Archive for Africa
Colorlines has a good critique of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s recent oped piece (“Ending the Slavery Blame-Game”) in the New York Times by historian Barbara Ransby, Director of Gender and Women’s Studies Program at U. Illinois-Chicago. In his oped Gates makes a whitewashed argument about U.S. slavery and the slave trade being substantially the responsibility of both African elite leaders and North American whites, about this reality changing the black reparations debate, and about President Obama being uniquely able to deal with this reality. The part about the African elites is similar to arguments often made by conservative whites against reparations for black enslavement. Gates concludes his oped thus:
In President Obama, the child of an African and an American, we finally have a leader who is uniquely positioned to bridge the great reparations divide. He is uniquely placed to publicly attribute responsibility and culpability where they truly belong, to white people and black people, on both sides of the Atlantic, complicit alike in one of the greatest evils in the history of civilization. And reaching that understanding is a vital precursor to any just and lasting agreement on the divisive issue of slavery reparations.
Professor Ransby, however, strongly takes issue with this. She summarizes and critiques Gates:
Black and white people in the United States should now “get over” slavery because as we all know, this was not a racial thing but an economic thing. Since both Blacks and whites were culpable, the call for reparations is indeed meaningless and bereft of any moral weight. If we take Gates’ argument to its full conclusion, we might claim that it is not America or Europe, but the long suffering, impoverished, and debt-ridden nations of Africa, that should really pay reparations to Black Americans.
She then nail the central culprits:
Even though African monarchs did collaborate in the selling of Blacks bodies into slavery, what happened after that was the establishment of a heinous and brutal system that rested squarely on the dual pillars of White supremacy and ruthless capitalist greed. There was nothing African-inspired about it.
This is of course the main point, which Gates slights in his piece. The 246 years of African Americans’ North America enslavement was totally under white control, principally elite white control. The Atlantic slave trade supplying the Americas was set up and controlled entirely by Europeans. No African elites sailed boats to the Americas, nor did they profit from the 246 years of slavery-extracted labor within North America. Most from whom labor was stolen had never seen Africa, for they were born in North America. Reparations are due to African Americans mainly from this extorted and stolen labor within North America.
In addition, in my view, the place to start in making reparations to African Americans is with the nearly 100 years of Jim Crow segregation. The reason: there are a great many living African Americans who were directly harmed by the extensive, totalitarian type of Jim Crow oppression so central to the U.S. economy and polity for so many decades. In the South and some of the North.
Many of these African Americans can name who their oppressors were, and indeed give some idea of the costs, personal and monetary, that they suffered. They can name the exploitative white employers, brutal white police officers, whites in lynch mobs, and white rapists who were central to this extreme oppression. Gates does not mention reparations for Jim Crow, which is an odd and major oversight. After we calculate reasonable reparations for the damage done to many African Americans under Jim Crow, and their children and grandchildren, then we can move back to calculate the trillions in dollars and other reparations that are due to the descendants of those so extremely oppressed by the whites who ran the slavery system in North America.
Ransby minces no words at the end of her indictment of Professor Gates:
The lessons are about the self-serving role of certain Black elites, who in slavery times and now, will sell (or sell out) other Black bodies for their own gain and advancement. African royalty did it in the 1600s and 1700s. Comprador elites did it in colonial and postcolonial settings through the Global South. And certain public figures, in political, cultural and academic circles, do so today, with a kind of moral blindness and impunity that rivals the slave sellers of old. As we know, ideas have consequences.
This past week Eugene Terreblanche, an Afrikaner white supremacist, was murdered by two black farm workers in South Africa. It has become painfully clear that the Rainbow Nation has very far to go to become such. And my prediction is that the growing pains will track a slow and low gradient. Writing for the BBC, Peter Burdin, sounds a distressful note:
(South Africa) is officially the most unequal society on earth…South Africa is also among the most violent societies outside war zones with 18,000 murders a year…Race permeates all aspects of life here.
