THERE are no fewer than 1,000 distinct "ethnic groups" among the more than 50 countries on the African continent. There is no way to give an exact accounting because these categories are dynamic ones, as people define themselves and their ethnic boundaries in response to changing circumstances.
These groups rest on language, religion, precolonial social and political divisions ("tribes," chiefdoms, kingdoms), region, and, sometimes, modes of subsistence (farmers versus herders, for example). More than 500 languages are said to exist in Nigeria alone, and Ethiopia has more than 75. Each one can be the basis for an ethnic identity and a self-conscious group. Many of today's African states - such as Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, Ethiopia, and South Africa - contain the still-remembered loyalties, and pe rhaps the structures, of older kingdoms.
It is popular to blame the European colonial powers that ruled most of Africa from the 1890s to the early 1960s for creating these divisions, but while they certainly exacerbated many situations, the bases for most of the groups were there before they came. Ironically, rather than dividing groups (though they certainly did split some between two or more countries), the major impact of the colonial enterprise was to bring peoples together for the first time in sustained interaction within single political
entities. This often had the effect of forcing people who might previously have had no direct contact with each other into economic, political, and social competition.
The colonial powers created the boundaries of today's African states and enclosed within them populations that are supposed to live together regardless of differences, enmities, and conflicting interests. The colonial officials drew the boundaries of the political units they created in order to maximize their own power and glory. And the peoples within those borders must now get on as best they can. The more people become educated and involved in the "modern sector" - studying, teaching, participating in
the military and government service, in commerce and political activity - the more reasons there seem to be for ethnic conflict.
From the time Africans began regaining their independence at the end of the 1950s, the threat of "tribalism" (as ethnicity is too often called in the African context) has been haunting the leaders of all these new nations. Even though their borders were drawn by the colonial rulers, no matter how many actual or potentially feuding groups each state contained, no African leader would countenance the loss of any land, no matter how "troublesome" the groups that lived on that land might be. From the beginni ng, African leaders, through the Organization of African Unity, declared their opposition to changes in their borders.
Often they tried to deny that any problem existed, that there were ethnic inequalities or antagonisms. They usually insisted on unitary states and, very often, single-party rule. "Tribalism" was not only a threat to the integrity of virtually every African state, it also seemed to represent a backward and embarrassingly "primitive" force. In the 1950s and 1960s, politicians, social theorists, and ideologues all over the world widely believed that "parochial" loyalties to ethnic and religious groups, to a nything other than "nations" (i.e. "states") or "classes," was "primitive," and "atavistic."
For liberals these narrow, primordial loyalties were not only destructive of progress and national unity but ethnic chauvinism was also seen as belonging to an earlier "pre-modern" era that would be transcended naturally as a result of "modernization." But the theories have been proven, so far, to be grossly oversimplified if not plain wrong.
For those inspired by Marx, ethnic loyalties represented "false consciousness," blinding working people to their true class interest and preventing "international proleterianism." Socialism or communism - in the USSR and Yugoslavia, in Ethiopia and Somalia - would overcome these differences. These states had rulers who worked toward this end and pretended they were succeeding. Of course, they normally forwarded the interests of their own groups, while feigning neutrality.
The "scientific socialist" rule of Mengistu Haile-Mariam that succeeded the monarchy of Emperor Haile Selassie in Ethiopia continued to impose the rule of the same group in that multi-ethnic empire. While President Mohamed Siad Barre of Somalia suppressed all talk of "tribes," he single-mindedly furthered his own ethnic relations at the expense of their rivals. It was obvious that the Russians were doing something similar in the USSR.
By 1992, however, it has become apparent that ethnic nationalism is one of the most up-to-date and powerful factors in current world politics. Both the left and the liberals underestimated the power of ethnicity. These loyalties and interests have not disappeared but have become heightened at the end of the 20th century. We can now see "tribalism" in various forms in such "primitive" countries as Canada, Belgium, the lands of the Czechs and Slovaks, Spain, France, the United Kingdom (and not only Norther n Ireland), not to mention the former USSR, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Lebanon, India, Burma, Guatemala, Peru, Ecuador, Brazil - and the United States.
In the light of events since the 1960s, a re-evaluation of the meaning and nature of ethnicity is in order. If African countries are presented with some special problems because of the sheer numbers of groups and the arbitrary way in which their borders were drawn, the core phenomenon is very much the same all over the world. There is nothing more or less "primitive" about it on the African continent. (There is also no justification for calling the phenomenon "tribalism" in Africa and "nationalism" or "e thnopolitics" elsewhere.)
The root of the problem is that ethnic loyalties and identities are powerful bases for social and political life in the world today, despite earlier theories to the contrary. Far from being atavistic, residual, or "merely circumstantial," they may serve as the basis for social relations, the development of new patterns of culture, and as political interest groups. Ethnic groups are proving to be far more easily mobilized than were "classes" because they can combine a broad range of social, cultural, econ omic, and political interests with a real sense of identification, loyalty, and emotion. Individual and group identities are tied up in ethnicity in ways they are not in class, and appeals to ethnic pride and to grievances over unequal economic opportunities, discrimination, suppression of language, history, and cultural heritage serve increasingly to mobilize peoples.
The idea is spreading throughout the world that ethnicity is a legitimate basis for political organization and protest, and that ethnic groups no longer have to accept domination by others. The surprise is not that there is "tribalism" in Africa but that so few of its many states are in imminent danger of disintegration.
Nevertheless, where major fault lines based on ethnicity exist - as in Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia, Nigeria - they should not be ignored, simply deplored, or set aside by blaming the former colonial powers. Ethnicity today can be the basis of powerful human feelings, interests, and motivations. It cannot be wished away by either politicians or analysts.