De-emphasizing Ethnicity in Governance

We are all in a sense, ethnically located and our ethnic identities are crucial to our subjective sense of who we are, but this, should not undermine our efforts as a nation to develop, unite and see ourselves as one people. Ethnicity is not a recent phenomenon. In fact, one of the most controversial legacies of colonialism is cultural intolerance. White settlers who conquered non-white people often held the attitude that ethnic and cultural differences define some people as superior and others as inferior. Ethnicity in Africa is often misunderstood. Many people including many contemporary Africans suppose that in the pre-colonial period, Africans lived in groups called ‘tribes’. As such, many assume that virtually all contemporary ethnic groups in Africa are descended from these kinds of ‘tribes’. A tribe is often defined as a ‘a group of people who are descended form common ancestors and ruled by a hereditary ‘chief’ who share a single culture and live in a well-defined geographical area. However, it is usually misleading to speak of modern ethnic groups as ‘tribes’ as such ‘tribes’ rarely exist in today’s contemporary world.   What gives ethnicity a savage edge in Africa and the rest of the underdeveloped world is the way in which the concept is being manipulated by the urban elite, the media populace and politicians. Because national politics dictates the need for people to collaborate with one another to compete for resources, political leaders often mobilize these ethnic groups to create voting blocs or to organize ‘sides’ in civil conflicts. The December 2004 (and December 2008) elections in Ghana serve to illustrate how ethnicity is increasingly becoming a feature of politicking in recent years. During the run-up to the elections, the opposing camps rallied brutally against each other through the media machinery as manifested in the content of the advertisements created by the two opposing blocs. Media men and other high officials also helped in fanning the fumes of ethnicity by giving ethnic or tribal interpretations to serious issues and diverting attention from reality.   Oftentimes, when government appointments are made, high officials are primarily concerned about the tribal origins of the people concerned instead of assessing the ability, competence and moral standards of the appointees. In the early 1970s, Frank Kalimuzo was accused by President Amin of Uganda of being a disloyal Rwandan masquerading as a Ugandan. Kalimuzo was Vice-Chancellor of Makerere University at the time. In reality, he was a Ugandan by birth and ancestry, but he came from an ethnic group in Uganda that were related to the Rwandans. In broad daylight, Kalimuzo was arrested in 1972 by Amin’s soldiers from his home on campus never to be seen again and it was thought that he must have been murdered soon after his arrest. Did he die partly because of his ethnicity? It was not until 1986 that the tide turned and Museveni, ethnically linked to Kalimuzo and to the people of Rwanda captured power in Uganda. Today, countries such as Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa, India, Pakistan and many underdeveloped nations still bear the scars left by ethnic polarization and ethnic wars.     Nonetheless, the significance of ethnicity in African can be exaggerated. Ethnicity may not always be the basis for political mobilization. Religion, for example, has been important in shaping political loyalties in Nigeria. Islam and Christianity and many other traditional religions are salient to people’s lives in Nigeria, as of course they are in many countries. Islam and Christianity have come to be identified to some degree with the political interests of the north and south of Nigeria respectively, even though many Christians live in the north and about a third of the Yoruba people in the south-west are Muslim. Politics has also been shaped by religion in Sudan, where again, Muslims are concentrated in the North and non-Islamic peoples in the South. The above examples serve to illustrate the fact that issues bordering on religion can also be as divisive as appeals to ethnic loyalty and can contribute significantly to undermining the development of a nation. The picture is however not so gloomy in the Western world where ethnic talents are exploited to promote health, education and national development. Western political analysts often argue that mature democracies like those of the West do not play on the weaknesses of ethnic groups and rally these same weaknesses against each other in a bid to satisfy their own selfish interests. However, it should not be forgotten that, it wasn’t so long ago that ethnic discord in Bosnia and Herzegovina threatened the survival of the nation. Ethnic divisions in Bosnia prior to the 1992 civil war led to concentrations of Muslims, Croats and Serbs being interspersed throughout the country. By the end of the war in late 1995, nearly all non-Serbs from Serb-claimed lands located primarily in western Bosnia. In general, the political leaders of all groups have engaged in cultural projects aimed at ensuring that ethnic groups regard themselves as inherently different from one another. In reality, since the war, the country has remained divided in 3 ways – among the Muslims, Croats and Serbs – despite international attempts to unit it. Indeed, some anthropologists, such as the Norwegian, Frederick Barth, have argued that the very idea of ethnicity exists only where there are boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ within a shared social context. Too often, the boundaries we draw around people with different languages, cultures, religions and traditions create an ideal context for the flourishing of ethnicity. We must begin to acknowledge and accept the fact that our individual nations are not blankets woven from one thread, one colour nor one cloth. Our countries are melting pots of numerous cultures and ethnic groups but there is unity in diversity and we must find strength in our differences. In our efforts to foster good governance and to make way for effective constitutional engineering, we must purge our democracies of the threat posed by ethnic and racial cleavages.
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Maame Tandoh

Driven, creative, team-oriented person with a dynamic outlook on life and everyday issues