For about 46 years – from 1948 to 1994 (when Nelson Mandela was elected in the first multi-racial democratic elections) – the Nationalist Party and white South Africans managed to forge an uneasy, volatile but successful system of racial separation and oppression. They managed to create what the Confederate States in the United States of America could not achieve. Apartheid was indeed a strange thing; within the country, there were white provinces where passbooks were required of all non-whites and there were ‘independent’ Bantustans which were the domain of blacks. It was a wicked system that denied rights to the majority black population. We know the familiar story by now; the story of how Madiba nurtured the emergent so-called post apartheid rainbow nation. De Klerk, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Madiba, realized that apartheid was not sustainable; besides, international sanctions against South Africa had undermined the government’s viability.
While other African countries are convulsed by ethnic divisions, South Africa is caught in the throes of racism – something we know a lot about in the United States of America. We must understand the Afrikaner mind-set; since their Dutch forebears settled in South Africa, they’ve been fighting two conflicts: one against British imperialism (The Boer Wars) and another against the indigenous inhabitants. The Boer War in 1899 was brutal and notorious for the concentration camps set up by the British that killed several thousands of Afrikaner women and children (Brian Bunting, 1969 The Rise of The South African Reich). But independence was not the only thing the Afrikaners desired; they wanted to retain their perceived superiority over the indigenous inhabitants. Brian Bunting writes (p14):
The Boer republics constituted an anachronism to the 20th century. Their code of conduct (was) incompatible with the liberal philosophy of modern capitalism. In the (republic of) Transvaal constitution it was written that there could be no equality between Black and White in Church or State.
The British imperialists were complicit in not extending any kind of rights to non-whites after the second Boer War and they accommodated the color-bar with its pass-book restrictions ensuring that racial integration would not happen. This is what the Afrikaners wanted.
So in 2010, racial accommodation is still a societal problem in South Africa. Public opinion data from the Afrobarometer surveys in 1999 depict these racial tensions in South Africa. When asked how they identified themselves, more South Africans chose race. Race polarizes in South Africa much in the same way that ethnicity polarizes in other African societies.
Some Afrikaners think that Eugene Terreblanche’s murder was provoked by the African National Congress (ANC) youth leader, Julius Malema, who sang the anti-apartheid song “Shoot the Boer.” The ANC has reportedly ordered its members not to sing the song at rallies any longer because it stokes racial tensions. There is another song “Bring me my machine Gun” often heard at youth ANC youth rallies, which refers to the struggle to topple the apartheid regime; this was the song used by Jacob Zuma during his campaign for the Presidency. Unwilling to be dominated by the British during the emergent years of their republic, the Afrikaners are now troubled by the domination of the Africans. Their fears are not unfounded; there are reports that approximately 3,000 Afrikaner farmers have been murdered since this new dispensation in South Africa. These cold cases make the Afrikaners anxious and unsure about their place in the Rainbow Nation.
When the accused black men were arraigned at the court in the town of Ventersdorp, there were reports of Eugene Terreblanche’s paramilitary group waving placards with Afrikaner nationalist symbols. The reporter notes:
Time has stood still here…there is a silent message that this is no place for blacks.
As I’ve written about here before, the contours of racism in a global, networked society are changing. Old forms of overt racism now exist alongside emergent new forms of cyber racism. One of those new forms of cyber racism is the phenomena of white Americans pursuing Nigerian email scammers, a practice known as “scam baiting.” If you’re not familiar with this practice, there have been a couple of stories in the news recently that shed a some light on this new form of vigilantism. Here’s a brief description from a recent piece at CNN/Money.com:
These self-described Web vigilantes go after alleged e-mail scammers claiming to be Nigerian princes, U.S. soldiers in Iraq or Chinese businessmen. They say they need your help (i.e. your money) to access fake multi-million dollar accounts or palaces full of gold. Most people recognize these e-mails for what they are and delete them without replying, but enough victims actually fall for these scams to keep them coming. And then there are the scambaiters who answer the e-mails and feign genuine interest in sending money, as a ploy to send the scammers on a wild goose chase. Mike Sodini, a firearms importer and owner of the Web site ebolamonkeyman.com, says he started scambaiting in 2001, when he worked at an Internet real estate marketing firm that got inundated with scam e-mails. Sodini started writing back out of curiosity “to see how the operation would go” and he said it soon became a hit with his co-workers, who would gather around his computer to read his farcical dialogue. “I started it to make my friends laugh and see what was going on,” he says. “I didn’t have a motive of, ‘Let’s get these guys.”
