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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

Conceptual problems

What are some of the difficulties with using the concept of ethnicity as a framework for understanding and addressing the conflicts in the Horn of Africa? First, it is not clear what is meant by the terms "ethnic group," "ethnicity," and "ethnic conflict." In the context of the Horn, many concepts, such as nationality, tribe, and now clan, have been used interchangeably with that of ethnic group, and it is very difficult to distinguish between them. A commonly used definition is that an ethnic group is a collectivity of people who share the same primordial characteristics such as common ancestry, language, and culture. (People have included religion in the category of shared culture.) Ethnicity then refers to the behaviour and feeling (about oneself and others) that supposedly emanates from membership of an ethnic group. Ethnic conflict has come to mean cleavages between groups based on differentiation's in ethnic identities.

A major question that arises from the above definition of "ethnic group" is whether people must share commonalties in all the criteria mentioned to be members of the same ethnic group or to share the same ethnicity. There are instances in the Horn in which just belonging to the same religion seems to suffice to classify people as members of an ethnic group, although they might differ in other criteria. For example, in central and southern Ethiopia, if an Oromo is Orthodox Christian that individual may be classified as an Amhara regardless of his or her ethnic ancestry or lineage.1 In other instances, as in the Oromo regions, language has been used as the criterion for determining membership, despite other differences. But there are also cases where commonality in language and religion has not signified membership of the same ethnic group. Especially where groups have interacted for a long time, there are situations where people might have overlaps in one of these ethnic criteria (religion, language, culture, or ancestry) but lack commonalties in the rest. How are people to be ethnically classified under those circumstances?

Some have argued that membership of an ethnic group is not determined by objective factors such as sharing common primordial characteristics. They point to subjective factors such as perception, belonging, self-identification, and the like (Hymes, 1968:1220; Nadel, 1947: 13). They argue that a person, regardless of primordial commonalities, can become a member of an ethnic group if he or she feels and acts as a member and is accepted as such by the group. But this raises some problems. If the basis for the perceived commonality or belonging is not the primordial common factor, then what is it? Could the basis be commonalities in interests, aspirations, psychological orientations? If so, why should this kind of identity and bond be characterized as "ethnic"? Moreover, what happens in cases where some feel and act as if they are members but their membership is not accepted by the reference group?

In short, the definition of ethnic groups and the distinction between people based on ethnic criteria is difficult, inconsistent, and confusing. One could come up with different results depending on whether one uses objective or subjective criteria. This has led to great controversy concerning the identification and measurement of the phenomenon.2 But the preoccupation with definition is not simply an academic exercise. It has very important practical implications. It should go without saying that we cannot develop effective mechanisms to deal with a problem if we do not fully understand it. Frustration with the inability fully to grasp and define the concept of ethnicity has led to a tendency which says: "Let us not waste a great deal of time trying to define the concept; instead let us recognize it as a major problem and put our energies into developing mechanisms to deal with it."

Some would take the approach used by a US Supreme Court justice to define pornography: you may not be able to define it, but you know it when you see it. The trouble with that attitude is that if we are not agreed on what the phenomenon is we might be wasting our energy by focusing on the wrong problems or by prescribing a remedy for a problem that has not been diagnosed correctly. As we will see in greater detail later, doing so could even run the risk of making the situation worse instead of remedying it.

Another difficulty with the concept of ethnicity and ethnic conflict is the common assumption that ethnic similarities and differences are the basis for social harmony or discord. Thus, it is expected that those who share a common ancestry, language, culture, and religion should have a relationship of solidarity and harmony with each other but one of cleavage and conflict with those who do not share their ethnic identity. This concept is also full of problems. There are societies in the Horn where ethnic similarity has not assured social harmony nor avoided the outbreak of large-scale conflict. Especially where there is no perception of external threat, there is a great deal of evidence that ethnic groups have divided into lower-level identities and fought each other with as much zeal as they might fight other ethnic groups. Alternatively, there are also societies in the region where ethnic diversity has not been a prescription for violent conflicts.

These problems can be illustrated by examples from various contexts in the Horn of Africa. As indicated earlier, in Ethiopia ethnicity has been identified by many as a major cause of conflict. That country's major civil wars were between the central government, which was seen to have been dominated by the Amhara people, and various insurgency groups bearing the names of ethnic groups such as the Oromo, Tigre, Afar, Ogaden, and Beni-Amer Liberation Fronts. The liberation fronts claimed they were fighting to break free of the political, economic, social, cultural, and religious domination of the Amhara people over their particular ethnic groups.