Ethnicity and Violence in Africa: An Update

At last count, the clashes that erupted on January 17 2010 in Jos (capital of Plateau State in Nigeria), had claimed the lives of about 360 people and displaced over 20,000 families as told by officials. This incident of cultural conflict in Nigeria represents the latest in the chronic antagonism between Muslims and Christians. In these parts, there is great overlap between ‘ethnicity’ signifying cultural characteristics or traits and religious identification so that one’s religion may be a descriptor of one’s ethnicity. The recent spate of killings in Jos has occurred between Christians, who are largely non-Hausa, and Muslims who are predominantly of the Hausa ethnic group.

I recall several weeks ago as these ethno-religious killings were going in Jos that I took my aged wagon to a local franchise auto shop for a routine check-up. The mechanic working on my car must’ve detected an accent when I spoke, so he asked me: “Where are you from,” and in my attempt to deflect this line of questioning, I retorted: ‘Baltimore!” He said, “Really, where are you from? You’re from Africa? Where?” To which I answered: “Does it make a difference?” “Yes, it does, to me,” he shot back. He was insistent and he kept at it: “So, where are you from?” Finally, I gave in and told him where I was born.  But, the mechanic was not done – he wanted to know which ethnic group, which tribe, I belonged to. I was becoming impatient with this conversation about my birthplace and ethnicity. I asked him: “What do you care, which tribe I belong to?” I was being direct so he could drop the topic, but he won’t let it drop; “It matters, he said.” I was incredulous, so I asked him: “How does it matter?” His best come back was: “I just want to know!” So, I finally yielded and told him which ethnic group I belonged to – I figured that if this gentleman was going to work on my car, I didn’t want to antagonize him. He then told me where he was born (I had figured as much) and then he proclaimed his ethnicity, although I hadn’t asked him and really didn’t care to know.

As I left the shop, I realized I wasn’t completely surprised by this exchange. In our presentation of self as black immigrants, we rely on cultural and other descriptors to signify who we are. For most African immigrants, calling up one’s tribe or ethnicity is a way of overcoming the master status based on phenotype. We want to be more than just ‘black.’ The exchange I had at the auto shop brought into focus the continuing relevance of ethnic identity and its role in inter-communal conflict in Africa. But the bearing of ethnic identity is not the same for the immigrant black and the indigene in Africa.

As I reviewed the latest data on ethnic identification in Africa from the AfroBarometer Round 4 Surveys, my focus, as I’ve noted in previous posts here, was on the extent to which ethnic identity becomes the basis for inter-communal conflict.  In my earlier posts, I have presented data tracking ethnocentrism and conflict in Africa.  In this post, I provide updates on the prevalence of ethnic identity from recent survey data collected by AfroBarometer in 2008.

Round 4 of the AfroBarometer Surveys were conducted in 18 countries in 2008, drawing a sample of 26,414 respondents with proportionate representation to capture the distribution of ethnic diversity in each of these countries. I culled published summary data on five core items that track the intensity of ethnic identification: these data are based on responses to the following questions: (1) I feel only ‘ethnic’ (respondent’s ethnic group). (2) I feel more ‘ethnic’ than ‘national’ (respondent’s nationality). (3) I feel equally ‘national’ and ‘ethnic’. (4) I feel more ‘national’ than ‘ethnic’. (5) I feel only ‘national.’  The root question for this set of items is: “What is your tribe or ethnic group?’

I collapsed these data by combing question items 1 and 2 to depict “strong ethnic identification” and combined items 4 and 5 to depict “strong national identification.” I then sorted the data in descending order based on the percentage of respondents (in each country) that responded to the combined item: “strong national identification”.

These survey data tell us about the prevalence of ethnic identification and national identity in these African countries. My contention was that more respondents would choose ethnic identity. My other contention was that data for Nigeria, with its sporadic incidents of ethno-religious conflicts, would show a high prevalence of strong ethnic identification. The data are presented below:

Ethnic_Table

So, what do these data tell? In Tanzania (78%), Madagascar (67%) and Senegal (56%), more respondents relied on their nationality as a descriptor than in any other surveyed countries. The prevalence of ethnic identification (and ethnic attachment) in these countries is low. On the other hand, Malawi is the only country with more than half of its respondents identifying primarily with their ethnic group. When we compare the proportions for the item “I feel equally ‘national’ and ‘ethnic’,” more Liberians (65%) followed by Ghanaians (57%) and Ugandans (53%) report feeling equally ethnic and nationalistic. Slightly less than half of surveyed Nigerians (45%) report this sentiment (credit eric). Overall, more respondents in most countries chose “strong national identification” or “equally ethnic and national.”

My contention that more Nigerians would choose ethnic identification also did not bear out – and this is propitious. Nigerians are comparatively no different from most of the other Africans surveyed in terms of their feelings about ethnic identity. So, it is puzzling how community misunderstandings devolve into such violent acts of killings and maiming in Nigeria (or more precisely, some parts of Nigeria). Some reports have argued that the recent troubles in Jos were perpetuated by thugs and fuelled by social disadvantage. If this is indeed the case, where were the officers of peace who are responsible for diffusing tensions and maintaining order? The killings went unabated for several hours before the military was called in to restore order. Perhaps the trajectory of these violent incidents reveals a certain level of state weakness in its inability to quell mob behavior?

These data are encouraging and may exhort us to think that ethnocentrism is on the wane in Africa. But we cannot forget what extreme ethnic identification and attachment has wrought in the past decade: brutal killings in Rwanda, ethnic war that convulsed Ethiopians and Eritrea, civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, ethnic violence that threatened to divide Cote d’Ivoire, ethnic war that has ravaged Sudanese in the South, sporadic ethnic killings that occur in Northern Ghana between Kokomba and Nanumba ethnic groups, ethno-religious violence in Nigeria, violent separatist movement in Southern region of Casamance in Senegal, the wars in the Congo Democratic Republic and Angola.

