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date: 24 April 2019

Ethnicity in Africa

Summary and Keywords

Among today’s scholars there is a near consensus that precolonial African identities were relatively fluid, permeable, overlapping, and complex; that ethnic identities are socially constructed; and that a colonial order of delineated control encouraged Africans to rethink group identities and heightened a sense of socioeconomic and political competition along ethnic lines. There is also growing consensus that ethnic identities are nevertheless the subject of ongoing (re)negotiation and that, to find resonance, the politicization of ethnicity, while instrumental in motivation and opportunistic in character, must be rooted in linguistic, cultural, and socioeconomic similarities and communal experiences of marginalization, neglect, injustice, and achievement. Many scholars also emphasize how the realities of ethnically delineated political support reflect pragmatism and expectations of patronage in the context of difficult and unequal socioeconomic contexts, as well as the significance of remembered pasts and associated narratives of justice and strategies of acquisition. Such realities and discursive repertoires provide a list of grievances that elites can use to foster a sense of difference and mobilize local support bases, but that also provide nonelites with a means to question and counter intra- and intercommunal differences and thus social and spatial inequalities. Ethnic support then strengthened by a reinforcing cycle of ethnic bias and expectations of greater levels of assistance from co-ethnics. According to such arguments, ethnic identification and political support are rational, but not for the simple reasons that classic primordial, instrumental or neo-patrimonial accounts suggest.

Keywords: ethnic groups, ethnic politics, ethnicity, tribe, tribalism, autochthony, colonialism, invention of tradition, patron–client relations

Ethnicity refers to a sense of belonging to an ethnic group, with ethnic groups distinguished from other kinds of groups—nations, races, classes, and interest groups—by a sense of in-group connectedness that is rooted in a notion of shared cultural peoplehood. This connectedness assumes that individuals of different ages, status, and wealth are linked (and simultaneously differentiated from ethnic others) through a conjoining of cultural similarity and a perception of common descent.

In the mid-20th century, there was much debate as to whether ethnic identities were the result of primordial attachments that stemmed from the “assumed ‘givens’ of social existence” or whether they were the product of a false consciousness that was cultivated and used by self-interested political elites as a way to mobilize support and suppress class-based dissent.1 These primordialist and instrumentalist schools provided opposing accounts of the origins and political salience of ethnic or tribal identities, but both predicted the decline of ethnic identification and the rise of national and/or class consciousness in the face of modernization.

These expectations were not realized. Instead, ethnic identities across much of Africa and beyond became more relevant in the second half of the 20th century as ethnic consciousness was shaped and fostered (rather than negated) by factors ranging from globalization, urbanization, capital accumulation, and socioeconomic inequalities to political competition, conflict, democratization, decentralization, population growth, and scarcity of productive land.2 Together with the recent origins of many ethnic groups—such as the Mijikenda, Luhya, and Kalenjin communities in Kenya, which date back to the 1920s, 1930s, and 1950s, respectively—and the initial articulation of some ethnic traditions and cultural practices in urban contexts, the ongoing salience of ethnic identities led most analysts to reject a primordialist approach.3 Similarly, evidence of high levels of political consciousness and political rationality at local levels, together with studies that revealed the extent to which politicians respond to, as well as help shape, local political narratives, also brought instrumentalist explanations into question.4

Today, a constructivist approach dominates academic analyses. This approach views ethnic groups neither as a natural outcome of social interaction nor as a simple product of top-down elite design. Rather, ethnic groups are seen as socially constructed or constituted imagined communities that struggle, not because they exist, but because they have come into existence out of a process of struggle.5 According to this approach, a common language, cultural practices, and home area can be used to assert ethnic commonality, while small distinctions of dialect and custom, local debate on relevant borders and geographic units, and divergent histories of migration and interaction can be used to assert ethnic difference.

Initially, members of this broad school tended to focus on the ways in which modern African ethnic identities were constructed or invented during the colonial period.6 This account was then contested by those who emphasized the limits to colonial invention and cast the colonial period as one era (albeit a particularly disruptive one) within a longer history of evolving group identities.7 The limits to invention stemming from the need for ethnic bonds to draw on a level of intra-intelligibility; most notably, a sense of linguistic and cultural similarity and difference, an assumed history of union, and some sense (or rehearsed debate) about what is right and just in terms of intra- and intercommunal relations and group rights. This debate constitutes an important part of the historiography. It also highlights how constructivism can incorporate key insights from the primordialist and instrumentalist approaches: by allowing for the “non-instrumental, deeply affective and emotional character of ethnicity” through recognition of how “[e]thnic identity cannot be conjured out of thin air,” whilst simultaneously allowing for the instrumental use of ethnic identity for political and socio-economic gain.8

The rise of constructivist accounts led scholars first to differentiate between “traditional” tribes and “modern” ethnic groups and then to reject the term “tribe” in favor of “ethnic group.”9 In short, while both terms refer to cultural and linguistic units, “tribe” carries the additional connotations of primitive or static traditions and an assumption of long-standing mechanisms for the discipline and control of group members across a recognized territory, which—as most scholars now recognize—has never accurately captured more complex and dynamic local realities.

In turn, the common understanding is that precolonial African identities were relatively fluid, permeable, overlapping, and complex; and that a colonial order of delineated control encouraged Africans to rethink group identities and heightened a sense of socioeconomic and political competition along ethnic lines. There is also a growing consensus that ethnic identities are nevertheless the subject of ongoing (re)negotiation; and that to find resonance, the politicization of ethnicity (though instrumental in motivation and opportunistic in character) must be rooted in linguistic, cultural, and socioeconomic similarities and communal experiences of marginalization, neglect, injustice, and achievement. This is not to say that there is no disagreement. On the contrary, areas of debate include the scope for ethnic invention; the role of Europeans and Africans in processes of colonial-era invention and imagination; the issue of whether or not bounded ethnic groups were constructed during the colonial period; key motivations for becoming and being a member of a particular ethnic group over time; the extent of (and motivation for) people’s negotiation and renegotiation of ethnic identities in contemporary contexts; the role and importance of ethnic identities in political competition and conflict; and the relationship between ethnic identities and other group identifiers, most notably, class, religion, gender, and generation.

