Primordial Politics and Conflicts in Africa


Primordial Politics and Conflicts in Africa

Unlike in developed countries of the world where class, and to some extent, race are major issues in national politics, in Africa what has been described as primordial factors are more salient. Issues that readily come within this category include ethnicity, language, religion and growing level, elitism.

These factors have come to define African politics, either singly, or in combinations. This unit will discuss the interplay of these major factors. It will also highlight how the multi-ethnic nature of post-colonial states in Africa has made the recourse to primordial politics almost inevitable.

Character of Primordial Politics in Africa

Ethnic Politics: Whether called ethnicity or tribalism, its means a general feeling of allegiance, attachments or loyalty to one’s primordial group at the expense of the others. In most states, electoral constituencies were drawn to coincide with ethnic territorial boundaries. Accordingly, ethnic groups became the power base of politicians and political parties. In order to get elected, politicians are invariably compelled to play on ethnic sentiments. This situation has made it difficult for a national leader acceptable to all communities to emerge in post-independent African states. A leader is first and foremost seen as a representative of a particular group, and his leadership position at the national level is cited as an evidence of domination of one ethnic, and the marginalization, or exclusion of the other groups.

In pursuit of ethnic politics, most African states have discarded merit and embraced ethnic balancing or what is called federal character in Nigeria. This idea of ethnic arithmetic has the consequence of imposing nepotism and mediocrity at the expense of merit in governance. Other negative impact of ethnic politics include incessant struggles for superiority, sit-tight syndrome, threats of secession or division, ethnic nationalism and prolonged civil strife, which assumed genocidal levels in Rwanda and Liberia in the early 90s.

Elites in African Politics: The elite is a group of people who are set off from the rest of the society as superior because of certain qualities they possess by virtue of ascription or achievements. Ascription is by birth while achievement is by personally acquired traits. Elite theorists such as C.W. Mills wrote of power elite that control every political system, and indeed argued that the US is not a democracy but an oligarchy. Robert Mitchel, another elite theorist wrote of an “Iron Law of Oligarchy”. The theory holds that in any organization only a small percentage of members hold the rein of political and administrative leadership. In any political system, because the citizens are generally dormant, only tiny groups who are active control the political leadership. This influential minority whether in the military, business or professions, seeks to use the machinery of the state to achieve their narrow objectives.

The African elites just like in every other region of the world are the better educated elites who secured independence for their countries. Leaders like Nkrumah, Nyerere, Azikiwe were politically enlightened, more attentive to information, able to make use of opportunities, were able to develop participant attitudes, and consequently assumed the leadership of their respective countries.

Though African elites claimed that they sought power for the public good, but experience have shown that they have been unable to distinguish between their public and personal interests. During the era of military incursions into the politics of African states, the military elites had an advantage. But to be able to rule they co-opted the politicians into political offices. Yet, the military elite is bound together by their common calling, esprit de corps and discipline. Today, in countries like Nigeria (until recently), Gambia, Burkina Faso, Uganda, etc, former military rulers are at the head of government in these countries.

Class Relations in African Politics: The class analysis rejects all pluralist perspectives of analyzing African politics. According to Karl Marx, “the history of all societies is a history of class struggle” between the “haves” and “have-nots”. In any society where a dichotomy exists between the upper and the lower class, a contradiction will develop that will lead to class-consciousness. The theory posits that each class recognizes its position in the society and always seeks political power to defend its class interest. Kwame Nkrumah (1970:10 -16) admitted that, historically, Africa has always been a class-based society, which was reinforced under colonialism which created the European and the Africa sector, the former exploiting the latter. In his view, class distinction was submerged during the struggle for independence, but it re-emerged immediately after self government was attained.

Today in Africa, class formations have developed around the wage earners, and the local bourgeoisie. But the local capitalists in Africa are not independent because they rely on the state apparatus for sustenance, and since the state economy itself is tied to the global economy they employ the weapons of religion and tribalism to cause divisions among the people, in order to promote their narrow class interest. The Sudanese crises which has raged for close to a quarter of a century between the North and South and which appeared to have been inspired by religion is, in reality, a struggle for power sharing and control over oil resource.

Nature of Primordial Conflicts in Africa

The question of ethnicity in Africa has been on ground before colonialism. It was however after colonization that the issue of ethnicity became more pronounced. The reason is that colonial rule brought together number of people with different ethnic affiliations, and divergent religious and cultural beliefs. This forced merger led to the emergence of separatist movements, either for regrouping, or outright secession; which invariably led to conflicts and wars. A distinction must be drawn between inter-state and intra-state conflicts, while recognizing that the two could be mutually reinforcing. In the immediate post independence period, Africa witnessed a number of inter-state wars, reflecting many border disputes and the politics of the Cold War. Examples are Morocco vs Algeria, Ethiopia vs Somalia and Guinea vs Senegal. In recent years, Africa also witnessed more intra-state conflicts in Rwanda, Liberia, Sierra Leone, D.R. Congo, and Uganda. Origins and causes of conflicts in Africa are varied and complex, and rooted in international and national arenas, encompassing economic, political, cultural and social parameters. Among the international factors are the consequences derived from the end of the Cold War and its aftermath, the role of international arms merchants, hostile international environment, as well as the globalization and liberalization of the world economy-which have generated a sense of political and economic insecurity in Africa.

However internal factors have contributed more in igniting intra-state conflicts. These include circumstances surrounding the attainment of independence and the multi-ethnic composition of the independent states. Factor subsumed under the generic label “governance” include exclusion or perceived exclusion from the

political process, for reasons of personal, ethnic or value difference; lack of social political unity; lack of genuine access to national institutions of governance, centralized and highly personalized form of governance, and perception of inequality and discrimination.

