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A network for comparative studies, monitoring and evaluation of ethnic conflicts
and social transformation in Africa

Paul Nchoji Nkwi
University of Yaounde I


Historically, the dynamics of pre-colonial ethnic relations reveal a continuous process of social and cultural evolution and devolution with the most powerful annexing and absorbing the weaker. Some small groups preferred to be subjugated in order to exploit the opportunities of their immediate environment rather than avoid the trouble spots of expansionists and hegemonic ethnic groups. Although waves of migration were largely motivated by the constant search for a more hospitable and sustainable environment, conquest and imposition of an imperialist vision on other ethnic groups by the powerful ones were also critical features of inter-ethnic relations.

At the time of colonial penetration and even before, most ethnic groups operated as independent polities characterised by centralised or segmentary systems of operation, the difference being in the degree of concentration of power and the control of resources. The Berlin Conference resulted in ethnic groups with long traditions of mutual hostility and dominance being pooled together to construct a colonial state. .Very arbitrary lines were put round peoples of different languages and cultures by European powers (Biebuyck & Douglas 19961:3). Just as Eastern Europe was born out of Versailles and now torn apart by ethnic strife and conflicts, so too is Africa after the infamous act of the Berlin Conference. A hundred years later, Africa is at odds with ethnicity and itself. Even the end of the Cold War has not brought the expected climate of peace but rather ethnic wars and violent conflicts.

Abundant literature indicates that there are over 200 armed conflicts in the world today. A vast majority of these are ethnic conflicts, some of which are by far the most destructive and dangerous of all forms of human cruelty. In many countries in Africa ethnic groups are pitted against one another, generating "ethnic emotions which empower a people to collectively perform acts of unbelievable cruelty and savagery"(Bailey, 1994: 5). How many of these are recorded on a daily basis? An effective comprehensive monitoring system may save thousands of human lives. An appropriate mechanism is thus required to serve that purpose. The events in Nazi Germany, and more recently in Bosnia, Rwanda, Liberia and Burundi bear testimony to the havoc ethnic conflicts can cause to a whole race or a people. These could have been prevented and the effects mitigated, if such an effective monitoring system had existed. In 1992 Moscow News reported 79 ethnic conflicts in Russia alone; the Chinese Academy of Sciences declared in 1993 that China had disintegrated along regional lines after Mao’s death (cf Bailey 1994:5). Is it possible to have an accurate figure of such happening on the African continent? At the moment, no. In most recent times Africa has become the hot bed of ethnic conflicts and movements over the last three decades. Many states are wrecked by ethnic dissension (cf Smith, 1992:436). The Dinka/Nuers have been fighting for ethnic survival in the fundamentalist Islamic Republic of Sudan; the Eritrians obtained their national independence after many years of armed struggle against Ethiopia; the genocide in Rwanda and Burundi have left a people devastated and irreconcilable; the fighting in Angola, Liberia and even South Africa embody ethnic overtones. Ethnic urban upheavals have at times taken up state-sponsored undercurrent (Nkwi, 1997).

Since the political independence of former colonies, African governments have attempted to tame ethnicity, bringing together self-respecting peoples in a spirit of confidence, mutual trust and respect, equality and peaceful co-existence. Yet, ethnic conflicts did not diminish under the monolithic one-party systems of the post-independence years.. Indeed, ethnic consciousness instead grew stronger as ethnic migrants moved into the cities "where large concentrations of people have made political activities possible and ethnic riots have occurred" (Biebuyck & Douglas 1961:3).

The collapse of the old order in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s has had a tremendous impact on the fragile nation-states of Africa. Some of them have reacted "defensively to local and global politics by increasingly articulating similar demands for human and cultural rights and for equity in access to resources" (Bekker 1993:81). Once discussed and analysed as an African intellectual discourse in the colonial and post-colonial era of the 1960s and 1970s, ethnicity has since taken up a global character thus making ethnic identity and nationalism an illusion. Instead, globalisation, a by-products of modernisation process strengthening local differences rather than putting a wedge between people, has enhanced the ‘transnationality’ of "ethnic groups". Globalisation highlights a great mobility of ideas, people, goods and services transcending national borders, and making the world a global village. The 1980s and 1990s are dominated by the intellectual discourse of the notion of nationhood without much reference to Africa.