Following is a discussion of the invention and imagination of ethnic identities and content during the colonial period, as well as the negotiation and renegotiation of ethnic identities from the precolonial period to date. Also highlighted is the political salience of ethnic identities in contemporary contexts. The analysis is biased toward former British colonies and countries such as Kenya and Nigeria where ethnic identities have been central to colonial orders and postcolonial politics.

Ethnic Invention and Imagination in Colonial Africa

The idea that “every African belonged to a tribe, just as every European belonged to a nation” was central to how colonial rulers understood sub-Saharan Africa and to how they justified colonial projects.10 The concept of “tribe” served as a central element of the discursive repertoires through which the continent was conceptualized as a dark continent in need of civilization and development. In particular, the British model of indirect rule, and specifically its reliance on a hierarchy of local administrators, had as its basic premise a notion of ethnic territoriality. This concept presumed that tribal chiefs enjoyed authoritative powers to legitimately define local duties and responsibilities, prescribe punishment, and measure justice over a certain area and local people. However, many precolonial African societies—ranging from highly centralized kingdoms to stateless societies—did not fit this categorization, highlighting the extent to which this portrait of “tribal Africa” was an invention of the colonial mind.11

Nevertheless, this image was central to the justification of foreign rule and to the colonial authorities’ efforts to control new territories with limited resources and questionable authority. For colonial officials, the control or disciplinary powers of chiefs and elders—on whom they were largely dependent for law and order, tax collection, and labor—were inherently intertwined with their understandings of local cultural practices and hierarchical relations. As Bruce Berman highlights, African colonial states were simultaneously weak and strong. Largely reliant on local collaborators, they were coercive, intrusive, overly repressive, disproportionately reactionary, and obsessed with the control of subjects rather than the development of territories.12 As a result, colonial authorities feared “detribalized” natives who, freed from the yoke of traditional power, would stretch thin policing powers. Together with the limitations of the colonial state and perceived experiences of industrialization and urbanization in Europe, this prompted colonial officials to find and delineate tribes and tribal leaders with whom they could work, a process that often involved the creation of entirely new ethnic communities.13

European missionaries also helped to define the shape and relevant content of emergent ethnic communities through the standardization of local languages to facilitate the dissemination of “God’s Word,” while anthropologists provided “authoritative” studies on “traditional” culture and society.14 In this context, a number of academics have emphasized the role of African agency in imagining ethnic content rather than in inventing groups and boundaries. Thus, Terence Ranger argued that “European classifications and inventions of race, or tribe or language, in effect created a series of empty boxes, with bounded walls but without contents. It was all very well to write of ‘the Ndebele’ or ‘the Kikuyu’, but to give meaning to that identity was a much more complex and contested business” that was bound to be a matter of internal struggle within African societies.15 According to Ranger, modern African ethnicities were constructed during the colonial period, when—as a result of colonial administrative and economic practice, the influence of European missionaries and anthropologists, and African responses—a colonial view of tribal Africa was invented by Europeans and imagined by Africans.

Given the diversity of precolonial communal realities, the notion of “tribal Africa” was clearly an invention of the colonial mind. In turn, the process of demarcating and administering Africans as members of supposedly bounded tribes helped to foster a sense of local ethnic consciousness, while various facets of new administrative realities provided Africans with powerful incentives to imagine ethnic content and to think and act ethnically. Africans (both collectively and individually) were catalogued and labeled, their movements often monitored and regulated outside of “home” areas, and “aliens” were sometimes forced to incorporate into the “local” majority. Moreover, collaborators tended to benefit from the clarification and ossification of customary laws and local decision-making processes, which often justified and bolstered their own privileged position.

The fact that chiefs, headmen, and local leaders became the key interface linking state and society—especially in British colonies where they constituted the major channel for distributing state largesse and the principal instrument of state control—also provided many Africans with reasons to invest in their relationships with ethnic leaders. Such relations provided a way to access centralized resources and avoid state violence, and, for men in particular, to try to assert control over local contexts at a moment of rapid social change.16 In turn, reference to common kinship became a way to approach, petition, and plead with administrators and ethnic kin, just as reference to ethnic difference could help one question the legitimacy of administrative powers or the presence of ethnic “outsiders.” Colonial officials also encouraged such strategies by supporting ethnic claims and providing them with periodic public forums, while simultaneously suppressing efforts to articulate interests and organize resistance at the national level.

The growth of social and spatial inequalities across the subcontinent also helped to foster a sense of ethnic difference—especially in contexts where colonial authorities believed, and acted as if, certain communities were relatively “advanced” and others “backward”—due to an overlap (both real and perceived) between livelihoods, class schisms, and ethnic groupings.17 Parallel developments occurred in urban centers, where migrants tended (and were often encouraged) to reside near kin and residents from home areas. Several factors encouraged these residents to identify themselves and others as “tribesmen.” This included the uncertainties of urban life, similarities in language, culture, and culinary tastes; the overriding logic of “tribal Africa” and related ethnic stereotypes (which included assumed skills and common proclivities); the establishment of ethnic welfare associations and social groups; and persistent attachments to land in rural areas.

