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Evaluating the role of ethnic identity in explaining the occurrence of contemporary civil conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa.

High hopes for many newly independent states of Africa became diminished as the 1990s saw over a quarter of the continent's states facing armed insurgencies within their borders (Young, 2002: 534). Commentators often point to pathological, deep-seated hatreds in an African tribal mosaic as the bases of such conflict. The fact is, however, that the continent is awash with political grudges, ethnically-framed and otherwise, but civil wars rarely break out. Thus this essay seeks to take a more nuanced approach to understand the analytical challenge posed by such disorder. Starting out by countering the centrality of ethnic identity, it firstly seeks to demonstrate that ethnic identities do not exist primordially, but that they are constructed on weak foundations. Secondly it endeavours to show that where cleavages do exist along lines of cultural difference, simple heterogeneity is insufficient to account for the outbreak of conflict. Next, it moves to underline the fact that more important in explaining civil conflict is whether such conflict is feasible. This is understood both in terms of the perceived capacity of the state and in terms of the viability of insurgency for would-be rebels. A final conclusion will then be expounded that ethnicity is not a central factor, but that it is simply one of a number of strategies under which conflict may be framed in the rare but ultimately requisite circumstances where rebellion is actually feasible.

Ethnic identity is not a central factor, firstly, because primordial ethnic differences, per se, are not fixed. Where ethnic identity is defined as “a community of people who have the conviction that they have a common identity and common fate based on issues of origin, kinship ties, traditions, cultural uniqueness, a shared history and possibly a shared language,” (Thomson, 2000: 58) it is important to note, thus, that ethnic identity is a conviction which is open to exploitation. In other words, it is subjective concept that can be constructed and transformed by actors as they see fit in a particular context. Jean-Francois Bayart underlines the fact that there is no persistent inner core to ethnic identities; “there are only strategies based on identity, rationally conducted by identifiable actors” (2005: x). Aside from the ethnocentric baggage associated with primordial discourses along the lines of Robert D. Kaplan's Coming Anarchy (2001), such arguments underestimate the prosaic economic and political roots that are fundamentally prerequisite to any outbreak of civil conflict (Keen, 1998:10-11). Even if we are to grant ethnic identity salience as a political strategy, it is still secondary to other factors. This is well illustrated in several case studies.

Taking for example the Hausa community of West Africa, numbering approximately 30 million, they are among the largest ethnic groupings on the continent. But despite alleged shared ancestries, strength in numbers, and their situation in very plural societies, Hausa villagers in both Niger and Nigeria are found to express greater affinity for fellow Muslims and for other non-Hausa compatriots than for their supposed ethnic kin across the border (Miles and Rochefort, 1991: 402). This underscores the shallow roots of ethnicity as one of many possible affinities to which individuals may allege themselves. As regards civil conflict, the case of Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda supports this view. In that instance, historic ethnic categories were systemised and codified during the Belgian colonial regime; rulership became the monopoly of Tutsis, and only then were these entrenched yet peaceable cleavages transformed into distinct, antagonistic political identities as dictated by the changing nature of the Rwandan state (Mamdani, 1996: 73; Meredith, 2006: 157-161). As with the cases of the Hausa community, the Rwandan conflict strongly illustrates the malleable, fickle nature of group identities. Even if we acknowledge that cleavages often exist along the lines of perceived ethnicity, it must be recognised that such fissures are still neither necessary nor sufficient for the occurrence of civil conflict.

Put simply, group cleavages have existed across the continent throughout history. Civil wars have not. There are over fifty states in Africa, multiple religions and scores of ethnic-linguistic divisions. Many groups harbour ill-feelings toward others and compete for scarce resources. Yet the fact of the matter is that these differences are rarely settled through violence. Since 1945, just 14 episodes of conflict have seen fatalities in excess of 100,000 (Jackson, 2002: 31, Cocodia, 2008: 12). Many studies contend that explanations based on ethnicity come to the fore when group size, power constellations and horizontal inequalities are taken into consideration (Stewart, 2000: 260; Collier and Hoeffler, 2003: 588; Humphreys, 2003: 4; Cederman et al, 2011: 114). But even here there are cases that defy explanation, such as Botswana, where peace has prevailed despite the under representation of minority groups by the Batswana-dominated BDP incumbents (Robinson et al. 2003: 97). Moreover, such theories still offer weak explanations in isolation. So what role does ethnic identity actually play in African civil conflicts, if any?

