Ethnocentrism and Communal Conflict in Africa


If ethnocentrism or so-called tribalism plays a catalyst role in community conflicts in sub Saharan Africa (Creative Commons License photo credit: Hitchster ), then more people in countries experiencing violent inter-communal conflict should express their ethnic identity as foremost and express stronger ties to their ethnic group. A look at Nigeria, Kenya and Zimbabwe would tell us if this is so.

Violent inter-communal conflicts in so-called ‘trouble spots’ in Africa (Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, DR Congo, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan and Zimbabwe) are evidence of the chasms in these countries that have been described variously as weak, failing or collapsed. State weakness or failure and eventual collapse is also catalyzed by the proliferation of small arms, which are readily available because they are inexpensive, portable, easy to conceal and use, and the persistence of ethnocentrism – a phenomenon rather unlike racism in its economic and political outcomes of inequities, in that, allegiance to ethnic or cultural (tribal) group, patronage based on ethnicity (or race), family and kinship ties, and networks of ethnic interest trump other networks in society. I use the popular narrow definition of ‘ethnic’: primarily signifying cultural characteristics or traits. Extreme ethnocentrism manifests as ethnic hostility. And we know too about the role of religious intolerance in contributing to these violent inter-communal conflicts. One scholar thinks that “civil wars…usually stem from or have roots in ethnic, religious, linguistic or other inter-communal enmity; the “fear of the other that drives so much of ethnic conflict stimulates and fuels hostilities between regimes.” There is some empirical evidence that cultural differences, compared to economic (class) or political (political party) differences, contribute significantly to inter-communal violent conflicts in sub Saharan Africa.

The intensity of ethnocentrism in inter-communal conflict is indeed frightening one: it transforms long-time neighbors into mortal enemies overnight based on their ethnic affiliations. Long-time neighbors become marauding killers, and ethnic (or religious) differences become reasons for denying humanity to others, and all prior social relations and interactions cease to matter.
In sub Saharan Africa, the persistence of ethnocentrism – also known as a certain tribalism –in governance and politics has been one of the challenges of the post-independence period as efforts have been focused, sometimes unsuccessfully, on building nations and nationalisms that relied less on ethnicity and ethnic patronage; this post-independence period therefore has become a project tracking the challenges of nationalism and the bane of ethnic allegiances. Also, the level of inexpensive unregulated small arms and light weapons circulating freely on the black market since the end of the Cold War have led some observers to argue that in ‘poorer’ states where security is weak and governments are unstable, stockpiles of arms only worsen community clashes by extending the duration of violence.

If ethnocentrism, or so-called ‘tribalism’ plays a catalyst role in community conflicts, it must be predicated on a certain level of social distance between social groups; that is, the extent to which members of one ethnic group would accept a member of another ethnic group metaphorically and geographically. But precise measures of social distance among ethnic groups in African countries are not available. At best, we can use as proxy measures the (1) strength of ethnic identification, defined as: “the specific group you feel you belong to first and foremost besides nationality” or (2) the strength of ethnic attachment, defined as “the identity group to which you feel much stronger ties to other than people of your nationality”. Representative sampled data from the Afrobarometer surveys in 1999 to 2001 (round 1) and 2004 (round 2) allow us to examine the extent to which ethnocentrism is prevalent in a few of the sub Saharan African countries experiencing violent inter-communal conflict. The samples ensure that all ethnic groups as well as rural and urban dwellers are represented in the data. Of the so-called trouble spots in Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and Zimbabwe were included in these surveys; so these three countries are the only test cases we can examine.

In our test cases (countries), we should expect (significantly) more respondents in the representative samples to choose their ethnic group as the one they belong to foremost and to say that they feel much stronger ties to their ethnic group members. This will be especially so in places where there have been cycles or recurrence of ethnic conflict so that the way people feel currently about their ethnicity (the strength of ethnic identity) could be strongly influenced by past ethnic violence. We could then suggest that the countries experiencing violent inter-communal conflict are more ethnocentric (tribalistic) or have not overcome ethnocentrism when compared to other African countries shown in the table.

Table 1: Which specific identity group do you feel you belong to first and foremost (1999-2001)

Country Percent choosing ethnic group
Nigeria 47.4%
Namibia 43.0
Malawi 39.1
Mali 38.5
Zimbabwe 36.0
South Africa 21.6

Country Percent choosing group other than ethnic
Tanzania 76.4%
Uganda 62.0
Lesotho 32.8
Zambia 32.9
Botswana 32.9

Note that in table 1, approximately 1 out of 2 Nigerians (47.4%), followed by Namibians (43%) chose tribe or ethnicity. Approximately 1 out of 3 (36%) Zimbabweans chose ethnicity. The proportion for Nigeria is significantly higher when compared to all the other countries except Namibia. The proportions of Zimbabweans choosing ethnic group are higher when compared to Lesotho, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia; in these countries, more people did not say they belonged foremost to their ethnic group. Kenya was not included in this round of data collection, but is included in round 2 (2004).