Yet, it is an oversimplification to argue that Africans simply imagined the content of invented ethnic units. First, much of the information used to delineate Africans into tribes and catalogue ethnic content was offered by African collaborators. Such “knowledge” allowed collaborators to influence and manipulate the process of invention according to their own understandings and vested interests.18 Second, the processes of invention and imagining did not take place in a vacuum but drew heavily from, and were built upon, existing realities and real linguistic, cultural, and socioeconomic similarities and differences.19 Third, the scope for invention was limited by the need for ethnic boundaries, institutions, and traditions to find resonance with, and thus be accepted by, local populations. Fourth, and as will be discussed later, while colonialism may have encouraged Africans to think and act ethnically, these processes drew upon a longer history of change and did not leave fixed and unchanging identifiers.

Finally, many modern ethnic groups—such as the Twa of Central Africa, Kalenjin in Kenya, Maasai in Kenya and Tanzania, Somalis in the Horn of Africa, and Tswana in Botswana and South Africa—do not neatly fit colonial boundaries. Case study analyses of such groups point to the importance of European administrators, missionaries, anthropologists, as well as African culture brokers, in the creation of ethnic groups and the imagining of ethnic content, while also highlighting a range of motivating factors for ethnic association.20

For many Africans, the appeal of constructing and internalizing ethnic identities in this way was linked to a close association of people and place. This association is not unique to Africa, as reflected in a pervasive politics of belonging that differentiates “locals” from “outsiders” around the world.21 However, it was an approach that was endorsed and institutionalized with particular effect in colonial Africa. Colonial subjects in British Africa were encouraged to associate with an area, as geographic space became intertwined with a sense of legitimate control and rightful occupancy by particular ethnic communities. This association was promoted and ossified in different ways in different contexts, but measures included the establishment of reserves in settler colonies; the removal of “aliens” who refused to become initiated into local tribes; the passage of laws, sometimes including the requirement to carry a pass; colonial opposition to national organizations; and community-oriented agricultural and development schemes. This approach encouraged a two-tier conception of citizenship that distinguished between national and local citizenship, wherein understandings of who is really “local” tied the relevant demos with a spatially fixed ethnos.22

At the same time, economic imperatives often encouraged the controlled migration of ethnic “outsiders” into certain territorial spaces. In parts of West, Central, and southern Africa, this process of “mobilizing and fixing labor and populations” involved the migration of Africans from neighboring territories and has been associated with fierce debate and violent confrontations between self-professed autochthons, or “sons of the soil,” and those cast as “foreigners” in postcolonial contexts.23 Similarly, pastoralist communities in colonial Kenya were pushed off fertile lands in the Rift Valley, which were set aside for European settlement, with European labor needs largely met by the recruitment and migration of other communities. The contradiction of economic imperative and administrative practice fueled competing territorial claims to rich agricultural land in the Rift Valley between those who enjoyed rights as previous owners and those with user and purchase rights—differences that were articulated around independence in 1963 and periodically revived at times of political uncertainty.24

The colonial experience thus encouraged Africans to think and act ethnically in three principal ways:

  1. 1. The categorization and administration of Africans as tribesmen helped inform and promote processes of ethnic invention and imagining.

  2. 2. The growth of real and perceived economic and social inequalities, together with the notion of “advanced” and “backward” communities, helped encourage a sense of difference and competition.

  3. 3. The association of discrete ethnic groups with the ownership and control of particular geographic areas fueled a sense of difference and tension between “locals” and “outsiders,” especially in cosmopolitan areas where “locals” felt (or still feel) that “outsiders” have benefited from unfair advantages (either as a result of group action, market economics, state bias, or external interventions).

These processes occurred to different extents between and within individual countries. As a consequence, these historical differences—together with varied postcolonial political and socioeconomic trajectories—may help to explain why ethnic identities have proved much more salient and divisive in some contexts than in others.

Negotiation and Renegotiation

This focus on processes of invention and imagination during the colonial period, and the fact that colonial experiences encouraged Africans to think and act ethnically, have led some to view the colonial period as a moment of rupture, whereby relatively fluid, permeable, overlapping, and complex identities were transformed into clearly bounded ethnic identities. However, this account has increasingly been brought into question. On the one hand, scholars such as Paul Nugent have highlighted how, while colonial structures encouraged “Africans to rethink their relations with their neighbors … there is no reason to believe that this was the first time this had occurred.” Instead, a growing body of literature shows how precolonial identities evolved, often in fits and starts, over time, and how such pasts and associated institutions and oral histories can help to explain both the content and boundaries of ethnic identities that emerged during the colonial period and the strength of ethnic identities in postcolonial contexts.25

On the other hand, it is clear that, while ethnic group identities became more pertinent during the colonial period, such experiences did not leave a legacy of fixed and unchanging ethnic signifiers.26 First, there are questions about the ongoing salience of ethnic identities and the relative strength of other group identifiers—such as class, region, nation, or religion. Second, a number of recent accounts of ethnic identification in sub-Saharan Africa have highlighted how people continue to make use of confused terrains of cultural politics to debate and reinterpret ethnic brands, content, allies, and cousins through four distinct but potentially interrelated avenues of ethnic negotiation and renegotiation: ethnic conversion; factionalism through assertions of difference; ethnic amalgamation; and ethnic branding or positioning.27 This section will take a brief look at each of these avenues of ongoing ethnic negotiation or construction.