What must be understood is that for patterns of confrontation in culturally plural societies, armed conflict frequently employs identity as a tool (Young, 2002: 540). Indeed, Jackson (2002: 37) describes violence along fractured lines as objectively rational in the quest for profit, power and protection. This can be seen in the case of the Chewa and Tumbaka communities of Southern Africa. Living under very similar circumstances, the existence of good inter-group relations in Zambia contrasts strongly with hostilities between the same communities in Malawi (Posner, 2004: 543). This offers compelling evidence that cultural identities only enter the equation when mobilised by political actors, as seen in the case of Hastings Banda's strategising in Malawi. Lonsdale (2008) describes such mobilisation in Kenya as an approach to capture state power, whereby “what had previously been a multi-polar mosaic of scattered nodes of socially productive energy [become]...a layered pyramid of profit and power.” In short, ethnic differences only come into play as one of a multitude of possible strategies for interested actors to exploit in the quest for power that lies behind all civil conflict. It is neither necessary nor sufficient for the outbreak of internal violence. What actually determines whether or not civil conflict breaks out in Sub-Saharan Africa is feasibility.

Building on the earlier 'Greed versus Grievance' and 'Opportunity versus Motive' literature, Collier et al (2009: 106) find that differences in feasibility are decisive for the risk of civil war. If internal conflict is perceived as possible and profitable, then would-be insurgents will find a reason to rebel. Here we outline feasibility under two conditions conducive to civil violence. The first of these is the perception of weak state capacity, which lowers the risks and costs associated with rebellions, thus increasing feasibility. In Sub-Saharan Africa, many states accumulated grave debt burdens after independence. This, combined with subsequent austerity programmes, crippled their capacity to perform basic public services and/or to furnish channels of patrimonial distribution (Young, 2002: 356). This served to undermine both the capacity and legitimacy of political elites in many cases, whose rule came to be seen as ripe for takeover (Jackson, 2002: 44-46; Humphreys, 2003: 7). This argument is given further backing when we examine the effect of political structures on the probability of civil war. A more inclusive political system translates to a higher opportunity cost of rebellion which in turns lowers the likelihood of an outbreak (Mansfield and Snyder, 2002; Reynal-Querol, 2002; Collier and Hoeffler, 2004). Thus, the state's perceived capacity to deter conflict is central to the feasibility of civil violence.

This position finds strong statistical support from Fearon and Laitin, whose data include instances of 34 civil war outbreaks in Sub-Saharan Africa in the latter half of the last century. Ultimately, their analysis finds that: “The conditions that favour insurgency—in particular, state weakness marked by poverty, a large population, and instability—are better predictors of which countries are at risk for civil war than are indicators of ethnic and religious diversity” (2003: 88). The case of Côte d’Ivoire underlines this, where much of the population proclaim allegiance to various kin groupings such as the Akan, Kru, Mande and Voltaic. Yet the strong-armed, carefully balanced thirty year rule of Félix Houphouet- Boigny kept any potential inter-group conflict at bay (Tourngara, 2001: 64, Cocodia, 2008: 17). With the power struggle in the wake of his death, however, the diminished capacity of the state left the door open for opportunistic actors to exploit disparate loyalties in order to seize power. The West African state spiralled into long and violent internal conflict. This episode powerfully illustrates the decisive role that state capacity, here in the form of strong leadership, plays in determining the occurrence of civil conflict.

In addition to the weakness of the state, the second central factor in calculating the feasibility of conflict is rebel viability. The risk of civil war may be understood by examining the military and financial viability of insurgent groups (Collier et al, 2009: 88). Where there are few available economic alternatives, where the means exist to sustain warfare, and where recruits stand to gain substantially from potential success, a rebellion may be seen as feasible and thus the likelihood of violence breaking out is enhanced (Collier and Hoeffler, 2004). This is supported by Jeremy Weinstein, who describes “opportunistic rebellions” as taking place when there are probable short-term gains, low risks, and weakly committed reward-seeking participants (2006: 9-10). This theory is borne out by both quantitative and qualitative studies to which we now turn.

Collier and Hoeffler's statistical analysis finds that the availability of finance in the form of high levels of primary commodity exports and diaspora funds; low cost of rebellion proxied by earnings forgone; and finally a military advantage for rebels in terms of a dispersed population and mountainous terrain all offer a better explanation for the risk of conflict than any grievance-based accounts that might favour an explanation in terms of ethnic identity (2004: 565, 588). Such instances may be seen in events that occurred in Chad (1990), Liberia (1990), Ethiopia (1991), Somalia (1991), Rwanda (1994), and both Congo (1997), where existing security forces were dismantled by large bands of mainly young, male insurgents from rural peripheral regions (Young, 2002: 537). These were largely supported by plundering lucrative, peripheral and accessible primary commodities such as rubber and diamonds in the case of Liberia and gold, timber and coffee in the Congo (Humphreys, 2002: 6; Young, 2002: 539). Tanzania offers a powerful counter example. Despite the fact that over 120 ethnic groups are recognised, prospects for rebel viability are weak. The East African state possesses few exportable primary commodities for financing, exposed landscapes unfavourable to guerilla tactics, and economic alternatives in that levels of education are high (Cocodia, 2008: 20). Without resorting to repression, the pluralist polity has, since independence, avoided severe and sustained internal unrest (Dashwood and Pratt, 1999: 243). Thus it is plausible that the high opportunity costs faced by social entrepreneurs render potential civil conflict unfeasible, meaning peace has prevailed.

