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.