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.

Political Shenanigans and Legal Realities: Can We Really do away with Tyranny of Numbers?

Over the past few weeks, Kenyans have been treated to a war of words over their new constitution. For a constitution many voted for because their preferred leader had ‘read it for them’ without understanding the complexities therein, there is a danger to get lost in the acrimonious debate in the political scene. This post, albeit in a small way, attempts to analyse the situation based on political interests and legal realities to better understand the motivations of the warring parties.

Many may not have agreed with Mutahi Ngunyi’s analysis of voting patterns in Kenya which was based – I think – more on empirical derivation than visceral distaste for what is now the opposition. A cold and shrewd calculator of power, he opined that Kenyans always voted along tribal, ethnic if you like, patterns. This did not go down well with many of the members of the opposition party especially their captain. On a number of occasions Raila Odinga could be heard berating the analysis and the analyst for being anti-nationalist and peddling petty and parochial ideology. I think it is relatively safe to say that the election results spoke for themselves; relatively since some doubts linger on whether it was fair. From that time on, the term ‘tyranny of numbers’ became a house hold name; I would not be surprised that a child born at the time would bear such a name.

Now there is a push to change that. The Coalition for reform and Democracy (CORD) is pushing to amend the constitution. It posits that the current pure presidential system perpetuates ethnic motivated leadership. It suggests that the a parliamentary system would be best suited to render tyranny of numbers irrelevant. Is this true and if so can the CORD opposition groups muster the required constitutional thresholds to pass such an agenda?

First things first. What is a parliamentary system? This is a system where the head of government (mostly a Prime Minister) is often the leader of the majority of members of Parliament or is voted by Parliament which sits as a constituent assembly. In this system, members of the cabinet are often members of Parliament.

You may be wondering how this is any different from how the old constitutional order looked. Well there is a major difference. Note that the Prime Minister is not elected by the people of the republic. He is either appointed by head of state (often a ceremonial president of a monarch) as the head of a party or coalition of parties with Parliamentary majority or is elected by Parliament. Kenya’s old constitutional order provided for the election of a President directly by the people despite the fact that s/he too required to be a member of parliament.

Would such a system bulwark against the reality of tyranny of numbers? I fail to see how. For one, if the Prime Minister is to be the leader of the party/coalition of parties with Parliamentary majority, the tyranny of numbers would be at play. Unless one redrafts the constitution to provide for equal number of constituencies in all regions, something that is also difficult to do, there is no feasible way of guaranteeing that Kenyans will not vote along tribal lines. If they do, the most populous party or coalition of parties will most likely win: tyranny of numbers!

Secondly, the idea of voting for the Prime Minister appears to be credible, but looks can be deceiving. The prevailing wisdom is that if Parliament takes up the job of voting for a leader, then a charismatic one would most certainly sweep the floor and clinch victory despite party divisions. But as I said, this is deceptive at best. Many MPs are not moved by charisma but cheques and, preferable, cash thereby creating a position that elevates monetary leadership thereby perpetuating the bourgeoisie class in power.

The second consideration is whether this push can materialize legally. There are two ways of amending the constitution and two ways of ratifying it. According to chapter 16 of the constitution there is the Parliamentary and Popular initiative of amendment and there is the Presidential Assent and Referendum Approach to ratification of the amendment.

Parliamentary Initiative requires the tyranny of numbers that has been vilified. A look at article 256 impresses upon the reader the reality of pushing a constitutional amendment using this route. The law requires that both houses of Parliament pass the amendment each by a majority of 66% at two stages: the second and third reading of the bill. Thereafter the bill is taken either to the president for assent or the people in a plebiscite. Considering that both houses are ‘controlled’ by the Jubilee coalition, CORD has a herculean task.

Popular initiative provides the other alternative. But this too is fraught with difficulty. There needs to be support of a million registered voters which will not be a hard thing to achieve as CORD did get 5 million votes. Secondly 24 of the 47 County Assemblies must ratify the amendment and submit it to Parliament where it must pass by a simple majority. Thereafter it either goes for presidential assent or referendum.

Here there is reprieve for the CORD coalition. From the election results it appears that it ‘controls’ 20 of the 24 assemblies needed to pass such an amendment. Through lobbying getting to the number 24 is not that difficult. However two obstacles still remain. One is the simple majority and the other is the fact that the president may decide not to sign and therefore the matter goes for referendum where Raila will have to face the same population he did in the 2013 general elections.

With the legal realities having been considered, is there a chance of CORD passing the amendment they want? Chances are always there in politics, but CORD’s is a narrow one. Either way one chooses to look at it, tyranny of numbers will still be a factor.

Another important question is whether this is the best solution for the country. I do not think so. We are attempting to change the mind of Kenyans through law; a top down approach that will most likely fail. Many Kenyans perceive themselves through the lens of insular ethnic enclaves, a perception intrinsically tied to the politics of redistribution of resources. Thus I doubt that mere changes to law would have much effect on the populace; the real power behind election victory.

