Racism in International Context: Ethnicity, Ethnocentrism & Nationalism in Africa

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.

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:


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.

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. 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?”
Continue reading…

DNA and Our Slavery History

Pearl Duncan, who is descended from both enslaved black Americans and white slaveholders, has written an interesting piece on “How DNA is rewriting history”:


She points up the use of DNA testing to track some of one’s ancestors, in this case African Americans:


Thousands of African-Americans have discovered ancestors through DNA, genealogy and family stories, and in the process reconnected with a wide range of ancestral cousins around the world. I digested details about the Founding Fathers in my ancestry, emotional as it was. In 1787, President John Adams purchased a mansion as a summer house from Leonard Vassal, a wealthy New England slave owner. Leonard Vassal owned seven sugar plantations in Jamaica, including Content, where a few of my ancestors were enslaved. With the proceeds and wealth from his slaves and plantations, he built a historic house in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1734. The mansion is the historic Adams Mansion beautifully displayed on page 68 of Peter Mallary’s Houses of New England.


She found she has now cousins in both Ghana and Scotland. But she also found that some of her enslaved ancestors had helped John Adams with his housing. Adams is one of the few U.S. presidents from Washington to Lincoln who did not himself enslave African Americans, and he is often celebrated for that. But we can see even he benefited greatly from the slavery system. His famous mansion house was built with money made off the backs of a great many enslaved Africans in the Caribbean, and probably in North America as well.

Duncan then adds a comment on


Another plantation owner, one of my Scottish ancestors, used the proceeds from his six Jamaican plantations and the inheritance from his cousins’ “Founding Brother’s” tobacco plantations in Virginia to purchase an estate in Scotland where shale oil was discovered. Shale oil gave rise to the independent oil companies, which was organized into the multinational oil company, BP, British Petroleum.


Notice in both these accounts several things. First the North American and Caribbean slavery system was not just a bloody and rapacious system that benefited white plantation owners in the South and the Caribbean. It was something foundational to the country that became the United States, in its colonies/states, and it played a central role in making European countries politically powerful. Secondly, notice the great wealth that this slavery system created, not only for southern and Caribbean whites, both slaveholders and whites who worked for them, but also by means of reinvestments it created much economic development outside the slavery arenas—even the development of oil companies that became such as British Petroleum.


As John Donne said, “No man is an island,” and indeed the United States and the Caribbean region were not isolated from the great Atlantic economy, which was founded in and grounded in the enslavement of Africans. They are “founders” of the United States as much as any other group, but where are their great monuments in Washington, D.C.?