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Topics / Sustainable Peace in Africa

Peacebuilders: Evolving Ethnicities

What role does ethnicity play in post-conflict countries in East Africa?

Hosts Aaron Stanley and Scott Malcomson speak with experts from the region in this first episode of the Peacebuilders series.  

INTRODUCTION: Welcome to Diffusion, a podcast of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. In this new nine-part series we’re discussing peacebuilding in Africa. I’m Scott Malcomson.

STANLEY: I’m Aaron Stanley. Scott and I spent two weeks in Kenya and Ethiopia talking with experts in the peacebuilding field. This first episode focuses on ethnicity in East Africa.

MALCOMSON: “Tribe” and “ethnic group” are sensitive terms in East Africa and the Horn, not least because of their use by imperial powers. The modern, independent nation-state was meant to replace these ties. Instead, they’ve taken on new shapes and new power, fueling conflict but also providing solidarity.

STANLEY: As we will hear in a minute, the consensus on the issue has broken down. We begin with Jok Madut Jok, who is the executive director of the Sudd Institute in South Sudan and a former government minister.

JOK: The African state was created by the colonialists. When colonialism ended, on average Africans confronted the same question, which is: What do we do with this thing now that we have inherited from colonialism.  Do we keep it the way it was created in the image of the colonial master, in which case you will have to use the same tools that the colonialists used in order to keep the country one, including violence?  Or do we dismantle it and return our country back to what it used to be, where every ethnic group was a nation on its own, in which case you will have thousands of countries on the African continent, which was not viable. So then it was no longer possible to return Africa to the pre-colonial existence. 

So the choice was made by African leaders at that time, people like Kwame Nkrumah, like Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, all of them agreed that the colonial state must stay and its boundaries cannot be touched. And in order for these states to become nations, the tribe has to go away. 

So they endeavored to imbue the African citizen with a sense of citizenship in a larger entity beyond the tribe.  And that has been a problem, right?  You try to do away with the ethnic group, while trying to maintain the very essence of the identity of the African people, which is rooted in their tribe. So you have that mix.  You have a state that controls everybody but cannot control everybody in a successful way, in ways that are persuasive rather than coercive.  It has not happened.

STANLEY: We’re looking at four case studies: Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, and Kenya.

MALCOMSON: Solomon Dersso is the commissioner at the African Commission for Human and Peoples’ Rights and an Ethiopian scholar.

DERSSO:  I have to say that I think much of my understanding of peace and security issues — but most importantly inter-ethnic relationships and dynamics and what it means to belong to a particular ethnic group in a diverse society like ours — has been informed by what this country has gone through historically.  And also at the formative ages of my youth. So certainly it is shaped a great deal by what I have seen and also the change that I have experienced as the country has transitioned from the Derg to the new dispensation of the EPRDF.

MALCOMSON: The Derg was the left-wing group that overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 and put the country under harsh authoritarian rule.

STANLEY: In 1991, the Derg was overthrown in a civil war by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, better known by its acronym EPRDF. Its coalition of four ethnic parties continues to rule today.

DERSSO: When the civil war started, there was a contestation between groups that defined the problem of the Ethiopian state as essentially being one of class — and there were those who defined principally the Ethiopian problem as one of failure to recognize and accommodate the diversity of the different ethno-cultural groups in the country.  And in the process, of course, those who were on the side of the second group succeeded in mobilizing against and defeating the Derg. And when they came of course they have both leftists, including the ones that were defining the problem in terms of class and the ones that were defining the major problem in terms of…

MALCOMSON: Ethno-cultural representation.

DERSSO: Absolutely.  Absolutely.  But historically the way they organized their mobilization and also their campaign was on the basis of leftist arrangements and leftist principles. So that is what democratic centralism owes its origin to.  So during the armed struggle period, that's how they were organized, and democratic centralism was the basis on which they have organized and they have evolved historically.  And when they came here [to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital and seat of its national government], it was therefore, as far as decision-making process is concerned, something that they didn’t abandon. So that is how you have this combination of on the one hand different members — actually EPRDF is a coalition of four parties — but the four parties claim to represent particular regions of the country. The major regions of their country. Not all ethnic groups of the country actually…

MALCOMSON:  Well you have one for the Tigrayans in the north, one for the Amhara…

DERSSO:  Exactly.  Absolutely. So that is the kind of thing that they made.  I think the trouble obviously is that combining — it must be such a very delicate balance to make.  On the one hand, you have this highly centralized decision-making process; on the other hand, you also say that you actually give some autonomous space for decision-making for others, all right?  Getting the balance between these two is extremely difficult.  It brought about representation, without a doubt. It also gave recognition to the languages and cultures of the different groups. 

