Africa has always had an “Ubuntu” or “utu” (“I am because you are”) ethos, which perceives all persons as members of the moral community that must be accorded respect, inclusion and protection. Yet parts of our continent have sometimes been deeply divided by war along ethnic and religious lines.
It is a matter of grave concern for, among others, the African Union, whose Peace and Security Council tasked me recently with making a case for why ethnic pluralism matters for prevention of violent conflict.
Wars have been fought on the basis of identity for centuries. We know this from historical and other texts, as education and media have fashioned, communicated and disseminated violence so well that history is read as a succession of wars rather than, for example, as the growth of art, transport, or languages.
Much of the history studied in schools is a chronicle of violence and war and a celebration of the heroes and heroines they created.
For instance, in the year 1234, Sundiata created the empire of Mali through conquest. Between 1421 and 1438, Zaria under Queen Amina conquered all the towns as far as Kwararafa and Nupe in Nigeria. In the 1670s, the famous Osei Tutu of the Ashanti of Ghana created a constitution and a virtually invincible army.
Any mention of Shaka in 1880’s South African history brings to mind the image of the Zulu king leading his warriors in a “bull horn” pincer formation to encircle and crush his enemies. Dahomey had a large standing army, of both men and women fighters believed by 19th century European observers to be the strongest and best organised on the West Coast.
Ethiopians will tell you in great detail of the battle of Adowa of 1896. Dedan Kimathi of Kenya led the guerrilla warfare that kicked off the independence struggle in the 1950s.
The same applies to European history. The French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars have been copiously studied, as have the Hundred Years War and the conquests of Ancient Rome. The First and Second World War have spawned thousands, maybe millions of books, movies and official documents.
We have learnt to accept war in the name of identity, religion or country, even when religions forbid killing. Historical texts lionise armies and weapons.
War has become our shared glory, a collective mental representation of an event that group members internalise and remember, passed down from generation to generation.
We are also socialised, because so many wars are around identity, to see ethnicity as a problem that could lead to war.
The much quoted seminal paper by Claude Ake, Is there a problem of ethnicity in Africa? tells us however that we confuse our abuse of ethnicity with an abusiveness inherent in ethnicity ITSELF and therefore, we, not ethnicity are the problem.
Colonial policies on land use and management, access to education, patterns of population movement and settlement, employment and wages, uneven development of infrastructure and institutions, ethnic and racial stereotyping and mistrust contributed to many of the tensions and conflicts with which the continent continues to grapple. Colonialism, and for South Africans apartheid, is part of our shared trauma.
Present day post-colonial ethnicism has however reproduced the shared trauma in everyday life, manifesting directly and indirectly in the public and private domains in various forms of outright prejudice, harassment, discrimination, stereotyping and systemic/institutional marginalisation and the violence and genocides that have taken the lives of millions of Africans.
A peace through ethnic pluralism approach that involves a conscious choice to respect and value difference changes all this. We now operate in a global nation-state within multi-ethnic nations that make ancient intra-ethnic operations and the glorification of war insufficient to hold nations together.
This interaction calls for an expansion of the Ubuntu and Utu “moral community” to include all human beings, and therefore to extend caring and respect to human beings from different ethnic backgrounds.
This in essence, is ethnic pluralism. Intergroup contact theory provides scientific evidence that positive interaction, enhancing human dignity and respecting differences induces learning across cultures and reduces ethnic tensions.
An ethnic pluralism approach to prevention of violent conflict allows people to recognise how the fear of difference is used to misinform and stir up ethnic hatred. They understand that dialogue is needed to explore contradictions, recognise commonalities and find solutions.
They also understand that there is a distinct relationship between economic growth, respect for difference and ubuntu. Areas that have many ethnic groups living together respectfully are more likely to experience faster growth by reaping the benefits of pluralism.
Alice Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism: Exploring Ethnic and Racial Diversity for Educators and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides. [email protected]