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To what extent is politics in Africa fundamentally connected to ethnicity?

| December 1, 2012

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The issues of ethnicity and its connection to Africa politics continue to be of great importance on the continent. In recent times, there have been debates on these matters, which have further intensified against the background of multicultural societies. The underline base of this essay is to examine and explore the extent to which politics in Africa are connected to ethnicity. For two to three decades now, ethnicity has been at the centre of politics not only in Africa but also on the global front. Political liberalization has meant that ethnic group can now express their interests and lay claims on the state. “In the case of the former Czechoslovakia, there came the emergence of the two independent states. Slovakia and the Czech Republic”. The compositions of ethnicity control in states of Africa continue to be unabated. The essay we will be looking at some case study of how ethnicity is fundamentally connected to the politics within the states of Africa, also we will try if there are any political connections to ethnicity. “Ethnicity is a dynamic concept which may have an ethnic character as well as a class character, and class and ethnic conflicts may be waged simultaneously”(Markakis, 1998).

According to Thomson, his definition of ethnicity is “an ethnic group community of people who have the conviction that there have a common identity and common fate based on issue of origin, kinship ties, tradition, cultural uniqueness, a shared history and possibly a shared language”.

Ethnicity, religion, tribalism, and politics, these entire elements have a close relationship in most Africa state, and almost on the same terms. However, ethnicity has play a great role in the politics both in the negative and the positive ways, this essay will look at the extent of which this is connected to politics in Africa. The reappearance of ethnicity will be in two opposite ways, one will be the ethnic community under threat, and the other is the group dealing with their lost with the state and other powerful neighbours and rivals. Ethnicity could be a framework that will build a bridge of solidarity and liberation between two groups (Markakis, 1998).

In Africa states, ethnicity and politics are one body since political parties will always find their root from an ethnic group. Often becoming major actors of that ethnic politics, and the principal instrument for it growth based on it ethnical foundation. An example of ethnicity playing a major role in Africa politics was seen in the colonial era where the Uganda army had recruited from the north tribe, while the people of the south were mainly in civil service. After independence, it became necessary to ‘Africanize the services’, however, it was difficult for the military because the commander in chief of Uganda army, and the same time the president of the country. ‘In fact, figures have indicated that in 1963 most that 50 per cent of the army were from Acholi, while others were from the West Nile (Markakis, 1998).

Except in the field have always argue about the power struggle within the government, may invoke regional sentiments and Obote, and could mobilize the military in his favour. Using of a national army in favour can be refer to as politics base on ethnicity since the majority of the military are from one ethnic group (Omara-Otunnu, 1987). Ethnicity could not be talk about without mention of ‘tribalism’, Ethnicity could not be talk about without the mention of ‘tribalism’, since there are frequently used as a self-explanation of political events in Africa. Conflicts are mostly associated with tribes or ethnic group belonging to one political party. Such tribalistic interpretations of politics in Africa, is however worthless. Political scientists have beyond it to make it simple, to find why one tribe will attack the other. In the same way, ethnic group will be in conflict against each other (Thomson, 2010). Ethnicity is not and will not been a new concept in the studies of African politics, it has become popular on the continent since the 1990s. Most of the conflict in Africa can be attributed to ethnic group, although they are much more complex and, there are instances, which they are not at all. Ethnicity will however, remain a contested concept, because scholars on both sides have always disagreed about what it means and how it come about (Hyden, 2006).However, there is tendency that of about fifteen years of conflict within some countries in Africa, it will fall back on the theory of ‘Ethnicity’.

Conflicts in Africa can be explained, as the same anywhere in the world and it is not always attributed to ‘tribalism’. “In the case of Rwandan political scientists should have look towards overpopulation, land competition… and the falling coffee prices”. The Tutsi domination of one state, made killings in Rwanda more ethnic base politics. “Ethnicity may often be the agent of political mobilisation in Africa, and it is rarely the primary cause of conflict” (Thomson, 2010). The primordial of tribal arguments are clearly wrong, as African ethnic groups are not of the past, or the leftover of history. However, ethnicity and ethnic group will continue to play a major role in social organisation and in the political and economic needs of the people on the continent of Africa. In as much as ethnicity is often regarded as a hindrance to Africa’s political and economic development in the post-colonial era. It has been view and power by some nationalist in their argument (Thomson, 2010).

Nevertheless, this condemnation of ethnicity, will not be necessarily accepted, due to the fact if operating in the right political gateway, ethnicity can become a progressive force of any type of social organisation. In the retrospect, ethnicity has made some positive contributions to politics in some Africa countries in the post-colonial era, in that it has managed to serve both state and civil society to some extent (Thomson, 2010). Moreover, there also are some negative contributions. According to “Justice Theodora Georgina Wood, she has condemned ethnicity in Ghanaian politics, saying that the phenomenon could create dangerous repercussions for Ghanaian society. She said what was required was the collective responsibility of all and sundry to sustain democratic governance in the country” (Wood, 1994). Based on these remakes, we will have a look at a case study on the effect of ethnicity on African politics. This case study will be about the ethnicity of Nigeria, Africa most popular nation. Located on the West cost of the continent, it consists of swamps and lagoons in the Niger River delta. Nigeria is also rank as one Africa is rich states, having benefited from the export of it oil reserves.

