Ethnicity and Indigene/Settler Conflict

AFRICA, 14 Feb 2011

Adeleye Oyeniyi – TRANSCEND Media Service

Ethnicity and Ethnic Conflict


Ethnicity has been one of the regular features of the Third World societies. Africa has had more than lion share in ethnic-induced wars and violence. The issue of ethnicity has become the most viable factor, which explains the social reality of post-colonial Africa. During colonisation of African people, colonialists failed to put the issue of cultural differences of various ethnic groupings into consideration before lumping them together in (colonial) state formation. The oversight has constituted and remained one of the greatest challenges of post-colonial Africa.

In the past decades, the experience in Africa has shown that the continent has recorded a long list of ethnic violence and hostilities. Some of these wars may include the ones in Sudan, Nigeria, Rwanda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Somalia, Angola, among others (Horowitz, 1985). This is not to say that conflicts did not exist prior to this period. The history and oral tradition of most African societies contain elements of conflicts and ethnic conflicts, and intra-ethnic conflict situations. The problem at presenting the contemporary African societies is the rage and magnitude of these ethnic problems. It is therefore imperative to know what ethnicity is all about.

Ethnicity as a Value of Violence

The problem of ethnic violence has continued to plague the human race, attracting a litany of killings and other violent values. Nonetheless, ethnicity involves ideology, which is guided by primordial affections, while collective consciousness among the people is based on their common histories, ancestors, cultural values, beliefs, norms and traditions. In an attempt to preserve, consolidate and advance or promote the cultures and values by one ethnic group or another, the problem of ethnocentrism sets in. the inter-ethnic rivalry has led to a number of war situations on the African continent.

There has been a steady rise in ethnic violence resulting from the polarisation of ethnic groups forced to compete for resources and economic power. In Africa, this is compounded by the colonial legacy of artificial boundaries that cut across ethnic divisions. The concept of ethnic conflict does not merely refer to differences between values or levels of regional development. Ethnic conflict only emerges if there is tension between indigenous elites and authorities or amongst indigenous elites themselves. It is a dynamic process, shaped by perceived identities based on the relationship between the ‘self and other’. Ethnic conflicts have taken different shapes and dimensions which vary from those of the pre-colonial period.

A number of scholars have contributed to the subject of ethnicity, particularly as it relates to governance, democracy and violence. In Africa, some of these scholars include Eghosa Osaghae, Rotimi Suberu, Victor Isumonah, John Mbaku, Rita Agbese, Isaac Albert, Mwangi Kimenyi, N. Kofele-Kale, Peter Eke, A. Jega, B. Berman, among others. Most African scholars have argued that in as much as ethnic conflicts in Africa preceded the advent of colonial masters; the problem was indeed exacerbated and effected by the colonial administrative machinery in their colonies.

Investigations into forms and causes of these conflicts in the contemporary Africa are of significance for a proper management of the situation. Beyond total eradication of the problem, adoption of a better option remains the answer. This becomes the case because the existing ways and means of handling the ethnic conflicts in Africa have not yielded much sustaining results. Against this background, it is evident that there has been a persistence of ethnic conflicts, culminating in destruction of lives, property and traditional authorities and institutions in Africa.

A cursory look reveals that over 2/3 of the emergent African nation-states have undergone or are undergoing serious ethnic conflicts. With reference to the work of Ikeazor (1996), Nigeria, Congo, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Ghana, South Africa, Rwanda, among others, have been reduced to theatres of conflicts and ethnic struggles. These struggles may not have decisive end if nothing urgent is done to save the ugly situation.

Ethnic Conflicts in Contemporary Africa: Their Forms and Nature

There are varieties of ethnic conflicts in the present African nation-states or societies. Conflicts are either jaw-jaw (war of words) or war-war. It begins from the point of single disagreement to a point where open violence becomes inevitable and a continuous hostile environment is perpetuated (Osaghae, 1993). On a similar note, ethnic conflicts can be classified in a number of ways. There may be distinction between public realm ethnicity which involves conflicts related to the determination of who gets what, when and how, and private realm ethnicity that may not invite state intervention (Osaghae, 1994).

What obtains most in Africa is public realm ethnicity. This may be partly because of the limited development of the private sector in most African societies, though ethnicity in the two realms is recursive (Rahushka and Sheplse, 1972). Apart from the population descriptive analysis, another dimension in the classification of ethnic conflicts in Africa is the degree of manifestation. On this note, ethnic conflict may be latent or manifest. The latent forms are those that are non-violent per se. even though they be destructive in nature or lead to sporadic violence, they are indeed grievances and underground vexations. This may be similar to what is regarded as Cold War in the international political arena. In this situation, there are inherent hatred among ethnic groups and enclaves.

