The Challenges of Ethnicity, Multiparty Democracy and State Building in Multiethnic States in Africa

By Paul Mbatia, Kennedy Bikuru & Peter Nderitu

I. Introduction: Ethnicity and Multiparty Politics in Kenya

By 1990 when Kenya’s movement towards democracy had intensified, the ruling party (KANU) decided to extract political mileage from ethnicity. Many Kenyans thought, perhaps wrongly, that under democracy, there should be competitive politics, that parties would be free to take their messages to voters, … When Kenya moved from one party to multi-party democracy, ethnic patterns developed along party lines (Machira, 2001:123).

During the 1990s, a wave of change in form of political reforms swept through the world and modified the political terrain of many states. In Kenya, the late 1980s and the 1990s marked a period of struggle for democratization and change including reverting to multiparty politics championed by groups and individuals in civil society. Indeed this was the decade of democratization for Kenya for multiparty elections were successfully conducted in 1992 and 1997 respectively albeit with minimal changes on the composition of the ruling political elite as the incumbent ruling party KANU won both the elections and remained in government. In the successive elections of 2002 and 2007, KANU was trounced by other parties. However, former KANU diehards re-emerge in government in new party outfits.

Even with the adoption of multiparty democracy, practices of poor governance and corruption are still widespread. Furthermore, multiparty democracy appears to have heightened ethnic nationalism and has been associated with ethnic violence. In Kenya, for example, except for 2002, ethnic violence has been witnessed in all the elections held after Kenya formally adopted multi party democracy in 1991. Indeed, Muigai (1995) and Ndegwa (1997:599) affirm that multiparty democracy has been a prelude to ethnic competition and have led to “protracted transitions or outright conflict” in Kenya. Drawing from these observations in various African countries, scholars have raised questions over the suitability of multiparty democracy in multi-ethnic states. How can multi ethnic African countries manage multi party democracy without provoking ethnic groups to engage in violence during and after elections? Such violence has created many fragile States – these are States that are too weak to hold different ethnic communities together as a nation state.

In general, the outbreak of ethnic nationalism the world over dilutes the anticipated benefits of democratization. Accordingly, as African scholars attend to the problem of democratization and multiparty politics, they should also address the escalating problem of ethnic nationalism and violence. The overriding question is how to manage multiparty democracy in multi-ethnic African states?

This paper attempts to address the challenges of multiparty democracy in multiethnic states using the Kenyan experience. The paper examines the emerging dynamics of ethnic nationalism and their impact and consequences on the process of building democratic multiethnic states in Africa. Further, the paper seeks to explore possible strategies for the management of democratic and multiparty transition in multi-ethnic societies using the Kenyan experience as the basis of reference.

II. Meaning and Application of Ethnicity

Even though many scholars have attempted to define the term ethnicity, there is no consensus reached on its meaning (Hutchinson and Smith, 1996:5). The meaning of ethnicity tends to be elusive in that the term invokes mixed feelings and subjective interpretations across different contexts or cultures. According to Chapman et al. (1989:15), ethnicity is “the essence of an ethnic group” or “the quality of belonging to an ethnic community or group.” This definition is unclear because it only captures membership as the key aspect of an ethnic community.

Ethnicity is defined by Erikson (1993:4) as a field of study, which involves the classification of people and the relations between groups in the context of “self- and other” distinctions. Even though ethnicity is more than an academic discipline, this definition captures correctly, the importance of the term as a basis of social differentiation. Others have defined ethnicity as “a consciousness among people with shared cultural and linguistic roots that get utilized for political affiliation and mobilization to compete with other groups for scarce resources” Mungai (1995). This definition captures both the passive and active nature of ethnicity.

