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Conflict and Perceived Threat in Eastern Africa

Summary and Keywords

Conflict and prejudice are universal phenomena and represent a major concern in most societies, especially on the African continent. Worldwide, just a few cases, such as the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Northern Ireland, Sudan, Eritrea, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, and Nigeria, have revealed how destructive prejudice and conflict can be to societies. Eastern Africa is a region that has been tremendously affected by conflict. Unfortunately, nations like Sudan and Somalia have been torn apart by many years of conflict. This has inevitably led to other societal challenges or difficulties, such as displacements, poverty, and famine. The question of why people get into conflict has been examined and debated internationally, especially in the field of social psychology. However, conflict in Eastern African cannot be explained merely by psychology. In order to have a holistic understanding of conflict, especially in Africa, it is important not only to look at social psychological factors, such as prejudice, but also to consider important political, economic, and social factors that may be related to the particular conflict, because the African context is extremely complex and the causes of conflict can sometimes be intertwined.

Keywords: conflict, Eastern Africa, prejudice, integrated threat theory, social psychology, ethnopolitical violence, intergroup communication


We live in a world full of conflict. In fact, intergroup conflict among humans has occurred throughout history. Despite the fact that conflict is a phenomenon that has been pervasive historically across human societies, groups, and settings (Alexander & Levin, 1998), it still remains one of the most difficult challenges people have to face in contemporary societies today, especially in Africa. Sometimes conflict is on a large scale, as in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sudan, Eritrea, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, and Nigeria, or it is on a small scale, such as conflicts involving competition, antagonism, and aggression among rival or competing groups (McDonald, Navarrete, & Van Vugt, 2012), but which have the potential to become major conflicts. It is almost as if wherever there are humans and groups, conflict is inevitable. Every day, it is common for the news media to have an item on conflict, either in the Middle East (e.g., Syria), or in Africa (e.g., Kenya, Sudan, and Somalia), or in the United States (e.g., conflict between the police and the masses), or in European countries (conflict between refugees, immigrants, and majority members). Conflict is a universal phenomenon.

This chapter focuses particularly on conflict in Eastern Africa. It is surprising that, although there is plentiful literature on international conflict, very little of the empirical literature focuses on Eastern Africa. Meanwhile, Eastern Africa is a part of Africa that is most affected by conflicts (Møller, 2006). There is a great need for research focusing on African contexts, and African researchers should champion and spearhead the research efforts. African contexts are unique and represent an important research area that is underexplored. This chapter explores conflict in Eastern Africa from two approaches: a general approach and a social psychological approach. The general approach focuses on economic, social, and political factors in conflicts in Eastern Africa. The social psychological approach focuses particularly on the role of prejudice, by looking at the integrated threat theory of prejudice (ITT) as a social psychological theory explaining conflict and antagonism toward outgroups.

Introduction to Eastern Africa

To start with, Africa is not a country. Amazingly, many people think Africa is a country and that the language spoken there is Afrikaans. Africa is a continent, with over 52 different countries and a general population of over one billion people. The continent can be further divided into Northern Africa, Southern Africa, Western Africa, Central Africa, and Eastern Africa (BBC, 2015).

Eastern Africa has been further divided into the Horn of Africa and East Africa (Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania), but the focus here is on the whole of Eastern Africa, and most examples come from this region and most concepts and themes are discussed in this context and from this perspective. The countries of Eastern African include Kenya, Sudan, Somalia, Zambia, Tanzania, Burundi, Comoros, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mayotte, Mozambique, Reunion, Seychelles, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Southern Sudan, and Rwanda. There have been conflicts between groups in many parts of Eastern Africa. Some of the conflicts have received attention in the media, especially large-scale conflicts, such as the Rwandan genocide, post-election conflict in Kenya in 2007 to 2008, and the ongoing instability in Sudan and Somalia that has resulted in violent confrontations, loss of lives, and huge displacements. Almost all of the countries in Eastern Africa are ethnically, religiously, politically, linguistically, and socioculturally diverse; with such diversity, conflicts are almost inevitable. As David Weeks said, “Conflict is an inevitable outcome of human diversity and a world without conflict is not desirable, because it would mean a world without diversity” (Oyeniyi, 2011, p. 1).