Osaghae (1994) posits that ethnic conflicts are not always violent. More usual or “normal” conflicts are non-violent and occur as part of normal life. In most cases, they are underground or latent and may not be obvious to the observer. Non-violent ethnic conflicts can be referred to as civil ethnic conflict, which can take the form of competitive party politics, judicial redress, media protests, and in some cases, peaceful demonstrations. On the opposite side is the manifest or violent conflicts, which represent only one extreme of a continuum. It is when channels of expression are closed or government fails to respond or responds negatively that conflicts can take violent forms (Osaghae, 1994).

Inter – Ethnic   Conflict

Notwithstanding the degree of manifestation, or whether people that are involved are private or public realm, the underlying factor is their bearings on inter ethnicity. This brings to fore the issue of interethnic violence in Africa. In fact, the history and picture of ethnic conflicts in Africa that has been popularised is one of ethnic groups tearing themselves apart and failing to reach agreement on fundamental matters.

The inter-ethnic violence which Agyeman (1992) terms “ethnic genocidal wars” that continue to erupt over land and other matters of purely local nature in Zango-Kataf / Hausa conflict, Tiv / Jukun conflict and Ibo / Annang conflicts in Nigeria; Konkomba / Narumba conflict and Nawauri / Gonga conflicts in Ghana; Topose / Dongiro (Southern Sudanese groups); Kokuro / Mayata conflict in Kenya have been cited as classical cases of ethnic violence. On the other hand, civil wars in Nigeria, Ethiopia, Somalia, Chad, Angola, Rwanda, Sudan, and Mozambique indicate the ethnic scourge perspectives (Osaghae, 1994).

Intra – Ethnic or (Host) Indigene / Settler Conflicts

There are also instances of intraethnic violence in Africa, such as those of Ife / Modakeke, Jos mayhem and others in Nigeria. It is noteworthy that wherever intra-ethnic conflicts occur, they may be violent, but not exactly comparable to what obtains in the inter-ethnic conflicts. One reason may be the presence of ethnic consciousness and binding factors, which are almost non-existent outside a particular ethnic enclave. Ethnic conflicts can also be classified or categorised on the basis of their pervasiveness or regularity or intensity. In this wise, the degree, intensity and frequency of ethnic conflict occurrence varies among African nation states.

The problem of ethnicity and the antecedent problems are more evident in Nigeria, Cameroon, Uganda and Sudan than in Benin, Zimbabwe and Tanzania, for instance. Lately, ethnic conflicts are on the increase in Rwanda, Liberia, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Mozambique, Zaire (Congo Democratic Republic – CDR) and Burundi.

Ethnic Conflict Challenge in Nigeria

As a result of boundary demarcations during the British colonial period, Nigeria became a multi-ethnic nation, with over two hundred ethnic groups. The three main groups mobilised around distinct geographical regions, including the Hausa-Fulani in the north, Yoruba in west and Igbo in the east. These ethno-regional groupings were entrenched in the 1960 constitution. Thus, ethnic conflict management represents a significant challenge for Nigeria:

. The colonial legacy of three separate administrations (closely resembling

three dominant ethnic groupings), is a major obstacle to national unity

because mobilisation continues to take place along ethnic lines.

. For decades after independence, ethnic tensions were exploited through a

‘divide and rule’ approach to power.

. Competition for natural resources has fuelled tensions between the oil-rich

South and the predominantly agricultural North.

. The location of oil in certain ethnic areas and its management by post-

independence governments have exacerbated ethnic tensions.

. Religious differences between the Christian South and the Muslim North

feature strongly in regional power struggles. Clashes over the introduction of

Islamic Sharia law in the Northern Nigeria’s Zamfara State is an example.

. Ethnic-based militant groups, formed to counter the abuses of successive

military regimes were accused of fuelling ethnic violence.

Integrative Model of Ethnic Conflict Ideal for Nigeria

The consociational or integrative model of ethnic conflict is, perhaps, the most relevant for Nigeria. This is based on power-sharing, and views different ethnic and cultural groups as mutual partners, willing to negotiate and make compromises in order to make the system work. The model can be applied to conflict resolution in Nigeria in some ways, which include:

. Encouraging a process of negotiation on the basis of inclusive and represen-

tative participation. This could involve the federal and state governments and

the leaders of the various ethnic groups.

. Adopting an ‘integrative approach’ to negotiations by building cooperative

relationships and providing an opportunity for diverse groups to fulfil seeming

contradictory goals.

