis, which they attribute to bad governance, did affect the masses without exception. The application of the World Bank Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) led to mass retrenchments and company shut-downs that led to redundancy, salary cuts, devaluation and inflation, frustration and a rise in crime (Heraut and Adesanmi, 1997). The calls of emerging new political leaders to overthrow dictatorial governments democratically ran across ethnic barriers and national frontiers. 
The wealth of the various countries was in the hands of the ruling class, who through corruption had used the army, police and judiciary to stay in power. The new political leaders who emerged in the 1990s, thus, found their disciples and followers mostly in urban centres that were the worse hit by the economic crisis than the rural areas. The mass mobilisation to undo tyranny in the entire continent did net evoke ethnic sentiments, but was a rallying force to undo the evil that had plagued the people the Marxist perspective of class struggle. 
In several countries of Africa, the wind of change was rather abrupt and the rulers were not adequately prepared to adopt wider popular political participation. But as Susungi (1992) observed, the virus was able to breed and multiply faster because the political conditions were ripe and waiting. Those who held political power perceived opposing views as treacherous and treasonable. To them, democratisation meant the beginning of social conflicts, the rediscovery of ethnicity, migration and displacement. They could not envisage that despotic regimes, like any form of matter, is destined to subserve the cyclical law of history. To maintain themselves in power; these rulers terrorised, harassed and intimidated the powerless. In some cases, real and imaginary political opponents were eliminated to halt the democratisation process. lnvariably, repressive and alienating violence therefore became politicised. The case of Rwanda, Burundi, the Congos, Sudan, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Kenya are textbook examples of this trend (Osaghae, 1995). 
The emergence of multiparty politics in Africa, therefore, surfaced with serious political power struggles between stakeholders. During this epoch, power brokers preyed on their ethnic background to drum up political gains. At the heart of the matter lies the deeply engrained pattern of social inequality and exclusion within African societies. This refers not only to the problem of widespread poverty, but to the overall syndrome of systematic exclusion from Iivelihood resources (jobs, security, freedom, land), from public welfare schemes, from political participation and, moreso, from the state as a collective social and cultural construct. This syndrome is based on various combinations of class and ethnic divisions and is further complicated by the persistent significance of potential links that can determine whether one is 'in' or 'out' in terms of effective citizenship. 
The violent ethnic conflicts witnessed in IleIfe, Western Nigeria between the Modakeke of Ogun State and IjuIta of Ondo State in April 1991 and March 1977, in Kenya between the Kikuyus and the people of Migori District of Nyanza Province in 1997, the civil wars in Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Angola, the Congos, Sierra Leone, Burundi, Rwanda, just to cite a few; are societal crises emanating from the politicisation and misuse of ethnic identities and disparities mostly by those in possession of military and political power (Nyong'o, 1993; Dieuf, 1995). 

Multiparty Politics and Ethnicity 
In 1990, as the demand for multiparty democracy intensified, most of those in power decided to advocate ethnicity for political mileage. This was purely to drum up support for their personal interest, because multiparty democratic systems are on the contrary supposed to resolve ethnic animosities and tribalism. The liberalization of the political front in several African countries like Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda; Sierra Leone and the Congos did not respond to the above theoretical perceptions. 
Political activity since 1990 shows that when multiparty politics was introduced, political parties tended to develop along ethnic lines; in Kenya, for example, the ruling Kenya Africa National Union (KANU) led by Arab Moi became the party of the Kalenjins and the Minority tribes, Mr. Ogiga Odinga led the FORD Kenya party associated with the Luo/Nyanza tribes and Mr Nwai Kibaki and Mr Kenneth Matiba led the two Kikuyu political parties the Democratic party (DP) and FORD Asili party. In Cameroon, since the November 1990 bill on Rights and Freedoms was promulgated, the number of political parties in Cameroon as of April 1999 stood at 161. It should be recalled that the population of Cameroon as of 1995 stood at 12.9 millions (Jeune Afrique Economie Hors series Août 1995). At this rate of legalizing political parties, it is estimated by politically minded Cameroonians that by the year 2000 the number of political parties will be around 200. In this case, the 200 parties correspond to the 200 ethnic groups in Cameroon. 
In Cameroon therefore, the ruling Cameroon People's Democratic Movement (CPDM) of Mr Biya became the Beti party; the Social Democratic Front (SDF) led by Ni John Fru Ndi was personified as the Anglo-Bami Party; the Union des Populations (UPC) Bassa; Cameroon Democratic Union (CDU) led by Dr Adamu Ndam Njoya, Bamoun; National Union for Democracy and Progress (UNDP) led by Maigari Bello Bouba Hausa/Fulani party of the Grand North (Kontchou Kouemegni, in interview, xxxx 1993), to cite a few. 
However, this syndrome of running political parties on ethnic lines is more common in former French colonies of Sub-Saharan Africa. There is no country in this French community that has less than 20 legalized political parties. The Republic of Chad with a population of 6.2 million, as of June 1999, had 60 legalised political parties. By legalizing political parties on ethnic bases, African dictators had, in no small way, weakened the opposition and blocked the processes of democratization. In francophone Africa, the tacit transformation of political parties into ethnic associations by those in power had greatly antagonised ethnic groups as the unprivileged ethnic groups are relegated to the back and perceived as the enemies of the state. The ethnicization of political parties in most countries had disintegrated the opposition. This has been further aggravated by the absorption of fragile parties into the presidential majority. This phenomenon marks a gradual return to the one-party system in shipskin of multiparty democracy. By politicising ethnicity to fight democracy, African dictators have legalised tribalism and killed efficiency. Ethnic nationalism, suppressed during the one-party system, resurfaced and entered all fabrics of the society. In Cameroon, politicisation of ethnicity to block democracy led to the categorization of Cameroonians into "les autochtones" (indegenes) and "allogènes" (settlers). Before the 1997 presidential elections, this sparked a wave of ethnic violence between the indegenes of the South West Province supporters of CPDM and settlers from the North West presumed to be supporters of the SDF. The North Westerners who were now considered as settlers in their own country were stigmatised as 'come no go". In Kumba, Chief Mukete, supported by the administration, instituted residence permits; North Westerners had to obtain a residence permit before living in that part of the country and had no right to vote. This was ethnicity at work and it all happened under the watchful eyes of the army, police and the judiciary that had become auxiliary organs of the ruling CPDM party. 


The blockage of multiparty democracy 
The use of ethnicity to fight multiparty politics by African dictators has had far-reaching effects on individuals and the nation. In the globalisation world, multiparty democracy must go across ethnic and linguistic barriers. We cannot talk of regional integration and eventual African integration by the year 2035, if national interests do not go above ethnic interests. Ethnicisation has killed thought and reason, dynamism and efficiency, and therefore patriotism. It has destroyed state cohesion and promoted tribalism. On the other hand, the study of ethnicity and multiparty politics put researchers in a difficult position to explain the prevailing peaceful co-existence in multi-ethnic Tanzania, while mono-ethnic Somalia is being torn apart by interclan warfare. These are just some of the challenging questions confronting social scientists and theoreticians, as pertains to the analysis of ethnicity, multiparty democracy and good governance. The entire continent witnessed the dangers of ethnic politicisation in Rwanda and Burundi and any dictator that, instead of democratisation, advocates ethnic malaise is setting that nation on a destructive path. 


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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.