In the African context, conflict is difficult to define because there are different types of conflicts taking place in Africa, which necessitate a definition that takes into account the African conditions. Bujra (2002, p. 3) defined conflict as:

A violent and armed confrontation and struggle between groups, between the state and one or more groups, and between two or more states. In such confrontation and struggle some of those involved are injured and killed.

On the other hand, Biswaro (2013, p. 45) defined conflict as:

A dispute or difference between parties on specific issues. In this connection it may refer to differences in perspectives, opinion and value on specific issues. These issues can be social, economic, historical or cultural.

For his part, Mengistu (2015, p. 29) said conflict is:

An active disagreement between people with opposing opinions or principles. It is present when two or more parties perceive that their interests are incompatible, express hostile attitudes, or take pursue their interests through actions that damage the other parties. These parties may be individuals, small or large groups, and countries.

Mengistu (2015, p. 29) also outlined the different interests over which parties can diverge:

  • Resources: territory, money, energy sources, and food and how they should be distributed.

  • Power: control of, and participation in, political decision making.

  • Identity: the cultural, social, and political communities to which people feel tied.

  • Status: whether people believe they are treated with respect and dignity and whether their traditions and social position are respected.

  • Values: particularly principles embodied in systems of government, religion, or ideology.

While the last definition adopts a more general approach to, or perspective on, conflict, the first definition reflects the general types of conflicts reported in the media from the African continent, such as political wars and state rebellions, ranging from small to large-scale conflicts, and also including secessionist conflicts, genocides, violent confrontations, and civil wars. These conflicts are the ones that generally draw international attention (Mengistu, 2015). However, there are other types of conflicts within the region─religious conflict, ethnic or interethnic conflict, and class conflicts, to name a few. Examples are the conflict between the Karamajong of Uganda and the Pokot of Kenya over grazing land and cattle, or the ethnic conflict between the Luo and the Kikuyu in Kenya, which is barely reported on, except if it results in some extremely violent confrontation, like the case of the Tutsi and Hutu in Rwanda (Bujra, 2002).

Factors to Conflict in Eastern Africa

African conflicts have been classified in many different ways. For example, Oyeniyi (2011) classified conflicts happening in Africa under boundary conflicts, conflict over governance, conflict over economic development, conflict arising from the militarization of the society, and conflicts resulting from foreign intervention. On the other hand, Salim (1999) classified conflict into boundary and territorial conflicts, civil wars and internal conflicts having international repercussions, succession conflicts in territories decolonized, and political and ideological conflicts (Bujra, 2002). Although these categories reflect some of the different types of conflicts in the region, they also make the subject even more complex. It is preferable that the classification of Tajfel and Turner (1979) be used for an integrated approach. Tajfel and Turner (1979) classify conflicts into subjective and objective conflict. Objective conflicts are conflicts over power and have their origins in social, economic, and political structures. On the other hand, subjective conflict is grounded in social psychological determinants. It is an attempt to establish valued distinctiveness (Hewstone & Greenland, 2000). The categorization by Tajfel and Turner (1979) typifies two broad and integrated approaches to understanding and explaining conflicts among groups in Eastern African countries. In order to fully and better understand African conflicts, it is important to consider political, economic, and social determinants, as well as the social psychological determinants. Accordingly, this chapter first analyzes some important political, economic, and social factors contributing to conflicts in Eastern African countries and then the social psychological factors. According to Hewstone and Greenland (2000), there is more to most conflicts than just psychology. However, since there are so many social psychological explanations for conflict, the focus here is on prejudice, and the integrated threat theory of prejudice (ITT) is applied as a social psychological explanation of prejudice, violence, discrimination, bias, and negative attitudes toward outgroups.