While recent decades have seen Sub-Saharan Africa acquire a reputation as a hotbed of civil warfare, this essay has underlined why framing such conflict in terms of underlying ethnic differences is both misleading and grossly oversimplified. In outlining ethnic identity as a subjective conviction that may be exploited as an instrumentalist strategy, the indeterminate nature of ethnicity as one of many possible tactics in civil conflict was underscored. Next, under the broader umbrella of feasibility, the essay outlined two factors necessary and sufficient for civil conflict, namely; perceived state weakness and rebel viability. This served to consolidate the bottom line that most multi-ethnic African states have gone from independence to the present day without descending into civil conflicts, but that where conditions for rebellion are viewed as feasible, group frictions may be played on to facilitate armed clashes.

Word Count: 1956


Bayart, Jean-Francois. 2005. The Illusion of Cultural Identity. London: Hurst.

Cederman, Lars-Erik, Andreas Wimmer and Brian Min. 2010. 'Why Do Ethnic Groups Rebel? New Data and Analysis.' World Politics 62(1): 87–119.

Cocodia, Jude. 2008. 'Exhuming Trends in Ethnic Conflict and Cooperation in Africa: Some Selected States'. African Journal on Conflict Resolution 8(3): 9-26.

Collier, Paul and Anke Hoeffler. 2004. 'Greed and Grievance in Civil Wars.' Oxford Economic Papers 56(1): 563-595.

Collier, Paul, Anke Hoeffler, and Dominic Rohner. 2009. 'Beyond Greed and Grievance: Feasibility and Civil War.' Oxford Economic Papers 61(1): 1-27.

Dashwood, Hevina S. and Cranford Pratt. 2009. 'Leadership, participation and conflict management: Zimbabwe and Tanzania,' in Taisier M. Ali and Robert O. Matthews (eds) Civil wars in Africa: Roots and Resolution. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.

Fearon, James D. and David D. Laitin. 2003. 'Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil war.' American Political Science Review. 91(1): 75-82.

Humphreys, Macartan N. 2002. 'Economics and Violent Conflict.' Harvard School of Public Health.

Jackson, Richard. 2002. 'Violent Internal Conflict and the African State: Towards a Framework of Analysis.' Journal of Contemporary African Studies. 20(1): 29-52.

Kaplan, Robert D. 2001. The Coming Anarchy. New York: Vintage Books.

Keen, D. 1998. 'The Economic Functions of Violence in Civil Wars.' Adelphi Paper 320, Oxford University Press.

Lonsdale, John. 2008. ‘Kenya: ethnicity, tribe and state.’Open Democracy, (accessed 22/03/2012)

Mamdani, Mahmood. 1996. Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Mansfield, Edward D. and Jack L. Snyder 2002. 'Democratic Transitions, Institutional Strength, and
War.' International Organization. 56(2): 297-337.

Meredith, Martin. 2006. The State of Africa. London: The Free Press.

Miles, William F.S. and Rochefort, David A.. 1991. 'Nationalism versus Ethnic Identity in Sub-Saharan Africa.' American Political Science Review. 85(2): 393-404.

Posner, Daniel N. 2004. 'The Political Salience of Cultural Difference: Why Chewas and Tumbukas are Allies in Zambia and Adversaries in Malawi.' American Political Science Review. 98(4): 529-545.

Reynal-Querol, Marta. 2002. 'Ethnicity, Political Systems, and Civil Wars.' Journal of Conflict Resolution. 46(1): 29-54.

Robinson, James A., Daron Acemoglu, and Simon Johnson. 2003. 'An African Success Story: Botswana.' In Rodrik, Dani (ed.) In Search of Prosperity: Analytic Narratives on Economic Growth. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Stewart, Frances. 2000. 'Crisis Prevention: Tackling Horizontal Inequalities.' Oxford Development Studies. 28(3): 245-262.

Thomson, Alex. 2000. An Introduction to African Politics. London: Routledge.

Tourngara, Jeanne. M. 2001. 'Ethnicity and Political Crisis in Cote d’Ivoire.' Journal of Democracy 12(3): 63-72

Weinstein, Jeremy M. 2006. Inside Rebellion: The Politics of Insurgent Violence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Young, Crawford. 2002. 'Deciphering Disorder in Africa: Is Identity the Key?' World Politics 54: 532-57

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