In its passive nature, ethnicity provides community members with a sense of belonging (identity), language, and other cultural resources (e.g., values, beliefs, myths, ideology, tradition, heritage, etc.). On the other hand, in its active nature, ethnicity provides a forum for competition with “outsiders” for scarce resources. Further, ethnicity in its active form is used to provide security and advance the interests of its members. In Kenya, active ethnicity is exemplified by ethnic groups, which work aggressively; assert their identity and interests, compete with other groups for scarce resources, fight other groups to enlarge their geographical and political space, mobilize their members to capture more political power and create/form new ethnic based social structures (associations and networks) to strengthen their bargaining power at the national level

Handelman (1977) conceptualizes four levels of ethnicity, which include; ethnic category; ethnic network; ethnic association and ethnic community. At the lowest level we have ethnic category which is defined as a perceived cultural difference between the group and outsiders and a sense of boundary between them. This category captures the passive nature of ethnicity by highlighting the cultural and geographical boundaries that differentiate “insiders” from “outsiders.” At the level of ethnic network, there is a regular interaction between ethnic members such that the network can distribute resources among its members. This conceptualization presents ethnic groups as production and distributive (economic and cultural) units to meet the needs of their members.

At the ethnic association level, members develop common interests and political organizations to express these at a collective corporate level. This conceptualization presents ethnic groups as active entities that consciously work for the interests of their members in a highly competitive world. The highest level in the development of ethnicity is the ethnic community. At this level, an ethnic group possesses a permanent, physically bounded territory over and above its political organization (Handelman, 1977:6). Practically, at this level, the group’s geographical territory and political domain are well defined. Accordingly, the group’s political and economic zones could be demarcated and protected.

Further, Handelman (1977) has identified six features of ethnicity. First is a common proper name “to identify and express the essence of the community.” In the Kenyan context, this would refer to the different names of Kenyan tribes e.g. Kalenjin, Kamba, Kikuyu, etc. Second is a myth of common ancestry … that includes the idea of common origin in time and space that gives them a sense of fictive kinship. Third, members share historical memories. Fourth, there could be one or more elements of common culture, which include religion, customs or language. Fifth, there is a link with a homeland, not necessarily its physical occupation by the ethnic community but only its symbolic attachment to ancestral land. And last, there is a sense of solidarity on the part of at least some section of the ethnic population. This means that without an active membership to ensure group cohesion, ethnic feelings could weaken. In Kenya, political elites mobilize their supporters in their respective ethnic constituencies to promote a sense of ethnic solidarity.

