Ethnic conflicts have been a great threat to many countries’ stability in today’s world. In this context, ethnicity is often viewed as a determinant not only of cultural or religious belonging, but also of conflicting intergroup interests, sometimes resulting in ethnic violence. Unfortunately, in the past scholars looked at ethnic conflicts without a proper definition of ethnicity, its traits and characteristics, and most importantly, its role in affecting ethnic conflicts.
In most cases, interethnic conflicts do not arise only due to mere national and continental boundaries, but also due to some conflicts of interests, resulting from ethnical cultural, financial, and developmental aspirations. As a result, many conflict management strategies failed because they focused on symptoms rather than on the root causes of problems, namely clashing ethnic values. The other side of the coin, that has not been considered properly, is a historical legacy of colonisation and alien government’s policies, overly emphasising ethnic differences or discriminating ethnicities.
The relationship between ethnic conflicts and ethnicities appears to be two-fold. The notion of ethnicity and its social filling seem to cause virulent ethnic clashes. At the same time, ethnic strife inflicts huge social and economic costs on the ethnicities involved, prompting them to reconsider their national identity and further course of development. The present literature review seeks to evaluate the concept of ethnicity and its role in the development of ethnic conflicts. It analyses the role of cultural, historical, and economic factors affecting ethnic confrontation in different countries (mainly in Africa), and defines the place of ethnicity in this context. The paper also gives recommendations how to avoid ethnic conflicts or manage their consequences in the future by undertaking grassroots efforts at the governmental, NGO and international levels.
Ethnicity and Ethnic Conflicts: Hard Facts
Ethnic conflicts within a country belong to internal identity tensions. Besides internal identity conflicts, there are many other forms of intergroup clashes, which include governance, and ideological, environmental and racial conflicts. The word “ethnic conflict” is typically used to define a broad range of internal disagreements in nation states.
Ethnic conflicts are often a result of a clash of cultural, religious or linguistic identities that eventually may or may not escalate into open confrontation and violence. These identities come from different social and cultural environments that end up in competing with each other. This identity struggle normally involves a combination of identity matching and search for security, with the main issue being the distribution of power. To have a better understanding of what an ethnic conflict is, it is useful to recollect genocides in Rwanda and Sri Lanka, the civil war in Lebanon, the situation in Southern Sudan, or the Arabic-Israeli conflict. However, wars in Somalia, Afghanistan or Cambodia do not qualify for ethnic conflicts, since they do not occur among different ethnic groups, but among competing political factions, which belong to the same tribal group.
One of the aspects of the abovementioned ethnic identity is culture. It comprises a complex of idiosyncratic elements of an ethnic group. In the explanation of ethnic groups, culture is a structure of values, meanings, symbols, customs, and norms, shared by the adherents of a group. Culture outlines the way of life, which differentiates one ethnic group from another. Culture is passed on from generation to generation and is manifested through a people’s language, beliefs, literature, religion, art, and a manner of dressing. Culture differs from one community to another. As a result, each country or ethnicity in the world has developed its own unique culture, inextricably connecting its cultural and ethnic identity. Cultural diversity is becoming increasingly common in the modern world, as it poses many benefits and challenges on the international community. Practicing ways of managing cultural diversity can be useful in learning different lifestyles of other cultures and possibly reconciling any grounds for intergroup disagreements. This is because such culturally loaded disagreements are often a consequence of one nation attempting to impose its cultural history, values, or lifestyles upon another nation with a different set of cultural practices.
In discussing an ethnic conflict and its causes, first it is important to have a clear definition of the word ‘ethnicity’. There is no consensus in the literature concerning the terminology and elementary concepts relating to ethnicity. “Ethnic community”, “ethnic group”, “ethnicity”, “marginalized”, or occasionally “identity groups” are used by several authors often in dissimilar and incompatible ways. Ethnic groups are traditionally defined as collectivities or psychological societies, members of which share a persevering sense of mutual interest and identity, which are founded on some mixture of common historical experience and treasured cultural traits, beliefs, language, religion, ways of life, and the common motherland.
Several criteria concerning the above description must be met before a group can be referred to as an ethnic group or community. First, the group should have a name, by which it is referred to. Names are significant for self-identification and are expressive logos of the “communal personality”. Second, a common language is also an influential sign of ethnic and national identity. The scuffle over language guidelines and language rights is frequently the chief reason behind ethnic clashes, especially when numerous linguistic minorities all over the world are banned from using their language in public places or in the media. Third, religion has traditionally been a significant indicator of ethnic identity. In societies, where religion interferes with various domains of public life, it may become a self-identifying feature and, consequently, serve as an ethnic marker for a group. When the religious factor is deeply intertwined with other elements of social life, religion turns out to be a decisive variable of ethnicity (Münkler, ch. 1). In Lebanon, for instance, being a Muslim or a Christian denotes a clear expression of religious faith and belonging to a respective community. Fourth, an ethic group or ethnicity should reside within certain geographical boundaries. Territory is the central unit in the existence of ethnic nations and groups and serves as a foundation for political and economic institutions of that group. Countless ethnic groups, e.g., the Palestinians, Kurds, and the Tamils of Sri Lanka are seeking to have their own territorial boundaries. Many established ethnic groups worldwide are first of all associated with their territory, which can be either their indigenous environment or their mythical land of origin, often imbued with a sacred meaning.
