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Understanding the myth of war and ethnicity

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Added 16th August 2016 02:17 PM

In 1994, about 800,000 Rwandan women, children and men, old and young died, butchered by their own countrymen consumed by the nastiest ethnic prejudice.

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Richard Todwong is the deputy secretary general - NRM

In 1994, about 800,000 Rwandan women, children and men, old and young died, butchered by their own countrymen consumed by the nastiest ethnic prejudice.

By Richard Todwong

 As we seem busy, South Sudan is slowly entering a phase of genocide.  Already hundreds of innocent lives have been lost as we watch and more are dying.   

In 1994, about 800,000 Rwandan women, children and men, old and young died, butchered by their own countrymen consumed by the nastiest ethnic prejudice. This impulsive happening swayed a lot of criticisms against organisations like the United Nations as the entire world folded its hands in watch of Rwandese slaughtering each other with little or no effort to save the ugly situation.

To many, this was
The dynamics of war have drastically changed since the end of World War II. In the past, war encompassed one nation fighting the other but this trend has since shifted to civil wars (inter- states vs intra-states wars). With the collapse of the European empires after the Second World War, instances of civil war increased globally especially in Africa while Europe remained relatively conflict free.

The causes of these civil wars in Africa are quite voluminous and some frequently re-occur; these include but not limited to; poor economic performance, unfair resource distribution, corruption and  weak state laws, among others; with the most vicious one being ethnic loyalty.

Throughout history, ethnicity has been one of the most unique and yet most regular features of the Third World social order. Africa for instance, has had more than a lion’s share of ethnic-induced wars and violence.

The issue of ethnicity has become the most feasible factor, which explains the social reality of post-colonial Africa. During colonisation of African people, colonialists failed to put the concern of cultural differences of various ethnic groupings into consideration and instead used the principle of divide and rule. The oversight has constituted and remained one of the principal challenges of post-colonial Africa.

The experience in Africa has shown that the continent has recorded a long list of ethnic violence and hostilities. Some of these wars may include the genocide in Rwanda, the civil wars in Burundi, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Somalia; the Zango-Kataf / Hausa conflict, Tiv / Jukun conflict and Ibo / Annang conflicts in Nigeria; Konkomba / Narumba conflict and Nawauri / Gonga conflicts in Ghana; Topose / Dongiro, Dinka/Nuer (Southern Sudanese groups); Kokuro / Mayata conflict in Kenya among others.  In Uganda ethnic conflicts have simmered among the Bamba vs Bakonzo in Kasese and Bundibugyo; the Banyoro vs ‘Bafuruki’ in Kibaale, etc.    

All these have been cited as classical cases of ethnic violence. This is not to state that conflicts did not exist prior to this period. The history and oral tradition of most African societies contain elements of conflicts and ethnic conflicts and intra-ethnic conflict situations.

Ethnic violence has continued to torment the human race, drawing a litany of killings and other violent values. Even so, ethnicity involves ideology, which is guided by primordial affections, while collective consciousness among the people is based on their common histories and ancestral knowledge. 

In most cases, ethnic conflicts only emerge, if there is tension between indigenous elites and authorities or amongst indigenous elites themselves, which later escalate to the other majority members.  It is a dynamic process, shaped by perceived identities based on the relationship between the ‘self and other’.

Ethnic conflicts today have taken different shapes and dimensions which bear quite a significant difference from the ones during the colonial era, ie the magnitude and rage of these conflicts has intensified due to the narrow definition of interest of a people by their elite representatives. Ethnic wars are selfish wars that only satisfy the selfish interests of the elite in a particular society.

Traditional experience   
In the past, within the African traditional setup, long before the existence of states, Africa was ruled by kingdoms and each kingdom governed a specific ethnic group or tribe, for instance, in Uganda, the Acholis had the Rwot, Baganda - Kabaka, Toro – Omukama among many others. In the absence of states, ethnicity was viewed as a form of insurance by members of the society.

The right to rely upon other people in the community when faced by a personal catastrophe depended upon a reciprocal obligation to provide such assistance to others. The economic basis for strong ethnic loyalties is the ability to enable income insurance to work in the high risk and low income conditions under which it is supremely valuable.

