Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Ethnicity and Political Instability in Africa

By Kwabena Agyeman, Graduate Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

In the light of the current political upheaval in Kenya, it is important to shed some light on the role ethnicity plays in instability, civil conflict, and poverty in Africa. Ethnicity is a very broad term which can be defined in different ways depending on the context. However, in this context, I am borrowing Crisford Chogugudza’s definition which states that ethnicity is defined as a shared cultural identity involving similar practices, initiations, beliefs and linguistic features passed over from one generation to another.
The paradox is that while politicians in Africa characterize ethnic rivalry as a colonial tactic designed to ‘divide and rule’ and keep them under subjugation, many of them continue to use ethnicity to promote themselves and inflict maximum political damage on their opponents. The situation in Kenya today is evidence of how far politicians are prepared to go in using the ethnic card in politics.
The immediate trigger has been the disputed election results. Supporters of President Kibaki's main challenger, Raila Odinga, believe he was cheated of victory. Mr. Odinga is from the Lou community, while President Kibaki is a Kikuyu. The Kikuyu is the largest and most economically-dominant ethnic group in Kenya. But the ethnic tension, which has dogged Kenyan politics since its independence in 1963 and has its roots in a land dispute, is widely believed to underlie much of the violence. The ruling government in Kenya is perceived by the opposition as being Kikuyu-dominated, so the current political dispute is fuel for the smoldering embers of a land dispute which has existed for decades.

Rwanda, Liberia, and Burundi all bear testimony to how politicians have exploited ethnic sentiments, and the havoc ethnic conflicts can cause to an entire population. Crisford Chogugudza, among others, argues that ‘dictatorships contained ethnic clashes to a large extent’ and that democracy has again revived ethnic clashes as politicians make it an issue to gain political mileage. The above point is debatable though. I pose that the challenge to be able to overcome this quagmire lies in addressing the really deep, long-running income inequalities in Africa in such a way that issues of race, ethnicity, gender, or religion are transcended for the benefit of all and not just a few. What do you think?


  1. Thanks for quoting my article on ethnicity.

    Crisford Chogugudza

  2. there has to be intability in africa for asustainable development

  3. Africa will always be a colonial territory unless we review our culture.