General (Political, Economic, and Social)

First, it is important to remember that African conflicts are complex and are of different types. Because of their complexity and variety, it is sometimes difficult to generalize their causes or determinants. Biswaro (2013) noted that the causes of conflict can even be intertwined or interconnected, especially within the African context. It is also important to note that: “Although distinct, objective and subjective conflicts are often interwoven and subjective conflicts can exist long after objective disparities disappear” (Hewston & Greenland, 2000, p. 139). In the words of Adedeji (1999, p. 364):

Africa is a vast and varied continent made up of countries with specific histories and geographical conditions as well as uneven levels of economic development. The causes of conflicts in Africa reflect the continent’s diversity and complexity. While some causes are purely internal and portray specific sub-regional dynamics, others have a significant international dimension. Notwithstanding these differences, African conflicts show a number of cross- cutting themes and experiences.

The Struggle for Political Domination

It is not strange that many conflicts in Eastern Africa (as well as in many other parts of Africa) are motivated by the struggle for power. Several conflicts in the region, such as coups, have occurred because of an attempt to overthrow those in power or to dominate politically (Møller, 2006). Many of such attempts have escalated into violence and conflict between groups. For instance, the Eastern African country of Burundi recently made headlines as rebel leaders and fighters attempted to overthrow President Pierre Nkurunziza because of his decision to stand for a third term as president of the country. The conflict resulted in violent demonstrations and confrontations as the entire nation was divided into two groups or sides. Many feared it would escalate to war (Independent, 2015). In another example, the post-election conflict that erupted in Kenya between 2007 and 2008 was due to the struggle for political power and political domination between incumbent president Kibaki, who belonged to the most powerful and biggest ethnic group in Kenya (Kikuyu), and his rival Raila Odinga, who belonged to the Luo minority ethnic group. The struggle for political power and domination led to the outbreak of violence and conflict in some parts of Kenya between the Luos and the Kikuyus (Elkins, 2008). Similarly, in Sudan in 2013, conflict between those loyal to President Salva Kiir of the Dinka ethnic group and those loyal to Vice President Riek Machar of the Nuer ethnic group arose in the streets of Juba, leaving many in shock. The country of Sudan and its people are still suffering severe consequences of the conflict that erupted on that occasion (Enough Project, 2014). These examples illustrate how the struggle for political power should not be underestimated as an important factor in conflicts in Eastern Africa.

Leadership Issues

Most often, when leaders struggle and manage to gain political power, their administration is marred by leadership issues or leadership failures, which may include, but are not limited to, lack of good and transparent governance, lack of accountability, dictatorial governance, corruption, and leaders who do not adhere to human rights principles (Adedeji, 1999). For example, the conflict in Sudan today can be attributed to the leadership failures of President Omar Al-Bashir, who according to Forbes(2012), ranks among the five worst leaders in Africa. According to this same report, Al-Bashir seized power in 1989 from a government that was elected democratically by the people of Sudan. Soon after that, Al-Bashir dispersed all political parties in the country and disbanded the country’s parliament. He also stood against press freedom by shutting down privately owned media in the country. He has also been accused of promoting violence against Southern Sudan and he is wanted by the International Criminal Court for instigating crimes against humanity. With such decisions and failures, it is no surprise that the country has been plunged into a bloody civil war, which has been one of the main characteristics of Al-Bashir’s reign. More than one million people have lost their lives in the conflict and even more people have been displaced. No doubt, as Olaosebikan (2010) asserted, some of the virtues sorely needed among African leaders in the midst of the heterogeneous composition of most African nations are social justice, political tolerance, and administrative tact. One cannot but agree with Adedeji (1999, p. 11) that:

What African countries have lacked during most of their history, as independent states are leaders who are unifiers, chiefs in the true sense, who bind wounds, hold everything and everyone together, mobilize and motivate their people, pursue a policy of inclusion rather than exclusion and are seen by one and all to be of the highest integrity and beyond suspicion.