According to the study by Thomson (2010), “the northern Hausa-Fulani consist is made up of 30 per cent of the total population; the western Yoruba are 20 per cent, while the eastern lbo covers 17 per cent”. Having seen the tribal divisions, it will be clear to note how ethnic groups can influence politics within Africa states. Under the colonial rule, the relationship between the ‘Yoruba’ clans has change dramatically, meanwhile, prior to that, there was no such thing, as a Yoruba political unity or ethnic identity. The people of the south-west Nigeria were not familiar with the team ‘Yoruba’ until the nineteenth century (Thomson, 2010). The colonial administration needed a larger community to operate upon to reduce costs and problems administration. On the other side of the colonial authorities were the religious groups (missionaries), these groups also wanted a bigger community for their people, and for them to have a common language. Hence, the missionaries invented the Yoruba vernacular. Ethnic coalitions became larger for a new Morden states. The Nigeria had always enjoyed the ethno-regional constitution of their respective ‘culture brokers’ at the time of independence, by which there had the chance to change their chosen candidates, and consequently, giving the power back to the local regional community. This makes the domination of issues of ethnicity becoming more fundamentally connected to politics (Thomson 2010). Meanwhile, each region was governed by a political party that will be identify by one ethnic group. The Fulani-Hausa governed the north; the Yoruba were to the West, and the East to Ibo. In this, study Thomson draw our attention to the problem created after the military takeover in 1966, the intervention however was precipitated by more political turmoil. The politicians of the Ibo East did not agree with the northern Hausa-Fulani, who were the dominance of the military government. These moves of political reverie led the secession of the east, and the independent state of Biafra was declared in 1967. It was term as one the higher point in Nigeria’s political mobilisation based on ethnicity (Thomson, 2010). In Thomson’s conclusion he makes another remake of ethnicity playing part in the political conflict in the oil-producing Niger Delta region of the country.

In another case in which ethnic groups playing a roles in politics in Africa, is within the Ghanaian like the Akans, are considered the most important ethnic group of Ghana. There consist of two major group: the Ashanti and Fanti. The Ashanti ethnic groups occupied the central area of Ghana; Ashanti ethnic were powerful within the region and needless to say, the confederacy was hated and feared, by both the Fanti and the northern groups. While the Fanti were quick to ally themselves with the European outposts and settlements along the coast. However, both Fanti and Ashanti are stemmed from common ethnic backgrounds, which could have a strong influence on political arena. Their ethnicity and ethnic group will play a role in connected to politics within the country and in Africa (Apter, 1972).

“Indeed if were to decide on a nation’s conduct on political affairs based on religion and ethnicity, it will mean deliberately deciding that certain portions of our population be left out of political discourse in this country.  Concerning ethnicity, the 2000 population census shows that the Akan are 69.1%, the Mole-Dagbani, 16.5%, Ewe, 12.7% and Ga-Adangbe, 8.0%. By these statistics, if we were to decide that we should conduct our politics based on religion or ethnicity, then some of us especially Northerners and Muslims would be effectively left out of political discourse in this land of our birth” (Mustapha, 1994).

These and other studies on ethnicity and it connection to politics in Africa, can go beyond in the inter-ethnic composition. According to Mustapha’s statistic and Apter’s studies on the Akan’s ethnic group, it could be draw that since there have majority of the population. The New Patriotic Party (NPP) candidate for the 2008 elections Nana Akufo-Addo, who is from the Akan ethnic group, and the NPP being an Akan based political party could play role in ethnic politics. However, according to an article by the statesman’s newspaper, there was the need to learn of what ethnicity has done to countries like   Rwanda and Cote D’Ivoire (Gabby, 2007).

While these explanations and examinations to weather ethnicity may hold some contribution to politics in Africa, it is still risky to generalise. It has become evident to some class of scholars that while there is a national template for conflict, and each has its own scenario base on its own peculiarities and deserves to be studied in its own context. (Ake, 1996) The changing of socio-political realities in Africa and the dominate of traditional values has greatly influenced the study of ethnicity in Africa. The socio-economic pressure on one group of people in an Africa country can make a lot of difference to that group been it ethnic or social. Ethnic, tribal groups will not involve in a conflict just because there want to do so, but it will always begin with a one ethnic or tribal group. As to ethnicity being connected to politics in Africa, since no scholars of the field has or point to or give the conclusion; however, we have since that conflict and civil war has broken out among ethnic or tribal groups and since trilbies and ethnicity are base on the same principles, than there can be link within these ethnic groups.

References List:

Ake, C. (1996). “The Political question”, in: O Oyediran (ed.) Governce and Development in Nigeria . Ibadan: Agbo Areo.

Apter, D. E. (1972). GHANA IN TRANSITON 2ed Edition. New Jersey : PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.

Gabby,Q.(2007,May11). Retrieved 22/05/2011,from

Hyden, G. (2006). African Politics in Comparative Perspective . New York: Cambridge University Press.

Markakis, M. S. (1998). Ethnicity and the State in Eastern Africa. Stockhlom: Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.

Mustapha, A. H. (1994). ghanaweb. Retrieved 04 22, 2011, from

Omara-Otunnu, A. (1987). Politics and the Military in Uganda. Palgrave Macmillan.

Thomson, A. (2010). An Introduction to African Politics Third Edition. Abingdon : Routledge.

Wood, J. T. (1994). Retrieved April 17, 2011, from


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