In Africa, ethnicity is often an elite phenomenon. Wherever the community elite feel cut out from the political power and economic control by other elites, they get their ethnicity members to believe in a conspiracy plotted by competitors However, according to Nnoli (1995: 89), ethnicity is meant to pull individuals together, ensure internal cohesion, provide natural security for each member, and to enhance their sense of direction and identity. He believed that ethnicity should provide solutions to such problems as oppression, exploitation, alienation and deprivation. However, as practice shows, ethnicity has often become a stumbling block to overcoming those issues.
Why do Ethnic Conflicts Arise?
Ethnic conflicts are generally a result of some clashes among the mentioned ethnic components at the intergroup level. According to Wallerstein (1979: 205), ethnic genocide, cleansing, hatred and dynamics are seen as struggles by the oppressed and dominated groups for greater autonomy and the protection of their rights:
An ethnic conflict and conscious result when different groups feel threatened by the loss of previously acquired privileges at the same time, if they feel that there is the existence of a political opportunity to overcome a longstanding denial of privilege. He further argues that mechanization and mechanisms through which these groups increase their aim have accelerated an ethnical conflict and tension.
In Africa, the primary causes of ethnical conflicts are feuds among ethnic groups and a sense of alienation in trying to gain control over resources. Violence can begin when these groups see no other way of looking for redress and getting justice. Poverty may also serve as the inducement of conflicts. In most cases, ethnic conflicts arise when claims of a party for territorial and land control become incompatible with other parties, who are also satisfying their basic needs and interests within the same territory (ibid.).
An ethnic conflict may also stem from inept policymaking, often accompanying authoritarian regimes or the process of colonization). The colonization of African states created a new sense of ethnic belonging for many oppressed people. However, the divide-and-rule policy used by British colonizers created deep cracks in African societies. Before the arrival of the British, the majority of African societies were blissfully unaware of their ethnic divisions or, at least, were willing to accept differences among them. That changed after the British had devised a policy of dividing groups on the tribal basis and making the natives aware of their linguistic and cultural differences. Persevering government efforts eventually led to an ethnic strife that continually plagued African communities and used to be a constant cause of conflicts.
On the other side, many people were brought together under the boundaries of a new colonized country or community. People, who failed or refused to integrate in a new state, would end up in falling out of the dominant culture of these countries. This low rate of integration was conducive to ethnic crises in many countries. In some African countries, for instance, ethnic conflicts led to violent wars, economic and political instability, as well as social disequilibrium. Perhaps, unaware of it, European colonisers discriminated African nations on the basis of ethnicity and sowed discord among retaliating groups.
After colonization, little was done to prepare the former colonies for being independent. That is why, in the recent years, aggravating ethnic conflicts and violence in these countries have pinpointed the failure of governments to cope with post-colonial ethnicity problems. This situation led to a deep cleavage between diverse groups of people and exacerbated the competition over scarce resources among multi-ethnic societies (Kalyvas, 2001). In this vein, political forces may have abused the concept of ethnicity in scoring electoral points, sometimes igniting great ethnic tensions. In such a way, politicians sensitize ethnic differences in a country, instead of trying to reconcile or ignore them.
Nonetheless, some scholars argue that ethnicity differences, just like intergroup differences, are not a decisive cause of violent ethnic clashes. According to their viewpoint, an ethnic conflict may occur as a result of the collapse of an authoritarian regime. For instance, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, many bloody conflicts have emerged in Eastern Europe. Interethnic confrontation was recorded in the former Yugoslavia and the newly independent states of Ukraine, Armenia, Georgia, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Moldova and Russia. In these countries, an ethnic and national identity assumed the primary role as young nations, beginning a new phase of their economic and political organisation, and being ravaged by clashing attitudes and approaches to the new order.
