Rival Ethnic Groups in Central & Eastern Africa

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Africa has a long history of ethnic competition, largely a result of European colonialism. In this lesson, we'll look at examples of serious ethnic conflicts and see how this has impacted the continent.

Ethnic Conflicts in Africa

Imagine that Martians invaded the earth. They then set up new forms of government and called us all earthlings, without paying any mind to the fact that some of us consider ourselves to be American, or Canadian, or Chinese, or Indian. Then, the Martians get caught up in other wars with Jupiter and Saturn (because intergalactic power struggles are totally a thing) and decide to pull out of Earth. But, before they go, they put the Jamaicans in all positions of power. The non-Jamaican population of Earth may feel pretty unhappy about that.

This complex analogy is more than just science fiction; it's actually a matter of history. Not the Martian part, but the idea of foreign powers claiming land and creating arbitrary borders. In the 19th and 20th centuries, European empires scrambled to claim parts of Africa. These empires created borders containing many different ethnic groups and tended to give more power to the groups that accepted European presence. After these empires pulled out of Africa, the new nations were left deeply divided. Competition for resources, jobs, and political power often manifested itself in ethnic conflicts that had been stewing for generations. To this day, many African nations remain deeply unstable from a long legacy of invaders so foreign they may as well have been aliens.

Conflict in Somalia

Africa is home to literally hundreds of ethnic groups which interact through a milieu of ways, so let's just look at some of the major conflicts. We'll start with Somalia. About 85% of the nations is ethnically Somali, but this isn't as simple as it seems. Within the greater Somali ethnicity are many local clan-based identities, which are much stronger than any unified Somali identity. Competition between these clans has been a major feature of Somali history, especially in the late 20th century when clan warlords fought for political, economic, and social control of various parts of Somalia. In 2000, several clan leaders signed a peace treaty and began working together to stabilize the nation, but many parts of the nation are still deeply embroiled in clan-based conflicts between warlords.

Some clans have negotiated peace, others keep fighting

Conflict in Nigeria

On the other side of the continent is another nation with a long history of ethnic conflict. Nigeria was a British colony for many decades, and during this time the British isolated various populations and put more effort into economically developing certain parts of the nation. The result was a divided society. The Hausa and Yoruba ethnic groups, two of the largest in the nation, saw the most benefits of British economic development and as a result started to develop a shared national identity. However, the Igbo people of the southeast were geographically and economically isolated, and over time they became seen as outsiders, not really part of the Nigerian nation.

This conflict came to a head in the 1967 Nigerian Civil War. The government was almost exclusively controlled by members of the Hausa ethnic group, who used fear and ethnic prejudice to unite Hausa people against rival political and ethnic groups. Many minority ethnic groups rose up in rebellion at this time, but the government focused on the Igbo, who had recently announced their secession from the nation. To counteract this, the Hausa government shifted the blame of all the nation's problems onto the Igbo and enacted a policy of ethnic cleansing. Over 1 million Igbo starved to death in a government-sponsored genocidal campaign.

The Nigerian Civil War included violent conflict between ethnic groups


Perhaps the most famous ethnic conflict of the continent, however, came in Rwanda. Rwanda and neighboring Burundi share a history of political competition between the Tutsi and Hutu ethnic groups. In 1990, Rwanda broke into civil war. At the time, the government was controlled by Hutu politicians, who used the memory of a former Tutsi power to gather support. So, the civil war was largely framed in terms of ethnic conflict dating back a few decades.

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