Scholars who perceive ethnicity in its passive form adopt the primordialist approach whereby they see ethnicity as based on primordial ties i.e., personal relations based on kinship bonds, blood, race, religion, language, and custom. For primordialists, ethnicity persists due to the durable nature of the primordial ties. In this approach, ethnicity can be viewed as a passive cultural consciousness and is considered as a given natural phenomenon. Unfortunately, this approach does not capture the active aspect of ethnicity as evidenced in Kenya where ethnicity has been used as a means of acquiring power and resources by the elite. On the other hand, instrumentalists treat ethnicity as a social, political, and cultural resource for different interests and status groups (Hatchinson and Smith, 1996:8). This approach correctly captures the active aspect of ethnicity. Accordingly, political elites could mobilize their respective ethnic groups to achieve personal gains — such as wealth, power, status, privileges and security.
In attempting to understand ethnicity, some scholars have conceptualized it as a product of contact and not of isolation, and by implication entailing commonalities and differences between categories of people in a process. Eriksen (1993) has referred to this process as complementarization and dichotomization. He argues that in spite of the very many contested notions of ethnicity, ethnic groups or categories tend to have notions of common ancestry, common culture, (in the Kenyan case we would argue common territory) justifying their unity. Most important, ethnicity is an aspect of relationship and not a cultural property for if a setting is wholly mono-ethnic then there would be no ethnicity (Ibid). In the Kenya situation, studies have tended to examine the relative distinctiveness of ethnic groups failing to stress the integrative and mutual contact aspects. In this context, we argue here that few studies have examined how ethnic communities have overtime developed mutual interdependencies through exchange of goods and services. Through increased contact (signifying dense interactions), some ethnic groups have expanded the volume of trade with each other as partners; not as competing group. Such interdependencies enhance unity of purpose and contribute to harmony as opposed to competition that eventually leads to conflict, and at worst, violence.
One can delineate several significant points about ethnicity drawn from the various interpretations of the concept. First, we argue that ethnicity is not a static but a dynamic concept that is socially constructed. We evoke its passive or active meanings depending on the obtaining circumstances i.e., situation. Second and drawing from the first point, ethnicity is a situational concept – its meaning and interpretation is largely determined by where we are and who we are with for whatever purpose. In this context, ethnic differences are “invisible” (hidden) between people of different ethnic groups who have common business interests or who meet in a foreign country. However, the same people will make their differences “visible” (manifest) when they engage in politics and campaign for their ethnic-based political parties. Third, we further observe that ethnicity is an elastic concept – it can be interpreted rigidly to exclude others or interpreted generously to include them albeit in a different situation.
In conclusion, we argue that ethnicity is thus a relatively fluid concept; at times, it is often negotiated by members to achieve a common purpose. However, at other times, ethnicity can be invoked or manipulated by certain agents or interest groups as a political tool to protect their interests (Eriksen 1993). At the individual level, ethnicity is instrumental when it provides a sense of belonging, a sense of identity in the absence of other more competing identities. For example, in an environment when the State is unable to provide security, citizens may constitute tribal vigilantes to protect them. Further, it can be argued that, in the absence of an appealing political ideology to rally citizens together; citizens form ethnic-based political parties in Africa. Indeed, since the adoption of multiparty democracy in Kenya, the larger ethnic communities have formed political parties – mainly to pursue political agenda that addresses the aspirations of respective ethnic groups.
III. Critical Viewpoints about Ethnicity in Africa
