In my book “The Diversity Advantage,” I looked at the various approaches that wealthy, “developed” countries have taken towards accomodating the divergent needs and aspirations of ethnic and racial groups in their countries. I questioned at the outset the validity of frozen definitions of ethnic groups, pointing to the ways in which mixture, inter-marriage and other forms of “mongrelization” can undermine traditional notions of ethnicity. The core concept of “hybridization,” of an individual having “roots and wings,” or allegiances to both an ethnic group and a cosmopolitan project, was central to my analysis of how societies should organize themselves in an era where identities are fluid and traditional ways of accomodating ethnicity is breaking down.
In Africa, ethnicity is often either ignored or considered a threat, and political arrangements to accomodate ethnic groups are largely absent from formal structures. At best, informal arrangements between groups maintain some sense of proportion between them. At worst, ethnic differences grow. The failure of most, if not all, African countries to address ethnic differences, and especially grievances, remains a negelcted problem in the region.
In a new study, the International Crisis Group identifies a set of problems with Ethiopia’s effort to politicize ethnicity and use federalist structures to apportion political benefits among definable ethnic groups. ICG insists these arrangements are making ethnic grievances grow, rather than recede, and the think-tank may be correct. But the cause of the rise in grievances may well be the result of poor implementation, not anything inherent in the linking of ethnicity and political capital. Too often, analysts of Africa dismiss any attempt to priviledge ethnicity as a step backward, as an endorsement of dreaded “tribalism.” I respectfully differ. The biggest problem in African politics is not too much tribalism, but too little.
Ethnic differences in Africa cannot be wished away. They must be accomodated either through creative political and social frameworks, or by new political bodies, which might include new nation-states. It remains one the great contradictions in the world political system that Africans are not “permitted” to organize nations along perceived ethnic lines, while Europeans are allowed to do so. Virtually every new nation formed in Europe since the break-up of the old Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc is defined by a common ethnicity or a set of ethnicities in interation. Why are Europeans permitted the priviledge of living in political union with “their own tribe” when Africans are not?
Of course, the parallels between Europe and Africa are difficult to sustain. Yet serious political analysis of Africa continues to ignore ethnicity in the search for elusive “structural” explanations of state failure. The case of Togo is illustrative. This Western country is clearly a failed state. A dictator father gives way to a dictator son (both of whom rule and ruled with the assistance of a legal imprimatur). The answer, say experts, is to strengthen “rule of law” and civil society in Togo. Yet the neoliberal answer has been tried for decades and never gained traction. Perhaps the answer in Togo to political failure is to revivify the ethnos rather than to continue to deny its power. In Togo, the dominant ethnic group is Ewe. Ewe also dominate in eastern Ghana, the region bordering Togo. Why not an Ewe state? Could an ethnic-Togolese solution really be worse than the terrible tiny Togo of today.
For those who track Africa’s crises, the work is hard and the crises are many. Yet ethnicity itself cannot be viewed as a source of crisis. Neither can the expression of ethnic pride or grievance be equated with crisis. Ethnicity can be a source of strength in Africa, but it will never be as long as Africans and their distant friends view ethnicity as a symbol of shame.