Is ethnic strife inevitable in Africa?


BOSTON — Ethnic strife is neither inevitable nor immutable in today’s Africa, despite common American assumptions to the contrary. Africa is indeed the home of thousands of linguistically and ethnically distinct groups, but the sheer number and existence of such entities hardly means conflict is unavoidable.

Unfortunately it is true that Hutus slaughtered Tutsis in 1994 in Rwanda, Congolese persist in killing other Congolese on account of antagonisms expressed ethnically, Nigerians periodically attack Nigerians who come from other ethnic groups, and Kenyans went to war after the rigged 2007 elections against other Kenyans who came from opposed ethnic communities. But these damaging occurrences were examples of political competition for scarce resources and opportunities much more than they were atavistic outbursts against people who were “different.”

Zambia, encompassing 12 million people, has 70 distinct language and tribal groups and four dominant ethnicities. Since independence in 1964, Zambia has known only very occasional and minor clashes fueled by ethnicity.  Some of the same groups that battle in next-door Congo live peacefully together in Zambia.

Internal harmony, as in Zambia, and civil war, as in a country like Kenya, is explained not by the absence or existence of primordial enmities as many people assume but by egregious failures of leadership and governance.

When the state is perceived as behaving fairly or even-handedly to all of its citizens, as in Zambia, there is an absence of ethnic strife. When the state seems to behave unfairly, favoring some ethnic groups over others, the “others” become restless.

At that point, with state leaders privileging one or more special groups, defensive competition breaks out. Sometimes the situation becomes so combustible that one or more of the ethnic groups seek to protect their interests by violence.

That is exactly what happened in Kenya in 2008, triggered by an election result favoring Kikuyu hegemony and depriving Luo and others of a victory that was theirs.

Kenya’s failures of leadership and governance began, however, decades before.

During the British colonial period in Kenya, 1895-1963, the government was equally fair to all of Kenya’s ethnic groups. Competition for resources between tribes did not often arise because the British authorities imposed security and requirements against all Kenyans, whatever their ethnicities. Hardly anyone gained advantage because of her or his ethnicity.

At independence in 1963, the Kikuyu (who lived near and around Nairobi, the country’s capital) had the advantages of proximity to the new state’s hub. Kikuyu (22 percent of the total population) were slightly more numerous than Luo, the second largest ethnic group (18 percent), whose homeland was in the country’s far west, bordering Lake Victoria.

Beginning in 1963, who you were ethnically became more and more important than ever before for Kenyans. Jomo Kenyatta, the first president, was an esteemed Kikuyu. Instead of presiding over an inclusive, ethnically impartial Kenya, as Nelson Mandela is seen to have done in South Africa, Kenyatta’s regime favored his own people in politics, in economics, and in almost every human way. Daniel arap Moi, the second president and a cruel tyrant, naturally favored his own minority people of the Rift Valley, the Kalenjin, and tried to take commercial ascendancy away from Kikuyu.  Ethnicity became enormously salient.

When President Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, was elected Kenya’s third president in 2002, Luo and others were led to expect truly democratic, fair governance. Instead, the Luo were once again marginalized politically. When Luo thought that the 2007 election had been stolen from them, they went to war. The Kikuyu fought back. Defensive ethnicity was at work, and thousands were killed, including many Kalenjin and others.

Kenya has two years before its next election to transform itself into a state that favors no ethnic group for jobs, education, commercial opportunity, and so on. Those resources, not mere hatred of another, is at the root of Kenya’s mayhem. The notion is false that tribes everywhere in Africa go on the warpath based on “otherness” rather than leadership failures. 

Is there any leader on the horizon capable of providing impartial governance and hence deemphasizing ethnicity in national affairs? That is the key question for Kenyans as they prepare for their next election.