Eye on Africa: Ethnic democracy

Posted in Africa | 23-Feb-05 | Author: Mvemba Dizolele

WASHINGTON (UPI) -- Africans do not negotiate their ethnic identity. Like the British or Spaniards -- who are first and foremost Scots, Welsh, or Catalans before they claim their national identity -- the Africans cleave to their ethnic identity. They are Kongos, Yorubas or Betis before they are Congolese, Nigerians or Cameroonians.

Demagogues and dictators have successfully exploited ethnicity to assert their power. Likewise, true democracy will not take hold in Africa until ethnicity is part of the political discourse. Africa calls for a brand of democracy that considers the ethnic makeup of a country. This is non-negotiable.

In some countries, colonization brought under a national umbrella ethnic groups that have little or nothing in common. In some cases, colonization forced warring groups to share the same national identity.

Often these ethnic groups are nations in their own right, having once been independent kingdoms, with varied political and cultural structures. In many instances, these groups are larger than some European nations. There are more Yorubas or Kongos than there are Welsh or Irish.

Democracy comes in as many forms as the countries that embrace it. The United States, France, Spain, the United Kingdom and Norway have each forged democracies that reflect their history, cultures and ethnic make-up. Africans need to do the same.

Democracy Norwegian or American style is bound to fail in Africa. Along with their ethnic identity, Africans are attached to the lands of their forebears. Like the Catalans or Welsh, Africans tend to pledge greater allegiance to the ethnic territories they call home.

Nigerians are acquainted with the delicate balance of ethnic power. In 1966, Nigeria plunged into ethnic conflict after senior Igbo officers (eastern region) overthrew the civilian government, killing the prime minister and the premiers of the northern and western regions. In retaliation, Hausas killed thousands of Igbos in the north, causing a massive Igbo migration back to their native eastern region. The Igbos took revenge on the Hausas living in their land. Eventually, the Igbos proclaimed their secession from Nigeria and formed the Republic of Biafra under Lt. Col. C.O. Ojukwu. A four-year civil war followed, which the Igbos lost.

Today the nature of the ethnic tensions has not changed much. For many years, the people of oil-rich Ogoniland have demanded autonomy in oil revenue management. As heirs of their ancestral land, the Ogonis feel they should have a voice in the decisions affecting their territory. Other groups echo similar feelings of frustration. Nigeria is a united country, but various groups feel marginalized, with little input over the management of resources extracted from their territories.

Because of their large size and ethnic diversity, African countries are better suited for federated democracy. A federated system would allow various ethnic groups autonomy over their territories, with the ensuing accountability for resource management and obligations to the national union.

The national government would reflect the alliances of different parties representing various ethnic groups and regions. These parties would ensure a transparent stewardship of the public good and safeguard territorial integrity. The traditional centralized system, democratic or not, tends to encourage nepotism and corruption.

Spain provides a good model for African countries stumbling in their quest for democracy. With a multitude of ethnic groups from Galicia to Catalonia to Andalusia to the Basque country, Spain has forged a federation that allows regional autonomy, preserves ethnic allegiance, and successfully builds a national entity.

Belgium offers another model. With two culturally distinct groups, the Belgians shape their politics along ethnic identities, with the Dutch-speaking Flemish and the French Walloons on different sides of the spectrum. Political parties reflect the ethnic and language divide as all initiatives consider the interests of the two groups. Belgian leaders have managed to hold their country together by accounting for ethnic identity.

The Democratic Republic of Congo experimented with ethnic democracy at the wake of its independence from Belgium in 1960.

Congo has more than 250 ethnic groups. With no ethnic majority, parties representing ethnic and regional interests emerged as the basis of the political alliance for the government of national unity that led the newly independent country.

Congo's ABAKO (western Congo), MNC (central/eastern Congo) and CONAKAT (southern Congo), among others, represented regional and ethnic interests.

Through negotiation and alliances, Joseph Kasa-Vubu and Patrice Lumumba emerged as president and prime minister, respectively. A democracy was born - one that accounted for ethnic and regional interests and would have kept peace and promoted economic growth in Congo. This democracy seemed to work, except for outside interference. Western powers had a different plan - to destabilize the new democracy for Cold War sake.

With the Cold War over, the new democratic movement in Africa has to account for ethnic identity in order to succeed. Ethnic identity is a source of pride among Europeans; Africans should embrace theirs. Until Africans adopt ethnic identity in the political discourse, they cannot build a strong national identity. A denial of this reality only benefits dictators and demagogues.

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