Scholars focusing on the challenges of ethnicity in Africa – that largely include ethnic struggles and violence — are confronted with critical (and also controversial) viewpoints that we have found worth interrogating in this paper. Our main intention here is to bring out the viewpoints and possibly ignite a debate that should inform the discourse of ethnicity in Africa. We challenge our audience to provide evidence to support their views and not to take dogmatic positions. Only then, can we move the scholarship of ethnicity in Africa forward. Clarification of these viewpoints is essential particularly in the formulation of strategies or interventions meant to address the challenges posed by ethnicity in Africa.
In this study, we consider the following viewpoints (Hypotheses) as critical and worth studying to establish their validity:
1. Ethnicity in Africa is a colonial creation?
2. Ethnic conflict is the main cause of underdevelopment in Africa?
3. Ethnicity can be utilized as a resource in Africa?
4. Ethnicity is the root cause of violence in Africa?
5. Ethnicity is rendering multiparty democracy irrelevant in multi-ethnic African states?
6. Due to ethnicity, Africa is not ready for multiparty democracy
A. Ethnic conflict a Colonial Creation in Africa?
Scholars who uphold to this viewpoint observe that historically, “prior to independence, some colonial administrators manipulated ethnic rivalries amongst indigenous populations by employing a strategy of divide and rule. The strategy created enmity and suspicion among African people and the situation has not significantly changed” (see http://www.africaresource.com/). Colonialism as a cause of ethnic conflict in Africa is also underscored by Irobi (2005:1) whose study compares the challenges of ethnicity in Nigeria and South Africa and posits that:
Politicized ethnicity has been detrimental to national unity and socio-economic well being. It is important to note that most of these ethnic conflicts were caused by colonialism which compounded inter-ethnic conflict by capitalizing on the isolation of ethnic groups. The divide-and conquer method was used to pit ethnicities against each other, thus keeping the people from rising against the colonizers.
However, this view is contradicted by those who hold that “African societies are characterized by deep ethnic cleavages that are ancient and permanent” (Githinji & Holmquist, forthcoming). Furthermore, to argue that ethnic conflict in Africa was a creation of the colonial regime would suggest that prior to colonization of Africa, indigenous communities lived in harmony? Yet, it is evident that ethnic violence in form of civil wars predated the colonial regimes in Africa. The persistence of ethnic violence in Africa should therefore not be blamed exclusively on external factors. Internal factors should be critically examined to establish the extent to which they contribute to ethnic conflicts in many African states.
B. Ethnicity is the Main Cause of Underdevelopment in Africa?
There is a popular school of thought that holds that “democracy paves way for development.” Indeed, in his presentation during the 17th Annual Midwest Political Science Undergraduate Research Conference, Brian G. Smith affirms that “many researchers have sought to explain the relationship between underdevelopment and ethnic conflict.” Overall, many scholars have rightly argued that political and social instability is a major cause of underdevelopment (see Paglia in http://www.africaeconomicanalysis.org).
Africa’s underdevelopment is therefore associated with the persistence of ethnic conflicts and violence that undermine democracy. Furthermore, ethnicity has been used as a political tool in many parts of Africa including Uganda (when Idi Amin expelled wealthy class of Indians) and Zambia (when President Chiluba attempted to bar former president Kauda to contest for a political position on grounds that the latter’s parents were from Malawi). In recent times, the Darfur crisis exemplifies how extreme ethnicity can lead to poverty and human displacement – underdevelopment. As long as ethnicity leads to political instability, chaos and bloodshed (see http://www.africaresource.com/), it contributes to the continued state of underdevelopment. However, is ethnicity a sufficient cause of Africa’s underdevelopment?
Besides ethnic conflicts, there are many external factors that contribute to poverty and human sufferings in Africa. A more challenging view to this school of thought is that there are many African countries that have never experienced ethnic conflict, yet they remain poor? A good example is Tanzania. In our view, underdevelopment is not a logical outcome of ethnic conflicts and violence.

