In apartheid-era South Africa, ethnicity was an institutionalized concept used by the white minority government to divide diverse, multi-ethnic Africans. It was partly based on language, traditions, or family residence, but was also a social construction meant to facilitate rule. To overcome some of apartheid’s realities, African leaders sought to diminish artificial identities by forming new groups that comingled language, heritage, and more. Such groups were not strictly ethnic and were partly based on values—notably inclusiveness. This strategy proved successful, and offers an interesting case study of coalition building by shifting from ethnic to value-based calls to action.
Civil wars and communal conflict in Africa are often attributed to the strength and prevalence of ethnic identity over national or civic identity and its attendant affect on political and social allegiances. Yet a review of recent survey data in several African countries is unable to validate this popular proposition.
Noted Africa-watcher Crawford Young reviews five books that examine the role of identity in recent conflicts in Liberia, Rwanda, Algeria, and elsewhere. While competing identities certainly can influence conflict, they are just one factor among many that cause and perpetuate them.
The authors counter the influential claim that civil wars have proliferated after the end of the Cold War by presenting data suggesting civil wars since the 1990s have their roots in conflicts from the 1950s and 1960s.
Security Topics: Identity Conflict