Since the 1990s, most African countries turned to democracy to overturn the negative effects of authoritarianism in the previous decades. However, the democratisation process in Africa has not fared well because 2 decades later, the continent is marred by human rights abuses, ethnic conflicts and economic mismanagement. African scholars have argued that the concept of democracy is an alien ideology which does not fuse with African ideology, and thus has negatively impacted the development of the region. In this article I argue that the biggest challenge to democracy in Africa is ethnicity which divides the many groups of Africa along tribal lines.
Ethnicity is defined by Hyland Erickson as a field of study, which involves the classification of people and the relations between groups in the context of self- and other distinctions. There are about 3000 distinct ethnic tribes in Africa which were bundled together to form 55 countries. If these tribes were spread out evenly in all the African countries, on the average, each African country would at least have 54 distinct ethnic tribes. However, some countries have a larger number of tribes whereas others have a smaller number.
Ethnic conflicts can be categorised as latent or manifest. The latent forms of ethnic conflicts can be seen as grievances or underground vexations that are non-violent but nonetheless, can lead to sporadic violence if not checked. Latent forms of ethnic conflicts might not be visible to the observer, but inter-ethnic hatred is usually subtle and can be conveyed through competitive party politics, judicial redress, media protests, and in some cases, peaceful demonstrations. The manifest form of ethnic conflicts are those that are violent in nature, where channels of negotiations are closed and governments fail to address or mediate inter-ethnic conflicts.
The latent and manifest ethnic conflicts is the reason why democracy is having problems in Africa, because distinct ethnic groups who belong to the same country harbour negative sentiments about each other. These negative sentiments then lead to the disintegration of the idea of belonging to one nation-state, because the notion of a shared culture becomes a contested issue. These contestations between ethnic groups, whether violent or not, can lead to wide distrust amongst people who belong to the same nation-state, which in turn is not a conducive environment for democracy.
One of the clearest examples of ethnic conflict in Africa is that of the Arabs and sub-Saharan Africans. In the 1800s when much of Africa was colonised by the Europeans, national borders were carved up without considering the demographic implications of the African ethnic populations. Arabs, Tuareg and black Africans were forced together to form nations around the large tracts of land around the Sahara desert. Today the countries along the Sahara are Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, and Sudan. For much of the last decade, all four countries have experienced rebellions and civil wars, of which ethnicity played a central role as different factions fought over, politics, resources, religion and history. Perhaps the most vicious and recent ethnic conflict in history is that of Rwanda in 1994 where the Hutus killed about 800, 000 people while targeting a rival ethnic group the Tutsis. The ethnic groups of Africa who through history were forced together to form nation-states are always in constant contestations due to the stark differences of culture between them. Even after about 60-70 years after colonialism in Africa, the differences between distinct ethnic groups are still prevalent in contemporary African society.
The most difficult thing with several distinct ethnic groups in a country is to ensure that all groups are well represented within government processes. In most cases there are always ethnic groups in Africa who feel marginalised because they are not included in the power structures of a country. This is always due to dominant ethnic groups who create opportunities for themselves, while other groups are excluded from such opportunities. In Malawi last year, there were calls for federalism by ethnic groups in the northern region who felt side-lined in the power structures of the country. Some even argued that if the federalism calls were not heeded, the northern region would secede from Malawi to form its own state. Malawi has always been a peaceful country but calls for federalism or secession based on ethnicity, is a stark reminder how tribalism is a recurring issue in African politics.
In Kenya last year, politicians got involved in a hate speech campaign where various social networks were used as platforms to fuel hatred between different ethnic groups. Kenya’s former Cohesion and Integration Commissioner Millie Lwanga claims that many Kenyans accuse the government of only addressing the interests of their ethnic groups. It is this favouritism of certain ethnic groups that can lead to ethnic rivalry or conflict in the form of latent or manifest ethnic conflicts. In the end, democracy suffers because as a concept, the electorate of a country are needed to unite under the banner of nationalism, to vote for a political party.
In light of many governance issues in Africa, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame has argued that there is need to africanise the concept of democracy. Some have even suggested that traditional powers be incorporated in formal power structures of governments in Africa. Chris Zumani Zimba, author of “Democracy Under Attack” claims,
“Politicians recognise the influence of traditional leaders on how communities vote during elections and try to manipulate this. A better system would be some kind of bicameral government, even giving traditional leaders legislative powers.”
Mr Zimba’s arguments are that the inclusion of traditional chiefs into government structures may just be the answer to African democracy. Historically, before colonialism, African societies were headed by chiefs who up to this day are seen to be the leaders of the many different ethnic groups of Africa. Maybe the inclusion of traditional power structures into the politics of Africa might just improve the relationship of the ethnic groups, which is important for the fledgling democracies of Africa.
Image Source: United Nations