APA Essay


Do ethnic groups assist or hinder the political process in Africa?
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Introduction. 2

Ethnicity and civil conflicts in Africa. 2

The emergence and subsequent banning of ethnic parties in Africa. 4

Impact of negative ethnicity on the political process in Africa. 6

Conclusion. 12

References. 13


Ethnicity is a reality of life and social organization in virtually all African countries. People are identified on the basis of the ethnic groups to which they belong. Ideally, this ethnic diversity should bring different communities together in efforts to harness their respective strengths for the sake of national development. However, ethnic differences can also be used as a platform for dividing people. Unfortunately, in the African context, ethnic differences have been used as a tool for use by the political class in furthering its selfish interests. This brings about divisions instead of unity among people of different ethnic groups.


This paper argues that ethnic groups hinder the political process in Africa. Politicians have for many years been retreating to their ethnic enclaves through political party formation to win supporters. They then make use of this popularity to negotiate for positions at the national levels of government. Some political leaders even incite their ethnic groups into violence in order to benefit from the environment of lawlessness and chaos. In most cases, they do this through the formation of ethnic political parties. This way, people get used to looking for things that divide them instead of those that unite them. On the basis of this thesis, this paper sets out to discuss the various ways in which ethnic groups hinder the political process in Africa.

Ethnicity and civil conflicts in Africa

Ethnicity is a major cause of civil conflicts in Africa. Ethnic divisions act as major hindrances to the continental’s political process. For instance, civil conflicts in Sudan have greatly been contributed to by ethnicity (Paglia, 2010). The main ethnic groups in Sudan include Arabs, Nuba, Dinka, Fur, Nuer, Shilluk, Nubians, Bari, and Zande. Interestingly, as Paglia (2010) points out, Sudanese ethnic identities have largely been constructed through cultural and historical habits. It is similarly true to point out that the conflicts have also been constructed. Ethnicity is inspired more by perceived common ancestry than by physical and biological characteristics.

The political process in Sudan has over the last several decades suffered many setbacks because of tensions and conflicts between different ethnic groups (Rothchild, 1997). These groups have been constantly fighting over ethnic dominance, religious intolerance, access to land, and political dominance. In the context of this complex array of factors, it has been particularly difficult to determine the extent to which ethnic groups impact on the political process.

Negative ethnicity thrives because of unfair practices in the course of political and economic competition. These unfair practices lead to inequality and marginalization of certain ethnic groups. When this happens, people begin to see the negative effects of ethnic diversity. The crucial thing to point out at this point is that on their own accord, ethnic identities do not harbor the conditions required for the emergence of conflicts (Thies, 2007). Rather, these conditions arise due to poor management of competition for wealth, power, and status (Thies, 2007). This mismanagement creates the conditions necessary for conflict.

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It is difficult to discuss the root causes of conflicts in Africa without turning focus on the role of ethnic groups (Institute for education in Democracy, 1998). The same case applies to all discussions on the progress being made as far as the political process on the continent is concerned. Paglia (2010) classifies conflicts in Africa into two categories: postcolonial conflicts and neoliberal conflicts. Postcolonial conflicts started in the days of the independence and they continued till the time of disintegration of the Soviet Union. This type of conflict was characterized by economic, cultural, and socio-political antagonisms. On the other hand, neoliberal conflicts are part of contemporary global era. Its main characteristics include economic and political changes, state-related crisis, and global politics of the post-Cold War era.

Nevertheless, economic factors greatly contribute to the emergence of both types of conflicts. Some ethnic groups feel that they are being marginalized through misallocation of state power and resources. It is evident that ethnic conflicts within Africa are greatly contributed by stiff competition for resources. For example, in South Africa and Nigeria, ethnic communities clash violently because of competition for jobs, property, language, healthcare facilities, language, and social amenities (Lindberg, 2004).