Sodini and other “scam baiters” like “Rover,” a scam baiter since the 1990s who owns the scambaiting site 419eater.com, get alleged scammers to make fools of themselves by posing in photos and holding signs with offensive statements. He says he would get them to do this by claiming it was “for tax purposes,” which was a ruse, since he never intended to send them money. He says he’d also convince them to make numerous trips to airports and Western Unions, lured by the promise of money packages that never arrived.
These photos are called “trophies” in the parlance of the scam baiters, and in many ways are reminiscent of the photographs of lynchings that were once popular in the U.S. The radio show This American Life did an episode about the men (yes, they’re all men) who do this. Perhaps not surprisingly, neither the CNN/Money.com report nor the This American Life episode mention race as even a factor at play in, if not an underlying motive for, these transnational vigilantes. Certainly none of the reporting that’s been done about this to date mentions any similarity with lynching photography.
My colleague at John Jay-CUNY, Dara N. Byrne, is doing some really interesting work on this phenomenon. Combining the concept of “vigilante” with the digital era, she examines a range of what she calls “digilantism.” Dara presented a paper called, “Digilante Culture: The Rhetorical Performance of Justice and Punishment on the Wild Wild Web,” at the eastern regional sociology meetings (ESS) in Boston on a panel I helped organize. Here’s the abstract:
This paper focuses on the rhetorical performance of justice and punishment in digilante culture. Digilantism is the term I use to refer to the growing practice amongst some netizens, mostly based in the United States and the United Kingdom, who mete out extrajudicial punishment to cyber-criminals such as scammers, hackers, and pedophiles. Although digilantism is a growing internet subculture, short of legal research on cyber-crime, little attention has been paid to the rhetorical, cultural, and socio-historical dimension of this widely practiced do-it-yourself form of justice. The paucity of digital media research is particularly surprising given the explosion of popular and scholarly rhetoric on cyber-terrorism, digital surveillance, and internet security and safety. The purpose of my paper then is to address this gap by developing a typology of digilante justice. I focus on responses to real cyber-crimes on a range of sites, including Nigerian 419 and Russian romance scam-baiting sites, pedophile watchdog sites, and texasborderwatch discussion groups.
So, in trying to understand ‘racism in an international context’ as we’ve been doing here this week, one of the things to keep in mind is that the international context has changed with the digital era. While in the early days of the digital era, there was much speculation by respected sociologists that nation-states would lose control because the Internet, along with globalization, would undermine sovereignty. More recently, however, other scholars have argued that it is an illusion to think that we are living in a borderless world and that nation-states do still matter very much, despite trends of globalization and the Internet. The rise of scam baiters and this particular expression of cross-border digilantism – with its echoes of lynching photography – point out one of the ways that old forms of overt racism are re-mixed with new forms of racism in our globally networked society.
There is an engaging story about a 17-year old monarch of the Tooro Kingdom in Uganda who has been King since he was a toddler. The story is particularly interesting because the reporter waded into issues of ethnicity and nationalism that have dogged African nation-states since independence. A CNN reporter writes that:
“Many Africans, like the people in King Oyo’s realm, identify themselves as a member of a tribe or ethnic group first and as citizen of a nation second.” Tension between ethnic groups within the same country often has flared into violence around the continent. In Uganda, the central government outlawed kingdoms in 1967, but the president reinstated four of them in the ’90s on the condition that their leaders focus more on culture and less on national politics.”
This reporter was relying on conversations with a history professor at Makerere University in Uganda to inform the account; according to the professor:
“The monarchies are based on ethnicities, sparking concerns of a setback in national integration efforts… Ugandans identify themselves first with their tribes and kingdoms, then as citizens…This works in most African cultures because people have lost faith in the government, and tribes and kingdoms provide a nucleus around which an identity can be forged.”
I have written on the intersection between ethnicity and nationalism here before and I have relied on representative (probabilistic) surveys that gauge the national mood regarding identity in Africa. What we know from current data is that the issues of ethnicity and nationalism are more nuanced than reported in the CNN article. This paper is not a rebuttal of that article that appeared a few days ago; I want to render a contemporaneous account of what we now know about ethnicity and nationalism in Africa.
