The President of the United States, Barack Obama, recently stated the following during his state visit in Kenya in 2015:

‘‘Politics that’s based solely on a tribe and ethnicity is politics that’s doomed to tear a country apart,”. “It s a failure, a failure of imagination.

Ethnic politics continue to pose a security threat to many African countries and has had adverse effects on prospects of promoting good governance or democracy. Today, many African countries continue to use ethnicity as a resource for political manipulation and entrepreneurship, resulting in dominant ethnic groups excluding minority groups within national policies that reflect the interests and activities of the national majority. Furthermore, the 2015 United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have worsened the situation by placing  individuals at the centre of concern in developmental policy and not acknowledging the importance of investing in the most marginalized and excluded, or giving due credit to governments and institutions that are inclusive.

As a result, many minority groups in Africa have been denied their democratic rights of equal access to socio-economic, political and cultural resources resulting in a security dilemma. The term security dilemma is commonly used in realist theory of International Relations  to refer to  a situation where competition for state power and scarce resources leads to a zero-sum conflict (win-lose) of identities based on tribalism or ethnicity. Differences of  educational attainment, occupational level and land holdings across ethnic groups lead to a  security dilemma  which causes separatist or ethnic conflict. South Sudan produces the ethnic security dilemma where ethnic grievances prevailed due to unequal or unfair governance resulting in  inter-communal violence  between the Murle and Nuer tribes in Jonglei, South Sudan. The conflict led to the Murle demanding an independent state of their own, from  Jonglei, due to lack of representation in the state government. The  dissatisfaction with the political processes and state government created an environment of uncertainty that has made it relatively easy to mobilize people for the use of violence.

Similarly, the control over the justice system by a particular political, social or ethnic elite has been linked to inequalities and  violence in countries such as Rwanda and Zimbabwe. The concentration of wealth and political power in the Southern  part of Uganda has also laid the foundations for economic and political exclusion, especially of the Acholi minority in Northern Uganda, which has further cemented the grievances that define North-South and has fueled the creation of the Lord’s Resistance Army rebel group. Furthermore, post-apartheid South Africa is also faced with a challenge where  the President, Jacob Zuma, is said to empower  most  political elites  from  his tribe or ethnic group (Zulu tribe) and exclude other ethnic groups. As a result,  the deployment of culture in politics can  give rise to dangerous forms of narrow nationalism and increases inequalities which may result in conflict.

Moreover, many  post-colonial African governments have reinforced the inequalities left by colonial and white-minority regimes where liberation and independence movements were dominated by one ethnic group. During the colonial era in Africa,  political, economic and cultural power was unequally distributed between the colonizers and the colonized; or between white minority governments and the indigenous communities. There were hierarchies of power, where colonials or white-minorities were the first tier of power, and the second tier was for those indigenous communities ‘chosen’ to run the lower levels of the administration. The second tier consisted of traditional leaders and kings who were the instruments of the implementation of ‘indirect’ rule. The indigenous inhabitants were mostly unemployed and barred from acquiring the same level of education or technical skills as the ‘settlers’. The ability of Africans to make their own independent policies and decisions were also circumscribed by former colonial powers that forced  the post-colonial African governments to pursue similar  policies which  in most cases were not inclusive. Among other policies created, was that of the  individualistic land tenure system which essentially replaced the communal land tenure system common among many African ethnic groups.

Addressing ethnic  inequalities is critical to poverty reduction between group (horizontal) inequalities that make up a large component of overall inequality within any country. A focus on only individual inequality may obscure important differences among groups or regions.  Group inequalities are important because, in some situations, it is  impossible to improve the position of individuals without tackling the position of the groups. Moreover,  the issue of inequalities can be addressed by making sure boundary delimitation  prevents an  unbalance of populations across districts  or unbalanced constituencies, so as to enable more of the minority in the political decision making process. Additionally, it is important that African governments adopt quota laws for ethnic minorities  in representative assemblies so  as to enable policy issues affecting them to be well addressed and  to enable equal distribution of resources. African governments must have policies that focus on boosting economically depressed and underdeveloped regions, either by linking them to growth areas or turning them into growth areas with a view to becoming future markets for goods and services. Well-placed infrastructure, rolled out as part of an integrated system of national development, can reshape societies, expand economic opportunities and change the patterns of development. Lastly, addressing citizenship and property rights is crucial to improve the position of disadvantaged groups because they play a significant role in land conflicts. In connection to this, the  global policy on climate change, which has meant less land and natural water resources available to accommodate the foraging lifestyle of some minority groups,  also needs to be addressed to prevent  conflict.

In conclusion,  researchers  and policy makers need to find out more about the types of inequalities so as to mitigate the divisions that can lead to conflict and underdevelopment. Horizontal inequalities can be addressed  through inclusion, fairness, responsiveness and accountability to all social groups. Furthermore, social, economic and cultural rights should  be included in national constitutions, as enshrined in international and regional human rights instruments in order to enhance good governance and democracy.


Image Source: European Commission