First, an ability to self-identify as a member of one ethnic community and at a different moment, or in a different context, as a member of another, stems from an ability to redefine one’s individual or collective ethnic identity on the basis of a rereading of complex histories (both recent and past). Complexities include past administrative boundary changes; developments in anthropological categorization; the existence of cross-cutting clans; and local histories of intermarriage, migration, forced removals, incorporation, and cultural borrowing, all of which can allow people (individually or collectively) to look back and redefine themselves according to the assumed ethnic identity of parents, forebears, or “original” ancestors. One example is provided by a small number of Kalenjin in western Kenya who—in the context of opportunities in a local settlement scheme and a burgeoning global indigenous peoples movement in the early 1990s—chose to look back at family histories of migration, forced removals, and intermarriage, and conclude that they were not Pokot or Kipsigis as they had previously thought, but Sengwer, another Kalenjin subgroup.28

In addition to such examples of ethnic conversion, members of an ethnic subgroup can also assert their difference from a larger ethnic group or call for the amalgamation of their subgroup with linguistically or culturally similar “others.” This stems in large part from the multiplicity of ethnic sets: individual ethnic groups usually consist of various clans and subgroups. At the same time, they often form part of larger linguistic or regional blocs, nations, or ethnic “families” (such as Cushitic, Bantu, and Nilotic). As a result, ethnic identities can “expand and contract in inverse relation to the scale of inclusion and exclusion of the membership.”29 Factionalism, or an assertion of difference, occurs when members of a subgroup draw upon cultural or linguistic differences or contested histories of origins and migration to declare they are distinct and separate from the larger ethnic group with which they are usually associated. In contrast, ethnic amalgamation occurs when people decide—on the basis of cultural, linguistic and/or socioeconomic similarity, interpretations of ethnic pasts, and an assessment of current politics—that two or more groups, which are usually regarded as distinct, are actually part of a larger and more inclusive ethnic grouping.

Instances of conversion, factionalism through assertions of difference, and amalgamation involve debates about relevant ethnic content, boundaries, friends, and foes. However, people can also debate ethnic typology—of whether, for example, their group constitutes a race, a nation, an ethnic minority, a marginalized community, an autochthonous society, or an indigenous people. Such debates are usually best thought of as a form of ethnic branding or positioning in response to economic, sociolegal, and political “markets” or audiences. Thus, the Comaroffs show how ethnic groups can be commodified for “consumers of the exotic, of spiritual reclamation, [or] jungle adventure” or be converted into “corporations.”30 Similarly, Hodgson reveals how Maasai activists in Tanzania positioned themselves as indigenous and later as pastoralists in their efforts to pursue local political and economic struggles.31

In contemporary Africa, the two most common examples of ethnic branding or positioning are assertions of autochthony and indigeneity, which are similar and sometimes overlap, but are subtly different. The minimum requirement of autochthony is a sense that your community belongs to an area more than “others,” while indigeneity rests on the idea that one’s culture and sense of self is tied to a specific geographic space. In some accounts, assertions of autochthony are said to rely “on nothing but the claim to have been in a certain space first.”32 However, on closer inspection, such a language of belonging lacks even that requirement. Thus, numerous communities proudly recall histories of migration and recognize local indigenous communities, but still employ the notion of being “sons of the soil” as a way to differentiate themselves from more recent migrants.33

Academics have highlighted how, according to such logic, those who have “come from elsewhere”—so-called foreigners, migrants, outsiders, aliens, or allogenes—do not enjoy the same kind of naturalized claims as “locals.” History provides many examples of where such a sense of differential rights has been used to paint “others” as second-class citizens who should not enjoy equal access to local resources or elected office, determine political outcomes, or even be residents.34 In addition, complex migration patterns, together with the cross-cutting layers of ethnic appellations (which result from changes to administrative boundaries and ethnic terminology over time), leads to a disjuncture between autochthony’s promise of “basic security” and the term’s “haunting uncertainty.”35 Such uncertainty can foster apprehension about autochthons’ “own authenticity [and a] need to prove itself by unmasking ‘fake’ autochthons.”36 This is especially the case in contexts where “being local” is an important means of laying claims to resources and political power, where “dead certainty” is sometimes only “achieved through death and dismemberment.”37

In contrast, the language of indigeneity in Africa goes beyond a general sense of belonging and puts ownership and control of land at the very center of communal identity, as critical to livelihood, culture, and religious practice. The African indigenous peoples’ movement began in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when communities such as the Maasai of Tanzania became involved in international networks and forums. This engagement, together with a common argument that all Africans are indigenous to Africa, led to a redefinition of what it is to be indigenous at the supranational level, as attention shifted away from an emphasis on original residence to “certain forms of inequalities and suppression.”38

This understanding, together with the legacies, memories, and interpretations of colonial and postcolonial histories, as well as a close association between many African ethnic groups and “the land” (which can include burial and spiritual sites, flora and fauna, and livelihoods), means that it is surprisingly easy for Africans to position themselves as indigenous in contemporary contexts. The main motivation for doing so stems from benefits (both real and perceived). Often these are concentrated at the global level and include involvement in the indigenous people’s movement, new international agreements and laws, and possibility of assistance from international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that want to work with small and politically marginalized communities. Becoming and being indigenous is thus often a “strategy of extraversion,” a means to mobilize resources and moral, political, and legal advantage at the global level.39 In contrast, indigenous peoples often gain little recognition from African states, a reality that has led local Maasai activists in Tanzania to shift from basing “political claims on discourses of indigeneity to discourses of livelihoods” at the turn of the 21st century in a “conscious effort to find less confrontational and more effective ways to engage state policy (and policymakers) in Tanzania.”40

Recognition as indigenous can also be significant at the local level, especially when national laws or constitutions give special rights to indigenous people. At the same time—and owing to the importance vested in an association between one’s ethnic identity and claims to belong to a particular place for claims of political representation, administrative positions, and patronage—claims of indigeneity can also be a means of asserting autochthony.

Processes of ethnic migration, differentiation, amalgamation, and branding—like processes of ethnic invention and imagining—are constrained by recognizable similarities and available memory due to the need for popularly accepted ethnic narratives to find resonance at the local level. However, the complexity and confusion that surround ethnic pasts, the ambiguous nature of ethnic identities, and the multiplicity of ethnic sets provide ample room for debate.

