Tuesday, May 6, 2008

…, but ethnic conflicts are products of colonialism!

By Elsadig Elsheikh, Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

There is an old argument, often implied, that ethnic conflicts in Third World countries are consequences of backwardness of these societies. Or even worse, ‘it’s their destiny,’ because they don’t follow ‘our model.’ In post-colonial analysis this argument does not hold. Understanding the general framework of underdevelopment, unequal distribution of wealth, and undemocratic politics that are inherited from colonialism will allow a deeper realization of the origin and motives of ethnic conflicts in Third World countries. Ignoring this framework will make it almost impossible to assess the current state of ethnic conflicts in post-colonial societies in the Third World.

The literature that attempts to identify and explain ‘ethnically motivated’ conflicts in a Third World country often times ignores the very nature of colonialism. Therefore, any effort to understand the origin and motivation of ethnic conflicts that overlooks the colonial legacy of ‘divide and conquer’ *(e.g., Sudan, Kenya, among others) will fall into the trap of the conventional petite-bourgeois ideological framework. This ideological framework negates the colonial effects before and after independence in relation to ethnic conflicts.

Ethnic conflict, by its nature, is not an invention of, but one of the ugly products of European colonialism. When hegemony and coercion are applied to any society – as was the experience of the vast majority of Third World countries- the outcomes will be reactionary acts of violence. The ignorance and brutality of the colonial era will sneak again through the back door of the post-colonial nation-state model. Nevertheless, when the colonial rulers left their colonies the new ‘masters’ -gaining their knowledge and tools from the colonizers- continued the same ‘divide and conquer’ policies. The struggle for power legitimacy in these societies didn’t follow a decolonization framework, which requires a de-linking from the ideology and practices of colonialism. Nonetheless, the new ‘emerging’ elite class used their indigenous stamp to institute a new era of dependency. The product will be, as Eqbal Ahmad puts it, “a world of pain.”

He argued that “the colonial State maintained a sizeable tradition upper class whose legitimacy and power was emasculated through expropriation by and collaboration with colonialism, along with a subordinate state bourgeoisie created and sustained by it”. That is, the elite of the new independent state is incapable of establishing its hegemony over its own people. The only means and methods available to the elite were to apply its hegemony to utilize the benefits of the colonial apparatus of manipulation, control, and normalization. These apparatus are the educational system, the law, and the military. These new independent countries lack any coherent and functioning ideology. Furthermore, their leaders lack any legitimacy of authority. Their scapegoat is to build a sort of fascist state bound by nationalistic sentiments, as had occurred in some parts of Europe prior and after the WWII. This marriage produces an isolated, incapable, and paralyzed nation-state. Ultimately, when the façade leadership falls away and is uncovered, they cry for help from their ethnic groups to substitute the nation-state. It is then that ethnic conflict ensues.

• Fanon, Frantz: The Wretched of the Earth. Grove Press, New York, NY 1963.


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