The lack of these attributes and virtues in leadership has contributed to both minor and major conflicts in Eastern Africa today.

Economic Difficulties

Economic difficulties obviously contribute to conflict in Eastern African countries. They may include, but are not limited to, the effects of poverty, corruption, and embezzlement; high rates of unemployment; and economic inequality or discrimination (Adedeji, 1999). Despite the fact that Africa is one of the richest continents in the world in natural resources, it is still considered one of the poorest. Many people in Eastern African countries still live below the poverty line, and poverty is closely linked to high rates of unemployment, especially among youth, and high levels of misappropriation and unequal distribution of funds by those at the helm of economic and political affairs (Olaosebikan, 2010). According to Poncian and Mgaya (2015, p. 107):

Africa is poor today mainly because its leaders have chosen poverty over development of its people . . . African leaders are, said President Goodluck Jonathan at the 2012 World Economic Forum in Addis Ababa, part of the problem of the continent as most of them place their ego above the interest of the people they lead (Ogbu, 2012). African leaders have actually been at the centre of persistent corruption, have aided illicit financial outflows and capital flight, frustrated local ingenuity, and led states as their personal property.

The corruption and embezzlement propagated and exercised by those at the helm of economic and political affairs contribute to economic difficulties, lack of opportunities and meritocracy, and the lack of development in the region. For example, according to Forbes (2012), reports indicate that President Al-Bashir of Sudan siphoned nine billion dollars from his impoverished country into his private foreign bank accounts. Clearly, such extortion leads to economic hardship and difficulties, and economic hardship and difficulties often represent a nursing ground for conflict. Biswaro (2013) rightly observed that an imbalance in economic development and unequal distribution of benefits or resources can potentially lead to tension between groups. Research has also clearly established the fact that there is a negative interaction between conflict and poverty in a mutually reinforcing cycle; for example, poorer countries are said to have higher risk of civil war than richer countries (Rice, Graff, & Lewis, 2006). As the popular saying goes, “A hungry man is an angry man.” It may just be a matter of time before people feel disgruntled, frustrated, angry, and tired and seek to have a change in their economic and welfare conditions. This may mean strikes, violent demonstrations, and protests, which may evolve into conflict, secessionist attempts, terrorist activities, or coups.

Ethnic, Religious, and Cultural Diversity

Countries in Eastern Africa are ethnically diverse or heterogeneous. Differences in ethnicity, religion, and culture may not necessarily cause conflict, but they may represent a breeding ground for political exploitation (Aapengnuo, 2010), because diversity is more often than not manipulated by the political elite for its advantage. For this reason, ethnopolitical differences are very common in Eastern Africa and represent one of the factors most frequently associated with conflict (Olaosebikan, 2010). Ethnopolitical differences have been a major source of conflict in countries like Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Somalia, Burundi, Nigeria, Sudan, and a host of other African countries. The world is familiar with the case of the ethnic rivalry between the Tutsi and the Hutu, which led to the Rwandan genocide. Moreover, although the post-election conflict that erupted in Kenya between 2007 and 2008 was a struggle for power, it equally had an ethnic dimension to it, and it serves as an example of how ethnic diversity can be exploited by the political elite. The incumbent president Kibaki, who belonged to the most powerful and biggest ethnic group in Kenya (Kikuyu), and his rival Raila Odinga, who belonged to the Luo minority ethnic group, not only represented two political groups but also represented two ethnic groups. In this light, not only was the election a competition for political power, but also it was equally a struggle for ethnic domination and control (Washington Post, 2008). Similar examples, such as the 2013 conflict in Burundi between those loyal to President Salva Kiir of the Dinka ethnic group and others loyal to Vice President Riek Machar of the Nuer ethnic group, are clear cases of ethnopolitical differences where ethnic diversity becomes a breeding ground for conflict. One reason is that ethnic diversity can lead to political discrimination against minorities because of the need for political domination. Consequently, feelings of hatred, distrust, and suspicion may arise among members of various ethnic groups. Such feelings have resulted in marginalization protests, social inequality, discrimination, unequal distribution of resources, and violent confrontations between members of the dominant and nondominant groups (Olaosebikan, 2010). Religious diversity can sometimes also become a breeding ground for prejudice and conflict. Of course it is true that some countries in Eastern Africa are overwhelmingly Muslim (Somalia and Djibouti), and others overwhelmingly Christian (Kenya and Uganda), but some countries are almost evenly mixed (Sudan, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Eritrea). Even though there is no clear evidence in Eastern Africa that religious diversity would necessarily imply conflict (Møller, 2006), some conflicts demonstrate that religious differences have provoked and fueled violence and conflict. Examples include conflict between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria (Yusuf, 2007) and the Central African Republic (Washington Times, 2015), which cannot be ignored even though the countries are not in Eastern Africa. Furthermore, clashes have occurred between Muslims and Christians in Tanzania (Reuters, 2015; Rukyaa, 2007; Tetti, 2014). Moreover, conflicts in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Sudan have also been linked to religious differences (Basedau & Vüllers, 2010).