In Angola, two officials of the Togolese national soccer team were killed and the reserve goalie was seriously wounded in the Cabinda region during the Conference of African Football (CAF) tournament that just ended in January 2010. The bus in which the Togolese were riding was shot at by Cabinda separatists. The cause for the violent separatist movement in Cabinda is a certain ethno-cultural distinctiveness.

New Documentary: “Herskovitz at the Heart of Blackness”

There is a new documentary by Lewellyn Smith, Vincent Brown and Christine Herbes-Sommers, that should be of interest to scholars and students who want to learn about the early, anthropological study of race. The film takes a look at the career of Melville J. Herskovits, the pioneering Jewish American anthropologist of African Studies and controversial intellectual who established the first African Studies Center at an American university and authored, “The Myth of the Negro Past.” The filmmakers weave together a nuanced discussion of Jewish exile and immigration along with African and African American culture and identity. Here’s a short (3:15) clip:

The film is a co-production of Vital Pictures and the Independent Television Service (ITVS), Executive Producer for ITVS Sally Jo Fifer, and is distributed by California Newsreel. It’s 57 minutes long, so it’s a good length for use in the classroom. Really fascinating, highly recommended.

“Million Dollar Blocks” : Incarceration as the New Jim Crow

There is some fascinating research being done these days with mapping and the visual representation of data, some of it illustrates the reality of incarceration as the new form of Jim Crow segregation.

Currently, the U.S. has more than 2 million people incarcerated in jails and prisons. A disproportionate of these come from a handful of neighborhoods, and in many places the concentration of incarceration rates is so dense that some states are spending in excess of a million dollars a year to lock up the residents of single city blocks.  A lack of opportunity in the legitimate economic structure, combined with more opportunities in the unofficial economy, and the aggressive police state practices that Joe mentioned yesterday, fairly guarantees high reincarceration rates.   In fact, roughly forty percent of those who are released and reenter their communities do not stay more than three years before they are reincarcerated.   These “million dollar blocks” are almost exclusively also blocks where African American and Latino people live. 

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(Image of Brooklyn, NY from Spatial Information Design Lab, Columbia University.)

Blogger Julie Netherland notes the staggering public health costs of such policies, then poses the relevant question here: “how could we improve the health of these neighborhoods if we invested a million dollars into community development, jobs, or education … instead of incarceration?  How many public health problems could be solved?”  Indeed, I suspect the health of these “million dollar blocks” would look a lot different if we could shift the focus from incarceration to community development.

This systemic pattern of incarcerating black and brown young men from a few city blocks is a continuation of decades of social, political and cultural exclusion based on race.  Legal scholar and litigator Michelle Alexander has a new book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, in which she argues that we have not ended racial caste in America: we have simply redesigned it. Her work shows that by targeting black men and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control, even as it formally adheres to the principle of color blindness.

So, while it is important to celebrate the victories over Jim Crow won at lunch counters, it is imperative that we look for ways to dismantle the current, pernicious system of Jim Crow segregation.

Are We Becoming More of a Police State, For Americans of Color?



Bob Herbert at the Times has some very revealing statistics on police harassment and malpractice in New York City:

Statistics will be out shortly about the total number of people who were stopped and frisked by the police in 2009. We already have the data for the first three-quarters of the year, and they are staggering. During that period, more than 450,000 people were stopped by the cops, an increase of 13 percent over the same period in 2008.

Likely more than half a million in one year. He adds:

An overwhelming 84 percent of the stops in the first three-quarters of 2009 were of black or Hispanic New Yorkers. It is incredible how few of the stops yielded any law enforcement benefit. Contraband, which usually means drugs, was found in only 1.6 percent of the stops of black New Yorkers. For Hispanics, it was just 1.5 percent. For whites, who are stopped far less frequently, contraband was found 2.2 percent of the time.

Racial discrimination and little open protest or concern with extreme police malpractice. Welcome to lockdown America? And much of this is also a waste of police time:

The percentages of stops that yielded weapons were even smaller. Weapons were found on just 1.1 percent of the blacks stopped, 1.4 percent of the Hispanics, and 1.7 percent of the whites. Only about 6 percent of stops result in an arrest for any reason.

Notice too that whites were the more likely to carry weapons and have drugs. I wonder why that does not get news headlines? Why don’t they stop more whites, as there would be more payoff?

As I have mentioned here before police brutality and other malpractice is a severe problem nationally:

Lest some think that we are ignoring lots of white victims of police brutality here, we might note that one social science study back in the 1990s analyzed 130 police-brutality accounts in several cities across the country. In that reviews of cases, criminologist Kim Lersch discovered that the targets of this type of police malpractice are almost always black or Latino. The latter made up 97 percent of the victims of police brutality, while the overwhelming majority (93 percent) of officers involved were white. Police brutality overwhelmingly involves white-on-black or other white-on-minority violence. (See full discussion in Chapter 5 here.)

February: Celebrating Black History

February – the shortest month of the year – marks the beginning of black history month in the U.S. Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Greensboro, N.C. lunch counter sit-ins at the Woolworth’s lunch counter. If you’re not familiar with this important history, this short (6:11) video clip from the History Channel provides a basic review of the facts:

Today is also significant for the opening of a Civil Rights Museum on the site of the sit-ins in Greensboro. While the courage of people like the four young, African-American men that sat at that segregated lunch counter helped change the system of Jim Crow segregation, we should not let the civil rights struggle become ossified in memorials and museums. The truest celebration of black history month is to continue the struggle for racial equality now.