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How Europeans Intensified Tribalism in Africa


Neither ethnicity, race nor tribal identity are always fundamental features of life.

But they often are.

How much ethnic identity matters is a matter of social circumstance. If racial or tribal identity are keys to obtaining power and privilege – or the keys to denying other people access to power and privilege – then ethnicity becomes a big thing. If ethnic membership is not particularly consequential, then ethnic consciousness fades from people’s minds.

Albanian identity does not mean very much in the United States.

Albanian identity means a lot in Macedonia where Macedonians and Albanians fight over access to jobs and political power.

Excessively polarized ethnicity leads to serious adverse economic and political consequences. Our featured guest political scientist (more on him below) has a pithy but powerful summary of just how much damage hyper-ethnicity can do. Polarized ethnic identity leads to low rates of economic growth, high rates of poverty, low levels of public good provision, high levels of civil violence and low quality of governance overall.

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What causes high levels of ethnic identification?

There are many causes of hyper-ethnicity, just as there are many causes of any other belief.

Ethnic saliency can come from regional resistance to a hostile and corrupt central state. It can come from “rancher/farmer” disputes over land or water when the ranchers and farmers come from different ethnic groups. Americans should be familiar with our two “primary causes” of ethnic identification: slavery which was explicitly limited to African Americans – and frontier land seizure which was explicitly limited to “savage Indians” (and in the Southwest, Mexicans).

Today’s guest political scientist, Lachlan McNamee, a rising star at Stanford University, has done extensive work on ethnicity in Africa and Latin America. One size does not fit all. The determinants of ethnic identification are very different on the two continents. This essay focuses on his African work. Ethnicity is the basis of violent political conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa. Ethnicity is a narrowly economic and status concern in Latin America.

McNamee argues in an article in the 2019 World Development that tribal differences have always existed in Africa. However, in some places, but not others, they were made much more salient by European colonial policy. The colonial powers had a choice about whether they would emphasize national identity and make tribal concerns moot – or whether they would build up tribal identity per se.

What mattered was whether the colonial powers did the hard administrative work of ruling their colonies themselves – or whether they “subcontracted” the governance of colonies to chosen tribal leaders.

Direct rule of colonies was expensive. It required both administrative and military manpower. The colonial government was “on the hook” for provision of basic government services – and more importantly – for keeping the peace. This meant not only containing any regional rebellions – but administering law and order on a daily basis. This meant taking direct responsibility for adjudicating not only big disputes involving land or mineral rights, but small disputes over petty theft, inheritance, domestic arguments, and the maintenance of public sobriety. Some European administrations were up for the job; others were reluctant to mix in native affairs – particularly if those affairs were driven in part by local custom or local religion. In some colonies, the Europeans directly administered regions where Europeans settled or had commercial interests. They avoided getting involved in the rest of the colony.

How did the Europeans govern the parts of Africa they didn’t want to bother with?

They set up indirect rule. This was a system by which they offered a tribal chief the right to be the prime authority of his region. The chief got to control the economic resources in his area – notably land. The tribal chief also got preferential access to European resources such as education.

In the areas directly administrated by the colonial powers, all non-Europeans had the same status. Differences associated with Tribe 1 or Tribe 2, or Region 1 or Region 2 meant nothing. The big issue was being African with restricted rights, versus being European with more extensive rights. As the international forces supporting colonialism got weaker, it was fairly easy for Africans of different ethnicities to unify to mobilize in common against their colonial power. After independence, the Africans of different identities developed a shared national identity. They saw each other as citizens of their new nation and not as members of an ethnic group per se.

The situation was quite different in the regions that were governed indirectly. Property was controlled by ethnic groups. If an ethnic group wanted more property, the question was less one of mobilizing against colonial authorities and more about weakening the ability of rival ethnicities to hold on to their resources. Access to water, access to small scale mineral rights, or access to pasturage for herding became implicitly the subject of tribal disputes. Because the chiefs were also the primary brokers for obtaining services from the state, access to education, to health care or to infrastructure also became the basis for tribal disputes.

In indirect rule areas, tribes were the basis of political organization in the colonial period. This did not go away at the end of colonialism. The power vacuum associated with the fundamental change in the nature of governance meant that ethnic groups competed with each other for control of the new national governments. Ethnic identification became polarized and highly politicized. The seeds were planted for long term ethnic violence.

McNamee provides factual support for his claims two ways.

He has survey data on intensity of ethnic identification for African respondents throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. These show that respondents with low ethnic identification saw themselves primarily as citizens of whatever country they lived in. Respondents with high ethnic identification saw themselves primarily as members of their ethnic group.