MALCOMSON: From the point of view of the strengthening regions, with their ethnicized politics, the “democratic centralism” of the national government in Addis Ababa began to seem far away.

DERSSO: And also it created a self-government structure at the regional level.  That enabled the regions to create their own center of power in terms of economic development, in terms of having local elites controlling what happens in their own localities, in terms of using their own language.

People start to say, despite the fact that we have a self-government structure, we are not really self-determining actually, we are not self governing, because decisions are made at the center and then we are just becoming a pipeline for passing on and implementing those decisions.

So that is hyper-centralization of decision-making, not only in political terms but also in socio-economic terms.

MALCOMSON: The Ethiopian synthesis of a strong central government and ethnically inflected regional governments looked fairly stable until a few years ago.

STANLEY: But by the time of our conversations, Ethiopia was in a state of emergency. The key question was how to rebalance the ethnic distribution of power in order to preserve the viability of the Ethiopian state.


STANLEY: Somalia is dominated by the Somali ethnicity but society is divided among lineage groups commonly referred to as clans. Clans are broken down into sub-clans and sub-sub-clans.

MALCOMSON: Colonial borders divided up the Somali ethnic group across the Horn of Africa. Beginning in the 1980s, years of civil war, followed by very weak central governance and, finally, the rise of the insurgency Al-Shabab, have created a huge Somali population living outside Somalia. We discussed these dynamics with Sagal Abshir, a lawyer, former Somali government advisor, consultant and researcher. 

ABSHIR: This whole issue of the state, and recreating the state, a lot of people ask, a lot of African colleagues will say: But we don’t understand, you've got one language and one religion and one people, like, what is it that you're not agreeing?  And that was sort of the myth of greater Somalia was to bring all the Somali peoples into one state. 

The Somali flag is a blue background with a five-pointed white star, and that star represents the five parts of Somalia that the founders of the country had dreamed of bringing back together.

And the five parts were the Italian, what they called Italian Somaliland, that had been colonized by the Italians which is through the long eastern part of the country; British Somaliland, which was along the north of the country, which is the part of the country today called Somaliland; French Somaliland, which is today Djibouti; Ethiopian Somalia, which is the eastern region of Ethiopia; and the northeastern part of Kenya. 

That was the dream of the Somali creators of the nation and it was known as Greater Somalia.

Somalia in 1960, when we did gain independence, succeeded in bringing together two of those five points, which was the British and the Italian, and became what we know as Somalia.  Today we have a situation where the two we did manage to bring together have also split apart, and you have one of them seeking recognition as an independent state. That's Somaliland. 

So that dream is sort of, it's interesting because it's not my generation's dream, it's the previous generation's dream, but it still holds--it holds a very important part in the Somali imagination.  The questions of citizenship, which is another big open question in our constitution process: Who's a Somali citizen.  Under the former constitution, any Somali is a Somali citizen.

STANLEY:  And not even for just the Horn of Africa region but now that there's such a Somali diaspora as well; that would complicate it even further.

ABSHIR:  Yeah, we’ve got a significant diaspora as you mentioned.  Our diaspora sent back $1.3 billion a year, which is about equal to the humanitarian development spending for a year.  I think one of the resources is our diaspora, and the remittances that come back, and the networks and the systems that have come into existence.  And where literally the resilience of the commercial side and of course personal side, to continue to exist 30 years without a central — without a government.  I mean, I think this is like we’re now in the arena of like that whole Westphalian concept of “you have to have a state to have certain things”.  I mean Somalia has disproved it. It exists.

MALCOMSON: Rashid Abdi is a former journalist for the BBC and Kenya’s Daily Nation. He now heads the Horn of Africa Program at International Crisis Group and was Crisis Group’s Somalia analyst for years.

ABDI:  I think the problem with Somalia isn't even al-Shabab.  The problem with Somalia is actually the clans.  The inability of the clans to create a functional state, not at the national level but at the local level.  In Somalia's case, it’s a classic example, you create an ethnic state, or an ethnic sub-national state.  That does not create a cohesive society.  It actually legitimizes other competing sub-sub-national interests. 

