Why ethnicity is rising again

There is a recognition that the colonial philosophy of divide and rule through indirect methods intensified ethnic, religious and geographical divisions. Colonial authorities favored some groups over others either in compensation for their role in suppressing resistance as in Uganda or because of racial resemblance as in Rwanda and Burundi. Consequently Baganda in Uganda, Batutsi in Burundi and Rwanda and Bahima and Bahororo in south west Uganda benefited disproportionately. They got educated, good jobs and gained tremendous political, economic and social power over the majority – the commoners.

The struggle for independence based on democracy and majority rule reversed colonial arrangements in many countries. In Uganda and Rwanda, for example, commoners – by virtue of their numerical superiority – captured power and corrected colonial injustices. Allocation of development resources, jobs in the cabinet, civil service and public enterprises were reorganized to bring about ethnic and geographical balance.

In Zambia, former President Kaunda used to argue that he had appointed so and so from one province over so and so from another province because he wanted to achieve regional balance. In Cote d’Ivoire the late President Houphouet-Boigny played a carefully ethnic balancing act that kept the country together.

However, those individuals and groups that felt had lost their privileged positions were not satisfied and organized their ethnic members or formed coalitions with other unhappy tribes to regain their dominance and glory thereby forcing those in power to consolidate their positions by appealing to their ethnic members leading to the resurgence of tribal, religious and geographic conflicts.

In some cases as in Uganda and DRC – then Congo Kinshasa – governments were overthrown in military coups with foreign support leading to resurgence of ethnic conflicts.

The political crisis in Cote d’Ivoire is largely the result of a break down in the carefully crafted ethnic balance by Houphouet-Boigny whose successor was unable to maintain among descendants of migrants from different ethnic groups of West Africa.

In Eastern and Central Africa a new breed of leaders came to power through the barrel of guns starting in Uganda in 1986. These leaders – in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda and Rwanda – promised full democracy, rule of law, respect for human rights and equal political economy opportunities for all. They stressed national unity and the abolition of sectarianism.

In Rwanda the RPF appointed a Hutu president and a Tutsi vice president in 1994 presumably in recognition of ethnic numerical size. In Uganda, the first NRM government in 1986 included ministers from all major tribes, regions and all faiths making the regime very popular with Ugandans and foreigners who made generous financial and technical contributions to make the regime succeed.

However the moment these leaders – most of whom belong to the privileged tribes in pre- and colonial days – felt they were strong politically, economically and militarily and had gained unswerving donor support – witness prominent British advisors in Uganda and Rwanda – they forgot the balancing acts and became sectarian – in appointments, promotions and assignments thereby dominating strategic sectors and national security institutions – army, police, prisons, judiciary and intelligence.

In Uganda strategic ministries of finance, foreign affairs at headquarters and in embassies especially in Washington, New York and Addis Ababa have been staffed strategically by people connected to the First Family as many believe.

Foreign imposition of multiparty politics has been dodged. In Rwanda parties dominated by Hutu were simply banned, in Eritrea the government outlawed parties deemed to be ethnically or religiously motivated. And in Uganda the leader of the opposition was first jailed and later kept busy in court on charges of rape and treason at the height of the presidential campaign.

The Hutu who constitute some 90 percent of the population have been pushed back into subsistence economy. Tutsi dominate the government, the towns and the monetized economy. These policy decisions do not lend support to ethnic reconciliation.

In 1998 Connell and Smyth warned against resurfacing ethnic and clan-based political identities in Africa.

Although corrective measures have been taken in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Southern Sudan, there is still room for improvement especially in the Great Lakes Region.

To avoid accusations of sympathy, donors need to revise their support away from regimes that are strongly sectarian and endemically corrupt.