Indeed, the response of African nation-states to globalisation has been timid . African political leaders remain reluctant in their acceptance of the western panacea for democratic change and the implications of a one man one vote. This has further deepened the crisis on the continent caused by the failed attempts at meaningful nation-building and the acute problems generated by misguided development practices and authoritarian rule (Balintulo, 1993:84). Today, ethnic nationalism and ethnicity have become important political issues in Sub-Saharan Africa as many ethnic groups are struggling to move from being groups of common culture to groups of political will (nation) and are striving to give territorial expression to the inalienable sovereignty of the groups to which they belong (Smith 1976). Consequently, ethnic nationalism is gaining ground, thereby demonstrating that people who share one or more cultural traits become conscious of their internal cohesion and difference from others.

Virtually every African belongs to a "tribe" or ethnic group and there is nothing fundamentally wrong with belonging to one (Ihonvbere 1994:53). Longdale(1995) prefers to discuss moral ethnicity as opposed to "political tribalism". He attempts to highlight the possible positive aspects of ethnicity. His controversial opposition may probably be right in the sense that ethnicity has a moral core which constitutes a requirement for states that want to construct nations of citizenship with local roots. The challenge is not to oppose nation state to ethnicity but to develop more plural forms of nationalism which can incorporate ethnic variations.

Although the process of enculturation enriches our cultural experience and endows us with an identity as well as with values and norms, the vision of exclusion is not intrinsic to any culture.. Ethnic groups make extensive use of moral and ritual obligations that bind their members and reinforce their distinctiveness. When this uniqueness and distinctiveness becomes an element of external destruction and exclusion, then it is on the brink of self-destruction. The contours of ethnic identities constructed under the influence of changing power relations shift continuously (McCallister 1993:9-10). The exploitation of ethnicity for the "formal articulation of political interest has been observed in many parts of the world (Cohen 1969:4) but the appeal of ethnicity as an instrument for political mobilisation is largely seductive because of its emotional content. The misuse of this emotional content can often lead to the wanton destruction of human life.

The recent debate in Cameroon on the concept of the "electoral village" whereby urbanised people cast their votes along ethnic lines, enhances the notion that the village, the lineage, the clan or the ethnic group still constitute vital variables on the political spectrum (Nkwi, 1997:140). This has given rise to a new political struggle within the political ruling classes. According to this concept ethnicity is like a tiger in the jungle which may not be seen, but is ready to spring into action at any time and kill (cf PAAA 1996:2). Ethnic tensions have increased in Cameroon since the beginning of the democratisation process. The concept of ‘indigenes’ versus strangers, built into the new constitution which makes certain Cameroonians strangers or foreigners in their own homeland, has further exasperated the already tense situation. Street demonstrations in a number of Cameroon cities against those "strangers" have sometimes taken the Rwanda or Burundi character. What may happen if no measure is taken to check these ethnic tension, is anybody’s guess.

Seeking rational explanations to these conflicts has been the object of many scholarly endeavours. A number of fundamental issues have, however, emerged from the scanty literature on African ethnicity and its negative impact. Firstly, the political map of Africa is a western colonial creation, drawn by "western powers with little regard to the boundaries of historic ethnic homelands or the ethnic compositions of the subject population", and today these artificial or multi-ethnic nations lack the internal political cohesion necessary for survival as "nations" (Bailey 1994:4). Independence had no significant effect on the socio-political status of the ethnic groups since "political control merely passed from overseas European governments to governments controlled by resident assimilated Africans whose social transformation did not strip them of their ethnic prejudices ( Bailey 1994:5).