. Avoiding raising decisive issues such as ideology and religion during the

preliminary stages of negotiations.

. Exploring the benefits of greater state centralisation to encourage national

unity. The number of states should be limited, as their proliferation has led to

increased competition for federal resources and contributed to ethnic frag-


. Advocating the effective management of economic and natural resources.

Oil revenues should be managed in a transparent and accountable manner.

. Giving greater attention to the poor economic situation in the north by

focusing on illiteracy, the development of trade and industry, improving

infrastructure and enhancing agricultural production.

Causes and Underlying Factors of Ethnic Conflicts in Africa

As the problem of ethnic conflict in Africa is real and widespread, it may be a product of several factors, among which is a structural ethnic consciousness, colonial factors and unhealthy competition. Among these factors, colonialism is seen as the cardinal and pivotal context which gave rise to other issues that precipitated ethnic rivalries and conflict situations in Africa. Consciousness of one’s ethnic origin or background is a psycho-sociological reality that is largely universal in nature. Ethnic consciousness may be described as that sub-conscious or conscious identification with one’s ethnic background. Such identification may sometimes be unobtrusive, subtle and largely unnoticed by others.

On the other hand, it may be obtrusive and crudely insensitive. Ethnic consciousness amongst people can be found in many multi-cultural societies in varying degrees, in conflict or coexistence with other forms of consciousness such as class, religious or national consciousness (Ikeazor, 1996). This infers that a high degree of ethnic consciousness or unguarded ethnic consciousness can result to ethnic tension and conflict where two opposing views converge. There are more of ideological framework towards ethnic rivalry and conflict situation. Depending on the direction of consciousness, national consciousness may be a strong factor towards nation building.

On the negative aspect, which is of more concern, ethnic consciousness may entirely be divisive and of parochial form. These undesirable forms of consciousness have, particularly in their unfettered forms, plunged many nations into quagmires of blood-letting strife and instability. Ethnic consciousness, also known as tribalism in some forms in Nigeria, in its extreme level reduced Uganda from one of Africa’s most promising countries to one of the poorest. It is the same form of consciousness among some South African blacks that is putting their country’s post-apartheid future in jeopardy.

In 1994, about five hundred thousand Rwandan women, children and men, old and young died, butchered by their countrymen consumed by the bitterest ethnic prejudice (Ikeazor, 1996). The ingredients of ethnic consciousness have been negatively harnessed by the African emergent unpatriotic leaders who usually bank on ethnic sentiments and arguments for their selfish ends. Ethnic consciousness provides African leaders with platforms for their ideological and morally deficient political positions. In order to sustain their position, the ruling class confuse their various peoples with conflict-generating theories and explanations, in the face of social and political questions facing them.

Ethnic conflict, in some cases, has been generated as a result of this singular factor. In Nigeria, for instance, the episode in the first republic’s Western House of Assembly of the 1950s, which denied the Easterner non-Yoruba member from becoming the first Premier of Western Region culminated in an enduring ethnic conflict among the two major conflict groups involved, and the consequent ethnic group that had the fattest blow.


The issue of ethnicity has remained a very visible feature of the continent of Africa. Ethno-violence has overtaken most of the countries in Africa. Ethnicity has been a tool often employed by the political elites in their pursuit of state power and resources. The flag of ethnicity is flown in the federal and state capitals in Africa in the allocation of state resources. Primordial loyalties and prevailing subjective perception that characterise ethnicity in Africa and elsewhere cannot be the underlying factors responsible for the enemy-image that dominates the inter-ethnic relation on the continent.

In the last few decades or nearly half of a century, African societies and the emergent nation states have been going through difficult times of ethnic conflicts, violence and antagonism. The weak state structure, endemic poverty, winner-takes-all philosophy, institutional deficiencies, among others, propel inter-ethnic rivalry. The general attitude of the political elites reinforces the inter-ethnic hatred that is experienced in Africa.

These conflicts have been unable to be resolved through the long adopted western models and paradigms of conflict management. A major issue is how imperialism and colonialism impacted on ethnicity and ethnic conflicts, which are traceable to the colonial masters systems of administration, arbitrary delimitation and partitioning. African traditional alternatives to conflict resolution might remain imperative for adoption in the new millennium.


In fact, it is paramount for the people and government of Africa to live above primordial sentiments and subjective perception as well as enemy-image among various ethnic nationalities that dominate the state of affairs on the continent. It is no gainsaying that the problem or ethnicity can be regarded as a veritable source of underdevelopment and bad governance on the continent. The inter-ethnic bloodshed and genocide that greeted Rwanda in the early 1990s dominated world headlines at that time.  The genocidal situation was responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent Tutsis civilians and moderate Hutus. Several other atrocities were also committed by Rwandan government at that time.

