There are no ethnic conflicts in Africa

Why is it that people persist in labelling African conflicts “ethnic”?

Virtually any African conflict is immediately labelled “ethnic” (or worse, “tribal”) without any deeper consideration of the actualities involved. The rioting in Kenya following the elections in late 2007 were referred to as ethnic. The Rwandan Genocide is still often referred to as an ethnic conflict, even though there were no ethnic groups involved. But hey, it’s Africans. And they’re fighting. Ergo it must be ethnic/tribal.

It is true, of course, that some people invoke ethnicity as some sort of justification when making decisions (political or otherwise), or when applying simplistic (often post-hoc) explanations to otherwise complex social issues. Politicians are usually guilty of the former, journalists of the latter.

But, the fact that there are ethnic groups in Africa (like anywhere else in the world, incl. Europe) does not justify labelling African conflicts ethnic. Ethnicity is/was not a causing (or even relevant) factor in Rwanda, nor in Kenya, nor in Sudan, nor anywhere else in Africa. When it comes to conflicts, ethnicity is, and always has been, a pseudo-issue.

Conflicts in Africa, just like everywhere else in the world, have their roots in issues dealing with access to power and resources, not people’s ethnicities. It would be much more apt to use labels like “political” or even “social” instead, in as much as any single label can be valid.

Labelling African conflicts ethnic is not only wrong. It is evil. It perpetuates harmful misconceptions about African conflicts in particular, and Africa and Africans in general. It makes most people think of African conflicts as if they are some sort of spontaneous, inexplicable outbursts of violence born out of age-old “ethnic rivalries”. This image stems from old colonial desires to impose “proper” law and order in Africa. Fighting is just something they do down there. They can’t help it. It’s part of their culture. Why else would people refer to the conflicts as “ethnic”?

By comparison, the different sides in the Northern Ireland conflict divide themselves (largely) along religious lines. You have the Protestant on one side, and you have the Catholics on the other. Does that make the Northern Ireland conflict a religious conflict? Is religion a key factor in the conflict? Is religion a causing factor? Does the Northern Ireland conflict become more understandable if we think of it as a religious conflict? No, of course it doesn’t. There are religious components involved, sure, but religion is not causing the conflict, nor is it a particularly important factor. It would be simplistic and irresponsible to reduce the Northern Ireland conflict to a matter of religion.

Similarly, African conflicts cannot be reduced to a matter of ethnicity. Ethnicity is not a causing factor. It’s intellectually irresponsible to single out ethnicity as an all-important factor in African conflicts. It’s not. It’s about politics, power, resources. Referring to African conflicts as ethnic is just as inaccurate and irresponsible as labelling the Northern Ireland conflict religious.


  1. Rethabile said,

    Friday, June 27, 2008 at 6:36

    You’re absolutely right, of course. The Balkan conflicts have never been reduced to something like “ethnicity” either. I guess Europeans go at it for nobler causes than the barbarian “ethnicity”

  2. div said,

    Wednesday, September 3, 2008 at 19:38

    where can i get more info about african conflicts and civil wars that are scholarly? thanks

  3. jfmaho said,

    Friday, September 5, 2008 at 5:35

    (Sorry for the slight delay. This is a slow-moving blog, and I monitor it only sporadically.)

    I would actually suggest that you start with a good historical introduction. Understanding pre-colonial Africa is essential for understanding modern Africa, and they usually cover a great deal of information about conflicts in Africa.

    There are several good history books around, such as John Iliffe’s “Africans: the history of a continent” (publ. 1995), J.D. Fage’s “A history of Africa” (4th ed., publ. 2001), Leonard Thompson’s “A history of South Africa” (publ. 1995).

    If you’re looking for sources on more recent conflicts, I’d suggest Gerard Prunier’s “The Rwanda crisis” (2nd ed., publ. 1998). It gives a good historical background to the Rwanda Genocide.

    You could also browse the websites of various African studies centres. They sometimes provide recommendations for readings.

    I have a collected a few links here:

  4. jfmaho said,

    Monday, October 6, 2008 at 22:36

    I just found a great article about this issue in Extra!, the magazine of FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), an American media watch group.

    It’s titled
    ‘Tribal’ label distorts African conflicts: ethnic framing may obscure political contexts, and is written by Julie Holler. The article offers a wide-sweeping survey and critique of the media’s misuse of the label ‘ethnic’ and ‘tribal’. I strongly recommend Holler’s article for anyone inteterested in current African affairs.

  5. MB said,

    Tuesday, April 7, 2009 at 17:46

    Read this and let me know what you think….

