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close this bookThe Courier N 140 - July - Aug 1993 - Dossier: National Minorities - Country Reports: Dominica, Mozambique (EC Courier, 1993, 96 p.)
close this folderDossier: National minorities
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentWhat are minorities?- some possible criteria
View the documentThe basis of prejudice
View the documentPolitical representation
View the documentInternational legal protection
View the documentThe minority lights trap
View the documentThe African context: asset or liability?
View the documentA policy overview
View the documentTowards a new system of protection
View the documentLinguistic minorities in the European Conununtry
View the documentCreating marginalised dependent minorities Relief programmes for refugees in Europe
View the documentIndigenous peoples
View the documentSome examples of minority situations

The African context: asset or liability?


The political evolution of several African countries in the yearsfollowing their accession to independence has been characterized by various kinds of internal tension that have sometimes evolved into intra-ethnic confrontations, leading in some cases to outright civil war.

Past examples of such disastrous occurrences include the Nigerian/Biafran civil war of 1967 to 1970, the prolonged series of internal conflicts which raged for over twenty five years in Chad beginning in 1963, the thirty year civil war in Ethiopia that recently culminated in the independence of Eritrea, the numerous upheavals that have occured in Zaire since 1960, the recurrent conflicts between Tutsi and Hutu populations in Rwanda and Burundi which have provoked numerous deaths over the past three decades, and the devastations provoked in Uganda by Idi Amin's murderous rule. Closer to us in time, we are confronted with the vast human and material tragedies that have resulted from the on-going civil wars in Sudan, Somalia, Mozambique and Angola. In South Africa, the violent clashes that periodically occur between the exclusively Zulu Inkatha movement and the rest of the black population continue to pose a dangerous threat to that country's evolution towards multi-party democracy.

At a comparatively less tragic level, many of the shortcomings of administrative and governmental structures in Africa have been ascribed to a factor that is loosely defined es 'tribalism', a blanket term generally used to describe nepotism based on ethnic considerations. There is a pervasive perception in most African countries (which is unfortunately often justified by actual experience) that appointments to key governmental and administrative positions are frequently determined by ethnic considerations rather than on the basis of qualification or competence. From this perspective, to secure appointment to certain high positions in many African countries, it is more important to be from the 'right' ethnic group than to be qualified for the post, a situation that often leads to inefficiency and demoralisation in the public service. On the other hand, efforts by a number of African governments to provide an appearance of fairness in the pattern of public appointments by instituting some form of quota system, (as in the case of what has come to be known as 'ethnic balancing' in Nigeria) have provoked controversy because of the widely-held belief that quota systems inevitably amount to placing obstacles on the path of qualified individuals whose only sin is to belong to the 'wrong' ethnic group.

For a variety of reasons therefore, (of which the perceived conflictual potential provides the most dramatic element), the blame for many of Africa's present-day woes has been ascribed by a wide range of both African and non-African observers to the ethnic factor.

However, is ethnicity really the villain it has often been made out to be? If not, are there any particular circumstances that have combined to make the 'ethnic imperative' a threat to the nation-building efforts of the newly emergent African states? In order to answer these two vital questions successfully, we first have to try to define the tribal (or ethnic) phenomenon in its African context, so that we can then go on to try and understand the nature of its impact on the present-day African political and socio-cultural landscapes.

What is a tribe?

To begin with, what is a tribe? Astonishingly enough, this apparently innocuous question has long been a source of much controversy and mutual incomprehension among commentators. The confused perception that is often associated with the term is typified by the way in which the Oxford dictionary first defines tribe as 'a group of people in a primitive and harharous stage of development, acknowledging the authority of a chief and usually regarding themselves as having a common ancestor', before proceeding to offer as a second definition: 'kinds of political unit in some ancient States'...

Obviously, the first definition reflects a prejudice that is widely shared among those who believe that the contemporary nation-state is the only valid model of political and social organisation for mankind, and that anything different is somehow primitive and archaic, if not 'barbaric', as the Oxford dictionary bluntly implies.

The second definition reflects a greater attempt at objectivity in that it attempts to come to grips with the fact that a tribe is essentially a political unit. This is indeed a definition that sets us on the right track, because fundamentally, the tribe is an organisational unit that encompasses a human group whose members identify with each other on the basis of a shared culture.

As a general rule, the members of a tribe speak the same language and share a common ancestry (or trace their origins to the same ancestral myth). Historically in Africa, a tribe or an ethnic group could by itself constitue a kingdom or a state if it were sufficiently large, but in many cases a tribe formed part of a larger political entity encompassing a number of ethnic groups, even though one might be dominant. Thus, the Soninke tribe formed the core ethnic group of the ancient kingdom of Wagadu (also known as Ghana) which held sway in the Western Sudan between the eleventh and twelfth centuries, only to be subsequently absorbed into the successor state of Mali (which originated as a predominantly Mandinka entity) along with segments of other ethnic groups.

Alternatively, members of the same ethnic group might be split up among rival political entities that either coexisted peacefully or engaged in armed rivalry with each other, as was the case with the various branches of the Nguni tribes of South Africa before the Zulu Empire was welded together under the forceful leadership of Chaka. Similarly, the Yoruba-speaking peoples of present-day Nigeria and the Benin Republic had branched out into a number of independent kingdoms by the sixteenth century, although they recogniseda common origin and shared the same culture and language.

