Accessibility links

Breaking News

Ethnic Diversity Plays Unique Role in African Politics

Most countries in sub-Saharan Africa have held elections since the democracy movement emerged on the continent after the end of the Cold War, but many countries have not developed effective multi-party democracies and ethnicity has been given as one reason why. But as VOA Africa Division reporter Cindy Shiner reports, some experts say democracy and ethnic diversity can coexist.

As some African nations were installing multiparty systems in response to the push for democracy over the past 15 years, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, had a different plan for his nation. He installed what he called "no party" democracy, saying Ugandans were not yet ready for multiparty politics.

While he has recently warmed to the idea of a more diverse political life in his country, President Museveni also argues that multiparty politics could inflame ethnic tensions.

Chris Fomunyoh is a senior associate for Africa at the National Democratic Institute, an arm of the U.S. Democratic Party that aims to promote democracy around the world. He says people have to start participating in democratic institutions, such as community groups and local governments, to develop the basis for democracy on the national level without ethnic divisiveness.

"There's no university for democracy where you can shape 8 million Ugandans or 10 million Ugandans to go through a four-year undergraduate program and all graduate as democrats," he says. "They are going to become democrats by the practice of democracy and you cannot have the opportunity to practice democracy if you don't have democratic institutions in place."

In some countries, political parties have formed along ethnic lines, although a number of African constitutions prohibit this practice. Human rights groups say some leaders have manipulated ethnic differences as a tactic to divide and rule.

Human Rights Watch points to Ivory Coast, where the main opposition challenger, Alassane Ouattara, was barred from contesting presidential and legislative elections in 2000 because the government questioned his nationality.

Officials said Mr. Ouattara could not prove he was an Ivorian citizen. Much of his support is in northern Ivory Coast, where many people are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. The military became politicized, and the country has been split in half since civil war erupted two years ago.

"What it really comes down to is the political manipulation of ethnicity to try to eliminate the biggest political rival," explains Corinne Dufka, a researcher in the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. "And what happened was the biggest political opponent happened to come from the north, which is largely populated by the Dioula and Senoufo ethnic groups, as well as a lot of West African immigrants."

But at the National Democratic Institute, Chris Fomunyoh says political pluralism does not necessarily deepen ethnic divisions. He says democracy actually supports ethnic diversity.

"Ethnicity in Africa is a constant," he says. "It's going to be with us whether we're under democratic rule or military rule or one-party rule. The difference is that in democratic societies you have institutions in place that can help us deal with the issue of ethnicity or ethnic diversity on the African continent or in the given country, whereas in authoritarian regimes those institutions and those practices do not exist."

Beko Ransome-Kuti of the Campaign for Democracy in Nigeria agrees. He has argued for a national conference in his country. There, he says, the people who represent the more than 250 ethnic groups in Nigeria can help chart the nation's democratic future.

"I mean, democracy means your future in your hands and somebody cannot come now and say I know better and do it the way I see it," he says. "I think that is just going to breed conflict."

So far, the Nigerian government has been cool to the idea of a national conference. Some officials argue that it would be a forum for highlighting disagreements and could split the country apart.

Several African countries held national conferences in the early 1990s to help lead the way to democracy. The meetings built on traditional African ideas of seeking consensus.

Mr. Fomunyoh, of the National Democratic Institute, notes that some of Africa's most successful democracies have incorporated traditional structures.

"Some countries have created a second chamber, for example, on the legislative side that would have a house of representatives, but then also have a senate that would cater to the special interests of traditional leaders and traditional society," he explains. "In some countries there used to be a house of chiefs, which was made up of representatives from traditional society, who would have their say and make a contribution to how national policy was formulated."

Analysts say that whether or not ethnicity becomes a divisive factor in African politics largely depends on a country's leadership, and they give Ivory Coast as an example, a nation that was once among the most stable and prosperous in West Africa.

Although former President Felix Houphouet-Boigny ran a one-party state for 30 years, all major ethnic groups were represented in his cabinet and the major policy-making bodies of his party. He accepted a multi-party system in 1990. The analysts say it wasn't political pluralism that led to Ivory Coast's current problems. They attribute the unrest to choices, following Mr. Houphouet-Boigny's death in 1993, made by new leaders who practiced the politics of exclusion, rather than inclusion.