The mayhem that we have witnessed in Northern Nigeria was more than just a mad attempt by so-called Islamic radicals to impose an extreme brand of Islam in that region of the country. In fact, it is part of a wider problem of ethnicity and national identity that has plague Nigeria and many other African countries since Africa was carved up by European Nations at the Berlin Conference of 1884/1885.
Why is it that it is only in Northern Nigeria that these sort of violent conflicts relating to Islam occur? After all, there are millions of Muslims in the Yoruba states of South Western Nigeria, but we have never seen such uprisings in those regions.
Joseph Kenny, in his book The Spread of Islam in Nigeria: a Historical Survey, noted: “While Northern Islam has been firmly reformist and separatist with regards to anything non-Islamic, Yoruba Muslims have been accommodating. The Yoruba people are first of all Yoruba, secondly Muslims or Christians and lastly Nigerians, so that in one family you can find both Muslims and Christians and some involvement in the traditional religion.”
Being a Nigerian is a distant third for the Yoruba. And this, sadly, is not confined to Nigeria. In almost every African country citizens do not owe allegiance to the state: the ethnic group or tribes comes first. What this highlights is the acute problem of ethnicity in Africa. And unless this problem is rectified, African countries will continue to be mired in underdevelopment.
Let us take a look at the dynamics involved. As a result of colonial policies of divide and rule , we have a situation in Africa where, after independence almost 50 years ago, ethnic groups within a country’s borders are more interested in their own survival rather than in developing a national entity that is a strong and cohesive state.
Of course, there were tensions between various ethnic groups before colonialism, but the arrival of Europeans helped to accelerate the divisions. Let’s go back to Nigeria. The entity we know as Nigeria today was cobbled together only in 1914 by the British colonial administrator, Lord Lugard, for administrative purposes. Even then, the country was divided between north and south, with the whole country being run from Lagos. You can now understand the reason for the schisms we continue to witness in Nigeria. One must hand it to the country’s leaders who have done their best to hold such disparate groups together.
We have the same problem of ethnicity in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Last year, rebel leader Laurent Nkunda launched an assault to wrest power from President Joseph Kabila. Nkunda said he was fighting to protect Congolese Tutsis. You might well ask: why is there a large number of Tutsis in Congo? Well, the Tutsis from Rwanda have been living in Congo for well over 100 years. They have been criss-crossing the border into the North Kivu area of Congo as they ran away from despotic traditional rulers.
After the Berlin Conference, King Leopold of Belgium got his grubby paws on Congo and began a barbaric rule before eventually handing control in 1908 to the Belgian government, which continued the barbarism. During the colonial period, Leopold’s agents and Belgian colonial officials visited untold misery on recalcitrant Congolese, with the most stubborn having their hands and feet hacked off almost a century before we witnessed similar scenes during the civil wars in Mozambique and Sierra Leone.
Throughout the colonial period in Congo, the issue was: who was and who wasn’t a Congolese? The Belgians settled it by saying that all those who were in Congo before 1885 were deemed to be citizens. Naturally, those who crossed into Congo after 1885 became non-citizens.
In 1972 President Mobuto accorded citizenship to the Rwandans who were living in the country and gave them large tracts of land a year later. This did not go down too well with Congolese citizens and the continued resentment led to clashes over land in 1980. This forced Mobuto to change his mind in 1981 and the definition of who was a citizen reverted to the one of 1885.
In 2004 President Joseph Kabila granted citizenship to anyone who had been in Congo since independence in 1960. As you can see, ethnicity and national identity have always been shifting over time in Congo. It is also clear that there has been a much longer history of conflict in North Kivu. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda, which saw a huge influx of Tutsi refugees into North Kivu, only exacerbated the problems in the region.
In Cote d’Ivoire, we are now seeing the results of bitter ethnic divisions. For 39 years after independence, the country was a model of political and economic stability in a very volatile West African region. Why? Well, President Felix Houphouet-Boigny made sure that the Africans from neighbouring countries living in Cote d’Ivoire were granted the rights enjoyed by Ivorian-born citizens. In the end, out of a population of 16 million, over six million had antecedents from neighbouring countries. But they all contributed to the economic and political success of Cote d’Ivoire, to the extent that Alassane Ouattara from Burkina Faso became Prime Minister.
When Houphouet-Boigny died in 1993, his successor, Henri Konan Bedie, continued in the same vein. It was only in 1999, when General Robert Guei staged Cote d’Ivoire’s first military coup, that Houphouet-Boigny’s project began unravelling. In 2002 the country was engulfed in a civil war between north and south.
Some Ivorians might have harboured resentment towards the overwhelming presence of West Africans in Cote d’Ivoire, but Houphouet-Boigny, being a seasoned politician, would have countenanced this and discounted the problem through astute leadership. He did not attempt to exploit any divisions to consolidate his hold on power as many unscrupulous African leaders have done, to the detriment of their societies.
Ivorians are picking up the pieces now, but they have had to pay a high price for allowing disputes over ethnicity and national identity to take charge. One is not burying one’s head in the sand here in order to paint a diversity-free world. Let’s face it, there is no running away from this issue because most nation-states in the world not just in Africa are multi-ethnic, multicultural entities, and it is not easy to talk of national cultures.
But governments and the media have used ethnicity and national identity to create divisions that have been the basis of massive human rights violations. In the end, societies have been destroyed. For instance, Yugoslavia splintered in a most catastrophic manner. The artificially configured Soviet Union has disintegrated. Globalisation and mass migration are rapidly redefining countries and the idea of national identity in the West. In knee-jerk reactions, Western politicians and media are painting pictures of doom and gloom.
In Africa, it was agreed that the borders inherited at independence should remain inviolable. This, to a large extent, has remained so in the last 50 years. We have however seen Eritrea excise itself from Ethiopia and we could well see an independent South Sudan after the 2011 referendum on whether or not the region should remain part of Sudan. While Somalia has been at war with itself, the north western part declared independence in 1991, calling itself Somaliland. But no country or international organisation has recognised it. That, though, has not stopped its’ leaders from running a government with huge financial support from its Diaspora. Puntland, in the north east of Somalia, is autonomous. And we are told that Somalia is made up mainly of just one ethnic group.
In all this, what is needed in Africa is for the leaders and the media to help in creating uniformity within the various nation-states. In essence, politicians and the media can consciously construct a national culture and engender a sense of national community among the population instead of stoking the flames of ethnicity and national identity that lead to the armed conflict. Desmond Davies