Secondly, the response to ethnic conflicts on the part of African governments has been reactive rather than proactive. They have sought to contain ethnic conflicts and focused on negotiated settlements within existing western-created boundaries (Bailey, 1994:5). The glue theory, which seems to sustain a certain assumption states "that the colonial state acted as glue in keeping the ethnic groups together within the framework of new artificially established, centralized states. At independence, once the glue was removed, each packaged state began to disintegrate and to fall into regional parts" (Cohen, 1969:8). The theory erroneously assumes that African ethnic groups were at each others throat and that the colonial machinery had to impose its pax europea. Such an assumption denies the peaceful co-existence of thousand of ethnic groups bound not only by affinal and kinship relations but also by relationship guarded by well defined diplomatic etiquette and principles (Nkwi 1986).

Thirdly, some authors argue that scarcity of resources, opportunities and power account for some of the ethnic conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa. This argument asserts that the National Party of Apartheid South Africa used a hegemonical approach to exclude the major black ethnic groups from having a share in resources. In such hegemonic situations, the state uses its coercive power to freeze inter-ethnic conflicts. Therefore, the subjugation of one ethnic group by another is the very quintessence of a hegemonic approach (Rothchild 1986:68-77). It must be reaffirmed that the dignity of man surpasses the mere manipulation of scarce resources.

Forthly, identifying some conflict management strategies, Rothchild (1986:76-88) asserts that hegemonic strategies of conflict management include subjugation, avoidance, isolation, assimilation and displacement, all of which tend to display relatively low levels of political interaction and reciprocity. Meanwhile hegemonical strategies show high levels of political interaction and reciprocity and lay emphasis on policy application, sharing, redistribution, protection and buffering.

Conflict management strategies within the context of ethnicity requires a systematic monitoring process that enables managers and evaluators to predict potential explosive levels of violence and conflict.


Given the increased levels of ethnic violence, African intellectuals can no longer fold their arms and watch their countries being destroyed. There is need for African scholars to play a catalytic role in the resolution of ethnic problems and crisis and assist in the prevention of disastrous consequences. Their role as educators and teachers will be further enhanced in Africa’s search for peace. Chris Bakwesegha highlights very forcefully the primary role of intellectuals in dealing with conflict situations in Africa. Firstly, they have no interest in conflict situations; secondly they have the intellectual power to analyze those conflicts with a view to finding lasting solutions relating thereto; thirdly they are part of society and since peace is the fruit of collective effort, they should view themselves as living above conflict situations in Africa (1997:21). ETHNO-NET AFRICA represents this collective will of African intellectuals to contribute to the Organization of African Unity’s efforts in dealing with conflicts on the continent, especially ethnic conflicts which have increased in importance and intensity since the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.

The OAU’s response to the new dynamics of our times is clearly shown in the creation of the Division for Conflict Prevention, Management and Resolution. The proactive nature of such a continental policy is commendable and creates fundamental options for peace in Africa. Indeed, the policy guidelines of most African states attempt to minimize ethnic tensions by emphasizing national consciousness. While ‘tribalism’ was energetically contained during the first 30 years of post-independence period, ethnicity has emerged in recent times as manipulative tools in the hands of politicians. The re-invention of ethnicity and the concept and practice of exclusiveness by the state apparently explain the ethnic upheavals that have devastated many African nations. The 1960s and 1970s were dominated by the concept of nationhood whose content enhance inclusiveness of ethnicity. The democratic winds of change in the 1980s and 1990s have suddenly awakened the sleeping tiger, the exclusivity of ethnicity.

Indeed, the fact of the matter is that during the first four or so decades of the independence of most African countries, the continent suffered from severe democratic deficits as indeed it had throughout the long history of colonial supremacy and governance. For too long, African peoples failed to take stock of their socio-economic transformation crisis which, serious as it has been - is but a consequence of the political, cultural and economic crisis which manifests itself in the lack of democracy, accountability and good governance, while popular participation in the development process has been denied civil society. The dialectics of democracy, accountability and development within the framework of the functioning of the state, the society and the economy seems to be the root cause of Africa’s persistent and perennial bouts of political instability and violence.