Ethnic conflicts can also be explained through two levels of critical analysis: systemic and domestic. The systemic level emphasizes the nature of security parameters, according to which ethnic structures function. The first and the most noticeable precondition for ethnic struggle at the systemic level is when two or more ethnic communities live in close proximity to each other. Another precondition is that regional, local, national, and international establishments should be too weak to safeguard the security of separate groups. In a vast majority of cases, an ethnic war is preceded by a fierce infighting of regional powerbrokers over political authority and status. In such politically disarrayed nations, competing groups have to arrange their own defence. These communities fear for their economic, physical, and emotional safety and survival, and inadvertently create intergroup suspicions often leading to prejudices or open confrontation. Communal fears of forthcoming conflicts are likely to increase when communities lose their capacity to render fair justice or to deliver credible assurances of protection against aggressors.
At the domestic level, ethnic conflicts can be explained by the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of countries in addressing the needs of their populations, influences of democratisation on inter-ethnic relations, and the effect of nationalism on inter-ethnic associations. In authoritarian countries, where decisions are made without considering opinions of the population, ethnic tensions may be a way to divert attention or address some urgent social problems. Thus, one ethnicity may consider another a scapegoat for existing problems in the society. Democratising rhetoric that comes from the West may also not match the established inter-ethnic patterns on the country’s territory. Considering tensions in China’s Tibet, domestic religious groups backed by the democratic West failed to properly evaluate their democratic constraints and were stamped down by the government. The final domestic component of ethnic clashes is nationalistic aspirations of conflicting parties.
Nationalism mirrors the need of ethnic groups to construct governments capable of fostering economic prosperity and delivering security. Intense nationalist tendencies and higher risks of a nationwide conflict arise when governments fail to deliver those priorities. At the same time, when governments feel weak to handle amplified levels of political participation and civil society initiatives, nationalism may come in handy for dividing and eliminating the emerging dissent. Therefore, the advent of nationalism makes an ethnic struggle almost unavoidable. The upsurge of nationalism in one community can be perceived as a threat for other communities, resulting in counteractive nationalist tendencies. Thus, nationalism may propel communities to build large and well-equipped armies to be ready for possible military actions against other communities. The military build-up becomes reciprocal, sooner or later making pre-emptive attacks or defensive wars against neighbouring groups very likely.
In some countries, revenge is another factor triggering ethnic confrontation. The revenge for a deceased relative or friend can be sometimes used as a legitimate purpose to accomplish a mission that the deceased did not manage to. Revenge can also be used to inflict a due punishment on a criminal, should the conventional law fail to deliver justice. It should naturally be assumed that in cases, when different ethnic groups are involved, revenge can serve as a precedent for an ethnic conflict. Simply put, when a member of tribe A commits an offense against a member of tribe B, the conflict may exceed an individual framework and become intertribal. In that case, revenge accentuates ethnicity differences leading to a conflict.
Economic reforms are another issue that can be conducive to ethnic conflicts. In the period from the 1970s to 1980s, Africa experienced a high increase in violent ethnic conflicts. At that time, most African countries were living in the state of dire poverty being virtually non-existent economies. Subsequently, the international community put a lot of pressure on these countries to initiate programmes of economic and political liberalization. The manner, in which economic and political reforms were implemented, seemed to have played a role in ethnic conflicts. The economic aid for countries with corrupt and inefficient governments further aggravated the existing competition for scarce resources. Without a major political transformation and democratic innovations, clashes became even more intense in comparison with the colonial period, regardless economic improvements.
Social and Financial Costs of Ethnic Conflicts
In an absolute majority of cases, ethnic conflicts bear negative effects and large costs for the parties involved. The primary cost of an ethnic conflict is social, since many people are left homeless, killed, injured, or deprived of their land and possessions. Sometimes, during an ethnic war, civilians take the law into their own hands and participate in killing people and looting properties. In many situations, former neighbours and friends become enemies, no matter that they are of the same ethnicity.
The displacement of people is another thing that happens when an ethnic conflict occurs. It results in bitter insecurity that cripples day-to-day political, social, and economic activities of individuals within the affected areas. Families and marriages fall apart, children lack access to proper education and health care, and widespread abuse sows mistrust, psychological traumas, and prejudices. Another major issue is health: displaced families are prone to health problems because of limited access to basic necessities, food, shelter, and clothing. Such families are forced to go to camps with poor ventilation, inadequate water supply, and poor or absent sanitation facilities. For example, the Daadab refugee camp in Kenya hosts approximately 500,000 refugees from Somali, who fled their country because of continuous intertribal clashes. This figure is three times higher than the maximum number of refugees, which the camp can possibly accommodate. Displacement and sojourn in the appalling conditions of the refugee camp are conducive to the development of fatal pandemics and rampant human rights abuse.
During and after ethnic clashes, an identity crisis usually develops as well. The offspring from fighting communities often stay at crossroads in terms of their ethnic identity, whereby children from intermarried families are separated and faced with hard decisions in their future life. These young people are unsure which side they should join and, in most cases, they pick the path with the least amount of pressure. This results in additional hatred among communities, as one community begins to see another as an occupant and a threat to their national identity.