Language and Communication

It is important to recognize that conflict can occur along language lines. The conflict in Sudan represents a good example of a conflict fueled by language politics. Historically, Sudan had always strived to develop and maintain a one-language policy, with Arabic as the official national language, within the paradigm of Islamization adopted by the ruling elite. The ruling government considered Arabic to be superior to all other languages. Consequently, Arabic was adopted for all levels of education and government in Sudan (Deng, 2005). According to the Sudanese linguist Yusuf el-Khalifa Abu Bakr, this language politics helped fuel the civil war in Sudan (Sharkey, 2012), primarily because many indigenous communities felt marginalized and excluded because their languages were not recognized as national languages. Such prolonged discontent over language changes can manifest as activism and may eventually evolve into full-blown language conflict (Plessis, 2013). In Sudan, there are about 40 million people, constituted of 56 ethnic groups and over 595 subethnic groups, and they speak about 115 languages. “Language is one of the main aspects of culture, customs and traditions and plays a critical role in protecting the identity and image of a community and nation” (Deng, 2005, p. 266).

On the other side of the coin, sometimes conflict can be fueled by linguistic diversity. According to Ndhlovu (2008), Africa is a linguistically diverse continent, with over 2500 languages, which is about 30% of the world’s languages. Some schools of thought have associated this multilingualism and linguistic diversity with ethnic conflict, political tension, poverty, and underdevelopment. From this perspective, “The multiplicity of African languages is often seen as a bane of African unity, whether at the national, regional or continental level” (Zeleza, 2006, p. 20). Batibo (2005), however, takes the perspective that linguistic diversity or multilingualism in Africa is not necessarily evil. It all depends on what people do with it. Some may use it as a divisive tool to create conflict, disunity, and prejudice, while others may use it as a tool to foster development.

Although researchers often consider ethnicity to be the main cause of the Rwandan genocide, other researchers argue that language use was the genesis of the conflict. For instance, semantic manipulation of terminologies in order to create ethnic concepts in Rwanda and to strengthen the concept of ingroups and outgroups was considered by Ngabonziza (2013) to be the root cause of the conflict. Communication in such situations of conflict can also be characterized by the use of coded language: “words, phrases and terms used by a group of people to make reference to an object, person or groups of people that can only be understood by the said group” (Siele, 2015, p. 44). In addition, an ingroup’s communication may be competitive. According to Taylor (2014), “Competitive language is characterized by communication behaviors such as justifications, irrelevant arguments, personal attacks, and excessive demands and threats,” and these may have potential implications for conflict. In the words of Adejimola (2009, p. 2),

Language as an instrument of communication may be used to influence personality; to declare war, to provoke, to incite, to oppose ideas, intentions and actions, to scatter, to condemn, blackmail, insult, destroy, tell lies, claim or testify falsely, to despise, abuse and to generate violence.