Let me explain.  Somali clan system is a tree whereby there is the main family and then there are sub-clans within, so there are small entities within, all of them with very strong vested interests. Once you create — once you legitimize the ethnic federal system, you also begin to open up the system to other competing sub-sub ethnic … you know, there's a tiny enclave in Somalia which I always use.  It created itself and called itself Himan and Heb.  It is slightly… it's the area of Nairobi in size. And the only glue that was holding these together was it was a sub-clan of the Hawiye.

MALCOMSON:  What does Himan and Heb mean?

ABDI:  Himan and Heb.  It's just a name.  I can’t even know where they picked it from. But then it was clear, right in the center of a bigger federal state called Galmudug.  And so there were, we say in one of our reports, this is not viable.  This is a town which basically — the river is on the other side.  The main airport, airstrip, and even the infrastructure is on the other side.  So how can you develop one as a federal entity?  And this is what I think also one ought to consider, how can you simply use the idea of an ethnic, of the guiding principle as ethnicity, to create a viable functioning federal state?


MALCOMSON: The new nation of South Sudan was born from decades of civil war waged by southerners against the northern government, based in Khartoum. Sudan and South Sudan became separate states in 2011. We return to Jok Madut Jok, the South Sudanese head of the Sudd Institute, who spoke at the beginning of this episode.

JOK:  The United States and the rest of the world in 2011 focused on building the state.  So they gave more power and more resources to the political system, to the state. What they failed to do concurrently is building a sense of citizenship in that state such that people graduate from their citizenship in the community and the ethnic group into a sense of collective citizenship in the nation.  That disconnect is part of the problem today.

MALCOMSON: What do you think remains of a sense of citizenship in South Sudan in a situation where half of the population is in Internally Displaced Persons camps or outside the borders and where the political elite has now failed for a number of years to even resolve the differences amongst themselves?

JOK: So with regards to the question of whether in the context of displacement and flight into refugee camps by so many citizens, the state has not only flagrantly failed — which is the reason why people are fleeing — it has also been a perpetrator of the causes of that flight. Where is the tribe then, now that people are fleeing the country and the tribe is no longer capable of providing the protection, now that the state is not doing it.

And I think the tribe has become stronger. Even when people flee, they flee to areas they know they will be able to converge with their relatives and with their community members.  Such that if you go into an IDP camp, you find that the groupings of people are grouped according to those ethnic groups.

What it has done is actually strengthened the affinity between members of the ethnic group as opposed to others, so in a sense it has fragmented the country further along ethnic lines.  It has given some of the political leaders the legitimacy they would never have otherwise, on a simple simplistic basis that they are members of your community, they support you as you become a political leader. 

So in a sense you can say there is a very thin line, sometimes actually not so thin line, connecting the usual communal conflicts, the fight over resources between one community and the next along ethnic lines.  Now it has — there is an ability of the political leaders to manipulate that communal level conflict and appropriate that communal power to give themselves a legitimacy to control the state at the national level.  So in a sense the communal conflict: there was a time when you could distinguish the communal conflict, which has always been there by virtue of human nature, from civil wars, which are particularly confined to elites, between the government elite and the opposition elite.  They fought over power. But now that the society at the seams is becoming undone, the political leaders can bank on their ethnic communities to give themselves legitimacy.  And again, from the top, the country's becoming fragmented, and at the bottom it has become completely undone, such that if you ever have a chance to reflect on how to bring South Sudan from the brink, those are the things that you have to focus on.


MALCOMSON: George Gathigi is a lecturer at the University of Nairobi.

GATHIGI: The question of ethnicity always features in every conversation,, and you have to go back to colonialism and how our colonizers sort of divided the Kenyan communities. Before, we had, in East Africa for example, you’ll find different ethnicities spread spread across Kenya and Uganda. The Lua are spread between  Kenya and Uganda, or the Luhyas, and also luos, Kenya and Tanzania, you have Masais in Kenya, you have Somalis in Somalia and Kenya, the Oromos in Ethiopia. So these artificial boundaries…traditionally we had small nation-states, which is what we now call ethnicities or ethnic groups. All these have had different ways of social and political organization.

So come colonialism and everyone is put in their own group and the colonizers identify different resources. If you are in the central highlands you have Kikuyus. Amerus and Masai, and you are pushed out and all that, and if you are displaced you are going to have more grievances than the people who have not been displaced. Or you go to the Luos, you think they can provide labor, and you bring them to the sisal plantations.