Finally, processes of negotiation and renegotiation are inherently instrumental as culture brokers and leaders use the language of ethnicity to secure access to political and economic resources and to bolster arguments for social justice. This negotiability of ethnic identities complicates academic study, but it also heightens the concept’s utility, since it provides space for debate, contestation, and reformulation. Indeed, it is this dynamism—and the ability of ethnicity to mean very different things to different people at the same time—that enables ethnic narratives to adapt and respond to an ever-changing world and thus remain relevant to ordinary people and useful to political elites.41

The Political Salience of Ethnic Identities in Postcolonial Africa

Political action across sub-Saharan Africa is informed by many factors, including divisions other than ethnicity (such as class, religion, generation, and gender), pertinent issues (such as opposition to graft and the logic of trickle-down Reaganomics), personal characteristics (such as political record and clever use of idiom), and perceptions of likely outcomes. However, in contexts such as Kenya and Nigeria, ethnic identities are clearly central to political debates and alliances. Given the constructed, situational, and negotiable nature of ethnic identities, such examples of politicized ethnicity raise at least two important questions: how and why are ethnic identities formed and sustained? And how and why does a particular line of ethnic cleavage acquire and retain political significance?

The blame for politicized ethnicity and associated divisions and conflicts is often placed squarely at the door of African elites who choose to mobilize support along ethnic lines, either for practical political reasons of easy mobilization and tactical advantage in the relative absence of other major social cleavages, or for protection and promotion of vested economic and class interests.42 At one extreme, such strategies of political mobilization are portrayed as a “ploy or distortion” on the part of African elites who use ethnic identities to “conceal their exploitative role” and as a “mark of false consciousness on the part of the supposed tribesmen, who subscribe to an ideology that is inconsistent with their material base and therefore unwittingly respond to the call for their own exploitation.”43 However, most analyses reject explanations that are dependent on popular self-deception and irrationality and look for alternatives that lend greater agency and reasoning to the nonelite.

One approach is of economic rationalism, with emphasis placed on the immediate material advantages gained from support for ethnic patrons. Molteno hints at such relations in his argument that a conflict of interest between urban and rural populations was mitigated by networks of communication and assistance.44 Many have expanded on this notion of mitigation through networks to argue that patron–client ties (or clientelism) link politicians and supporters through “a largely instrumental friendship in which an individual of higher socioeconomic status (patron) uses his own influence and resources to provide protection or benefits, or both, for a person of lower status (client) who, for his part, reciprocates by offering general support and assistance, including personal services, to the patron.”45

In postcolonial Africa, this is often believed to have resulted in neo-patrimonial regimes “where the chief executive maintains power through personal patronage, rather than through ideology or law,” and in which the “customs and patterns of patrimonialism co-exist with, and suffuse, rational-legal institutions” of the modern bureaucratic state.46

In turn, much of the literature on ethnic politics in sub-Saharan Africa lays principal, or even sole emphasis, on logics of short-term material gain. In so doing, scholars often look (at least in part) to popular political metaphors for evidence, and in particular to the common reference to the African state as a “cake,” to politics as eating, and to popular demands for “our turn to eat.”47

In addition to motivations of immediate consumption, however, individuals also invest in patron–client networks as a way to defend personal and communal interests against a dangerous and unpredictable state. Everyday experiences of nepotism, ethnic bias, and corruption produce a vicious circle that reinforces “reliance on the ethnic solidarity and patron–client networks that dominate bureaucratic processes in post-colonial African states.”48 This logic also helps to explain why ethnicity tends to become more politically salient in contexts of state and/or socioeconomic crisis. Since the perception that others are gaining from their ethnic identity and connections—particularly in contexts where other identities are weak, there is much socioeconomic insecurity, and/or uneven development leads to an overlap of region and class—encourages people to invest in and support co-ethnics, both in the hope of future assistance and the fear of losing out if ethnic “others” gain power.49 In such contexts, ethnically biased leadership becomes a reinforcing cycle of expectation and action, as support for “one of your own” becomes a rational response to the system as perceived.50 Moreover, it is a cycle that becomes particularly vicious in multiparty contexts where the electoral process is viewed as “a zero-sum game with definite winners and losers among a country’s ethno-regional communities.”51 While victory in such instances appears to open the door to various opportunities, defeat carries the threat of marginalization, dispossession, and even persecution.

Over time, such rational calculations of short-term material loss and gain may become intertwined and reinforced by more economically irrational feelings of affection, resentment, anger, and hatred. In short, feelings of belonging instill ethnic identities with strong emotive force (and thus political utility) when they are linked with strongly remembered or interpreted collective histories of victimhood, marginalization, entitlement, and status.52 This is particularly true when these narratives focus on land injustice and thus reinforce a politics that associates ethnic groups with particular places.53 In such contexts, ethnic histories provide a discursive lens through which the notion of “others,” and the morality and justice of different political and economic dispensations, can be viewed. In such contexts, ethnically delineated political support can be economically rational in the short to medium term; reactive to the actual and assumed behavior of others; and highly emotive owing to the link between collective pasts, group status, self-worth, and assumed prospects. While such behavior may be reactive and emotive, it can still be regarded as rational due to the intertwined logics of “exclusionary ethnicity,” or a focus on who should “not get power and control the state’s resources,”54 and “speculative ethnic loyalty,” or calculation regarding the advantages of electing community spokesmen who promise assistance but who also successfully portray themselves as strong defenders of local interests.55 The latter often include a commitment to tackle past injustices, such as historical land injustices, state neglect, or repression. Unfortunately, this dual logic further fuels a reinforcing cycle of ethnically biased leadership and political support, and can help to justify participation in intercommunal violence in instances where the opportunities or threats appear to be particularly strong.

In contexts where such political dynamics are visible, support for ethnic leaders becomes embedded in assistance broadly understood as immediate material reward and longer-term security, as well as a promotion of “rights,” “social justice,” and “status.” In this regard, a politician’s perceived ability and commitment to defend and lobby for local “interests” is usually more important than campaign expenditure and financial promises per se. Interpretations of this ability are formed through an ongoing interaction between perceptions of a politician’s past performance and future potential, perceptions of stasis or flux, communal narratives of suffering and desert, and institutional frameworks.