If we understand the tribe from this perspective, we are forced to draw a number of conclusions. The first of these is that the emergence of states or kingdoms in pre-colonial Africa in no way precluded the existence of tribal or ethnic entities within such states. In other words, the emergence of states as larger political organs did not negate the existence of tribal units. On the contrary, each state tended to rely on the organisational structure of its component ethnic groups or tribes for the purpose of governance.

The second is that there is nothing primitive or archaic about ethnicity, whether in Africa or elsewhere, even if the ethnic group as a socio-cultural unit has ceased to play a vital role in the western world with the emergence of the nationstates that came into existence as from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Ethnicity is a simple fact of life that is inseparable from mankind's need to create institutions to serve as a framework for social existence and organisation, on a par with organs such as the nuclear family, the extended family, the village unit, the regional entity, or the modern industrial state. While it may be true that ethnicity has tended to have a greater importance in some cultures than in others, it is important to avoid an ethnocentric vision of the world that characterizes anything different from one's own cultural heritage es 'backward' and 'barbaric'.

Thirdly, we need to recognise that the ethnic or tribal context represents a vital dimension of African modes of organisation and self-perception. Historically, it is the ethnic or tribal framework that has provided (and continues to provide) the essential framework for the cultural, spiritual and artistic heritage of the African peoples. In fact, the ethnic background of the average African is as essential to his way of life and to his perception of the world as state structures might be in societies where nationality and ethnicity have fused into a common entity.

Colonial conquest

The dilemma and tragedy of presentday Africa resides in the fact that in the

wake of the colonial conquest of the continent by external powers in the nineteenth century, administrative entities were created that arbitrarily lumped together various ethnic groups within borders that were not of their own choosing. As a general rule, these new administrative entities took no cognisance of the prior structures of the societies on which they were imposed, sometimes separating segments of the same ethnic groups in neighbouring territories ruled by separate colonial powers.

To compound matters, the new administrative structures that resulted from the colonial occupation of Africa, which were organised on an authoritarian basis, provided the essential framework for the emergence of the new nation states that acquired independence as from the 1960s. The new African states were thus constituted on a basis that took no cognisance at all of the cultural and historical heritage of their component peoples. Nor did the borrowed robes of western-style (or 'socialist' eastern-style) political organisation provide any real scope for representation of the peoples of the new nations along truly democratic lines or even along the lines according to which ethnic groups had coalesced in the past in Africa by conquest or association to form states. In other words, the new state structures were totally alien to Africa in concept and organisation, and could not hope to form a viable basis for mobilising the loyalties and energies of the populations that they encompassed.

'Tribalism' as a social and national malady has thus been the inevitable result of state structures that have failed to reflect the true nature of African society, and of corrupt and purposeless leadership in the new nation-states of Africa, rather than of the ethnic factor per se. It is not ethnicity that is to blame for Africa's woes, but clientilism, nepotism, and ineptitude on the part of the continent's ruling elites.

The root of many of the internal conflicts that have plagued a number of African states since independence lies in the naked exploitation of ethnic differences by greedy and power-hungry elites, in many cases armed and encouraged from behind the scenes by external forces anxious to capitalise on Africa's resources or to prevent the emergence of truly independent and nationalistic readerships in Africa. The upheavals in present-day Zaire, from the ethnic clashes that surrounded the ouster and assassination of Patrice Lumumba in 1961 through the secession of Katanga to the current intra-ethnic massacres in Shaba province and elsewhere, are a direct outcome of the combination of external intervention and the self-serving schemes of a kleptocratic ruling class. A further example of the same kind of phenomenon is to be found in the immensely tragic civil wars that have devastated Mozambique and Angola at the instigation of foreign forces who have found willing tools in local tribal-based political leaders willing to unleash untold havoc on their own populations to satisfy an insatiable lust for power and wealth...

In the end, far from being the root cause of instability in present-day Africa, ethnicity could, if properly harnessed, play a vital role in the much needed reorganization of African nations to provide scope for genuine popular participation in political decision-making. Far from being archaic and retrogressive, as has been suggested in some quarters, the ethnic and cultural roots of the peoples of Africa represent a key avenue for harnessing their loyalty and energies for the great tasks of nation-building, provided the ethnic dimension of their lives is woven into the very fabric of state construction.

What appears to be required in Africa today is not a negation of the social, cultural and historical heritage of the African peoples, but an imaginative integration of those elements from the African past that constitute a valid basis for social organisation into new projects for nation building. The new African states can only prosper and progress as federations of peoples who can participate in determining their own destinies, rather than as artificial entities based on sterile imitations of institutions that have no roots in Africa.

Thus, from the point of view of creating meaningful values in present day Africa and of preserving the heritage of the past, the ethnic dimension of life in Africa remains an asset that needs to be recognised and properly exploited, rather than arbitrarily discarded.

Minorities and the European community

In common with other regions of the world, the European Community has its share of minority situations and problems. A number of these are discussed in the case studies which appear at the end of this Dossier. In the three articles which follow, however, we take a more general look at the 'minority' issue in an EC context. The first two contributions focus on the policy aspects as they pertain to minorities both inside and outside the Community's borders. The third describes the particular situation of linguistic minorities living within the EC.