    Political corruption, lack of respect for rule of law, human rights violations are all common reasons heard for some of the causes of Africa’s problems. Although, not the only reasons, some often overlooked root causes also include the following:

    European colonialism had a devastating impact on Africa.

    The artificial boundaries created by colonial rulers as they ruled and finally left Africa had the effect of bringing together many different ethnic people within a nation that did not reflect, nor have (in such a short period of time) the ability to accommodate or provide for, the cultural and ethnic diversity. The freedom from imperial powers was, and is still, not a smooth transition. The natural struggle to rebuild is proving difficult.

    In the 1870s European nations were bickering over themselves about the spoils of Africa. In order to prevent further conflict between them, they convened at the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 to lay down the rules on how they would partition up Africa between themselves.

    Between 1870 and World War I alone, the European scramble for Africa resulted in the adding of around one-fifth of the land area of the globe to its overseas colonial possessions.

    Colonial administrations started to take hold. In some areas, Europeans were encouraged to settle, thus creating dominant minority societies. France even planned to incorporate Algeria into the French state, such was the dominance and confidence of colonial rulers at the time. In other cases, the classic “divide and conquer” techniques had to be used to get local people to help administer colonial administrations. Some were only too willing to help for their own ends.

  6. jfmaho said,

    Friday, April 10, 2009 at 17:11

    Great comment (and sorry it took a few days to respond).

    Let me just start by pointing out that my major (actually only) point was/is to try to deflect attention away from the pseudo-issue of ethnicity in conflicts. I’m not saying conflicts don’t exist. Nor am I claiming to understand their roots and causes. I only know that ethnicity is not one of them.

    The colonial period has undoubtedly played a large part in how Africa functions today. However, it’s worth emphasising that colonialism is about politics and economics, not ethnicity. Also, the “uniqueness” of colonialism should not be overplayed. It was a major and devastating period in the history of Africa, yes, but it wasn’t something new.

    Throughout known history, the African continent has seen many major empires, most of them imperialistic and dominant, e.g. Ghana, Mali (neither of which should be confused the current countries), Luba, not to forget Shaka’s Zulu Empire, and many others. They all expanded, conquered, subjugated and dominated their neighbours, for political and economic reasons. European colonialism was the same, albeit on a grander scale and perhaps operating along slightly different mechanisms.

    One of the major consequences of colonialism is, of course, that they fixed the current national borders of most African countries, which (as you say) brought together many diverse groups of people in any given nation. (Although I think a more devastating consequence of arbitrarily fixed borders is that it restricts the natural mobility of people, but that’s another issue.)

    Having several ethnic groups living within one nation is not in itself a cause for conflicts. Lots of African countries function normally even when housing many ethnic groups, such as Tanzania, Namibia, Gambia, and so on. And let’s not forget, Rwanda and Somalia are both ethnically homogenous, which didn’t/hasn’t stopped conflicts in those countries — conflicts that for many observers look “ethnic”.

    If anything, fixed borders have created more purely political conflicts, as different groups fight for their share in power and resources within national borders. What may cause people to misinterpret such conflicts is that groups often mobilise according to ethnic lines, simply because ethnicity is an important social organisational principle. But the conflicts are still not about ethnicity. They’re about power and money.

    Anyhoo, I don’t have anything to object in your comment. It’s worth stressing, though, that trying to understand social conditions, whether they are about conflicts or something else, is never going to be simple. They can never be reduced to single factors, especially not “ethnicity” (or even “tribalism”).

  7. Liz said,

    Friday, August 12, 2011 at 12:39

    am impressed were else can I find imformation abput the origins of Conflicts in Africa

  8. jfmaho said,

    Monday, August 15, 2011 at 11:50

    The best books are the ones dealing with individual conflicts or areas. I already mentioned Prunier’s “The Rwanda crisis” (2nd ed., publ. 1998) above. In addition to that, one of the more interesting texts I’ve read about conflicts in the Great Lakes area is a book by Gaudens P. Mpangala, titled “Ethnic conflicts in the region of the Great Lakes” (publ. 2000).

    You could also look at this site:
    It provides a good enough overview, and has further links, too.

    There’s also this database:
    It documents various types of conflicts throughout Africa and is very useful as a springboard for further googlings. Also, if you look under “publications” you’ll find a paper called “After the rain”, which looks at the correlation between conflicts and water resources.