Thus, ethnic conflict has been at the forefront of international political debates for the past decade, which aroused concerns about practical solutions to reconcile diverse ethnic groups in the modern democratic state. In examining the concept of ethnic conflict and the impact of variables such as governance, civil-military relations, economics and religion on ethnic identity in Nigeria, advocacy for a ‘power-sharing model’ that promotes integration and cooperation, will serve as a means of overcoming differences and establishing a basis for dialogue.


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Adeleye Oyeniyi –

– Nigerian; Doctoral Research Scholar in Peace and Conflict Studies (PCS) @ the Institute of African Studies, (Nigeria’s premier) University of Ibadan, Ibadan – Nigeria;

– Teaches Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution (PCR) @ the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN), Al-hikmah University, Ilorin, Nigeria, and University of Ado-Ekiti, Nigeria – Ilorin Satellite Programme;

– Resource person on Peace-keeping @ Nigerian Army Education Corps’ (NAEC) Management Courses for Senior Army Officers, Sobi – Ilorin Cantonment, Nigerian Army;

– Holds a Master’s degree from European Peace University (EPU), Stadtschlaining, Austria and also studied Master’s degree in International Relations @ the Webster University, St. Louis (Missouri), USA – Vienna, Austria Campus;

– Holds a Postgraduate Diploma from Netherlands International Institute for Management (RVB), Maastricht; also has B. Sc. (Honours) Economics degree, University of Ilorin, Ilorin – Nigeria;

– Fellow, The Salzburg Seminar (Austria): The Entrepreneurial City;

– Editorial Consultant to numerous African-biased newsmagazines in: The Netherlands, Germany and Austria.

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4 Responses to “Ethnicity and Indigene/Settler Conflict”

  1. The ever continued situation of conflict in Africa is not a new thing to the global community. In fact conflict has contributed to the rebirth of political millionairess. Have been a peace volunteer to DR-Congo, Somalia, Chad, Uganda, Burundi, Central Africa Republic, Darfur, South Sudan among other conflict oriented countries and what i want to say is that, during my time in these countries, i witnessed politicians living lavishly, women living in regret and youths armed to the teeth ready to make a kill. If Africa will not address the situation of youth unemployment and the donor to stop trusting so much organization with big names, the war is yet to come. These big name organizations are only enjoying chlorinated waters of our extravagant cities with beauties for sale and the situation in the rural are worse. wars and conflicts are in the rural and not in the big cities where they camp misappropriating funds for selfish gain.

  2. James Okolie-Osemene says:

    Ethnicity continues to inspire most internecine conflicts in Africa due to primordial sentiments.
    most ethnic conflicts in Africa are being motivated by prominent politicians who use ethno-religious conflicts as a tool 5t achieve their selfish interests. however, it it highj time the people realised that living as enemies in the same states, communities or regions would do the continent more harm than good. the issue of resource – based ethnic conflicts should be addressed through joint-problem solving rather than mere politicisation of the conflicts or third party intervention.

  3. Opara Franklin says:

    Relationship is like a garden egg. You never can tell if it has a maggot or not until you take a bite. Sometimes last year, In my grand father’s parlour at the village,I learnt the lesson first hand. That day I had the experience of biting more than five garden éggs and non was without a maggot. That can be likened to a intra state relationship. I dont believe in compactability. No two humans can co-exist without a trace of incompactability. war has never been a solution to our incompactability problems.sometimes doesnt solve the problem. The truth is that, “there is magot in every relationship”. I dont believe in perfection. Nothing in life is hundred percent smoth. Scientists said the world is pherical but I dont believe them. The ages of this very planet is rough and ungly. How then can it be pherical? Every system has a margot. Every society has a margot. Even as this “margot philososphy” is real. Tolerance is all that matters.

  4. Opara Franklin says:

    Our generation has failed to reason.We are no longer creative in our reasonings. Is it not foolish to kill a black man because your skin is white and his skin is black? Is it not wrong also to kill a white man too because he is not black skinned? Did you choose your skin colours? It is equally stupid to kill in the name of religion. Did you choose your religion or you were born into it? Why condemn the Huasa’s , Igbo’s , Yoruba’s, Tiv, Calabari’s, Efik etc Did you choose your ethnic group or you were born into. Funny things happens all the time. white segregating the blacks. Racism everywhere. Religious fanaticism everywhere. Ethnicism, tribalism, geo-politiciism etc.( Fr. Frank…History & International Studies, Imsu-07…08038862157)