C. Ethnicity can be used as a Resource in Africa?
Most studies on ethnicity present it as a negative force; ethnic conflicts and violence lead to destruction of property, poverty, deaths, displacements and human suffering. Under what conditions can ethnicity become a resource that could be used to improve the quality of life of African people?
Ethnic diversity could be appreciated if it is well managed to create interdependencies and forge unity of purpose in a nation state. Furthermore, ethnic groups could be mobilized to undertake development projects without provoking undue competition that could lead to conflict or violence. Unfortunately, there is limited evidence in Africa to demonstrate the potentiality of ethnicity as a resource.
We argue in this paper that a strong state would be a prerequisite for transforming ethnicity from being a negative force to a resource. In addition, building functional institutions is essential – to protect the rights of citizens and provide them with the required security all the time within the state’s jurisdiction. One step towards making ethnicity a resource is taming extreme ethnicity through enforcement of appropriate laws and regulations. Another strategy would be to discourage negative stereotyping among competing tribes through civic education.
We hold the view that ethnicity is a social reality in Africa (as elsewhere) that cannot be wished away or assumed. Its excesses should be managed effectively by the State assisted by the other development actors (private organizations and Civil Society Organizations — Faith-Based organizations, NGOs and CBOs). We underscore the observation that multi-ethnicity by itself should not be taken as the bases of ethnic conflict and violence in Africa. As correctly stated by Browen in Machira (2001:116),
Some of the world’s most ethnically diverse States, such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan, though not without internal conflict and political repression, have suffered little inter-ethnic violence, while countries with very slight differences in language or culture, such as Somalia and Rwanda, have had the bloodiest of all conflicts.
D. Ethnicity is the root Cause of violence in Africa?
Ethnic conflicts have been presented by scholars as a common feature of Africa. Proponents of this school can cite many cases to include the Rwanda genocide, the on-going crisis in Darfur in Sudan, the civil wars in Nigeria, the civil strive in South Africa before the dismantle of apartheid and the continued conflict between the whites and blacks in Zimbabwe. But to what extent are ethnic conflicts the root cause of violence in Africa?
Pamela Paglia (see http://www.africaeconomicanalysis.org) observes that “in Darfur conflict, the ethnic division between the Arab militias and African tribes has been described as the primary cause for conflict. However, she cautions that:
Concentrating on ethnicity as the primary cause for conflict underestimates the complexity of African societies and politics, and deviates policymakers’ attention from the real causes of conflict. Ethnicity is a means through which conflicts in many African countries are conducted and a powerful tool for political mass mobilization.
If ethnicity is but a secondary cause of conflicts and violence in Africa, scholars should cast their nets wider to establish the real triggers of conflict in Africa. As suggested here, ethnicity could only be a symptom? In our view, a set of more convincing causes of conflict would include poverty, exclusion and biased distributive systems that breed glaring inequality in the distribution of key resources like income and land (see Machira, 2001:115).
An invisible critical cause of ethnic violence in Africa is weak states – their lack of capabilities and sometime goodwill to control other actors (e.g., ethnic groups rising against other) create opportunities for ethnic violence. According to (Migdal, 988:5), most States in developing countries are weak; they have failed to regulate social relations (including ethnic relations) and to appropriate public resources in determined ways that avoid exclusion.
E. Ethnicity is rendering multiparty democracy irrelevant in multi-ethnic African states?
In the 1990s, a wind of change swept through Africa that significantly changed the political terrain. Many countries embraced multiparty democracy and replaced the single party dictatorial regimes that had taken over from the colonial powers (Machira, 2001). However, in a number of countries (including Kenya), the adoption of multiparty democracy heightened ethnic consciousness and precipitated ethnic conflict and violence. With the emerging challenges associated with multiparty democracy, Ndegwa (1997: 599) correctly states that a debate has been provoked over which institutions are appropriate to govern a multiethnic democracy. While multiparty democracy has enlarged democratic space, protected human rights and freedoms, the rising cases of ethnic violence, particularly during and after elections, tend to dilute the anticipated benefits of the new political system of governance. Multiparty democracy has in some counties threatened the national cohesion of African states – as has been the case in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire, and Nigeria, among others.
While multiparty democracy is appreciated and even celebrated in Africa, it has also posed new challenges in multiethnic States. In the latter, ethnic nationalism threatens national patriotism as political elites increasingly mobilize citizens to participate in the political and electoral processes along ethnic lines. Citizens are now more conscious of their ethnic identity as opposed to their national identity as citizens of their nation. Scholars should therefore reflect on the emerging challenges of multiparty democracy and establish conditions that a State and other actors must satisfy for a successful adoption of multiparty democracy in multiethnic states.
F. Due to ethnicity, Africa is not ready for multiparty democracy?
If multiparty democracy in multiethnic states is a prelude for ethnic conflicts and violence, what is its future in Africa? Should countries revert to single party mode of governance? In Kenya, when advocates of multiparty democracy were fighting for it in 1990s, its critics (including Moi, who was then the incumbent president) argued that “the country was not cohesive enough.” To date, faced with persistent waves of election-based violence (in 1992, 1997 and 2007), one is forced to ask: could Moi have been right?
On a positive note, Sola Akinrinade (2008:1) in http://www.africaeconomicanalysis.org correctly observes that immediately after independence, in many Africa countries, single party mode of governance was “seen as remedy to social divisions.” More specifically, he notes that “in a number of states notably Nyerere’s Tanzania, the adoption of a single party system was indeed an honest attempt to address a potentially dangerous situation.”
