The Evolution of East Africa Ethnicities

Ethnicity continues to shape East African politics in ways both predictable and unexpected, according to African experts featured on Peacebuilders, a new podcast series from Carnegie Corporation of New York.

“The question of ethnicity,” George Gathigi, lecturer at the University of Nairobi, says, “always features in every conversation.”

The podcast looks in particular at Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia and South Sudan.  But as elsewhere in Africa, and indeed globally, the ways in which ethnic or group affiliations are understood and experienced differ. Coping with those differences creatively and fairly is key to building peace and stability.

For most of the podcast’s experts, efforts like government devolution in Kenya and ethno-federalism in Ethiopia are attempts to harness the dynamism of ethnic affiliations while preserving the prerogatives of the post-colonial nation-state.

For Ethiopian scholar Solomon Dersso, commissioner of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Ethiopia’s blend of leftist centralism and ethnic federalism is “such a very delicate balance to make. Getting the balance between these two is extremely difficult.”

 Like Ethiopia, Kenya has been devolving power away from the capital and into local governments. The policy was adopted in part to reduce ethnic competition for power in the capital, which was convulsed by violence around the 2007 presidential elections.

“I think devolution in the Kenyan context, but also in Ethiopia,” Rashid Abdi of International Crisis Group says, “if it works well, it has the potential of actually putting all these countries onto a very solid path to what is stabilization.” And yet, Abdi continues, “In many ways Africa is regressing back to a very old principle of organizing politics, which is around ethnicity.”

 Ethnicity can seem like a constant, but in South Sudan, Jok Madut Jok of the Sudd Institute argues, “I think the tribe has become stronger”: as the central state in Juba continues to fail to protect its citizens – sometime, quite the opposite – political collapse has “actually strengthened the affinity between members of the ethnic group as opposed to others, so in a sense it has fragmented the country further along ethnic lines.

A similar ethnicization can be found in Somalia, although as Somali lawyer Sagal Abshir points out, Somalis have now managed to exist for 30 years without much central government: “that whole Westphalian concept of ‘you have to have a state to have certain things”, I mean, Somalia has disproved it. It exists.”

The relative unimportance of the central state is emphasized also by the Kenyan public intellectual Nanjala Nyabola. On “the ethnic question in Kenya,” Nyabola says, “one political decision we can make is to put it in its rightful place and not to overstate its importance.”

She points out that about 40% of Kenyans do not belong to any of the dominant ethnic groups, and that women often marry outside their ethnic group. Both factors add complexity and nuance to simplistic notions of ethnic politics.

Peacebuilders features nine episodes from East Africa. The second, on international interventions, and the remaining episodes – on everything from the future of the African Union to immigration to media and elections in Kenya – will then be broadcast weekly on Tuesday mornings.

First published by All Africa

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