Speaking of African Politics, Without the Politics

Let’s talk about ethnic conflict and national politics. Take the example of one country, where an ethnic group makes up 80% of the population, yet the remaining four ethnic groups exert considerable political influence. These minority ethnic groups together have access to strategic locations and their historically entrenched claims to political power make them powerful. The second largest ethnic group—a tribe mostly living in the Northern part of the country’s territory—only makes up approximately 8% of the population, but receives 17% more state funding per citizen than any other group. In this country three years ago ethnic minority mobs ransacked private and public property amounting to damage of an estimated £200 million.

Compare this to another country that is dominated by one party that three years ago secured 59% of votes in presidential and 63% in parliamentary elections. In this country insurgent groups have repeatedly staged protests and used physical violence to gain greater influence over a resource rich region in the South West.

Is one country experiencing unrest because of ethnic tensions, while the other is troubled by economically motivated rebels?

In reality, both societies have a great deal of ethnic diversity. The examples we showed here are taken from the UK and Nigeria. Their societies are made from people of different mother tongues, dialects, and various cultural, religious and racial backgrounds. But this time we reversed common forms of reporting on these countries. The UK becomes tribal, Nigeria political. What happened?

Ethnic diversity—differences in language, traditions, belief and geographic origin—can be traced back to two processes. First, ethnic diversity partially originates from the days of nation-building. During these times different peoples and languages were united. The second source is inter- and intra-continental migration.

Yet when we talk about Western countries, like the United Kingdom, we tend to attribute their modern day diversity to only one source. We mainly label those as ethnically different who immigrated to Western countries within the last 100 years. Scottish and Welsh are not ethnicities, nor tribes. When territory is contested by the Scottish, it is not “ethnic warfare”. When parties that are mainly comprised of one linguistic or regional group, such as the Plaid Cymru, Northern Irish National Party or the SNP, call for greater autonomy we do not refer to these conflicts as “ethnic struggles”. We simply do not see these political conflicts as ethnically motivated. We understand them more as political claims based on “national identity”.

The language we employ – in the media, in academia and down at the pub –  takes a very different form when we describe Sub-Saharan African countries. Let’s take our example of Nigeria. Usually we write and read that Nigeria is divided between three ethnicities, each in charge of one federally administered region. When groups vie for greater influence over the resource-rich region of the Niger Delta, there is talk of “ethnic clashes” and “tribal warfare”. It is forgotten that these claims are political, just like they are in the UK. The fact that Nigeria’s leading party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), is represented by people from all the linguistic and regional groups in Nigeria vanishes from sight.

Too often Western commentators seem to only admit as a footnote that “ethnic” claims are political. As the Huffington Post reports, “(t)he country is torn along regional, religious and ethnic lines” and therefore cannot develop a united strategy against Boko Haram. Regional, religious and ethnic. When the UK is criticized for failing to deliver a unified response to terrorist groups, we do not employ the same triptych. More likely, the mantra would sound: left, right and center, they never agree. As if we only had a palette consisting of black and white, our depictions of Sub-Saharan societies often lack the blue, green and red of political analysis employed for rich, Western nations. Painting in monochrome, the picture we get is rather black and white. Our tools determine our analysis.

Nigeria and the UK are just two examples. In reports about South Sudan, we read of Dinka versus Nuer. “Ethnic violence” is a term commonly employed to explain the civil war that unravelled in South Sudan in late 2013. “Ethnic warfare becomes the new normal”, the Wall Street Journal writes. What follows can be seen as a reasonable account of feuding political factions, but this all happens under an “ethnic” headline. Insightful comments get sidelined. A Sudanese refugee, Simon Deng was quoted in The Guardian, reminding onlookers: “The leaders happen to come from the two biggest tribes in South Sudan. That’s why it’s being called an ethnic conflict. It is not. It is a political crisis and it’s very sad”. The fact that the conflict was triggered by personal rivalry between the politicians Salva Kiir and Riek Machar has become a side comment. While ethnic labelling has surely contributed to escalation of the conflict, the important point here is to recognise that there are also very rational, political motives at play.

It is important to distinguish between ethnic identification and political claims. Kiir recruited allies from his family and the area in which he grew up. Riek Machar practised the same tactics, although his family networks do not have the same far-reaching access to official institutions as Kiir’s do. There is nothing surprising about this practice. Decades of civil war, a power vacuum and a lack of stable institutions have made politicians more reliant on family networks and regional support. This overlaps with ethnicity. It is analogous to Ukraine, where Russian and Ukrainian speakers clash, or in Syria, where Sunni and Shia wield weapons. The focus on tribal affiliation in the case of South Sudan obscures how similar these cases are in their essence: groups with different linguistic, religious and geographic origins are fighting for power within one nation.

Differences in the terminology we use to describe conflicts in Western nations compared to conflicts in Sub-Saharan African nations matter. The categories and labels we assign to groups and issues guide our analysis. A focus on ethnicity and the preference for reporting about “tribes”, rather than “political parties” or “interest groups”, becomes especially problematic if we try to understand African democracies.

For over 10 years Kenya has performed well in holding free and fair democratic elections. When violence erupted around elections in 2007 and 2011, the world focused on the ethnic element of these clashes. There was good reason for this. Any Kenyan will testify to you that tribal affiliations are still seen as part of people’s identities (Afrobarometer, Working Paper No. 95). Complex ideas of identity, however, are often simplified in Western media to statements such as “Kenya is a tense country of rival ethnic groups”. Political dynamics then are, as the Wall Street Journal put it, about “ethnic strife driving politics.



Undeniably, ethnicity is still part of what defines Kenyan society. It is part of a whole. Not the whole story. That is where Western media often goes wrong. Stubbornly staring at ethnic labels, we have a blind spot for other driving factors that underlie these conflicts. One such fact is that ethnic affiliations also heavily overlap with geographical regions and socio-economic characteristics (see map). The Kikuyu profited more from land redistribution at independence than other groups. Look at the map a second time and you see that groups have fought about land and resources mainly in geopolitically strategic areas, where land is scarce: the Rift Valley and the Coastal region. This suggests that Kenya’s societal disunity might be related to rational economic and political grievances rather than banners and customary dress.

Why is our vocabulary so different when we talk about contemporary issues in Sub-Saharan Africa to the words we use to describe European affairs?

The simple answer would be: because our understanding is different. We are stuck in a circular logic. While there are two sources of diversity, we tend to view heterogeneity in Sub-Saharan African (SSA) nations only through one lens – the “natural”, “ancient” and “historic” one that focuses on differences originating from early nation-building days. Our understanding of contemporary issues in these societies still rests on categories introduced by colonialists. Subsequently, we freely apply categories and labels such as “ethnicity”, “tribal”, “customary” and “cultural”. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, the language we use in our analysis makes our conclusion sound like our starting point: in SSA conflicts arise from tensions between ethnic identities and tribal networks.

Sanitising our vocabulary will not be enough. It is not about finding a less condescending term than “tribal”. The bar for quality analysis will only be raised when we have come to understand citizens of nations in Sub-Saharan Africa like we understand European electorates: as political. If we can grant the England-Scotland debate a rational actor analysis, we can do the same for Sudan, Kenya or Nigeria.


Annabelle Wittels is a Cambridge alumnus and research analyst, trying to find answers to questions asked by developing nations, NGOs and donors.



Annabelle Wittels is a Cambridge alumnus and research analyst, trying to find answers to questions asked by developing nations, NGOs and donors. She is about to quit her job at the BBC Media Action to start a PhD at UCL.