Finally, this understanding of ethnic groups as moral and historic communities complicates a common distinction between good and bad ethnicity as “ethnicity from below” versus “ethnicity from above.”56 In such analyses, the positive aspect of ethnic association refers to largely depoliticized in-group relations of interdependence and assistance and bottom-up pressures for redistribution, while the negative aspect refers to highly politicized external relations of intercommunal competition and conflict, associated with top-down processes of political mobilization. In African studies, this distinction is often articulated through reference to moral ethnicity—“the contested internal standard of civic virtue against which we measure our personal esteem”—and “unprincipled ‘political tribalism’ through which groups compete for public resources.”57 Lonsdale presents moral ethnicity as having the potential to provide a “culture of personal accountability” and common political morality.58 However, while Lonsdale is cautious as to the practical impact of moral ethnicity, others are more clear-cut regarding the democratic and antidemocratic nature of moral ethnicity and political tribalism, respectively.59 However, this is an oversimplification that distorts the more nefarious logic that can imbue both elite and nonelite thinking, which ensure that internal moral debates and a sense of competition can become conflated and confused.

First, and as Lonsdale recognized, moral ethnicity is largely grounded in “the idea that MPs are personally responsible for funding local development and all manner of other local needs.”60 This places a heavy financial burden on political elites, provides an incentive to abuse state funds, and explains why ordinary citizens do not unite against their leaders. Second, since ethnic groups are also historic communities, communal memories of past injustice, marginalization, suffering, and achievement can be used to lay claims to protection and entitlement in the present. In this way, evidence of a leader’s assistance of his kin can appear highly immoral for communities that believe they have been neglected or marginalized. In turn, such remembered pasts can form the basis of claims that it is “our turn to eat,” while the relative advancement of “others” can become a strong source of resentment, especially when they are deemed to be ethnic “outsiders.”61

Thus, while top-down processes of mobilization and incitement are critical for explaining instances of politicized ethnicity in sub-Saharan Africa, the availability and success of such strategies should be assessed through a comprehensive analysis that recognizes the role of formal and informal institutions, the agency of political elites, and the potentially dubious morality of bottom-up pressures, with public political forums providing opportunities for the expression of intimacy and conviviality, as well as subjection and domination.62 The implication is that, while politicians play a critical role in constructing ethnic identities and in mobilizing ethnic support, they also need to respond to and can be constrained by messages from below. These are not only performed at political rallies but are also discussed and developed in other contexts, from vernacular radio stations to church pulpits and local markets. Politicians can soon find themselves politically isolated if they ignore (at least too blatantly) local fears, grievances, interests, and divisions, while easy political mileage can often be gained from playing upon local communal narratives of angst and moral outcomes. The discursive repertoires of ethnicity thus produce a complex, confused, and often contradictory moral terrain of politics that can be manipulated by elites but that, in highly divided societies, is often foolhardy for them to ignore.

Understanding Ethnicity

The construction, negotiation, and politicization of ethnicity are thus instrumental in motivation and opportunistic in character, but they are simultaneously rooted in linguistic, cultural, and socioeconomic similarities, and communal experiences of marginalization, neglect, injustice, and achievement. These communal pasts can acquire strong emotive force as historical layers of interaction influence everyday conceptions of bodily, socioeconomic, and political fortunes and future prospects. The corollary is that ethnic identities can lose emotive force if such factors are absent or if they are countered by strong, ethnically neutral leadership and institutions.

Consequently, the realities of ethnically delineated political support reflect pragmatism and expectations of patronage, as well as the significance of remembered pasts and associated narratives of justice and strategies of acquisition. Such realities and discursive repertoires provide a list of grievances that elites can use to foster a sense of difference and mobilize local support bases, but also provide nonelites with a means to question and counter intra- and intercommunal differences and thus social and spatial inequalities. Ethnic identification and political support are thus rational but not for the simple reasons that classic primaordial, instrumental or neo-patrimonial accounts suggest. Consequently, a comprehensive understanding of the nature and political salience of ethnic identities can promote a better understanding of those contexts where ethnic identities are central to political dynamics as well as those where such consciousness has limited political importance.

Discussion of the Literature

While there has been some debate between the primordialist, instrumentalist, and constructivist schools of thoughts on the origin and nature of ethnic identities, much of the literature on ethnicity in Africa (particularly by historians and anthropologists) has concentrated on processes of ethnic construction—for example, on how processes were invented and/or imagined during the colonial period; the limits of invention and need for ethnic identifiers and content to resonate with local populations; and ways in which ethnic boundaries and relevant ethnic content, friends, and foes have changed over time. Another body of literature focuses more on the political salience of ethnic identities and on whether ethnic identities are simply used by politicians, or whether the politicization of ethnicity, while instrumental in motivation and opportunistic in character, is simultaneously rooted in linguistic, cultural, and socioeconomic similarities and communal experiences of marginalization, neglect, injustice, and achievement. Other areas of debate include key motivations for becoming and being a member of a particular ethnic group over time; the role and importance of ethnic identities in political mobilization, competition, and conflict; the relationship between ethnic identity and political support/voting patterns; efforts to address divisive ethnic politics through institutional design, socioeconomic redress, liberal peace-building and/or reconciliation; and the relationship between ethnic identities and other group identifiers, such as class, religion, gender, and generation.