Our scholarship has long established that tribal associations or tribal unions based strictly on ethnicity posed a threat to emergent post-colonial nationalism; ethnic patronage did not have a place in the new nationalism and the newly independent countries fostered the progressive ideal of a community of diverse ethnic groups. But, our scholarship has also documented the social realities of ethnic patronage that have strained the progressive ideal; an authoritative study, among several others, is Crawford Young’s (1994) paper titled: Evolving Modes of Consciousness and Ideology: Nationalism and Ethnicity. Whether the ethnic tensions were stoked by former colonial powers or not, our taken-for-granted reality has been that ethnic allegiance continues to undermine communal development – take for instance what is happening in Jos, Nigeria, where the cycle of murders and revenge murders is unrelenting. Some analysts have argued that these tensions are also religious and socioeconomic in root, and that there’s an intersection between economic inequality and ethnic conflict.
As social scientists, it is difficult (sometimes near impossible) to conduct true experiments (with pre- and post- moments) to ascertain causality – for instance, we cannot conduct a true experiment to identify how ethnic identity singularly causes these violent tensions. At best, what we have are correlational models to identify the likelihood of outcomes based on certain conditions. So we must not discount the fact that economic inequalities may have something to do with these conflicts as well. But even with these methodological limitations, we can say with some confidence that the one important correlate we have in all of these violent conflicts is that of ethnicity or tribal group; in Jos, it happens that the groups killing each other also largely practice two different faiths.
Recent events in Nigeria reinforce the taken-for-granted reality of the role of ethnocentrism in communal conflict. Among all the countries I examined using data from Afrobarometer surveys from round 1 (1999-2001) and round 2 (2004) more Nigerian respondents identified ethnically than respondents in other African countries (in round 2, about the same proportion of Batswana identified as such). (In Kenya and Zimbabwe most respondents did not identify first with their tribal or ethnic group). In round 4 (2008) of the Afrobarometer surveys, the majority of respondents (≥70%) in all surveyed countries including Nigeria (but except Malawi) relied on their nationality as an identity descriptor or identified equally with their nation and their ethnic group.
A review of the pattern of response in these surveys uncovers substantive issues related to data collection that have to be taken into account in interpreting the results: (1) In-person surveys are susceptible to social desirability bias. I wondered whether the tendency to choose national identity in rounds 1 and 2 in all the surveyed countries (except Nigeria) was due to respondents providing answers that they felt was the most favorable based on the public mood – after all, the nationalistic identity descriptor is the progressive ideal. If so, we should expect respondents in Nigeria to be susceptible to the social desirability bias as well. (2) The question: “I feel equally national and ethnic” was a new item in round 4, and so it is impossible to examine change from previous rounds. I wondered whether the introduction of this item has diluted the ethnic identity and ethnic attachment social reality. Without this item, I wondered whether more respondents would have chosen ethnicity as their primary identity. (3) Data on ethnic identity from round 4 may indeed indicate, auspiciously, a maturation of civil society in these countries. Over time, we may expect more citizens to embrace the nationalistic vision when compared to earlier periods as the nation-state becomes more stable. This is the hope – even as we witness conflicts, many of which arguably involve some elements of ethnocentrism in every region of the continent. We should expect subsequent rounds of these surveys to show more respondents reporting a national identity due to the maturation effect.
Nonetheless, the intersection of ethnicity and nationalism yields peculiar ground truths: consider that in Ghana, the newly elected national chairman of the opposition party paid homage to the King of the ethnic group to which he belongs. The national chairman used the occasion to urge the youth of his ethnic group to take up leadership roles. I wondered; why would the national chairman of a national political party address only the youth of his ethnic group? Shouldn’t he be addressing the youth of the country regardless of their tribal identity? By the way, this particular national chairman doesn’t even speak his native ethnic language! Also, consider President Zuma of South Africa who has just married his third wife as allowed by his Zulu traditions, even as he admitted recently fathering a child out of wedlock! What a contrast between President Mandela and the current South African president! But whether his traditions allow for multiple wives or not, what image does a democratically elected president project when he fathers a child out of wedlock even with a surfeit of spouses? Is this possible only in Africa?