As one would expect, Africans who lived in areas which were administered directly by the colonial powers had low ethnic identification. Africans who lived in areas governed by indirect rule had high ethnic identification.

What is remarkable about this correlation is that the survey data is contemporary. The data were collected between 2005 and 2016. Africa was colonized by the Europeans in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. Generally, the Europeans were gone by 1965.

So, the current ethnic attitudes reflect administrative structures that were in place 100 to 150 years ago and were dismantled over 50 years ago. This demonstrates compellingly the very long-lasting effects of these colonial regimes.

McNamee has a topper. The German colony of Namibia had both direct and indirect colonial administration. For reasons that are just strange, the Germans moved into the barren Southern half of Namibia. Their land was arid, and not particularly fertile. The North with the good land was left alone. To keep the Africans from encroaching on “European” land, and to keep Germans and their herds from catching “African diseases”, the Germans established a Red Line across the country that Africans were not allowed to cross. Even before the Red Line, the Southern part of the country was administered directly by the Germans, while the Northern half was ruled indirectly by tribal chiefs. The Red Line hardened this split.

As one would expect, Southern Namibians tend to have a national identity. They see themselves as being Namibians. Northern Namibians identify with their tribe. This finding also holds when you only look at Namibians living very close to the former Red Line. Even though social and economic conditions are pretty similar on either side of the border, the Border Namibians living close to but North of the former Red Line have tribal identifications. The Border Namibians south of the former line have national identifications.

McNamee found that people in the former indirectly ruled zones were more likely to have regular communication with a tribal leader. Regular communication builds tribal loyalty. People in the formerly indirectly ruled zones also reported that land in their region was controlled by the local chiefs. Access to land is critical for rural populations. If you want to survive as a farmer or a herder, you basically have to get along with your tribal chief. Tribal loyalty becomes quite important, unless you want to abandon it all and move to the big city.

Just for the record, indirect control is not the only variable that predicts the intensity of tribal identification. Poverty and lower class status also play a role. In the Africa-wide study, less educated Africans were more likely to have tribal identifications. Schools tend to provide curricula involving national culture rather than tribal culture. Lessons are given in the national language rather than the local language. Going away to college is also likely to involve migrating out of one’s home region. Education is a cosmopolitanizing force.

Africans who were frequently without food were also more likely to have tribal identifications. Hunger is a predictor of tribal loyalty. Some of this is reverse causation. A leading cause of famine in Africa is civil war. Civil wars lead to the destruction of crops and the hijacking of trucks that could potentially be bringing in food. So people who live in areas of high ethnic saliency are more likely to be in tribal war zones. As a result, they are more likely to experience famine.

However, hunger also produces extreme dependency. People will do whatever they have to do to get food. In rural areas, the capitol city is a long way away. The local tribal politician (or the local warlord) may be the only people who can provide material assistance.

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Ethnicity is complicated. However, stereotypes that explain tribalism and tribal conflict to deep affinities that go back to the beginning of time are not realistic. Nor is it the case that tribal identities are “primitive” somehow, and that as the world modernizes, these identities will go away.

Ethnic identification is strategic. It is linked to whom you have to ally with to survive or to improve your material well-being. The opportunity structures in Africa were shaped by the colonialists. The ethnic identities adapted to reflect those opportunity structures. The opportunity structures in Africa were, and continue to be, shaped by outside powers. In the nineteenth century, it was the colonialists. Now, it is international business and the Chinese.

How will this affect ethnic identification and ethnic conflict in Africa? A lot will depend on contemporary changes. But the colonial legacies will continue to matter.

For More Information

The full reference for the Lachlan McNamee. 2019. “Indirect Control and the Salience of Ethnicity.” World Development 122: 142-156.

McNamee offers the following citations for his arguments that excessive ethnic polarization produces adverse social effects:

Low Economic Growth: Easterly, William and Ross Levine. 1997. “Africa’s Growth Tragedy: Policies and Ethnic Divisions.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 112: 1230-50.

Low Public Goods Provision: Habyarimana, James, Macartan Humphries, Daniel Posner and Jeremy Weinstein. 2009. Coethnicity, Diversity and Dilemmas of Collective Action. New York, Russell Sage.

High Civil Violence: Montalvo, José, G. and Marta Reynal-Querol. 2005. "Ethnic Polarization, Potential Conflict, and Civil Wars." nAmerican Economic Review, 95(3):796-816.

Democratic Instability: Dahl, Robert. 1971. Polyarchy. New Haven, Yale.

Poor Governance: La Porta, Rafael, Florencio Lopez-de-Silanes, Andrei Shleifer and Robert Vishny. 1999. “Quality of Government.” Journal of Law, Economics and Organization15: 222-279.

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