Over time, loyalty to the group was reinforced by all the normal power of morality; it was, therefore, for your own good to meet your obligations as a member of an ethnic group; for instance, when a member of an ethnic group was sick during the harvest period, his or her ethnic counterparts gave a hand in securing the harvest with the understanding that such help would be reciprocated by the sick member to another member in his or her time of need within the near future. 

Insurance sustained by loyalty helped everyone within the group at low or even no expense of other groups. However, even in the traditional economy, loyalty to the group was sometimes at the expense of other groups, most obviously in respect of violence against enemy groups.

However, ethnic loyalties have far more scope for being at the expense of other groups when they are transferred to the context of the modern economy and this is where grave ethnic problems arise.

This is because in the context of the modern economy, the public wallet becomes the common pool resource that the collective action of one group can capture at the expense of all the other groups. It is at this stage that moral obligations to the ethnic group collide with moral obligations to the nation as a whole.

This is where the question of ethnic loyalty becomes more intriguing and complex, if it is subjected to the litmus test of national loyalty and usually for most societies, this is the foundation of treacherous ethnic related politics.

In his book, War, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places, Paul Collier argues that many politicians across Africa continue to use ethnicity to promote themselves and inflict maximum political damage on their opponents. The advent of multiparty politics in Africa was premature and as such characterised by the emergence of ethnic based political parties with the objective to protect a tribe at the expense of a genuinely inclusive democracy and political pluralism.

Today, ethnicity and conflict have replaced social harmony, diversity and development. Some argue that dictatorships contained ethnic clashes to a large extent and that democracy has again revived ethnic clashes as politicians make it an issue to gain political mileage. The above point is debatable though. The situation in South Sudan today is evident of how far politicians are prepared to go in using the ethnic card in politics.

In Zimbabwe following Independence from Britain in 1980, almost a decade of development was lost as a result of a short but brutal civil war that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent people. Since then, political formations in Zimbabwe have always had an ethnic dimension. In South Africa, ethnicity and the divide and rule strategy was for a long time at the nucleus of the apartheid system. Today, racial and ethnic differences still threaten the stability of this revered rainbow nation.

The past dethroning of President Thabo Mbeki by his flamboyant deputy Jacob Zuma from the leadership of the powerful ANC party may have been influenced by ethnic dimensions. When Kenya moved from one party to multi-party democracy, ethnic patterns developed along party lines especially between the Luos and Kikuyus. In Uganda, political parties were also formed along ethnic-tribal lines.

These conflicts have been unable to be resolved through the long adopted western models and paradigms of conflict mitigation and management. A major issue of debate is how imperialism and colonialism impacted on ethnicity and ethnic conflicts, which are traceable to the colonial masters’ systems of administration, arbitrary demarcation and partitioning.

African traditional alternatives to conflict resolution might be the only glimmer of hope for conflict prevention, mitigation and resolution in the continent. This was used in South Africa, Rwanda and northern Uganda.

Way forward
In my opinion, intermarriages could as well be a solid solution to these bloody conflicts. In the past royal intermarriages between members of ruling dynasties were more commonly done as a part of strategic diplomacy for national interest.

In Europe, the practice was most prevalent from the medieval era until the outbreak of World War I, but evidence of intermarriage between royal dynasties in other parts of the world can be found as back as the late Bronze Age. Monarchs were often in pursuit of national and international aggrandisement on behalf of themselves and their dynasties, thus bonds of kinship tended to promote or restrain ethnic aggression. In Africa, marriage between kingdoms could serve to initiate, reinforce or guarantee peace between the kingdoms.


Leadership is another; the present leaders of Africa have a special responsibility to develop a new generation of leaders, tested in our era. This is the new challenge to Africa’s leaders and a necessary measure for Africa’s future that can sustain stability and development.

Leadership in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society like Africa should adopt secularism as its magna carta. It should not be seen to unduly attach to a particular religion. The necessary distinction should be drawn between the private religious life of the leaders and his public image as a leader of many different religious groups. This will give the leadership the credibility it so much requires to inspire and win the confidence of the entire citizenry.

Leadership should also pursue useful economic policies which will benefit the entire continent. The acid test of any policy or programme is the extent to which it attends to the welfare of all, not just a few at the expense of the majority.
The writer is the deputy secretary general - NRM
todwongr@gmail.com


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