Table 2: Feel much stronger ties to ethnic group than other nationals in country (1999-2001)
Country Feel stronger ties to
ethnic group

Nigeria 91.6%
South Africa 78.3
Namibia 75.7
Zimbabwe 69.8
Malawi 67.9

Respondents in a subset of countries (including our test countries) were asked about the strength of ties to their ethnic group in table 2. Here again, Nigerians emerge with higher percentages. Compare the rates of Nigerians to South Africans, Namibians and Malawians.

More countries were added to the surveys in 2004 (round 2), including Kenya. The results to the question “Which specific identity group do you feel you belong to first and foremost?” are shown in table 3.

Table 3: Which specific identity group do you feel you belong to first and foremost (2004)
Country Percent choosing ethnic group
Nigeria 49.3%
Ghana 39.4
Mali 36.0
Senegal 33.8
Mozambique 28.9
Namibia 20.9
Kenya 19.4
Zimbabwe 10.9
Country Percent choosing group other than ethnic
Uganda 55.2%
Tanzania 52.5
Zambia 39.1
South Africa 31.0
Cape Verde 30.1

Note that in this second round of data collection, half of Nigerians again say they feel they belong foremost to their ethnic group. But the numbers of Kenyans and Zimbabweans saying they belong foremost to their ethnic group are lower than in countries like Ghana, Mali, Senegal, Mozambique and Namibia. Indeed, the survey shows that more Kenyans say they belong foremost to their occupational group (credit dyer). In Zimbabwe, there has been a reduction in the number of Zimbabweans choosing ethnic group in 2004 compared to data from 1999-2001; it is not clear why this is so. Indeed, in this round, more Zimbabweans chose their religious group as foremost. The question: “Do you feel much stronger ties to ethnic group than other nationals in country?” was not asked in 2004.


So, we can say that of our three test cases, Nigerians seem to confirm our argument. But there is a caveat: these results do not account for the widely reported inter-communal violent conflicts in which religious affiliation has been fingered as a contributory factor. Shouldn’t the surveys reveal a certain level of religion-centrism based on well documented conflicts between Christians and Moslems in the North of Nigeria? Even so, clearly, the number of Nigerians choosing ethnicity as their foremost group is remarkable when compared to other countries in the tables; the data describe Nigeria’s historical struggle for ethnic harmony.

Results for Zimbabweans are mixed – in 1999-2001, one in three Zimbabweans felt they belonged foremost to their ethnic group, and most Zimbabweans felt stronger ties to their ethnic group. But in 2004, fewer Zimbabweans felt they belonged foremost to their ethnic group. What can we make of these results from Zimbabwe? We know of the intransigence of the Mugabe regime and the reported brutality of his party machine dating back several years. But, has the political climate suppressed feelings of ethnic identification and attachment; could this be an unintended effect of political repression and economic depression? Why is it that there are more people choosing religious identity versus ethnicity between the two survey periods? Could it be that feelings of ethnic identity and attachment are mutable so that they are affected (suppressed or heightened) by prevailing social, political and economic conditions in the country?
For Kenya, the results do not support our argument; the data from 2004 tell us that 2 out of 10 Kenyans consider their ethnic identity as foremost. But, unlike Nigeria and Zimbabwe, Kenya has not had internecine ethnic conflicts in the past. The results lead me to conclude that in Kenya, class warfare has perhaps more to do with the violent inter-communal conflict than mere ethnicity. This is because more Kenyans chose occupational group; and we know that one’s occupation determines earnings and therefore socio-economic rank. If strong identification and attachment to ethnic group plays a role in violent conflict in Kenya, it must interact with occupational or stark economic dissatisfaction or differences.

These results have one caveat; the data are 6-10 years old and do not tell us about current ethnic feelings. And if feelings about ethnic identity and attachment are mutable, as suggested, then these data may only reflect ethnic feelings of 6-10 years ago. Should we then expect data from 2008 and 2009 (when collected) to show spikes in ethnic feelings especially in Kenya due to the ethnic violence in the wake of the 2008 elections? But what can we expect from Zimbabwe? Are there other unidentified factors accounting for these cultural cleavages?”
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