  9. jfmaho said,

    Monday, August 15, 2011 at 12:27

    You might also want to look through the materials at the website of Cape Town’s Centre for Conflict Resolution:

  10. edgar said,

    Friday, October 7, 2011 at 18:26

    thats perfect guys these are only misconceptions,this was just a myth created by colonial historians why is it they dont labell the conlicts in their region as ethnic conflicts.there is need to demythologise the myth

  11. Nicolai said,

    Wednesday, May 16, 2012 at 19:34

    I totally agree with you that politics and resources are the key causes of African conflicts. But does this mean, that “ethnicities” can not be abused and politicised? This is how I always understood the Rwanda conflict. And I know that the “ethnicities” Hutu and Tutsi are artificial, but does it really matter, if they identify by these names nowadays? Were people not killed because of belonging to either group?

    What about current conflicts between “tribes” like the Nuer and Murle in South Sudan? Again, these conflicts are also about power and resources, but how do you differentiate the conflict parties? Not by religion or politics, but by the groups they belong to, their ethnic groups.

    Summing up: Ethnicities are not the reason for conflicts in Africa, but I see a valid point for analysing them as actors.

    What do you think about it? Maybe you could give some examples on why groups in e.g. South Sudan or Rwanda fight/fought wars, and how they are not ethnic.

    BTW.: I never read a text about the Balkan Conflicts without the word ethnicity in it.

  12. jfmaho said,

    Monday, May 28, 2012 at 2:25

    (Sorry for the delay. It’s a slow-moving blog. I plan to change that eventually.)

    I don’t disagree with you in principle. Ethnicities are not irrelevant in a conflict, but I personally don’t like conflicts being labelled “ethnic”, simply because it draws undue attention to a factor that I feel is secondary at best. It makes people instinctively (mis)understand those conflicts as somehow different from other conflicts, and at worst in no need of any further explanation.

    Ethnicities can and do play a role in conflicts, I agree, but mainly when it comes to mobilising people.

    In general, the main actors in a conflict are political leaders (or, leaders of communities), while foot soldiers are mobilised according to whatever communities/societies/nations they belong to. Hence the US army mobilises soldiers from among US nationals. When the US decided to go to war in Iraq, it was the political leadership who made that decision. It wasn’t a random act of aggression from a collective of Americans. That conflict is not about being American, even though fighting for the US can be about being American. Does that distinction make sense to you?

    Similarly in Africa, we see conflicts between either nations or communities, instigated by political leaders. It just so happens that African communities and societies (but not nations) are generally seen as ethnically based, so ethnicity becomes a factor in some/many conflicts. But those conflicts are still political ones. The ethnicity part is there for the ride, so to speak.

    The conflict between Sudan and South Sudan is not about ethnicity (since neither nation represents any coherent ethnic grouping), but control of territory and resources (mainly oil?). Why not label it “political”, as that’s more descriptive?

    In Rwanda, “Hutu” and “Tutsi” were labels in passports and on ID cards. They weren’t ethnicities by any stretch of the imagination, not if we compare with what counts as ethnicities elsewhere in Africa, or the world. They were more like social categories/classes. Hutus and Tutsis speak the same language, live in the same areas, eat the same food, look the same, wear the same clothes, etc. They were, however, given different social priviliges during colonial times. The Hutu “class” felt disadvantaged, and this fueled frictions. This culminated in the 1994 genocide, which was organised and instigated by the political leadership, for political purposes.

    Of course, there are individuals who hate certain cultures, religions, ethnicities, “races”, or whatever, and some of that hatred can be utilised and strengthened by political propaganda, as in Nazi Germany.

    Either way, since I can’t see ethnicities as being the cause of conflicts, it feels wrong to label them as such.

  13. Nicolai said,

    Monday, May 28, 2012 at 13:07

    I totally agree with you! That is why I “label” them ethno-political: the causes are generally political, but the conflict lines are often following a ethnic “scheme”. But just calling them ethnic conflicts would be wrong.

    What I ment with South Sudan is the conflict between different tribes, the Nuer and Murle, which have been going on since hundreds of years. They are also about resources, but partly also caused through traditions: Murle tribes often redirect internal tribal conflicts/agressions towards other tribes as a mechanism for internal conflict resolution. Often the reason for the internal conflicts are structural problems like youth unemployemt, but this “outsourcing” of conflicts is, in this case, “tribal”.

    Again,generally I totally agree with you that African conflicts are by the majority not caused by ethnicities – still I would not obviate some might.

  14. jfmaho said,

    Monday, May 28, 2012 at 14:51

    That’s interesting about the Murle. I’m familiar with them in general terms (i.e. I know roughly where they live), but I have to look into the stuff you’re talking about.

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