What is the problem of ethnicity in Africa? Is there indeed a problem of
ethnicity? Conventional wisdom suggests that ethnicity is phenomenally
problematic in Africa It is held partly responsible for the ‘irrationalities’ of the development project, for political instability and weak national identity. It has been blamed for outmoded values and regressive consciousness, for fostering corruption and destructive conflict And now there is some concern that the ongoing process of democratization in Africa may release the politically disintegrative potentialities of ethnicity.
Is ethnicity really all this?
Ethnicity is now popularly conceived as something constructed, invented or created (Barm, 1969; Anderson, 1983; Saul, 1979; Sharp, 1988; Cohen, 1978). Often associated with mis view is the notion that the ethnic group has not a concrete existence but is rather a figment of the human imagination. I cannot help thinking that this is a view of reality as it appears within the colonial situation. Ethnic groups are, to be sure, inventions and constructions in some measure, but they are also decidedly real, even in the sense that states are said to be. Before the colonial era, some parts of Africa had what may be described as ethnic polities – political societies with governmental institutions in a local space where territoriality and ethnic identity roughly coincided. Colonial rule, which amalgamated disparate ethnicities into the chaos called the colonial state, largely created the fluid abstract ethnicity which is so evident today by dissociating ethnicity from autonomous polity and territoriality.
Apart from die question of its historicity, the logic of the argument for the non-existence of ethnic groups is flawed. Ethnic groups are no less real for existing intermittently, for having fluid boundaries, for having subjective or even arbitrary standards of membership, for opportunistic use of tradition or even for lacking a proprietary claim over a local space. They are real if they are actual people who are united in consciousness of their common ethnic identity however spurious or misguided that consciousness may be. The concreteness of ethnic groups is invariably affirmed by ethnic markings which society categorically pins on them, markings which underscore the social existence of ethnicity even when they are arbitrary or shifting.
Nonetheless, ethnicity is not a fossilized determination but a living presence produced and driven by material and historical forces. It begins, becomes and passes away. It can only be understood and interpreted through the complex dialectics of its being, dissolution and reconstitution. How ethnicity comes to be in the first place is not particularly problematic or interesting.
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