The emergence and subsequent banning of ethnic parties in Africa

During the 1980s, many Africa countries experienced a wave of democratization (Bakera, 2000).  In some countries, multiparty politics were being established for the first time. In others, multiparty politics was being re-introduced after decades of dictatorial regimes following the attainment of independence. Some of the political parties formed have tended to be ethnic in composition and outlook. Some countries have opted to ban these parties (Basedau, Bogaards, & Hartmann, 2000). An analysis of the reasons why these parties are normally banned is necessary because it touches on issues that are central to the emergence of ethnic disharmony and conflict.

According to Basedau, Bogaards, & Hartmann (2000), many new democracies in Africa continue to go through a process of experimentation with the design of institutions. These countries have been going through a process of political engineering (Basedau, Bogaards, & Hartmann, 2000). One of the aspects of democracy that have been subjected to experimentation is the formation of ethnic political parties. In many cases, this experiment has tended to have disastrous consequences. This is because ethnic parties tend to put the interests of the ethnic group before those of the nation-state. This has tended to create serious ethnic divisions and ultimately civil conflict. Some governments have responded by banning these tribal political parties.

To safeguard the political process from a violent disruption, many African countries put in place explicit exceptions relating to the rules governing the formation of political parties. To this extent, the fear of ethnic divisions seems to derail the political process since democratization is conventionally associated with multiparty politics. The explicit exceptions are imposed on the basis of community, ethnicity, clan, language, religion, race, sect, region, and gender. As one would expect, different governments stress on different factors depending on local circumstances, realities, and vested interests.

Very few research studies have been carried out to define the grounds on which various governments impose bans on political parties. In this case, one research hypothesis would be that many governments use party bans in the pretext of protecting the greater national good against disruption by narrow ethnic interests. It is possible that these governments highlight ethnicity as a mere excuse for banning political parties that pose a threat to the status quo. It is unfortunate that this issue has not been accorded much attention by aid donors, international organizations, and scholars.

A major question that needs to be addressed in this literature is the basis upon which various new African democracies adopt party bans. Another issue is on the extent to which ethnic party bans are compatible with the democratization process. A quick assessment would show that prohibiting political organizations along socio-cultural differences that are genuine and meaningful undermines legitimacy in the context of the emerging multiparty systems.

However, ethnic party bans are a common phenomenon not just in Africa but also in other countries of Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. In Eastern Europe, party bans were imposed in the post-communist era. In Asia, many constitutions contain a provision for the banning of ethnic political parties. Similar provisions have also been included in the new constitutions promulgated in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, Turkey has for a long time been enforcing ethnic-party bans. Nevertheless, the circumstances under which ethnic parties are banned in Africa may be different from those of countries outside the continent. This is largely because of the continent’s unique political history and the efforts being made during the democratization process.

In new African democracies, the move to ban ethnic political parties bring to the fore the complex phenomenon of ethnic politics. Despite the banning of all political parties whose names connote tribal affiliations, tribal politics are at the heart of politics in these countries. For example, in Nigeria, a highly multi-ethnic country, ethnic differences are perennially exploited by unscrupulous political powerbrokers in the process of competing for power and wealth (Salawu & Hassan, 2011). Diversity turns into a problem owing to the frequency with which ethnic hostilities recur.

Impact of negative ethnicity on the political process in Africa

To understand the impact of ethnic groups on Africa’s political process, it is imperative to appreciate various conceptualizations of ethnicity. The phenomenon of ethnicity involves interaction among different ethnic groups. By itself, this interaction does not pose a serious threat to democracy.  However, one of the hangovers of ethnicity is the so-called negative ethnicity or ethnicism (Salawu & Hassan, 2011). Negative ethnicity is characterized by an attitude of rejection towards people belonging to other ethnic groups. Such people are regarded as outsiders are viewed as a threat to the process of development.