I could not end this post without considering some political implication of the push. A fairly clear one is that the race for 2017 has already began. Raila must court public attention at all cost lest his popularity plummets (see Law 6 of the 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene). This is an avenue that will most likely endear him more to voters and thus leap ahead of what may be his main rival, the incumbent, who is tied down by state duties.

In conclusion, the realities of changing the constitution are quite grim for CORD. If they are serious in this move, they need to get down to work and be more organized than they were in 2013. If not, then they have to contend with the system as it is and hope against odds that the Jubilee coalition does not hold in the next election. This invariably means that tyranny of numbers is here to stay unless there is a fundamental shift in how Kenyans make political decisions.

Politics in Kenya Series: Are Kenyans Inherently Ethnic?: Politics of Marginalization and Redistribution

I have always agonized over a question that I think may hold the key to end ethnic animosity in Kenyan politics. Are Kenyans inherently ethnic? There are those who believe that the answer is an obvious yes but I am not yet convinced that this is the case. This post argues that there is a connection between resource allocation and the animosity between and among Kenyan tribes that has punctuated our voting patterns since independence.

The story inevitably begins before the creation of Kenya (I say creation because before 1920 there was no entity called Kenya). In or around 1918, the British saw it fit to implement the divide and rule policy that saw the creation of the idea of ethnicity. This in itself was not the root cause of animosity as I imagine that those who inhabited that territory must have noticed that they are different from each other. The problem began with the creation of the state and the subsequent loss of the indigenous populations’ autonomy.

In those days each group had its own center of power; political autonomy/sovereignty if you may. Thus each group had, from my readings, their own system of devolving resources for the good of the community.  However these systems were irrevocably destroyed with the creation of the Kenyan state. The consequence of this was the creation of not a nation state but a state of nations.

Marginalization was the ramification of the divide and rule governance adopted by the colonialist. Those that advanced the interests of the colonial government were rewarded while those who opposed it were disenfranchised. This created disparities among the erstwhile independent/autonomous ethnic groups living in Kenya – who in addition of being forced to be part of a state, had to contend with other groups for political power. There is confirmation of this in Prof. Colin Leys book Underdevelopment in Kenya to the effect that the Kikuyu’s were the most integrated tribe in the colonial economic system.

At independence the scene did not change. Whereas there was a section of the political elite that expected redistribution to be a serious Government agenda, there are those who viewed this as a threat to the status quo in which they stand to lose if things changed. From the Kenyatta to the Kibaki regime, ethnicization of the presidency and entrenchment of patrimonialism and clientalism systems of governance in Kenya became common place.

As those ethnic groups close to the center of power aggrandized their power through pork barrel political machinations, those in the fringes were kept out of development as evidenced by the unequal development in different areas of the country. This invariably contributed to a growing sense of disenfranchisement and anger between the haves and have nots. The presidency was seen as a way for improving the lot of one’s ethnic group.

Sensing this, politicians stoked the flames of perceptual hatred to win public support and guarantee  their political supremacy. Many a politician are on record claiming that other tribes must go back to their ‘homes’ a vague reference to their areas of origin. This exacerbated the hatred between and among tribes in Kenya.

With this in mind, I turn to the point on ‘inherentness’ of ethnicity in Kenya. I like to use a comparison between ethnicity and racism to bring out my point. In contradistinction to ethnicity, racism is based purely on hatred of a race that is different from one’s own. It is actuated by a malicious ideology of intellectual and cultural supremacy of one race over another. Ethnicity in Kenya, on the other hand, is not fueled by the deep seated hatred of other ethnic groups for its own sake, rather it is actuated by years of perceived and actual marginalization wherein one tribe views members of another as the reason for such marginalization.

I therefore believe that Kenyans are not inherently ethnic; that the issue lies at the heart of redistribution politics is my thesis thus far. As Ngugi wa Thiong’o once stated (after being released from detention in 1979), Kenyans have the right to interrogate how wealth is made in the country, who makes it and how it is distributed. The lack of exercising this right for a long time must have made other ethnic groups resentful and wonder whether this was the reason they fought for freedom so hard (see Oginga Odinga (1968) Not Yet Uhuru and Joe Khamisi (2011) Politics of Betrayal).

Once one understands this, we can place land clashes and the post election violence in perspective. Many of those evicted from their homes because they belong to a different community were seen to represent those greedy few in power bent on personalizing state power. Even though they never held elective posts or other position of power, their ethnic linkage to these gluttonous individuals sealed their fate.

To curb ethnic violence, the issue of redistribution must be carefully considered. I think that in part the county system – if properly implemented – will go a long way to ensure these issues will be resolved. However it may take decades if not a century for these inequalities to be narrowed and eventually done away with, if that is even possible (I am exercising cautious optimism here). However the perception of fairness in redistribution may be the key to end ethnic violence in Kenya once and for all.