Primary Sources

Primary sources will vary by country, but a good place to start is with (1) publications by colonial officials, anthropologists, and missionaries that constitute examples of ethnic construction in action, such as Samuel Johnson’s The History of the Yoruba (1921); (2) local (for example, district or provincial) annual reports from colonial and postcolonial administrators, which discuss (among other things) local communities and their relations, complaints, and politics; (3) records in country archives that specifically focus on ethnic associations; (4) self-consciously ethnic publications and other cultural materials from the colonial period to date, which often come in the form of community newspapers, newsletters, pamphlets and songs; and (5) colonial and postcolonial commissions of inquiry and associated submissions that provide insights into intercommunal relations—including, for example, commissions of inquiry that investigate a review of administrative boundaries, land disputes, or moments of interethnic violence.

Further Reading

Comaroff, John L., and Jean Comaroff. Ethnicity, Inc. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Geschiere, Peter. The Perils of Belonging: Autochthony, Citizenship and Exclusion in Africa and Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Lentz, Carola. “‘Tribalism’ and Ethnicity in Africa: A Review of Four Decades of Anglophone Research.” Cahiers des Sciences Humaines 31, no. 2 (1995): 303–328.Find this resource:

Lynch, Gabrielle. I Say to You: Ethnic Politics and the Kalenjin in Kenya. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Mamdani, Mahmood. Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.Find this resource:


(1.) Clifford Geertz, “The Integrative Revolution: Primordial Sentiments and Civil Politics in the New States,” in Old Societies and New States: The Quest for Modernity in Asia and Africa, ed. Clifford Geertz (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1963), 109. For example, see Archie Mafeje, “The Ideology of ‘Tribalism’,” Journal of Modern African Studies 9, no. 2 (1971): 253–261.

(2.) For example, see Okwudiba Nnoli ed., Ethnic Conflicts in Africa (Dakar: CODESRIA, 1998); Eghosa Osaghae, “Explaining the Changing Patterns of Ethnic Politics in Nigeria,” Nationalism and Ethnic Politics 9, no. 3 (2003): 54–73; and John O. Oucho, Undercurrents of Ethnic Conflicts in Kenya (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2002).

(3.) J. Clyde Mitchell, The Kalela Dance: Aspects of Social Relationships among Urban Africans in Northern Rhodesia (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1956).

(4.) See Joel D. Barkan, “Comment: Further Reassessment of ‘Conventional Wisdom’: Political Knowledge and Voting Behaviour in Rural Kenya,” American Political Science Review 70, no. 2 (1976): 452–455 on high levels of political consciousness and rationality. See Gabrielle Lynch, G. (2011) I Say to You: Ethnic Politics and the Kalenjin in Kenya, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011) on the interactive dynamic between politicians and political narratives.

(5.) Cf. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983).

(6.) John Iliffe, A Modern History of Tanganyika (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1979); Terence Ranger, “The Invention of Tradition Revisited: The Case of Colonial Africa,” in Legitimacy and the State in Twentieth Century Africa, eds. Terence Ranger and Olufemi Vaughan (Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1993).

(7.) Alexander Kesse, Ethnicity and the Colonial State (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2016); Carola Lentz, Ethnicity and the Making of History in Northern Ghana (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006); Paul Nugent, “Putting the History Back into Ethnicity: Enslavement, Religion and Cultural Brokerage in the Construction of Mandinka/Jola and Ewe/Agotime Identities in West Africa c. 1650–1930,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 50, no. 4 (2008): 920–948; J. D. Y. Peel, “The Cultural Work of Yoruba Ethnogenesis,” in History and Ethnicity, eds. E. Tonkin, M. Mc Donald, and M. Chapman (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 1983); and Thomas Spear, “Neo-traditionalism and the Limits of Invention in British Colonial Africa,” Journal of African History 44 (2003): 3–27.

(8.) Bruce Berman, “Ethnicity, Patronage and the African State: The Politics of Uncivil Nationalism,” African Affairs 97 (1998): 309, 312.

(9.) Max Gluckman, “Tribalism in Modern British Central Africa,” Cahiers d’ études africaines 1, no. 1 (1960): 55–70; and Aidan Southall, “The Illusion of Tribe,” Journal of Asian and African Studies 5, no. 1–2 (1970): 28–50.

(10.) Iliffe, A Modern History of Tanganyika, 323.

(11.) Christopher Ehret, The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002).

(12.) Bruce Berman, Control and Crisis in Colonial Kenya: The Dialectic of Domination (London: James Currey, 1990).

(13.) Iliffe, A Modern History of Tanganyika.

(14.) Jean-Loup Amselle, Mestizo Logics: Anthropology of Identity in Africa and Elsewhere (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998).

(15.) Ranger, “The Invention of Tradition Revisited,” 27.

(16.) Leroy Vail, “Introduction: Ethnicity in Southern African History,” in The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa, ed. Leroy Vail (London: James Currey, 1989).

(17.) For example, see Abner Cohen, Custom and Politics in Urban Africa: A Study of Hausa Migrants in Yoruba Towns (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969).

(18.) John Willis, “The Makings of a Tribe: Bondei Identities and History,” Journal of African History 33, no. 2 (1992): 191–208.

(19.) Carola Lentz and Paiul Nugent, eds., Ethnicity in Ghana: The Limits of Invention (Basingstoke, UK: St. Martin’s Press, 2000).

(20.) Southall, “The Illusion of Tribe.”

(21.) Peter Geschiere, The Perils of Belonging: Autochthony, Citizenship and Exclusion in Africa and Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

(22.) Mahmood Mamdani, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996).

(23.) Ruth Marshall-Fratani, “The War of ‘Who Is Who’: Autochthony, Nationalism, and Citizenship in the Ivorian Crisis,” African Studies Review 49, no. 2 (2006): 15.

(24.) Lynch, I Say to You; and Oucho, Undercurrents of Ethnic Conflicts.

(25.) Alexander Kesee, Ethnicity and the Colonial State (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2016); J. D. Y. Peel, Ijeshas sud Nigerians: The Incorporation of a Yoruba Kingdom (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983); and T. Spear and R. Waller, eds., Being Maasai: Ethnicity and Identity in East Africa (Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1993).