Social Psychological Approach

Social scientists have also been researching conflict between groups for many decades and have identified several social psychological factors that may explain and help us to understand conflict among groups (Alexander & Levin, 1998). In fact, conflict is not always violent. It only becomes violent when “parties go beyond seeking to attain their goals peacefully, and try to dominate or destroy the opposing parties’ ability to pursue their own interests” (Mengistu, 2015, p. 30). Many studies and theories have attempted to provide an explanation for why some groups get involved in conflict behavior. An example is social categorization resulting from social identity theory. According to social categorization theory, human beings have a natural tendency to search for patterns. This tendency more often than not results in the categorization of people into ingroups and outgroups. Those that we consider to be like us are the ingroup, and those we consider to be unlike us are the outgroups. This categorization often sets expectations and guides behavior in social environments and daily interactions (Cuhadar & Dayton, 2011), and according to social identity theory, social categorization (Hewstone & Greenland, 2000) and ingroup identification (Kosic & Caudek, 2005) can lead to negative outgroup attitudes.

Another major contribution from social scientists is prejudice research (Allport, 1954; Sheriff, 1966; Stephan & Stephan, 1996), which has been very significant in understanding or explaining hatred, discrimination, ingroup bias, violence, and conflict toward outgroups (Alexander & Levin, 1998). Here we focus on prejudice as a social psychological factor in order to explain or understand outgroup attitudes in Eastern Africa. Etymologically speaking, prejudice comes from the Latin word praejudicium, which can be briefly defined as “thinking ill of others without sufficient warrant” (Allport, 1954, p. 7). Allport cited two important ingredients in prejudice: “reference to unfounded judgment and to a feeling tone.” In day-to-day life, prejudice is usually directed against an individual member of an ethnic group or minority group (Allport, 1954). There have been several definitions of prejudice (see Duckitt, 1992; Pettigrew & Meertens, 1995), and one of the most cited definitions of prejudice is from Allport:

An aversive or hostile attitude towards a person who belongs to a group, simply because he belongs to that group, and is therefore presumed to have the objectionable qualities ascribed to the group . . . Ethnic prejudice is an antipathy based upon a faulty and inflexible generalization. It may be felt or expressed. It may be directed toward a group as a whole, or towards an individual because he is a member of that group.

(Allport, 1954, p. 7)

Unfortunately, human history and even contemporary societies have been consistently plagued with outgroup prejudice and conflict (Webster, Saucier, & Harris, 2010). The beginning of the 1940s saw the emergence of several theoretical explanations of prejudice and intergroup conflict. Most of these theories, such as the realistic group conflict theory (whose basic premise or approach is that conflict originates out of competition between groups over scarce resources; Sheriff, 1966), symbolic racism theory (Kinder & Sears, 1981), ethnic competition theory (Barth, 1969), and, most recently, the integrated threat theory (Stephan & Stephan, 1996), suggest that threat perceptions and fear largely contribute to prejudicial feelings and negative attitudes toward outgroups. Prejudicial attittudes toward an outgroup may not always lead to violent confrontations, because prejudice is not always voilent, but it does have the potential to lead to exteme conflict between groups. Allport (1954) clearly identified five degrees or levels of negative action, from the least to the most energetic, that may result from prejudicial feelings. They are:

Antilocution: At this level, most people who have prejudice freely discuss it with their friends and likeminded people─they have the tendency to express their feelings of antagonism freely but they never exceed expression.

Avoidance: The prejudiced person decides to avoid members of the disliked group but does nothing harmful to any member of the group.

Discrimination: The prejudiced person makes a detrimental distinction and promulgates unfair treatment of the members of the disliked group.

Physical attack: Prejudice leads to acts of violence and semi-violence.

Extermination: This is the most energetic manifestation of prejudice. This stage leads to genocide. The Rwandan genocide and massacres are a typical example.

Of the many theoretical explanations of prejudice, integrated threat theory (ITT) is the most recent theoretical conceptualization or framework on the subject of prejudice and discrimination toward outgroups. In addition, it integrates previous theoretical perspectives into a comprehensive explanatory model (Scheibner & Morrison, 2009). Therefore, this chapter focuses particularly on the ITT of prejudice.