To achieve lasting and comprehensive peace and stability, as well as economic growth, and to ensure that sustainable democracy and socio-economic transformation reign in conflict-ridden societies, it is imperative to fully understand and master the many inherent complex factors and forces that contributed and continue to contribute to the existing situation. There is an urgent and imperative need for basic research and strategic case studies of societies in conflict and for seeking endurable sustainable solutions to these conflicts. The establishment of ETHNO-NET AFRICA must therefore be considered a welcome global initiative towards monitoring, evaluating and providing an early warning system of latent ethnic conflicts.

In this regard, ETHNO-NET constitutes a Pan African network of scholars engaged in comparative research, coordinating isolated initiatives by various institutions or scholars and addressing ethnic issues in a more comprehensive, constructive, comparative and regional perspective, identifying common denominators and drawing lessons from experiences in specific countries and regions. It will also attempt to fill the existing gaps in our knowledge and understanding of issues of ethnicity and culture as well as questions of conflict and conflict resolution and prevention

Furthermore, ETHNO-NET seeks to enhance capacity building in a number of African universities through the training of a critical pool of young scholars in the domain of ethnicity, and in the conduct of serious comparative research. The network will monitor and evaluate ethnic conflicts, design and implement an early warning system for the prevention of disastrous ethnic conflicts in a selected number of countries.

In order to attain these objectives, the project intends, first of all, to coordinate and sustain the activities of isolated` scholars/researchers and institutions currently addressing the questions of ethnicity and ethnic conflicts at the national or regional level. Secondly; the network will enhance and strengthen research capacities of scholars/researchers. Through comparative research, an electronic database and a documentation centre on ethnicity accessible to scholars and others will be created. It is hoped that the network will not only find and propose appropriate solutions to policy makers in need of advice on ethnic-oriented problems but that it will also reinforce the capacity of institutions and civil society not engaged in political competition but interested only in the search for solutions and prevention of ethnic conflicts. As a network of scholars, it will seek to promote serious scholarly work at the national and regional levels on multi-ethnic and multi-cultural societies as well as promoting a better ethno-understanding and conflict resolution in academic curricula especially at university level (post secondary) so as to strengthen capacity building tendencies within civil society. ETHNO-NET AFRICA will attempt to advance proactive strategic policy recommendations for conflict prevention, management and conflict resolution.


a) Capacity Building

ETHNO-NET is interested in capacity building and institutional strengthening, In order to enhance the existing capacities in African universities, ETHNO-NET Africa will conduct a series of technical workshops designed to equip young scholars with the skills in conducting good comparative research and using the latest computer software for data collection and analysis such as ANTHROPAC and ETHNOGRAPH as well as other useful softwares. The network will also compile a database of African scholars and other members of civil society who can support conflict management processes in Africa. It will certainly contribute to the OAU’s efforts in building peace on the continent by trying to use its monitoring and evaluation strategy as an early warning system. The network will also design policy studies and assessments on ethnicity, culture, nationalism and seek their incorporation into university social science teaching curricula of such subjects at both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

b) Comparative Research

Over the years, very little importance has been given to ethnic diversity and its latent conflict potential. Both the colonial and the post-independent states viewed ethnic groups in a very ambivalent manner. The colonizing states, especially the British, recognized ethnic differences and distinctiveness, and used them in their Indirect Rule policy. However, the post-colonial states regarded ethnic groups as obstacles to nation-building, seeing the modernization process as a vital tool for the "detribalisation" of ethnic groups. For the past thirty years, the one-party states have tried to convince civil society that ethnic groups were part of a nation, comprising one giant ethnic group. But recent ethnic conflicts in Africa have shown how faulty and fragile such a construct was. Indeed, a clearer understanding of ethnicity is of paramount importance today against a historical and social background of nation-states. Comparative research is thus of critical importance. It needs to be conducted in such areas as traditional ethnic conflict prevention and resolution processes, causes of ethnic conflicts, ethnic ideology and dogmas of descent; nation-state and ethnic integration, state response to ethnic conflicts, human rights and ethnicity, etc.

