The African nation-state, in most cases fabricated during the 19th-century European Scramble for Africa, has often seemed like a makeshift vehicle doomed to fall apart. After creating these states, the colonial powers saw immediately that it wasn’t in their interest to make real nations out of such contraptions. Divide-and-rule tactics were then employed to ensure that the natives fought among themselves and left the colonial rulers alone. Ugandan social scientist Mahmood Mamdani has shown that the roots of the Rwandan genocide lay in the racist decision of the Belgian colonial administration in central Africa to make out of the Tutsi, whom they considered to be of superior ‘racial stock’, a ruling class over the Hutu. In Sudan and Nigeria, British colonial rulers embraced the money-saving ‘indirect rule’ model, which kept local chiefs in place to do the bidding of the colonial administration while colonial civil servants ‘advised’ them. In some cases this meant extending the rule of ethnic groups that already had established state structures over other ethnic groups organized in small, largely autonomous communities, some of which had fought for centuries to maintain their independence from their larger neighbours. It didn’t take a lot of imagination for Africa’s post-independence politicians, including those of the military variety, to see that there were easy political pickings in exploiting ethnic differences. Now Africa reaps the bitter harvest of colonial and homegrown ethnic manipulation in endless civil wars and periodic outbreaks of rioting and killing. To mention only two of the worst examples: it is estimated that two million people died in the Biafran war and about 800,000 in the Rwandan genocide.
Ethnic (sub-)nationalism has not been without a positive side. As independence approached, institutions founded on an ethnic basis were vital to the preparation of Africans for the work of national development, particularly in the area of education. All over the continent the study of Africa’s ancient civilizations has led to the reclamation of the substantial cultural wealth of African people. This wealth is the product of our ethnic cultures, of several centuries of art, philosophy and government.
‘Nigeria alone has more than 300 ethnic groups who have settled all over the place; trying to reorganize this mind-boggling admixture into neat ethnic states would make the crises that followed the Indian Partition and Yugoslavia’s disintegration seem like child’s play’
All the same, at the start of the 21st century the ethnic manipulators in Nigeria and in many other parts of Africa have still not been defeated. If anything, exploitable ethnic discontent has grown tremendously. The option of ripping Africa’s nation- states apart and constituting new nations on the basis of ethnic groups is attractive to those who have been embittered by ethnic conflict; but trying to implement such an option would almost certainly have nightmarish results. Nigeria alone has more than 300 ethnic groups who have settled all over the place; trying to reorganize this mind-boggling admixture into neat ethnic states would make the crises that followed the Indian Partition and Yugoslavia’s disintegration seem like child’s play. We are fated to live together and we must do the work of making that coexistence as painless as possible. Indeed we might even be able to make our ethnic diversity mutually beneficial. If we are to reduce ethnic conflicts, we must show greater sensitivity to the issues which promote such conflicts, such as real or perceived inequities in the distribution of power and preferences based on ethnicity. Many Nigerians have recently been calling for a national conference of ‘ethnic nationalities’ to address the most critical issues that fuel ethnic discord, including the allocation of (principally oil) revenues among the constituent units of the nation. Advocates of a national conference argue that the constitutional basis on which national independence was secured, negotiated at conferences in the 1950s, has been perverted by military rule. People who oppose a national conference fear that with the ethnic groups polarized by the manipulation and repression of our past military dictators, such a conference will only end in deadlock and even lead to the violent break-up of the country.
It’s difficult to see how the demand for a national conference, which enjoys a lot of support in the ‘aggrieved’ parts of the country, can be resisted indefinitely. The more important debate is the one about what the conference can and cannot do, its composition, and its mechanisms for reaching decisions and breaking deadlocks.
Other African countries which face ethnic problems might also consider establishing well thought-out, broad-based democratic processes to address these problems. Denial simply will not work and the promotion of ethnic separatism would only worsen the already unacceptable levels of political conflict in Africa. A democratic search for solutions to our ethnic problems conducted within clearly defined boundaries seems to offer the best hope for peaceful coexistence.