Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, where there is more homogeneity among the mainly Arabic speaking Muslim populations, sub-Saharan African nations are often deeply divided along ethnic and linguistic lines. Many voters choose their leaders from their own ethnic or even kinship groups, hoping that someday they can draw on their own ethnic ties to have government improve their lives.
Ethnicity as an organizational tool is used by parties that see themselves as socialist, and those that are more brazenly nationalistic and ethnic; it is used by ruling parties and opposition parties alike. Since very few countries in Africa are clearly drawn along ethnic lines – South Africa, for instance, has 11 official languages – ethnicity is often a divisive tool. This makes nationwide movements in ethnically diverse countries like Senegal or Zimbabwe – whether in campaigns against polio, or in protest against a president – all the more difficult.
Ethnic divisions are “instrumentalized” and perpetuated by many African rulers, adds Professor Mbembe. “To a large extent, the answer to why other nations in Africa fail to do what the Tunisians have done is because of the reality of ethnic divisions, instrumentalized by those in power,” says Mbembe. That keeps ordinary people reliant on ethnic leaders to represent them at the table of power.