Ethnicity and Race in Africa - Ethnicity Debates In Africa
The tensions in these approaches have polarized studies on ethnicity in Africa. Okwudiba Nnoli, for example, takes up the primordialist position, accepting that ethnic groups do exist, are real with clearly defined interests, and play a pervasive role in African politics. Arguing along the same lines that ethnic conflict needs to be taken seriously, Ibbo Mandaza ends with an entirely different conclusion, suggesting that the persistent danger of ethnic conflict imposes a necessary reconciliation of the elites of the various groups (he includes tribes) in the nation-building project of postcolonial Africa. In response to this widespread position among African leaders and scholars, Mohamed Salih advances the opinion that recognizing rather than denying ethnicity may be the key to the democratization project in Africa. Taking the ethnic basis of political mobilization at face value, Salih argues that this reality rests awkwardly next to the public denial of ethnicity manifested in the banning (across Africa, except in Ethiopia) of political parties that are explicitly ethnically based with an unambiguous ethnic constituency. On the basis of an impressive array of empirical evidence, Salih makes the point that most African political parties are ethnically based in any case, and it is time to simply recognize this reality to allow for it to play a positive legitimizing force in contemporary African politics. While it is clear that ethnicity is endemic in Africa, Salih does not elaborate on how to overcome the inevitable problems of exclusion and inclusion in a political process that is ethnically based. Put bluntly, if ethnically based political parties win an election, then they would have to deliver to an ethnic constituency that would obviously define the winners and losers in ethnic terms. It is extremely difficult to imagine how this could translate into a legitimate polity.
Archie Mafeje scolds Nnoli and others for not providing an analysis of ethnicity and for treating ethnic groups as things in themselves, following the empiricism rife in American political science. Instead he dispels the idea that there are discrete, naturally occurring entities of belonging that may be called ethnic groups in Africa. He draws a distinction between social groups and social categories, where the former are characterized by inevitable patterns of social interaction such as lineages or associations, and the latter does not imply such regular interaction at all but is rather defined by common identity, such as members of the same religion. Mafeje's argument is that ethnicity is related to the national competition for scarce resources in response to the centralization of power rather than to local particularistic conflicts. In this sense, ethnicity has a recent derivation since it refers to an ideological ploy used by political elites to yield the benefits of power and wealth. In this view, ethnicity does not represent some preexisting African cultural essence but a convenient means of political mobilization for elites.
In a paper delivered at the Networking with a View to Promoting Peace conference in 1999, Dan Nabudere attempts to reconcile these two perspectives by drawing a distinction between positive and negative aspects to ethnicity, where the former refers to the notion of self-identification, self-expression, and enjoyment in membership of a stable entity in a "posttraditional" manner capable of coping with the demands of modernity. The negative aspect of ethnicity accommodates Mafeje's concern with elite manipulation of ethnic sentiment for narrow political ends of positions in the state.
In the postcolonial period, there was a flurry of scholarly activity as the new elites tried to redefine their pasts in ways that placed the ambivalent significance of the colonial period in its proper perspective. The question of race and ethnicity was crucial, especially in the southern African settler societies. History was being rewritten just as history was being made. New myths were invented in an effort to construct united national cultures since separate ethnicities were regarded as threatening to the nation-building project.
According to Mahmood Mamdani, one of the key challenges of the process of independence from colonial rule was to break down the barriers between ethnically defined rural subjects and racially defined urban citizens. However, Mamdani argues that decolonization did not have "an agenda for democratising customary power." Michael Chege provides a very critical review of Mamdani's thesis, arguing that it is simplistic in its dualism and does not appreciate the nuances of rural African society. Chege is particularly scathing about Mamdani's use of tribe, tribespeople, tribalism, and customary law "as concrete categories of political behaviour.
South African historiography, especially during the 1970s and 1980s, was dominated by endless debates on the relation between race and class in attempts at explaining the nature of the apartheid regime. For some there was a contingent relation between the two; for others the relation was an instrumental one, with race being used as a convenient tool for the class exploitation of blacks; for still others race had an independent existence. The race/class debate in South Africa provides a useful historiographical glimpse of an important era in the evolution of social science thought.