Despite having committed to a peace agreement, South Sudan’s warring actors have shown no sign of following through with any of the requirements therein. In fact, the violence and crimes against civilians has escalated. One reason for the inability to follow through with the agreement is that those committing the human rights violations and abuses are the country’s political and military leaders.
State capacity is not the same as state legitimacy. Though it is essential to build and strengthen the institutions of governance in post-conflict societies to provide for its citizens, the people of a country must feel that the government is endeavoring to protect and provide for all constituents—all races, religions, and ethnicities. To demonstrate this, a government must decentralize to the level where the impact of the conflict was mostly felt. It must create policy informed by the needs of actual citizens its civil service has met. Until it does this, it has not earned legitimacy among its people.
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.
High levels of ethnic diversity are often framed as static impediments to political stability and conflict prevention in Africa. However, ethnicity is no immutable phenomenon and levels of diversity change over time. In fact, increases in urbanization are correlated with higher levels of ethnic homogenization. Botswana, with the highest rate of urbanization of any country in the world since 1950, is a case in point. As many African states are projected to experience urbanization booms in the coming decades, resulting changes in ethnic diversity may have significant policy implications for development and stability.
Without deep engagement, neighbors may find it easier to respond to perceived differences and devalue each other more. Humanizing the other and deep contact are essential to overcome devaluation. Constructive groups—people working together for economic development or social change, for example—provide a positive means to satisfy basic needs and an alternative to groups focused on conflict or destructive ideological movements. The establishment of institutions to foster constructive groups as a systematic and ongoing enterprise would serve as early prevention.
Nigeria’s long-running “indigene-settler” conflict in and around Jos, Plateau State has escalated in recent years and may spread to other ethnically mixed regions of the country, heightening instability. Navigating such inter-communal fault lines is a common challenge for many African societies that requires looking past symptoms to address systemic drivers. In Nigeria, this will entail measures that directly mitigate violence as well as realize constitutional reform.
Ethnic conflicts in Africa are often portrayed as having ages-old origins with little prospects for resolution. This Security Brief challenges that notion arguing that a re-diagnosis of the underlying drivers to ethnic violence can lead to more effective and sustainable responses.
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