Ethnic conflicts also result in substantial losses of economic and human resources. This badly afflicts the economy. In many cases, people lose their ownership of land, harvest is destroyed on fields, and food production slumps. As a consequence, people are often hit by a famine and malnutrition due to food shortages. Moreover, after the conflict, people driven away from their lands use all means to grab as much land as possible. Hence, the forceful acquisition of land and property destruction are common events accompanying ethnic clashes and the life after them. Such a situation poses a great threat to the peace, as there is always a possibility of renewal.
Another economic aftermath of ethnic violence is a decrease in the demand for manufactured goods. It arises due to the lack of income from the sale of agricultural products and labour in agriculture-based industries, such as coffee and tea plantations. Thus, instead of working on these plantations, people went to war and left their fields that were either expropriated or destroyed. Such a legacy led to the destruction not only of the agricultural sector, it also crippled manufacturing industries that were highly dependent on agricultural money (Collier, 2000).
Ethnic wars also bring on grave environmental consequences, as seen in the massive destruction of forests. In order to survive in displacement, war victims need timber resources to sustain themselves. For instance, over 300,000 people fled their homes as a result of the Boro-Santhal conflict in Central India in 1996. They had to denude several acres of forest, as they had no other way to establish themselves outside their villages. Deforestation in such war-ravaged regions greatly affected local rainfall patterns and temperature modes. As a result, many agricultural plantations that heavily relied on rainfalls perished due to the prolonged periods of draught.
Preventive Measures and Remedies
When an ethnic conflict is over, people consolidate in bringing the nation back to the original condition prior to the conflict. Providing that ethnicity plays an important role in the emergence of conflicts, the question of intergroup tensions in a post-war society has to be addressed as the first priority. Possible preventive measures can be included in government policies, NGOs initiatives, donor activities, and religious responses.
In many cases, a government fails to provide necessary support and aid to victims of war. When it comes to resettlement, it often takes many years for inefficient governments to resettle displaced people in their countries. In some cases, governments have harassed those, who volunteered to assist displaced people, accusing them of inciting clashes. A good example is Kenya, where in 1993, Prof. Wangari Mathai, who tried to assist people from the Western region after the tribal clashes had occurred, was arrested and detained under an accusation of inciting ethnic unrest. That is an example of how ethnic problems should not be solved in a post-war environment.
As practice shows, NGOs and donor agencies seem to have played the most important role in assisting displaced people. After ethnical clashes, they usually offered relief assistance, and formed development networks that preached peace to affected ethnicities. They offered guidance and counsel to victims, raising their hope and acceptance of others. NGOs went further to assist them in getting justice through such platforms as human rights protection.
When it comes to a religious response, most churches have done a lot of work. They have been housing some displaced people, giving them clothing, feeding them, and even mobilizing their parish to donate stuff to victims. For example, many small denominations managed to consolidate swiftly and provide so much needed assistance to Rwanda after the genocide of 1994 (United Human Right Council, 2012). Unfortunately, in some areas, the Christians did not follow their teachings and, instead of assisting the affected people, some were inciters of conflicts themselves.
In order to counter devastating effects of an ethnic conflict, affected ethnicities should also undergo socialization that will help them acquire skills, knowledge and disposition that can help these groups participate positively in the life of their country. Institutions should initiate the creation of forums for political participation at the grassroots regional, and national levels. Every ethnic group has expectations or interests, which may or may not conflict with other ethnic communities. Therefore, leaders are supposed to allocate resources in a way, when every ethnic group gets a fair share according to its material, cultural and spiritual needs.
Ethnic conflicts arise because of the unfair distribution of natural resources, and inherent cultural differences among competing ethnicities, aggravated by certain socioeconomic factors, such as religion, language, nationalism, authoritarian politics and others. The history of colonisation and unfriendly governments left deep fractures in the ethnic makeup of many struggling nations in Africa and worldwide. The forceful integration of various cultures and the inability to manage diversities have exposed many countries to devastating consequences of ethnic violence. The divide-and-rule governance in those countries has also contributed to ethno-religious divisions, increasing the likelihood of a conflict.
Ethnic conflicts inflict profound social and economic harm on ethnicities, including environmental degradation, broken generations, and a constant sense of insecurity of displaced persons. Therefore, in order to reduce the amount of ethnic conflicts, government agencies, NGOs, religious movements and other parties concerned should do what is necessary to address ethnicities’ problems in their roots. Countries’ leaders should work hard towards the formation of national policies and ideologies that will go beyond differences among ethnic groups. Thereby, various groups’ needs should be harmonized and reconciled by equitably, distributing the national resources available. In such a way, it will be possible to create a more peaceful, more tolerant and accepting society.
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