So there was that, there was that division that was created way back in the colonial period.

Then there was independence and so these ethnic fractures of course continued and the political class has always utilized these, you divide and rule. So they borrowed the same card that the colonizers took. If my political leader tells me “the reason why you don’t have drinking water is because we haven’t gotten a chance at the national cake…” That is the phrase we use. So when you get to the government and have access to the national cake, and therefore it is an opportunity for your people to eat, or to get the goodies, then people tend to view their non-co-ethnic, even when they are poor, as their enemies. Because the reason why we don’t have what we [want] is because of your person who is there. So this has been more the politics. So, the political class uses the ethnic card to entice the people to access to certain resources, to certain services, and all that, while, in my view, the realities are a little bit different. During independence, we did not make the effort, for example, to pull up those who were left behind. So our system has perpetuated this and it has, in turn, increased the grievances for those who feel genuinely left behind.   

NYABOLA:  I was going to be an investment banker until December 2007…

MALCOMSON: Nanjala Nyabola is an independent researcher and Kenyan political commentator.

NYABOLA: … and then I came home for the first time.  I had gone to the UK for my undergrad degree and I came home for the first time with one semester left and we had this big cataclysmic election and the feeling of — well two things happened.  One is the feeling of impotence. At the time, my family was living in Langata, which is right next to Kibera, which is this huge informal settlement [in Nairobi]. There was a moment, I think it was December 30th, when we were sitting at home and you could see sort of the horizon glowing orange because people's houses were on fire and we couldn't do anything about it. 

And the other thing was I remember switching on CNN. There's a road in Nairobi, Mbagathi Way, which kind of dips into a valley.  It goes down to a river basin. And on one side is Kibera and on the other side is, well, it used to be this empty lot, now it's filled with apartments.  And so some of the people who were in Kibera had marched out of — this was about a week into the [2007] crisis — had marched out of the settlement and were waving white handkerchiefs and saying in Swahili and in Dholuo, “We haven’t had water for a week. We haven’t had food for a week. Are you trying to kill us?” Because there had been this barricade. 

And the CNN journalist was standing in front of them and he said, “These people are upset because their chosen leader has not been elected.”


 And I was furious.  I was furious because he basically had like a 15-minute breaking news moment in which he was saying almost the exact opposite of what the people were saying. 

For me, the ethnic balance and the ethnic question in Kenya, one political decision that we can make is to put it in its rightful place and not to overstate its importance.  And that does not mean that we pretend that it's not there, or it's not an issue, but recognize that the two largest ethnic groups in the country, let's say the three largest…

MALCOMSON:  The Kikuyu, the Luo, and the Kalenjin?

NYABOLA:  The Kikuyu, the Luo, and the Luhya.  Kalenjin are not even in the top, I think they’re in the top five but not in the top three.  It's Kikuyu then Luhyas, then Luos, then Kamba and then Kalenjin.  Those five groups comprise 60% of the population of the country.  The other 40% is divided between 30 something different groups.  What's life like for those people?  What's politics like?  How do those people experience politics? 

And I think once you do that, you start to see a completely different calculation, and you start to really see how much power we give to this narrative at the expense of investing in understanding, you know, why did 70% of eligible voters not vote in October [2017], the second rerun of the election.  It wasn't because Raila asked them to stay home, it was because national politics does nothing for the vast majority of people in this country.  The first thing people ask you when you arrive in Turkana is, “How is Kenya?” If you go to Marsabit, if you go to Mandera, Garissa, it’s the same. “How is Kenya?” Because there is this spatial almost segregation between these two parts of the country. And when you talk to those people about ethnicized politics and all of that they look at you like you’re crazy because it doesn’t do anything for them, it doesn’t matter whether the person in charge of Kenya is Kikuyu or Luo or Kamba or whatever. It doesn’t do anything for them. 

You get a lot of mixed marriages in Kenya, and when women marry outside their ethnic group, they lose their ethnic identity, most of the time. 

And so what does it mean or how much credence or how much weight should we put to a concept when 51% of the population experiences it in a completely different way?

MALCOMSON: Returning to Rashid Abdi of International Crisis Group.

ABDI:  There has been no doubt a rise of ethnic identity politics, and this is a phenomenon that has been there for a while.  And this is something that happened as a sort of reaction to the post-colonial state. 

