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close this bookEthnicity and Power in the Contemporary World (UNU, 1996, 298 pages)
close this folder2. Ethnic conflict in the Horn of Africa: Myth and reality
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentConceptual problems
View the documentProblems of definition
View the documentEthnicity and social harmony
View the documentThe role of ideology
View the documentTraditional remedies
View the documentAn alternative approach
View the documentConclusion

Ethnicity and social harmony

Now let us look at the other problem with the ethnicity framework the assumption that ethnic similarity or difference is the basis for social harmony or cleavage respectively. When we examine this assumption in the context of the Horn, we find that it is also full of difficulties.

Not long ago Somalia was the envy of many African states because it was one of the very few nation states that existed in the continent. It was a territory inhabited by people who shared the same ancestral origin, language, religion, and culture - all the elements of common ethnicity. But that ethnic or nationality bond was not strong enough to prevent disintegration. Currently an extremely bloody civil war is being waged between clans and sub-clans. In the capital, Mogadishu, alone, over 30,000 Somalis have been killed in the past two years from inter-clan clashes. Hundreds of thousands have been made refugees. Interestingly, some analysts have begun to describe the clan conflict as ethnic or tribal conflict. If the term "ethnic conflict" is being used synonymously with "clan conflict," could it also be used to mean conflict between sub-clans or between family groups? If so, how useful is a term that could mean so many different things in different contexts?

When we look at the Eritrean/Ethiopian conflict, however, we observe the opposite configuration. Some of the major justifications given for the independence of Eritrea from Ethiopia have been that the Eritrean people are different from Ethiopians; that Ethiopia itself is not a legitimate nation state since it is a conglomeration of very diverse peoples; and that, as a separate people, Eritreans have a right to exercise their right of self-determination. But when one examines Eritrea itself, one sees that it is also an entity composed of nine major ethnic groups, having nine different languages and cultures. The population is divided into two major religions (Christianity and Islam) and two ecosystems (highland and lowland) which more or less correspond with the religious divisions. If we pursue the logic for Eritrean separation, could we say that the lowland Beni-Amer and Beja Muslims in Eritrea, who are different peoples from the Christian highland Tigreans, and who constitute a large percentage of the Eritrean population, have a right to self-determination and to a separate state? Where does the disintegration stop? Does it continue until we get to an area occupied by one pure ethnic group? Is that possible? Is it desirable? As indicated earlier, there are always cultural, linguistic, ancestral, and religious continuities between ethnic groups that have interacted with each other for long periods. How will it be possible to separate groups from each other without wrenching apart families and communities, and without provoking hostilities between the groups?

Alternatively, if such diverse ethnic groups could come together in Eritrea and form a nation, why shouldn't the same logic apply to the rest of Ethiopia? Do Eritreans believe that all these diverse people will make one nation, or is this just wishful thinking? Is it ethnic similarity in Eritrea that created a sense of common antipathy towards the Ethiopian state, or is it the oppression Eritreans commonly experienced from the economic and political system imposed on them by the élites who controlled the Ethiopian state (which, by the way, also included Eritreans)? If so, is the remedy to the problem the removal of the oppressive system or is it separation and the creation of a new state?

Our analysis so far reveals some major problems with the concept of ethnicity as a framework for analysing the conflicts in the Horn of Africa. Is this framework helpful? Does focusing on the ethnic differences or similarities of people in the region give us a good understanding of the conflicts or of what needs to be done to contain them? Could there be other explanations that would capture these situations better?

Clapham (1990: 10) argues: "Viewed across the region as a whole, economic marginalisation provides a much clearer guide than either ethnicity or even political exclusion to the incidence of warfare in the Horn." On a more cautionary note, Bhardwaj argues:

The importance of the ethnic factor [in the Horn of Africa] is recognised by all. But it is our contention that, along with the role of the ethnic actors, the socio-economic basis of the ethnic hostility must also be given due weight. A clash of interest of the exploiters belonging to different ethnic groups and the masses in general precipitates the ethnic hostility. The struggle of the nomads of Ogaden and Tigre of lower Eritrea against the Amharas of the Ethiopian plateau - all bring ethnic differences to the fore and distort a basically socioeconomic conflict into an ethnic one. (Bhardwaj, 1979: 169)

It can be argued that, to a large extent, what has been called ethnic conflict is elite-driven conflict. When one talks of ethnic conflict between the Amhara and the Tigre in Ethiopia, or the Arabs and the Africans in the Sudan, for example, it is more accurate to talk about conflict between elite groups who come from different ethnic backgrounds than about people-to-people violence among the masses arising from ethnic animosity, as the term "ethnic conflict" implies. However, such an elite-driven conflict has a powerful capability of turning into widespread conflict among the masses.

It is true that the region's ethnic groups have their own prejudices and stereotypes about each other. But these attitudes have not normally turned into conflict at the people-to-people level unless manipulated and organized by political leaders. Élites find ethnic prejudices and stereotypes fertile ground in which they can easily cultivate support for their political and economic aspirations. Expressing their objectives in ethnic or nationality terms (such as "advancing the interest of our own people" or "protecting ourselves from another ethnic group") ennobles the pursuits and gives them more legitimacy.

As we have seen in many instances in the continent, the major beneficiaries of such aspirations might be the élites, but the whole ethnic group becomes associated with these aims since they are pursued in the name of the entire group.

Once this cycle starts and conflict begins to be waged in the group's name, fear and further animosity pervade the whole group, since all members become perceived as the enemy by those against whom the conflict is being waged. Pre-existing ethnic prejudices further fuel the conflict because they simplify the complex motivations of the actors, making it easy to create an immediate "us" and "them" perception as well as to demonize the adversary. Thus, a conflict started by the élites ends up, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, engulfing the entire ethnic group. Interestingly, despite such efforts by élites, at least in the Horn of Africa, the incidence of people-to-people violence and pogroms has been quite rare.

Despite the confusion generated by the concept of ethnic conflict, many analysts have latched on to this simplistic concept, implying people-to-people antagonisms based on ethnic differences to describe the conflicts in the region. As Clapham and Bharwaj have indicated, analysis of "inequitable economic and class stratification" or "monopolization of access to state and economic power by an ethnic based elite" (in the case of Ethiopia, a multiethnic elite under the name of Amhara oligarchy) might provide an equally sound if not better explanation of the conflicts in the region.