(26.) Lentz, “‘Tribalism’ and Ethnicity in Africa.”

(27.) John L. Comaroff and Jean Comaroff, Ethnicity. Inc. (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2009); and Lynch, I Say to You.

(28.) Lynch, I Say to You.

(29.) Ronald Cohen, “Ethnicity: Problem and Focus in Anthropology,” Annual Review of Anthropology 7 (1978): 387.

(30.) Comaroff and Comaroff, Ethnicity Inc., 2–4.

(31.) Dorothy Hodgson, Being Maasai, Becoming Indigenous: Postcolonial Politics in a Neoliberal World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011), xi.

(32.) Kevin C. Dunn, “‘Sons of the Soil’ and Contemporary State Making: Autochthony, Uncertainty and Political Violence in Africa,” Third World Quarterly 30, no. 1 (2009): 121.

(33.) Alec Leonhardt, “Baka and the Magic of the State: Between Autochthony and Citizenship,” African Studies Review 49, no. 2 (2006): 69–94.

(34.) Sarah Jenkins, “Ethnicity, Violence, and the Immigrant-Guest Metaphor in Kenya,” African Affairs 111, no. 445 (2012): 576–596.

(35.) Peter Geschiere, The Perils of Belonging: Autochthony, Citizenship and Exclusion in Africa and Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 31.

(36.) Bambi Ceuppens and Peter Geschiere, “Autochthony: Local or Global? New Modes in the Struggle over Citizenship and Belonging in Africa and Europe,” Annual Review of Anthropology 34 (2005): 403.

(37.) Marshall-Fratani, “The War of ‘Who Is Who’,” 38.

(38.) ACHPR [African Commission on Human and People’s Rights], Report of the African Commission’s Working Group of Experts on Indigenous Populations/Communities (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers/ACHPR and IWGIA, 2005), 87.

(39.) James Igoe, “Becoming Indigenous Peoples: Difference, Inequality, and the Globalization of East African Identity Politics,” African Affairs, 105, no. 420 (2006): 399–420.

(40.) Hodgson, Being Maasai, Becoming Indigenous, xi, 175.

(41.) Cf. Lentz, Ethnicity and the Making of History in Northern Ghana.

(42.) R. Molteno, “Cleavage and Conflict in Zambian Politics: A Study in Sectionalism,” in Politics in Zambia, ed. William Tordoff (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1974).

(43.) Archie Mafeje, “The Ideology of ‘Tribalism’,” Journal of Modern African Studies 9, no. 2 (1971): 259.

(44.) Mafeje, “The Ideology of ‘Tribalism’,” 84–85.

(45.) James C. Scott, “Patron-Client Politics and Political Change in Southeast Asia,” American Political Science Review 66, no. 1 (1972): 92.

(46.) Michael Bratton and Nicolas van de Walle, “Neopatrimonial Regimes and Political Transitions in Africa,” World Politics 46, no. 4 (1994): 458. Bratton and van de Walle, “Neopatrimonial Regimes,” 62.

(47.) For example, see J.-F. Bayart, The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly (New York: Longman Publishing, 1993).

(48.) Bruce Berman, “Ethnicity, Bureaucracy and Democracy: The Politics of Trust,” in Ethnicity and Democracy in Africa, eds. Bruce Berman, Dickson Eyoh, and Will Kymlicka (Oxford: James Currey, 2004), 39.

(49.) Osaghae, “Explaining the Changing Patterns of Ethnic Politics in Nigeria.”; Okwudiba Nnoli, “Socio-economic Insecurity and Ethnic Politics in Africa,” African Review 4, no. 1 (1974): 1–23; and Rok Ajulu, “Politicised Ethnicity, Competitive Politics and Conflict in Kenya: A Historical Perspective,” African Studies 61, no. 2 (2002): 251–268.

(50.) Daniel Posner, Institutions and Ethnic Politics in Africa (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

(51.) René Lemarchand, “Africa’s Troubled Transitions,” Journal of Democracy 3, no. 4 (1992): 104.

(52.) Donald L. Horowitz, Ethnic Groups in Conflict (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).

(53.) Oucho, Undercurrents of Ethnic Conflicts.

(54.) Susanne D. Mueller, “The Political Economy of Kenya’s Crisis,” Journal of Eastern African Studies 2, no. 2 (2008): 201.

(55.) Lynch, I Say to You.

(56.) Dickson Eyoh, “Community, Citizenship, and the Politics of Ethnicity in Post-Colonial Africa,” in Sacred Spaces and Public Quarrels: African Cultural and Economic Landscapes, eds. Ezekiel Kalipni and Paul T. Zeleza (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1999), 273.

(57.) Jon Lonsdale, “Moral Ethnicity and Political Tribalism,” in Inventions and Boundaries: Historical and Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Ethnicity and Nationalism, eds. Preben Kaarsholm and J. Huttin, (Roskilde, Denmark: Institute for Development Studies, Roskilde University, 1994), 131.

(58.) Jon Lonsdale, “Moral and Political Argument in Kenya,” in Ethnicity and Democracy in Africa, eds. Berman, Eyoh, and Kymlicka, 95.

(59.) For example, see Jacquelin Klopp, “Can Moral Ethnicity Trump Political Tribalism? The Struggle for Land and Nation in Kenya,” African Studies 61, no. 2 (2002): 269–294.

(60.) Nic Cheeseman, “Kenya since 2002: The More Things Change the More They Stay the Same,” in Turning Points? The Politics of African States in the Era of Democracy, eds. Abdul Raufu Mustapha and Lindsay Whitfield (Oxford: James Currey, 2009), 13.

(61.) Amy Chua, World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability (London: Arrow Books, 2003).

(62.) Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).