After independence, I think there was a lot of euphoria, and a lot of galvanization of the entire, you know, the collection of tribes came together because they had won a nation.  They had created a nation.  So this sustained, I think, many African countries in the first 10 years. So there was a lot of even Pan-African dreams of one day creating a United States of Africa.  So what we saw in the 80s and 70s was a reversal of that. The post-colonial state became in many eyes reactionary, it went back to becoming a single-ethnic-dominated state. 

In the case of Kenya, we saw how the Kikuyu basically captured power, and basically created this massive ethnic state, and controlled and became almost a thoroughly venal and very corrupt system under the Kenyatta government.

And something similar was also happening elsewhere.  The second generation of leaders who emerged were actually leaders who had no interest in Pan-Africanism or even creating a nation state. They were basically interested in advancing the interests of their ethnic communities. Now so we see this revival, this ethnic identity politics has become stronger.  It exerts such powerful influence.  In many ways it is the organizing principle of politics now in many parts of the Horn of Africa.  Kenya has also been experimenting with a devolution process, and although Kenya has not called it ethnic federalism, in many ways it is de facto ethnicized.  

MALCOMSON:  Not to be critical of devolution, but it's easy to imagine a situation where five years from now you'll begin to have a generation in a given province where it’ll be possible to get all your news in your vernacular language, where the kids will learn their history in their own way, in their own language, which on the one hand is praiseworthy in terms of preserving local cultures and not just steamrolling it all, or not having a single ethnicity, for example the Kikuyu, just simply being the dominant one, but at the same time it would — you can see how it would exacerbate what amounts to potentially an almost kind of feudal sort of political-cultural economy. 

ABDI:  No, I agree, and I think devolution in the Kenyan context but also in Ethiopia, if it works well it has the potential of actually putting all these countries onto a very solid path to what is stabilization.

There are many odds against decentralization actually working.  First of all I mentioned a few minutes ago about the old centralizing bureaucracies, which are still intact and in place.  Even the president himself, he's not a supporter of devolution, the current president in Kenya, because he belongs to that elite which feels that whittling away state power, central state power, is actually — diminishes his authority. And we saw him, when he came into office, actually begin to tinker with the laws in order to bring some functions back to the state.  And so that I think is the constant battle.

NYABOLA: What devolution has done that’s good is that it has made local politics very important for people. People care about, in rural areas — and Kenya is what, 67% rural — people care about who their MCA (Member of County Assembly] is. They care about who their senator is and they care about who their MP [Member of Parliament] is. But the flip side of it is that in a lot of places it has made national politics even less important. And that can be a problem.

ABDI: In many ways Africa is regressing back to a very old principle of organizing politics, which is around ethnicity.

MALCOMSON:  Pre-colonial.

ABDI:  Pre-colonial.  I think once you remove the idea of collective citizenship and begin to legitimize these competing ethnic interests, you begin — you basically open up Pandora's Box.  All these emerging counties, federal states, are in many ways also ethnic ghettos.  How can you simply use the idea of an ethnic, of the guiding principle as ethnicity, to create a viable functioning federal state?  Is there a way in which you can actually create mergers between ethnic communities so that they can take care of a shared infrastructure? I give you a classic example.  There's a town called Isiolo which is in Central Kenya.  Isiolo borders another county called Meru, and the two neighbors have had a very uneasy relationship over the years.  Why?  Because the Meru, who also are a tribe, migrated to Isiolo and began creating — they're very enterprising so they started building shops and so on. So the Meru as an ethnic community constitute now a very powerful significant minority in Isiolo County.  And that has created border tensions.  A smart engineer said, “How can I bring the Meru and the Boran together?”  So they devised a clever—

MALCOMSON:  Boran being the main group in Isiolo.

ABDI:  In Isiolo.  So they devised a very clever idea.  They said, “We are going to build an airport and we are going to put it slap bang in the middle of the county, in the border.”

MALCOMSON:  The border, right. Wherever it is it's going to be on both sides!

ABDI:  On both sides.  How long is a runway?  A runway is 3 km.  We will put two kilometers on one side, one kilometer on the other.  We'll put the terminal in the other and the runway in the other.  And they did that.  And all of a sudden tensions began to subside. 


MALCOMSON: The next episode of this podcast will be on international interventions.

ABDI: I think countries, like the United Kingdom in particular — there is a fatigue with big peacekeeping operations.   

Diffusion is the podcast of Carnegie Corporation of New York, promoting the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding around issues of peace, education and democracy.