To return to the case of Nigeria and the cycle of killings of Jos; we must take into account the sinuous power struggle unfolding in the country. The frail and un-well President has not been seen in public for 4 months or more; the acting President has dissolved the cabinet to purge it of loyalists to the President. And the security forces in the State of Jos seem powerless to stem the cycle of hate and killings. One African autocratic leader has the temerity to call for dividing Nigeria into a Moslem North and a Christian South. With a history of ethno-religious tensions and a civil war that claimed over one million lives, and ongoing violent unrests in the Niger Delta region of the country, the recent killings in Jos are just a manifestation of the uniqueness of the Nigerian situation.
~ Yoku Shaw-Taylor, PhD is a Research Scientist in Washington, DC.
March 21st marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre of at least 69 unarmed civilians in a now-famous South African township. Here is a Wikipedia summary of the events:
On 21 March, a group of between 5,000 and 7,000 people converged on the local police station in the township of Sharpeville, offering themselves up for arrest for not carrying their pass books.
This was part of a large-scale effort of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), which was competing with the African National Congress in protesting these highly offensive, authoritarian, and racist pass laws:
By 10:00 am, a large crowd had gathered, and the atmosphere was peaceful and festive. Fewer than 20 police officers were present in the station at the start of the protest. Police and military used low-flying Sabre jet fighters to attempt to intimidate the crowd into dispersing. . . . The police set up Saracen armoured vehicles in a line facing the protesters and, at 1:15 pm, fired upon the crowd. Police reports claimed that members of the crowd threw stones at them (or at their cars) and that inexperienced police officers opened fire spontaneously. The police were armed with Stens and tear gas. Lieutenant Colonel Pienaar, the commanding officer of the police forces at Sharpeville, denied giving any order to fire and stated that he would not have done so. Nevertheless, his attitude towards the protest is revealed in his statement that “the native mentality does not allow them to gather for a peaceful demonstration. For them to gather means violence.” . . . The police continued firing even when the crowd had turned to run, and the majority of those killed and wounded were shot in the back. There was no evidence that anyone in the crowd was armed.
According to the official record, some 69 people were killed, with 180 suffering injuries—at least 68 of whom were women and children. The impact on anti-apartheid organization among Black and other South Africans was great:
The Sharpeville massacre led to the banning of the PAC and ANC and was one of the catalysts for a shift from passive resistance to armed resistance by these organisations. The foundation of Poqo, the military wing of the PAC, and Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC, followed shortly afterwards.
Once South African apartheid fell, Sharpeville became the site where new President Nelson Mandela signed the new democratic Constitution of South Africa. This day is now commemorated as human rights day in South Africa, and is a day for all of us to remember in the global anti-racism struggles.
Mustafa Jumale, a Somali American student at the University of Minnesota, has been blogging on experiences there and in South Africa. Here is what he just sent me about some of his own experiences and insights about the experiences of other African-origin students:
The experiences of Black South African and African American students at historically white universities and predominantly white universities are both problematic and unique. South Africa has had a black democratic government since the fall of the Apartheid government. However, incidents at the University of the Orange Free State University, in which a few “white” South African students asked university housing employees to participate in a game. The students asked the employees to eat food, which contained urine. Moreover, these [white] students video recorded the game and entered it in a competition that was facilitated by students that were employed by the university as resident assistants; furthermore, these students won the best documentary for their video. In the United States, ever year we hear about white students participating in parities with racial themes in Black History Month, like the recent incident at University of California-San Diego.
After the elections of former President Nelson Mandela and President Barack Obama, media outlets enabled a discourse, in which these countries were referred to as “post-racial.” As a Somali American at a predominately white university in the Midwest, I understand the struggles of being black and Muslim. My senior honors thesis is entitled “Post-Racial” Societies: A comparative study of South Africa and the United States. I argue that “post-raciality” is in and within itself problematic. I used ethnographic methods and qualitative approaches to examine the “Black” South African experience and “African American” experience at historically white universities and predominantly white universities in South Africa and the United States. Moreover, I opened the discourse to students at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and the University of the Western Cape by using a blog and facebook to generate discussion and to collect narratives of the experiences of students.
