By Aishwarya Siva
Modern day media seems to focus exclusively on negative stories and it isn’t any different for news about Africa, the land that is reportedly in a perpetual cycle of ethnic violence. To classify the rich tapestry of Africa as a homogenous continent vulnerable to spontaneous spurts of violence is both disingenuous as well as factually incorrect. It is important to take a look at the history of African colonization and how modern politicians use ethnic unrest as a political tool to secure their reigns. Frequently, the clashes titled ‘communal violence’ have little to do with ethnicity and more to do with resource allocation.
One of the most well known instances of communal violence in Africa is the Rwandan genocide of 1994 where the Hutu majority decimated the Tutsi minority in violent upheaval that lasted 100 days. This well known massacre has a backstory that dates back to the Berlin conference of 1844.
African civilizations including Egypt and Ethiopia enjoyed a bountiful trade with the world and even Europe for centuries. Europe maintained healthy trade relationships with the indigenous people, forming trade relationships with the chiefs in each region. When in 1876, the King of Belgium solicited Welsh journalist and explorer Henry Morton Stanley in exploring and ‘civilizing’ Africa, the interest in the continent grew exponentially and soon the land grab began in earnest. Africa, rich in natural resources like timber and gold, as well as people who could serve as an ideal market for finished goods, was coveted.
Concerned with the growing tensions between European countries in their bid to colonize Africa, Otto Von Bismarck, Chancellor of Germany, called a conference of thirteen European superpowers. United States, which had by this time abolished slavery and had formed Liberia, was also invited to this conference. The representing nations were Germany, Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, France, UK, USA, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Sweden-Norway and the Ottoman Empire. No country from Africa was invited to this conference.
1895 saw only five nations that were free of colonization, namely Morocco, Liberia, the Ethiopian Empire, the Mujarteen Sultanate and the Sultanate of Hoyobo. The division of most modern African countries were a result of the Berlin conference so these divisions are more indicative of which nations sought for which regions rather than the shared history and culture of people in those regions.
To maintain colonization, the colonizing country frequently favored one ethnic group over another which enabled them to maintain power over that country. In Rwanda, which in 1884 was awarded to Germany, this meant that the Tutsis were favored for economically advantageous administrative jobs. During WWI, Belgium seized Rwanda and modernized the economy while maintaining Tutsi dominance. The real trouble began when in 1935, Belgium mandated identity cards categorizing each citizen as Tutsi or Hutu. Before 1935, those categories were fluid and one could literally shirk off their ‘Hutu-ness’ by advancing economically. The subsequent unrest and violence was perpetrated by Hutus against the Tutsi minority but the foundation for this was built by a lack of foresight by the Belgian colonizers. Rwanda is merely one such example of how the divide-and-rule method employed by European colonizers had far reaching and disastrous effects on a country. Unfortunately this method is frequently used by modern politicians to aggregate political power.
In Nigeria for example, violence between Christians and Muslims are oversimplified as ‘communal conflict’. The nuance is lost in this classification. In the Plateau State in Nigeria, citizens are classified as settlers or indigenes. Indigenes are allowed to hold any post in the government but settlers have limitations. Settlers are also not allowed to receive state education subsidies and cannot own land. There is no definition for who classifies as a ‘settler’ or a ‘native’. This is left to street-level government officials to decide, ultimately resulting in predominantly Hausa speaking Muslims almost entirely composing the ‘settler’ category while Christian Nigerians are frequently classified as ‘native’. This has resulted in severe economic disparity and communal violence on these grounds that has been misinterpreted by the international community as ethnic or religious violence.
In a similar vein, Ghana’s communal violence could be narrowed down to 1979 when the government invested heavily in the northern region in a deal to gain votes and counter their defeat in the south. Shortly after the elections, communal violence began and did not cease for the next fifteen years, cascading and reigniting since the original discontent was not resolved.
Classifying Africa a region which is perpetually violent and is vulnerable to ethnic violence and communal clashes is disingenuous, short-sighted and dangerous. Instead one must look at the policies and history perpetuated in this continent as well as corrupt political policies that aim to leverage disharmony for power. These practices almost always lead to long term unrest and violence.
That is not to say that the continent is not making progress towards this goal of harmony. One country paving the way for the new era is Rwanda. In fact, in July of this year, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) report stated “Rwanda has made considerable progress in sustaining high and inclusive growth and reducing poverty.” According to the World Bank, Rwanda is poised to reach Middle Income Country status by 2035. They also stated that the economy has grown on average 7.5% yearly for the last decade and that the poverty rate has decreased from 59% to 39% between 2001 and 2014. It is also illegal in Rwanda to modify or deny the genocide and is taboo to talk about one’s ethnic party which has helped all citizens identify themselves as merely Rwandan. While there is a long way to go, the country is doing exceedingly well and is an exemplary case of a country’s ability to grow past its ugly past.
Cover photo: Annie Spratt
Aishwarya Siva is currently working on her master’s in biology. When she is not languishing in the depths of BMC, she’s catching a beer with friends, trying to salvage pictures from her century old phone or making references to New Girl that no one knows. She wants to use her opinionated disposition and penchant for writing to work at the intersection of science and policy.