Integrated Threat Theory

According to the original conceptualization of ITT, there are four antecedent variables that can lead to prejudice, discrimination, negative attitudes, and even violence toward outgroups or members of an outgroup. These antecedents are considered predictors of prejudice. They are realistic threat, symbolic threat, intergroup anxiety, and negative stereotype (Stephan & Stephan, 1996). Realistic threats are threats to the physical well-being and economic and political power of the ingroup. Symbolic threats are threats that arise because of differences in culture, religion, values, beliefs, morals, and worldview with the outgroup. Negative stereotypes are and ingroup’s fears that arise because of its negative stereotypical ideas about an outgroup, and intergroup anxiety refers to the anxiety an ingroup might feel in the process of interaction with members of an outgroup, especially if both groups have had a history of conflict. However, this discussion focuses on realistic threat and symbolic threat. The reason for this is that ITT has been revised three times since its original conceptualization (see Stephan & Renfro, 2002; Stephan, Ybarra, & Morrison, 2009; Stephan, Ybarra, & Rios, 2015). In ITT’s current revised state, only realistic threat and symbolic threat have been retained as the most important antecedents of prejudice and negative attitudes toward outgroups.

The concept of realistic threat originated in realistic group conflict theory (Sheriff, 1966). Realistic threats are threats to the physical well-being and economic and political power of the ingroup (Stephan & Stephan, 2000). They cause fears related to economic and or political domination, because of competition between the ingroup and the outgroup over scarce or limited resources (Curseu, Stoop, & Schalk., 2007). Whenever a group perceives another group as a realistic threat, it may potentially lead to prejudice and negative actions toward the other group (Stephan et al., 1998). An example is the relationship between the Hutus and the Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide of 1994 (BBC, 2011), where the negative action was extermination, as described by Allport (1954). Moreover, the ongoing struggle for economic and political domination between the Kikuyu and Luo of Kenya could be associated with the perception of the realistic threat that they represent to each other. A lot of the segregation, discrimination, tribalism, nepotism, bias, and prejudice exhibited in several areas of Kenyan society is related to the threat that these groups are perceived to pose to one another.

On the other hand, symbolic threats are threats or fears that arise because of differences between the ingroup and the outgroup (González, Verkuyten, Weesie, & Poppe, 2008). The differences could be differences in religious values, morals, beliefs, world view, language, or culture, to name a few. Symbolic threat can be traced back to symbolic racism theory (Kinder & Sears, 1981). According to Stephan et al. (2000),

One of the greatest sources of difficulties in intercultural relations is the belief that other cultures pose a threat to one’s own culture. Wars have been fought because of such fears, and, at a lesser level, feelings of threat commonly interfere with diplomatic, business, and interpersonal relations between members of different cultures. These feelings of threat also may prejudice the members of one culture against those of another culture.

The Eastern region of Africa is home to some Islamic terrorist groups, and terrorist activities are common place in places like Kenya and Somalia. For example, the world heard of the Kenyan mall attack (BBC, 2013) and the Garissa university incident in Kenya (BBC, 2015) that led to the shooting of many innocent victims. Events like these may also cause people to perceive their Muslim countrymen negatively or as a symbolic threat because of their religion and consequently dislike or prejudge them. This can lead to tensions and or clashes between Muslims and Christians, as is the case currently in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia and Sudan.