Here is an excerpt from an article from the Mshale (local African community) newspaper cited on his blog on some Somali Americans’ experiences in Minnesota:
“‘Minnesota nice’ at this university is covert racism,” Jumale said . . . just outside the university’s West Bank campus. Jumale’s sentiments stem from observation and interviews he conducted of least a dozen students for a research paper he wrote about the experiences of “Somali College Students at a Predominantly White Institution.” In his research, Jumale heard from a Somali honor student who majored in English Literature but was told by a professor on the first day of class that the course was “too advanced.” Then there was another student who told him he received a D in a term paper because, according to the professor, “the words in your essay are not words you would be able to understand.” But no grievance was more common than alleged harassment by the university’s police. Jumale heard complaints about police officers randomly searching Somali students’ supposedly looking for stolen property. Others complained about being asked to provide IDs while white students walked by uninterrupted. … It wasn’t until last October, when a police officer detained three Somali students for robbery, that Jumale and his fellow students realized that these were no trivial issues. …. Shafii Osman, a 19-year-old sophomore majoring in Biology, said he and two of his friends were walking from the university gym to a nearby MacDonald when an undercover police officer stopped them and asked for their IDs. . . . After looking at their IDs and searching their pockets, the officer allegedly said they “fit the description” of “East African males” who had just robbed Subway…. Osman said the officer ordered them into the car and took them to Subway.….. Despite the Subway employees’ failure to identify the men who had committed the crime a few minutes earlier, the officer allegedly asked Osman and his friends to pay for the sandwiches or risk criminal charges. They chose the latter. … With the help of an attorney, the three students were able to get their cases dismissed. But for one of Osman’s co-defendants, who did not want to be identified, the whole ordeal was so damaging that said he is still struggling to understand it. “It caused me a so much stress,” the friend said. “I was approaching exams with the possibility of being sent to jail.”
This is a common experience for native-born African American college students, as reported in research studies by social scientists on historically white campuses. And such academic and policing incidents are now becoming more commonplace for the “other African Americans” as they are sometimes called. They too are often viewed by many whites from the same white racial framing that has long negatively portrayed those African Americans whose ancestry goes back generations in the United States. BTW, Social scientists Yoku Shaw-Taylor and Steven Tuch have a very good edited book with chapters on various subgroups within this increasingly diverse group, titled The Other African Americans: Contemporary African and Caribbean Families in the United States.
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:
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. 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.
At the Washington Post’s Foreign Service desk, Keith Richburg has written an important piece on antiblack and anti-African views and actions in China–which have a similarity to racist views and actions in the U.S. and other parts of the West. How much of this Chinese antiblack racism is indigenous, and how much has been imported from the U.S. and the rest of the West?
Richburg begins with the story of Lou Jing, a young mixed-race (Chinese/African American) woman who won a talent competition in a U.S.-imitating, television “idol” show called, stereotypically and ironically enough, “Go! Oriental Angel.” The response by some Chinese posting on the Internet was stereotyped and hostile:
Angry Internet posters called her a “black chimpanzee” and worse. One called for all blacks in China to be deported. . . . “It’s sad,” Lou said. . . . “If I had a face that was half-Chinese and half-white, I wouldn’t have gotten that criticism.”
Richburg notes many Africans have come to China as trade between China and African countries has grown dramatically. Many have gone to Westernized southern cities like Guangzhou and Shanghai (China’s largest city), engaged in businesses, and sometimes married Chinese partners (usually men marrying women):
In the process, they are making tiny pockets of urban China more racially diverse — and forcing the Chinese to deal with issues of racial discrimination. In the southern city of Guangzhou, where residents refer to one downtown neighborhood as Chocolate City, local newspapers have been filled in recent months with stories detailing discrimination and alleging police harassment against the African community.
