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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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.

Politics in Kenya: Ethnic Group Identity, Privilege and Perception

I had coffee with a friend of mine some two months ago. We discussed a number of issues canvassing a myriad of national and international matters. One discussion that left an impression was the role of ethnicity in Kenya’s politics. I thought, at least at the time, that it is temerarious to think that since there is a Kikuyu president, all Kikuyus are privileged and thus have better access to resources. Turns out that I missed two important aspects in my analysis: group identity and privilege.

My interlocutors were gracious enough to patiently listen to my argument. I vehemently rejected the notion that someone could simply lump a group of people to one person and tie the status of the former to that of the latter. I cited a plethora of historical events to support my case such as the curious case of Josiah Mwangi Kariuki. To avid readers of Kenyan political history, J.M. – as he was popularly known – was once a favourite of the establishment, having served as Kenyatta’s (Senior) private secretary and later as assistant minister in the Agriculture and Tourism dockets. But somewhere along the line, he fell out of favour with the establishment; death was the final culmination of his story – a recently released book by Prof. Daniel Branch examines this point in history under a chapter aptly called ‘the fallen angel’.

That a Parliamentary select committee would be tasked to find out who killed Kariuki would come up with two reports – one mentioning a long time Kenyatta ally Mbiyu Koinange and the other without the name – raised and still raises eye brows. In the party (KANU) there were only two factions. Those that had and those that did not have or had but were sympathetic to those who did not have. Kariuki fell in this later category.

The point here is that J.M. was (still is, depending on whether your ethnicity ceases upon demise) a Kikuyu. He died, though we may never know for sure, at the hands of the establishment; an establishment that was dominated by the Kikuyu. If indeed the fortunes of the group is attached to that of the ruler, how then could J.M. have died at the very hands of the ruling elite many of whom were Kikuyu?

Group Identity and perception is the answer, as I was informed. Through out the history of the country there has been perpetual disenfranchisement of those outside the ethnic group of the president. Development, civil service among other ‘perks’ – assuming state resources and positions belong to anyone individual or groups of individuals – immensely favoured those who belonged to the ethnicity of the establishment, or so it seemed.

Even in heart of Kikuyu land when Kenyatta was still president there were squatters from among his tribes men. As J.M. put it, we were on the verge of becoming a country of ‘ten million beggars and ten millionaires’. Few people became wealthy merely by coming from the same ethnic community as the president; privilege. Therefore this point alone cannot be used to justify the connection between privilege and group identity if one does not look at perception. (I however conceded that it would be easier to access resources if you were in the same group (ethnic) as the president than if you were not.)

Kenyan politics, and politics in general, are shaped by perception. The conjecture that things are as they seem without further cogent evidence or analysis to support such a position. Machiavelli, and to a larger extent Robert Green – in the 48 Laws of Power, ascribes this to human intellectual indolence – that man would prefer taking things at face value instead of ruminating on them to come up with a reasoned conclusion. Here the position (or more appropriately, perception) is all Kikuyu’s must benefit from a tribesman at the helm.

Tying all these things together is the tumultuous political history of Kenya since independence. The progressive disenfranchisement of the many being forced into subservience by the few has led, in my thinking, to the hardened positions that accentuate many a political debates. I learn not to take offence when some shouts at me ‘you people are the ones stealing state resources’ whereas we share the same matatu going home. I learn to recognize that their statements are not driven by sheer ignorance but by perceptions that have been shaped by events far older than my age.