In view of the implications of conflict for peace and development, efforts are now being directed by all stakeholders to prevent, manage and resolve conflicts. But these efforts can only succeed if: causes of conflicts are known, whether, social, political, or economic; the level of conflicts are determined - is it crisis, or war; and the costs of dealing with the conflicts-financial, institutional and human are considered. Responsibilities for conflict prevention and resolution should be delineated along sub-regional, regional and international levels. Africa conflicts have persisted because of inadequate resources, limited financial assistance from international agencies, to enable Africa deal with conflict related commitments, including refuge assistance, and failure of preventive diplomacy, in the final analysis, resolution of conflicts lies with the conflicting parties and third party intervention cannot be successful if the conflicting parties are unwilling to stop the carnage.


Negative Connotations of Primordial Terms

There are problems and academic controversies associated with the description of some terms like tribe or tribalism in pejorative terms. The controversy, and indeed confusion originates from the Europeans. The term in modern time is almost exclusively reserved to describe conglomeration of in Third World, particularly in Africa. The term is hardly used to describe human groups in Western Europe, and even Russia. Similarly, the application of the term is indeed extended for the description of other social relations issues, beyond politics. For this reason the word or label has acquired negative or pejorative connotations because it is intended to diminish or relegate the image of Africans in relations to their European counterparts (Adeyemi, 2001).

For the Africans, the word “tribe” provokes negative emotions and reactions because it is always asserted that where the label sticks, and is manifested in political and social relations, it constitutes an impediment to development. This assumption is widely disseminated by the Europeans and accepted “a priori” by others without any scientific basis to validate it. This has led to interventions from other scholars to give correct meaning, context and interpretation to the world. S.L Andreski, a Social Scientist contends that the use of the word tribe exclusively for Africans is ambiguous. He argues that there is no ethno-scientific basis to describe a group of people of about a million in Europe as a nation while numerous groups in Africa forming millions of population with distinct cultural traits, are described as tribe. Andreski therefore concludes that judging by the known criteria of nationhood-common history, and language, population, and shared aspiration for the future the groups referred to as tribe in Africa qualify to be called nations, if not under international law, but under sociological considerations.

Today, with the possible exception of United Germany, it is not common to find a single nationality forming a nation state under international law, but conglomeration of nations forming states (Huntington 1997:28). Emmanuel Wallestine (1978) a political scientist sought to clarify the usage of the term tribe. According to him, those who live in rural areas shall be called tribe, but those who have their origins in the rural areas but live in the cities constitute ethnic groups. The term nation which is the correct one is hardly applied in the description of cultural groups like Yoruba, Kikuyu or Asante in Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana, respectively. For these group to become nations in the context of African politics is usually through secession which is often resisted by force, as the Nigerian and Sudanese cases demonstrate. The implication of this is that if the desire of every ethnic group within the multi-ethnic makeup of African states is encouraged, a flood gate will be opened for secession bids in the continents.


The Reality of Primordial Politics in Africa

Before contacts with Europeans, politics in Africa was described as traditional. Today it is no longer accurate to apply the descriptive word tradition, because it suggests that colonialism left traditional institutions, intact or untouched. This is far from the truth. The word primordial also came into use when what is called “modern” came in contact with the “traditional” and with ideological laden suggestion or connotation that the former should be embraced. The use of the word primordial to describe African politics, therefore, is a descriptive label to describe tribal, ethnic, religious, or provincial based politics, as if societal cleavages are peculiar to Africa. What is therefore important is not the label that is ascribed to political arrangement of a given society. The idea of party-based politics may be alien to traditional African politics, but it does not follow that competition for political offices did not take place; or that because there was no voting or the idea of suffrage; that African system was therefore undiscriminating in the choice of those who participated in public administration. The simple nature of a given African polity is a possible explanation for the non-complicated character of the political institutions, structures and procedures. So, whether one calls it tribalism, ethnicity or nationality, these terms have taken up a reality in Africa, and among the African leaders and people. It simply means no more than a general feeling of allegiance, attachment or loyalty to a way of life. Sometimes these ways of life may be romanticized or real. But beyond this it includes institutionalized modes of behaviour and codes of rights conduct. Within what a European called tribalism there are general ideas about good life. There was what is called the artifact of language that made allegiance possible. Even during the pre-colonial era; there were political arrangements like the Fulani, Mali and Songhai empires which clearly transcended the tribes, a fact which makes tribalism an inappropriate description of African politics. Building on what began in the colonial era, today the distinction between rural dwellers as tribal and urban dwellers as ethnic group is also no longer neat, since the two segments of the African society, have already been linked up through their national governments, as well as the activities of international organizations. Equally important, modern political arrangement is benefiting from the established norms of the African past, because experience has shown that mere reliance on law, without ethics is not sufficient to retain the cohesion that can sustain multi-ethnic groups within one state.



Analysis of politics in developed countries of the word, more often than not, follows class perspective. Where other sub national criteria are at work, more elevated terms such as nation, or grudgingly, race are employed. But in analyzing Africa politics, or interpreting conflicts, primordial labels like the tribe, ethnic, or religious affiliation of politicians are preferred as basis of analysis. African politicians themselves do not help matters because when it suits them they rely on their ethnic base, either to promote their political fortunes or career, and when they are at disadvantage blame the same for their woes. There is no country in the world that is not segmented along one cleavage – class, ethnic or racial – or another. But to continue to promote primordial values, to the detriment of merit or national interest constitutes a disservice to the aspiration of decent and refined politics in Africa.

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