Emerging evidence suggests that while it is unthinkable to revert to one party rule, due to the escalating waves of violence, multiparty democracy is increasingly weakening African States – reducing them to fragile states. Scholars and policy makers are therefore tasked to establish the necessary and sufficient conditions that multiethnic African States should satisfy to adopt multiparty democracy successfully. Africa should learn lessons from the few multiethnic states (Tanzania, Ghana, Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan) which have successfully adopted multiparty democracy without weakening their respective States or threatening their national unity.
IV. The Nature and Role of African States
In all the countries of the world that have different economic and political systems (capitalist, socialist or communist), State remains the most critical development actor. Unless the State is functional, all other institutions of a society are rendered ineffective. In this regard, scholars (Migdal, 1988, Migdal et al., 1994 and Ghani & Lockhart, 2008) have paid prime attention to the theme of nature and role of States in current development discourses. These scholars have correctly argued that a nation’s development is largely a function of the capability status of its State – whether “Weak” or “Strong.” Most important, compared to other States, these scholars have presented Third World States as weak.
States vary in their capabilities to execute their determined mandates. According to Migdal (1988:4), capabilities of the States are measurable in four aspects. First, is a State’s capacity to penetrate society – the extent to which a State can reach out its subjects wherever they are (even in the remotest areas)? Second, is a State’s capacity to regulate social relations – the extent to which a State can enforce its laws and regulations to ensure compliance of its citizens? Third, is a State’s capacity to extract resources from its subjects – the extent to which a State can tax or lawfully take or seize resources from its subjects? Last, is a State’s capacity to appropriate or use resources in determined ways – extent to which a State allocates and deploys public resources to achieve national objectives and targets? Migdal (1988:4) posits that “strong states are those with high capabilities to complete these tasks, while weak States are on the low end of the spectrum of capabilities.” Migdal (1988) further notes that Third World States are particularly weak in their abilities to regulate social relations and use resources in determined ways. How true is this analysis in Africa? Why are ethnic conflicts and violence common in Africa?
As we have observed earlier, ethnic conflicts and violence are widespread in Africa largely because of the weak States. Most States lack the apparatus required to enforce existing laws and regulations. For example, in Kenya, most law-enforcing institutions are riddled with corruption rendering them ineffective. In addition, the State lacks the required resources to fund law-enforcing institutions adequately – this reduces effectiveness of their operations. For example, during the 2007 post election violence, the State law-enforcing organs were overwhelmed by the massive numbers of those who engaged in the violence. Furthermore, the law enforcers took sides and supported (or sympathized with) participants in the violence who spoke their ethnic language. In general, the law enforcing agents were politicized. It has also been documented that the Kenyan State has not shown strong political good will to contain periodic waves of ethnic violence that have occurred periodically since the adoption of multiparty democracy in 1990. In an ideal situation, a capable State should be able to extract adequate resources from its subjects and deploy them prudently to insure security of all citizens. A strong State is a prerequisite for restoration of social order in any nation. Accordingly, state building should be taken up as a priority task in Africa. This should incorporate all initiates planned and executed to boost capabilities of African States. Such initiatives could include building infrastructures that facilitate operations of State institutions, allocation of adequate funds to State institutions e.g., police, army, courts, prisons and rehabilitation centres, professionalization of police and judiciary etc.
V. The Way Forward: How to Make Multiparty Democracy work in Africa?
How can we make multiparty democracy a suitable political model in multiethnic African states? In many parts of Africa, given the atrocities associated with single party rule, it is unthinkable to revert to the latter. And in the absence of an alternative model, multiparty democracy still remains the only option? Our challenge therefore is to devise strategies of domesticating to make it. This will require interrogation of past experiences, undertaking comparative analysis and drawing lessons from Africa and beyond where multiparty democracy has worked.
In this section we suggest the following strategies to make multiparty democracy work in Africa:
1. Understand the nature of African states: It is imperative to assess the nature of each African State in terms of their capabilities and establish whether they are weak or strong. Of importance, African States should have the capacity to control all other factors – internal as well as external. Internally, the State should dismantle any form of networks or associations that threaten national unity. As has been aptly observed, in Africa, “for the nation to live, the tribe must die.”
2. Fixing the weak African States: In this paper, we argue that to develop, Africa requires strong not weak States. Unfortunately, during the 1980s and 1990s, African States were dented through the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) that advocated for leaner and weak States. As succinctly put by Ghani & Lockhart (2001:4),
The ground reality is that many states have collapsed and are unable to provide even the most basic services for their citizens. The failure to maintain basic order not only makes fear a constant of daily life but also provides a breeding ground for a small minority to perpetuate criminality and terror.
To date, African nations should therefore invest in state strengthening and building. As recommended by Ghani & Lockhart (ibid), “… solutions to our current problems of insecurity, poverty, and lack of growth converge on the need for state-building project. … Only the State can organize power so as to harness flows of information, people, money, force, and decisions necessary to regulate human behavior.” Further, they add that “the key to state building is first to agree on goals and functions of the state and … aligning actors to the goal of state building.”