According to Salawu & Hassan (2011), an environment of ethnicity phenomenon used to exist in Nigeria before the coming of British colonialists. However, later on, during the post-independence days, the phenomenon of ethnicism arose out of stiff competition for political and economic resources (Salawu & Hassan, 2011). According to Salawu & Hassan (2011), social conflict theory best explains the tendency among people to struggle over power, scarce resources, and claims to status. In the context of this theory, conflicting parties set out to gain desirable values in addition to neutralizing their rivals.

From the conflict theory perspective, conflict is considered a crucial aspect of ethnicism. This implies that during inter-ethnic competition, conflict is inevitable. The conflict tends to intensify when scarce valuable resources are at stake. The expectation is that this conflict strengthens feelings of both in-group and out-group membership of various ethnic groups participating in the conflict. The reality of this matter is that the ethnic conflicts bring about negative consequences on various social institutions, including political institutions.

In Nigeria, representative democracy has been greatly impeded by politics of ethnicity. As various ethnic groups continue competing for wealth and power, the seamless functioning of various institutions of democracy in Nigeria is affected (Kadima, 2006). Consequently, Nigerian politics seem to present an image of perpetual struggle among different ethnic groups with the aim of influencing the way national resources are shared.

            In Ethiopia, ethnicity also has a far-reaching impact on the formation of political parties. This is evident in the high number of ethnic-based political parties that exist in this country (Teshome, 2005). Ethnic political parties first emerged in Ethiopia during the imperial government between 1930 and 1974. They also existed during the socialist military government that ruled between 1974 and 1991. This trend continued to exist even in the present-day Ethiopia. Some of these political parties took the form of semi-political organizations, which were secretly formed abroad through assistance from neighboring countries such as Sudan, Somalia, and several Arab countries (Salih, 2005). In fact, the ethnic party system was being officially adhered to as far back as 1991.

The political process in Ethiopia is largely a reflection of a trend that continues to be experienced across Africa. This is particularly with regard to the formation of political parties along ethnic lines. Across Africa, two distinct waves of the formation of political parties can be identified. The first wave occurred during the 1950s and early 1960s. During this time, colonialism was starting to show signs of disintegration. The second wave occurred during the 1990s following the collapse of socialism. Most of the political parties that exist in Africa today emerged following this collapse. They therefore lack experience as far as the existence of a strong social base is concerned. Without a strong social base, the resulting ethnic divisions easily bring about tensions and conflict.

Some ethnic political parties bring together members from only one ethnic group. However, others bring together people of several ethnic groups. Political parties that bring together people of several ethnic groups together are referred to as ethnic congress parties. Ethnic congress parties are more common than parties that bring together people of only one ethnic group (Huntington, 1991). This phenomenon occurs because of the existence of many ethnic groups that are numerically small to the extent that they cannot succeed in bringing about any meaning meaningful representation (Huntington, 1991). The only option is for these small ethnic parties to come together to form a coalition in parliament.

The existence of numerous small ethnic groups that lack a majority status is a reality in almost all African countries. The only exceptions include Burundi, Rwanda, Namibia, and Botswana (Teshome, 2005). For instance, in Ethiopia, about 82 ethnic groups exist but none of them has a majority status (Teshome, 2005). The best option in such a situation has been the formation of coalitions. The formation of coalitions tends to have significant effects on the political process in Africa.

Sandbrook (1988) points out that at face value, the formation of party coalitions with ethnic affiliations seems like a step forward for the political process. This is because they bring people of several ethnic groups come together to form stronger coalitions. However, in reality, such an approach is not sustainable. This is because it ends up dividing a country along ethnic lines. In this strategy, ethnic groups are valued merely on the basis of the numerical value instead of their contribution to the ethnic diversity of a country. The long-term impact of this approach is that it eventually leads to the marginalization of small ethnic groups.

In fact, the risk of party formation along ethnic lines was one of the arguments raised by African leaders who advocated for establishment of the single-party system. These leaders dismissed the multiparty system as a major hindrance to national development and integration. This argument was frequently made during the 1950s and 1960s when many African countries were fighting for independence. Back then, the concerns raised seemed genuine. However, when dictatorial African leaders reintroduced the argument during the era of the reemergence of multiparty politics during the early 1990s, it seemed their intention was to cling on to power and derail the process of democratization.

