African Thinkers on the Origin and Relevance of Ethnic Identity

Just as the inhabitants of Scandinavia and the Mediterranean countries must be considered as two extreme poles of the same anthropological reality, so should the Negroes of East and West Africa be considered as the two extremes in the reality of the Negro world. Cheikh Anta Diop

Ethnic identity has always been lurking in political discussions in Africa. Yet many African thinkers argue that ethnicity was never a prominent issue until colonization began. Whether ethnocentrism played a major role in the recent polls in many African countries is still being debated but it is certainly cause for concern for many intellectuals advocating for more democratic elections. Other argues that ethnicity might have been polarized by past and present political motivations but it is still a salient reality of the African continent that has to be accounted for in any regional analyses. Evan Lieberman, for instance, argues in his book Boundaries of Contagion that ethnic boundaries in South Africa impedes on the efficiency of HIV/AIDS policies when compared to Brazilian policies.

It goes without saying that ethnicity is a sensitive subject when discussing African policies. When attempting to tackle narratives about Africa, one would be remiss not to recall Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina‘s sarcastic rant in Granta magazine on “How to Write about Africa”:

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don't get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book.

(In a follow up article, Wainaina explains the genesis and the fall out of his rant)

Binyavanga Wainaina by WhiteAfrican on Flickr under CreativeCommons License Attribution 2.0

While Binyavanga Wainaina warns against the pitfall of brushing braod strokes and pay attention to the regional specificities when writing or trying to understand political events in Africa, other writers suggest that ethnic identity is a marginal part of African history to start with and might have lost its relevance with the new generation. Kenyan blogger Andrew Maina reflects on the impact of ethnic identity, especially in the context of elections and the potential generational shift in the relevance of such concept:

Just what relevance, if any ethnic identity has in modernity, even in the life of a person of my generation [..] We Africans have already seen how high the price can be for entire communities caught up in the wrong ‘tribal block’ in the wrong place at the wrong time, Kenya in early 2008 and Rwanda in 1994 being the most graphic cases. Should the fact that you happen to be born to family with ambiguously relations to some fat old man in a suit, a house on a hill be the defining factor on how you vote ..] You mostly end up with a government full of mediocre individuals mostly either lining their pockets with tax money or simply failing to stand up for you when you actually need his assistance. Certainly, ethnicity should not be allowed to dictate some things yet the reality is it often does [..] Mostly the effects are negative, retrogressive, and or unappealing. Can things be different especially now, as I believe many African countries are set to witness a generational shift in leadership to a crop of leaders with no memory of colonialism? Perhaps yes, perhaps not.

African Writers: Raharimanana, Mabanckou and Nimrod

Anna Gueye, blogger with Senegalese ties, explains that ethnic identities were not part of Africa's heritage until the arrival of colonization [fr]:

Les groupes ethniques sont en grande partie un héritage colonial, qui ont émergé comme des instruments pour contrôler les personnes et se partager leurs ressources [..] Les colons européens ont encouragé l'assimilation des Africains en groupes, par la création d'unités administratives qui ont ensuite été étiquetés en termes ethniques, comme cela s'est produit en Ouganda avec la classification obligatoire des populations locales en fonction de leur «tribu », comme cela s'est produit aussi au Rwanda. [..] Les Africains eux-mêmes ont participé à cette création de « tribus », pour ne pas complètement s’exclure du processus d’allocation des ressources par les colons. L'ethnicité a ainsi été promue et définie afin de « poursuivre l'avantage matériel », pour reprendre la description Crawford Young. Et ce n’est pas fini, les politiciens se maintiennent au pouvoir grâce à ce système

Ethnic group are for the most part part of the colonial legacy that emerged as a tool to control people and share resources [..] European colonists encouraged the assimilation of Africans in groups by creating administrative units who were then labeled ethnic groups with the mandatory classification of local population according to tribes in Uganda and Rwanda [..] African themselves contributed to the creation of tribes in order to not be completely excluded from the allocation of resources by the colonists. Ethnicity was therefore defined and promoted as a way to pursue “material benefits” as Crawford Young developed. And it is still relevant today, politicians are still using ethnicity to stay in power.

Ethnocentrism was a concern in the pre-electoral period in Guinea as Guinee50 pointed out [fr]:

C’est regrettable et inquiétant que tout problème politique dans ce pays, commence ou finit toujours par des passions ethnocentriques. Disons clairement que nous avons érigé l’ethnocentrisme en mode de vie [..] j'avoue que l'ethnocentrisme est le thème qui m'a beaucoup plus donné l'envie de m'exprimer en ligne pour dénoncer à ma manière les dérives communautaristes

It is regrettable and worrisome that all political problems in this country starts and ends with ethnocentric fever. Let's say it clearly, we have build ethnocentrism into a way of life [..] I admit that ethnocentrism is one of the reason why I decided to blog so that I can denounce the communitarian diatribes.

In Madagascar, as elections are approaching, Achille52 bemoans the fact that his country seems to always trail behind on the path of democracy and development. He identifies ethnic identity as one of the reason why Madagascar is always falling behind [fr]:

Les candidats à n’importe élection utilisent deux armes principales, la première est la menace de la guerre tribale. « Ne choisissez pas untel, car il est betsimisaraka !! Ou ce gars est un Betsileo, et il va nuire à votre région !!« . Ce genre de discours est récurrent, et se trouve dans la bouche de tous les politiciens pour une seule raison, l’identité ethnique efface les efficacités du programme électoral. Les candidats n’ont plus besoin de développer les problèmes sociaux, et ce qu’ils comptent faire pour les résoudre.

Candidates to any elections always use the same discourse, the first one is the threat of a tribal war. “Don't pick this guy, he is Betsimisaraka !! Or this guy is Betsileo, he will be detrimental to your region!!” This kind of speech keeps coming back because ethnic identity erase the need for efficient electoral programs. Candidates don't need to find solutions to social issues anymore or even develop a strategy to solve them.

In the end, African writers Eugène Ebodé (Cameroon) and Jean-Luc Raharimanana (Madagascar) believe that Africa may need to redefine ethnicity and citizenry to move forward [fr]:

Pour que l'Afrique sorte de l'apitoiement et des clichés, il lui faut reconsidérer non pas ce que l'ethnie veut dire et recouvre, mais ce que la citoyenneté partagée révèle comme nouveaux enjeux, nouveaux comportements sociaux, éthiques et politique.

For Africa to escape the clichés and pity party, it's not the meaning nor the implication of its ethnic groups that it must reconsider but their commonality as citizens of the same continent with its shared aspirations and its shared social, ethical and political comportments.


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