Unfortunately, studies on ITT in Eastern Africa testing the role of threats from an outgroup as a predictor of violence, conflict, or negative attitudes toward different outgroups are hard to come by. Nevertheless, in South Africa, for example, Laher (2008) utilized ITT and found out that perceived threats largely predicted prejudice and negative attitudes toward African immigrants in the city of Johannesburg. Threats explained about 68% of the variance. The outbreak of xenophobic violence and attacks in 2008 that led to the deaths of about 70 people, and the most recent outbreak of xenophobic violence in 2015 (Mkandawire, 2015), which led to the deaths of at least seven people, were not much of a surprise. ITT has also been used in other parts of the world to explain, understand, and predict prejudice and negative attitudes, such as antagonism and violence, toward outgroups like ethnic minorities (Nshom & Croucher, 2014), religious minorities (Croucher et al., 2013), immigrants and refugees (Schweitzer et al., 2005), and AIDS patients (Berrenberg, Finlay, Stephan, & Stephan, 2002). Whenever one group perceives another group as a threat (realistic or symbolic threat), they are likely to form a prejudice, and their prejudicial feelings may lead to violence and conflict between the groups (Riek, Mania & Gaertner, 2006).

The two approaches to understanding conflict and prejudice in Eastern Africa, the social psychological approach, which looks at prejudice (via ITT), and the more generic approach that looks at political, economic, and social elements in conflicts are important considerations in any interventions aimed at reducing conflicts.

Although social psychological research is difficult to translate into policy and practice, there have been cases in history where social psychological research has been successfully translated into practice and policy in order to prevent conflict or to improve relations between groups. At the least, social psychological factors help us understand intergroup and intrapersonal processes that are relevant to preventing conflict, restoring peace, and improving relations between groups (Alexander & Levin, 1998). In this direction, with regard to perceived threats and prejudice, Stephan and Stephan (1996, p. 423) stated that:

A consideration of the role of threats as causes of prejudice has important implications for changing prejudice. In order to reduce prejudice between specific groups, it may be useful to know which types of threats are the strongest determinants of prejudice between these groups. This type of knowledge would be valuable in deciding on the particular techniques that are most likely to improve relations between the groups.

Also, because many African countries are heterogeneous and are made up of diverse ethnic groups, there is a need for leaders to encourage the consciousness of nation building or national unity amid the existing diversity. This is in no way saying that cultural homogeneity by itself can prevent conflict, but countries like Uganda and Tanzania clearly demonstrate the beneficial effect of promoting a spirit of national unity (Bujra, 2002).

Competition over political power or domination is also a common reason for groups to fight each other. In Kenya, for example, there is often a struggle for political domination between the Luos and the Kikuyus. Therefore, the political system in such circumstances not only should be democratic but also should create the possibility and opportunity for alternate groups to be in power. According to Bujra (2002, p. 30), for such a system to be achieved, the following must be true:

  1. (a) There is an extensive devolution of power.

  2. (b) Accumulation of wealth through the use of state institutions is totally forbidden.

  3. (c) The principles of good and democratized governance are fully implemented, including transparency, accountability, an independent judiciary, and complete civilian control of the military.

  4. (d) There is extensive involvement of indigenous, independent civil groups in national and local affairs, especially in the monitoring of policy implementation and service delivery.

Moreover, poverty is a factor in some conflicts that occur in Eastern Africa. Poorer countries are said to be at higher risk of civil war than richer countries (Rice et al., 2006). There is a need to develop concrete and effective antipoverty strategies and programs. There is a high rate of employment in most Eastern African countries and majority of people are living in poverty. Whenever a group perceives that they are being neglected economically or there is an unequal distribution of economic resources, conflict may be inevitable (Olaosebikan, 2010). Therefore, the allocation and distribution of economic resources should be void of inequality, tribalism, nepotism, and discrimination. More often than not, economic resources represent a source of conflict in Eastern African countries (Bujra, 2002).

Concluding Remarks

In agreement with Hewstone and Greenland (2000) that there is certainly more to most conflicts than just psychology, conflict has been approached by looking at a social psychological explanation for conflict (prejudice), and by looking at political, economic, and social explanations as well. Understanding and approaching conflict from these two perspectives yields a broader, better, and richer understanding of conflict, especially within the Eastern African context.

Further Reading

African Travel Magazine.

Brown, R. J. (1995). Prejudice: Its social psychology. Oxford: Blackwell.Find this resource:

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