Impact of Ethnic & Racial Conflicts on Africa's Democracy

Impact of Ethnic & Racial Conflicts on Africa's Democracy
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  • 0:00 Independence Comes to Africa
  • 0:48 Clear Splits
  • 3:04 Institutional Differences
  • 5:00 Colonial Hangover
  • 7:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Race and ethnicity continue to be major issues throughout Africa. While many may have hoped for a new beginning after the end of South African Apartheid in 1994, events that same year in Rwanda proved more work is still needed.

Independence Comes to Africa

Since European colonization of Africa had begun in earnest after the Berlin Conference of 1885, European powers had soon carved up the whole continent, save Liberia and Ethiopia. However, in less than 80 years, those colonies would be clamoring for independence. While most countries acquired their independence through peaceful means, there were serious issues that would have to be addressed in the first years of self-government. From racial and ethnic differences to questions about the power of religion and military authorities, it was clear that Africa's new countries had many issues to solve.

Clear Splits

Racial and ethnic differences as a dividing factor in Africa have played out in few places more completely than in the continent's most populated country, Nigeria. Here, divisions between the country's dozens of ethnic groups, especially divisions between the four largest groups, have meant that democracy has taken a very interesting turn. Nigeria has four major ethnic groups divided between Islam and Christianity. The Muslim Fulani and Hausa live in the north, while their neighbors to the south are the Christian Igbo and Yoruba.

In other examples of such seemingly clear-cut differences within a country, the state splits. Granted, this is normally preceded by years of civil war, but ultimately, such vast religious and ethnic differences force a break. This was recently seen in Sudan, where the Muslim majority in the northern part of the country granted independence to the Christian and animist majority in the southern portion, albeit after a long war.

Nigeria seemed poised to split as well, but a greater question remained. Nigeria is one of the world's largest oil producers - however, the vast majority of that oil is located in the Igbo dominated southeast of the country. When the Igbo attempted to declare their independence, in light of not being treated fairly by other groups in Nigeria, the movement was crushed, with up to three million civilians dying in the process. As a result, the major groups within Nigeria have an unspoken agreement that they are all stronger together as opposed to separate, even if they rarely agree on local rules. Because of this lack of national unity, Nigeria has an incredibly decentralized form of government, with much of the power vested in each individual state. This means that Nigerians in one part of the country find themselves subjected to different laws than in another, and in some places have their rights limited.

Institutional Differences

That said, no regime in Africa did a better job of limiting the rights of others and, in turn, limiting full democratic involvement than that of South Africa. For more than 40 years, the Apartheid system of racial separation established completely different societies within the country. The right to vote for non-whites was extremely limited, as was practically every other aspect of people's lives. Beaches, bathrooms, and even park benches were off limits to individuals who were not of the race assigned to each, with the ruling whites getting the absolute best of the best. However, there was predictable fallout from this discriminatory system. Unrest consumed the country, other states noticed and began to distance themselves, both diplomatically and economically, from South Africa.

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