Nevertheless, international and local realities forced most African countries to embrace the multi-party system during the 1990s. One of the biggest problems that arose was ethnicity. A trend emerged whereby almost all political parties had ethnic affiliations. Moreover, a large number of political parties emerged that were dominated by one large political party. The large number of political parties was not an indication of progress in the democratization process. Rather, it was a demonstration of deep ethnic divisions. In some countries, the political parties were as many as the ethnic groups that existed in those countries (Tar, 2010).

In the environment where there is a tendency to form ethnic political parties, the interests of the ethnic group usually take precedence over those of the country. In many cases, politicians tend to disguise the pursuit of the ethnic-group in the rhetoric of national integration and unity. The objective is normally to take control of ethnic groups. This gives such politicians the power to bargain for positions in the national government.

In African countries where the ethnic group comes before the country, political party sustainability becomes a major problem. In many cases, the sustainability of such political parties tends to occur exclusively at the elite level. This is because the elite always depend on them whenever they want to access state resources. People tend to choose which political parties to belong to on the basis of ethnic loyalties as opposed to party programs and ideology.

One of the factors that can have a positive impact on the political process in Africa is the emergence of a growing urban population that lacks any connection with its ethnic base. Such a population is more likely to be attracted to secular politics as opposed to the politics of the ethnic group, regional affiliation, and religious beliefs. However, the greatest problem is that such a population is not expanding fast enough. One of the reasons for this situation is that even after relocating to urban areas, many people still maintain ties with their respective ethnic bases.

Moreover, political parties formed to promote secular interests of the emerging urban population find it extremely difficult to compete against established parties with strong support from the elite (Chege, 2007). In most cases, such political parties end up in the opposition together with small ethnic parties. While in the opposition, proponents of secular politics come to terms with reality of the African political process and the significant role that ethnic groups play.

Nevertheless, ethnicity factor is not restricted to issues of political party formation alone. In many African countries, people are used to the tendency by the elites to pursue the goal of ethnic mobilization and turning this into a critical part of the political process. In this process, inter-ethnic relations are emphasized. The ethnic mobilization process kicks off whenever electoral campaigns draw closer or simply as a form of political patronage. When this process of ethnic mobilization is characterized by economic disparity and lack of equitability in access to political power, it leads to the emergence of drawn-out conflicts. In many countries, such conflicts lead to long-term instability. Such destabilization effects have been observed in many African countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, Mali, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Nigeria, Central African Republic, Angola, Chad, Ethiopia, and Sudan.


In conclusion, this paper has presented several arguments to demonstrate that ethnic groups hinder the political process in Africa. In this discussion, one of the issues that took center stage is the role played by ethnic political parties in Africa’s political process. The main finding was that in many African countries, political parties are greatly influenced by the existence ethnic diversity. This has led to the emergence of ethnic political parties. However, such parties are also relied upon by elites in their efforts to access state resources. In such a situation, the interests of the respective ethnic groups are rarely put into consideration. In this way, the existence of ethnic groups seems to be hindering the political process.

One of the major developments made in political party formation is the emergence of coalitions. These coalitions normally bring different ethnic groups together, sometimes to the exclusion of others. The fact that ethnic groups still constitute the most basic unit in the process of party formation means that the problem of  ethnic divisions will persist. For this problem to be addressed, African leaders need to promote a culture where membership in political parties is based on ideology and party programs as opposed to ethnicity.


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Tar, U. (2010). The challenges of democracy and democratisation in Africa and Middle East. Information, Society and Justice, 3(2), 81-94.

Teshome, W. (2005). Ethnicity and Political Parties In Africa: The Case Of Ethnic-Based Parties In Ethiopia. London: Heinemann.

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