Ethnicity Does Not Cause Civil War

Conflicts in Africa are often termed ethnic in nature. However, the term has been interpreted to mean that ethnicity (or negative ethnicity as others prefer to call it) causes armed conflict. This post explains that ethnicity is not a valid causal indicator of civil war. At best it can only be used to describe an armed conflict rather than prescribe its causes.

Ethnicity can be defined as a bond between and among human beings. This bonds emanates from common ancestry, language and culture. It is an identity tool through which members of a particular ethnic group differentiate themselves from members of another group. Ethnicity by definition, therefore, does not provide any useful insights into causes of civil war.

Advocates of ethnicity as a cause of war opine that it is inherent in Africans to be hostile to other ethnic groups. This line of reasoning has two propositions: one that ethnic wars occur between different ethnic groups and two the more the ethnic groups the more likely the ethnic civil war. It further goes as far as suggesting that the plethora of ethnic conflicts in Africa are as a result of pre-colonial animosity that have been aggravated by colonialism. This line of thought produced the so-called ‘ancient animosity’ hypothesis that so many in the world today have swallowed hook line and sinker.

Be that as it may, I find fault in this reasoning. Ethnicity is not a good causal indicator because it does not vary and thus cannot explain variations of civil war. For instance it does not explain why civil war occurs between/among some ethnic groups and not other. In other words why is Tanzania relatively peaceful to Rwanda or DRC despite it having many different ethnic groups? It similarly does not explain why war occurs in seemingly ethnically homogeneous states e.g. Somalia.

I suggest that ethnicity is only valid as far as describing the civil war the same way ‘international’ describes a war involving states. Just like an ‘international war’ does not necessarily mean that the causes are international, likewise ethnic civil wars do not necessarily mean that the causes are ‘ethnic’.

Further, a look at the common variable in the ethnic conflict may reveal that ethnic conflicts have less to do with inherent hatred than resource mobilization, distribution and access. Looking at every civil war in Africa and was said to have an ethnic angle might show that in essence these wars are a struggle for resources such as land and minerals. This fact might be key in explaining why certain ethnic groups shift allegiances swiftly either via democratic means or otherwise.

Some examples would suffice. In 2007, Kikuyu and Kalenjin were pitted against each other after the Kenyan disputed elections. Scores were killed and injured during the bloody aftermath of the elections. However a mere 6 years later, they were walking hand in hand to victory in the 2013 polls. If indeed ethnicity was a vitriolic struggle, then how can we explain this phenomenon? Is it not through an understanding of the access they both stood to gain and now have of state resources?

However, resources may not be the only variable. Another strong variable is personal political ambition. One factor that pervades the African conflict landscape is the propensity of the African elite to use ethnicity in a Machiavellian fashion. Many of such elite use ethnic division to prop their governments usually with disastrous consequences.

All in all, those interested in examining ethnic conflict in Africa must look beyond mere ethnicity. War is an outcome that varies; it may or may not occur. Therefore the causal variable should also be variable to the extent that it be used to explain whether ethnic civil conflict may or may not occur. Ethnicity as it is defined is consistent and descriptive, it does not add meaningful debate to the causes of civil war.


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