The article quotes Africans who have seen beatings by the police, as well as protests by African communities against discrimination and police harassment. One Chinese influential talk show host, Hung Huang, blamed the racial hostility and discrimination on economic growth and added that
“The Chinese worshiped the West, and for Chinese people, ‘the West’ is white people.” . . . her generation was “taught world history in a way that black people were oppressed, they were slaves, and we haven’t seen any sign of success since.”
The article does not probe into how/why these views of the West, whites, and white culture as superior are taught to the Chinese, but instead accents a traditional prejudice for light skin that goes back deeply into the Chinese past:
Darker skin meant you worked the fields; lighter skin put you among the elite. The country is rapidly industrializing and urbanizing, but that historical prejudice remains. High-end skin-whitening products are a $100 million-a-year business in China, according to industry statistics.
Clearly, this is an important point. The ancient Chinese preference for lighter skin fits well with current antiblack stereotyping and other racist framing, much of which is likely borrowed from the Western media, Western officials in China (now for centuries, including earlier missionaries), and other influential Western inputs into Chinese thinking about Africans and African Americans. But a weakness in the U.S. media’s analysis of the Lou Jing incident, and similar racist events, is its failure to track the impact of the U.S. (and other Western) media on Chinese thinking and action. In the second edition of my Racist America book (due out in January), I summarize a couple of research studies of Chinese respondents thus:
A study [by Hsiao-Chuan Hsia] of fifteen rural Taiwanese [Chinese] found that the respondents sometimes realized that U.S. media engaged in racist stereotyping, yet most still held negative views of black Americans. They generally thought black Americans were self-destructive, dirty, lazy, unintelligent, criminal, violent, or ugly. Negative images were usually gleaned from U.S. television shows, movies, and music videos the respondents had seen in Taiwan. . . . . [and] a survey of 345 mainland Chinese high school students [reported by Alexis Tan, Lingling Zhang, Yungying Zhang, and Francis Dalisay] found that, the greater their use of U.S. print media, television, and movies, the more negative were their stereotypes of African Americans, such as stereotypes of black violence and hedonism.
Significantly, the Chinese wife of one African businessperson notes in the article that in Guangzhou the Cantonese term for black people translates into “black ghosts.” I wonder where they got that idea. That Chinese phrase sounds remarkably like the old white-racist term for black Americans, “spooks,” doesn’t it?
It will also be interesting to watch the reaction of the Chinese, especially below the level of officially controlled etiquette, to President Obama’s current visit there. Please add comments on this visit as you see evidence on this matter.
Over at Inside Higher Education, Ben Eisen has an interesting interviewwith Professor Jonathan D. Jansen, a South African who after the end of apartheid became the first black dean of education at South Africa’s very racially conservative University of Pretoria.
In his interview with Eisen, Professor Jansen talks about living between two racial cultures and compares the USA to the USA:
Universities in South Africa and the USA were formed in very similar circumstances where racial formation played crucial roles in knowledge production as well as in patterns of racial socialization and racial segregation. The book produced by Spelman’s president, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? … resonates with the South African experience; and I believe Knowledge in the Blood reflects some of the same tensions and struggles in the USA. The big difference, of course, is that blacks hold power in the Republic of South Africa while blacks remain a minority in the USA, and this has implications for the transformation of these patterns of racial division.
The product description of Jansen’s new book, Knowledge in the Blood, is very interesting and suggests other direct parallels between whites, including white youth, in both countries:
This book tells the story of white South African students—how they remember and enact an Apartheid past they were never part of. How is it that young Afrikaners, born at the time of Mandela’s release from prison, hold firm views about a past they never lived, rigid ideas about black people, and fatalistic thoughts about the future? … Jansen offers an intimate look at the effects of social and political change after Apartheid as white students first experience learning and living alongside black students. He reveals the novel role pedagogical interventions played in confronting the past, as well as critical theory’s limits in dealing with conflict in a world where formerly clear-cut notions of victims and perpetrators are blurred.
So, many white youth “hold firm views about a past they never lived, rigid ideas about black people.” Sounds like the other USA?
If ethnocentrism or so-called tribalism plays a catalyst role in community conflicts in sub Saharan Africa ( 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
South Africa 21.6
Country Percent choosing group other than ethnic
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
South Africa 78.3
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
Country Percent choosing group other than ethnic
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. 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?”