3. Dismantle the bases of ethnic-based politics: Part of state building should entail dismantling all networks and associations that promote and perpetuate negative ethnicity. For example, States should craft laws and regulations that discourage or undermine flourishing of political parties formed along ethnic lines. In addition, ethnic auditing should be conducted regularly to identify and penalize those who engage in practices that enforce ethnic exclusion in hiring or distribution of public resources.
4. Transformation of the inherent repressive and undemocratic state structure: There is a popular view shared by African scholars that multiparty democracy has not transformed African states as was expected. To make multiparty democracy work, structural transformation of African State is inevitable. There is evidence suggesting that even after the adoption of multiparty rule, African political elites continued to protect their powers and privileges at the expense of public interests. The popular structural reforms associated with multiparty democracy have aborted in many African countries – Kenya included. For example, since 1991, Kenya has not managed to draft a new constitution. Structural transformation should entail, inter alia, public sector reforms to improve delivery of goods and services, constitutional reforms to devolve and decentralize power and strengthening civil society institutions that should help control excesses of the State. Most important, structural transformation should promote political emancipation of citizens.
5. Promote national unity and increase state legitimacy: While national unity is critical in State formation and building, there are few interventions undertaken in Africa to promote this noble agenda. In Kenya, Harambee was a national rallying call for national unity. However, after NARC took over from KANU in 2002, the State has relegated it to a micro-level initiative. In Kenya, promotion of national unity will require revival and nurturing of symbolic activities that unite people. For example, there is need to expand space or forum where Kenyans can share the national anthem, share national festivities including theatre and music. Most important, there is need to promote a national culture and language. Promotion of national unity ultimately enhances state legitimacy – citizens develop a sense of belonging to their nation and comply to the State’s laws without the use of force.
6. Strengthening institutions that nurture and safeguard democracy: State building in Africa will entail strengthening state organs or institutions particularly those that enhance democracy. They include police force, electoral commission, judiciary etc. Beyond these state-owned institutions, efforts should be made to re-awaken and mainstream Civil Society Organizations (CSOs). In 2002 elections, many leaders of CSOs in Kenya join politics and became part of the political elites. This weakened the civil society movement that was instrumental in pushing for multiparty democracy. To date, the civil society movement is weak and disjointed. In general, non-state actors should reclaim their space – part of which has been usurped by the State (and external forces).
7. Craft appealing ideologies for mobilizing citizens: One missing variable in mobilizing masses in Africa is a popular ideology. In the Kenyan history, MAU MAU is recognized as an appealing unifying force that empowered Africans to fight the colonists. However, after independence, nationalist movement lost its appeal. In Tanzania, President Nyerere used Ujamaa as an ideology to unite and mobilize his followers. There are few nations in Africa to date with popular ideologies. In the absence of the latter, politicians appeal to ethnic identity as a basis for mobilizing the masses. A nation without a popular ideology has weak pillars on which to build its unity and legacy. President Kenyatta struggled with Harambee while President Moi tried to adopt the slogan of “Peace, Love and Unity” (Nyayo) as his political philosophy. The incumbent President is yet to make an attempt?
8. Address the weakness of liberal democracy: A critical review of liberal (Western) democracy suggest that its major weakness is the tyranny of majority. Practically, in liberal democracy – exemplified by multiparty democracy – the winner (majority) takes it all. This practice spells doom for smaller tribes in multiethnic states dominated by one or a few large ethnic groups. In essence, unless liberal democracy is “moderated” by homegrown laws and regulations, it is despised by the minority groups in any country. In Kenya, for example, a presidential candidate is required by the electoral laws to have majority votes in five out of the eight provinces in order to win in a presidential contest.
As a referee, the State must ensure checks and controls to prevent tyranny of the majority – by taming competing interests, limit the rise of ethnic nationalism, reduce the escalating problem of exclusion in the distribution of national resources. Unless it is tamed, liberal democracy could increase inequality as dominant ethnic groups largely use their numeric strength to influence (at worst control!) political processes and resource allocation.

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3 responses to “The Challenges of Ethnicity, Multiparty Democracy and State Building in Multiethnic States in Africa

  1. stephen odima

    Thanks for your contribution on the same ,i am a student at great lakes university doing research so i would request that you may keep updating on any new event on tha same field.Thanks and God bless you.

  2. fakaa terna

    Your article is scholarly. Please keep updating it as it is useful to me . I am writing project topic on “Ethnic Nationslism and Nigeria Democratic experience”

  3. Khisa Caleb

    It is insightful. I wanted to add the fact that by having ethnicised african modus of governance, the seeds of african democracy project were hardly to germinate. The reason being that while in other regions democracy is perceived as open competition, in africa is seen as open competition among the members of the same ethnic group with closed space to other groups, hence destroying the very fabric upon which the thrills of democracy were to be founded. Go deep in teh african culture and you notice that struggle was communal in nature and never allowed for competition from without which weas instead dealt with by the militancy that the communities had. This has never ceased to define our politics. Or is it not a resource for contestations?

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