Similarly, little attention has been paid in the past to the regional nature of ethnic conflicts across national the borders. Ethnic conflicts in one country most often directly affect others, not only because of the influx of refugees but also because some ethnic groups cut across national borders (Uganda, Zaire and Sudan, the Ewe are found in Ghana, Benin and Togo) and what affects their kith and kin in another country affects them as well. Although not very much attention has been paid to the impact of the colonial and modernization process of ethnic groups, that were once nations, but now belong to two or more ‘artificial’ nation-states, there is now greater need for comparative studies of a cross-border nature in countries like Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania Rwanda, Cameroon, Nigeria, Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritria, Liberia, Sierra-Leone, Côte d’ Ivoire and Guinea. These studies will become the focus and interest of ETHNO-NET AFRICA. It is indeed expected that such comparative studies would enhance the evaluation of mechanisms for the resolution of ethnic conflicts and innovative mechanisms for an early warning system in order to prevent latent deadly conflicts.

c) Monitoring and Evaluation

Ethnic conflicts usually take on unbelievable dimensions after years and months of dormancy. Empirical evidence shows that it is only when such conflicts have reached unmanageable proportions that they became subjects of serious attention. The monitoring of ethnic conflicts on a more regular basis, therefore, is considered by this project as important for the prevention of catastrophe. Present realities indicate the lack of systematic monitoring of all forms of ethnic or clan conflicts in Africa. Individual scholars have, however, studied different aspects of ethnicity. But our current knowledge does not indicate the existence of a national or regional observatory. ETHNO-NET AFRICA intends to act as a regional observatory and as an early warning system, monitoring, documenting, analyzing and making information available to decision-makers, researchers, teachers, NGOs, human rights activists, lawyers, opinion leaders and to others seeking better ways of mitigating ethnic conflicts or finding lasting solutions. One must accept the logic that "you cannot prevent a conflict unless you are well informed and in a timely manner about what that potential conflict is all about. An early warning system is essentially aimed at providing practitioners in the field of conflict prevention the possibility of anticipating and responding to crisis situations before they become violent or in the very least, afford them the leverage to take remedial action to mitigate their negative effects once they are underway" (Salim Ahmed Salim 1996:15).

For ETHNO-NET AFRICA to effectively perform this monitoring and evaluation, it will require the services of a number of Pan African Institutions. It plans to use African scholarly professional associations such the Pan African Association of Anthropologists (PAAA), the Association of Political Scientists and others in this endeavor. Indeed, the PAAA has over 450 members in 40 OAU member states. Twenty-five countries selected to serve as pilot experimental units will provide scholars to be trained and given the skills to monitor ethnic conflicts and become part of the effort to build an information database to be constituted and built up over the years. It is expected that the network will set up a web-site on the internet to facilitate the easy dissemination of its findings. Ethno-net Africa will be administered by a board and a scientific committee

responsible for overall policy and theoretical issues. From time to time, the network will publish reports, books and monographs dealing with multi-ethnicity, multi-cultural issues and ethnic dynamics. It is expected that over the next three years, a number of institutions and scholars would join the network and work for inter-ethnic dialogue and for the promotion of a PAX AFRICANA.


The network is expected to constitute a database not only on ethnic conflicts and social transformation, but will also provide basic information to governments, national and international institutions seeking lasting solutions to multi-ethnic and multi-cultural problems. ETHNO-NET AFRICA will also constitute a resource centre with the capacity to respond to any ethnic issues or problems in Africa. Its comparative perspective will serve as a theoretical and practical model for the understanding of ethnic problems on the continent. As a cross-cultural institution, ETHNO-NET AFRICA will digest and circulate information through its bi-monthly newsletter and web-site. Other products of the network would include the following: a) Web-site on the Internet; b) Database or Data Bank on ethnic issues and problems; c) Produce an inventory of scholars and others in civil society, d) Establishment of National Networks acting as resource centres on ethnicity; e) training of young scholars in good comparative research and the enhancement of the capacity and human resources in a number of African research and teaching institutions.


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