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Ethnic conflict and state formation in post-colonial Africa: a comparative study of ethnic genocide in the Congo, Liberia, Nigeria, and Rwanda-Burundi.


It is an undeniable reality that the 20th century was perhaps the most challenging century for Africa since the era of the Atlantic slave Wade and the colonization that followed. Besides crushing economic woes that plagued most of the continent, political instability and wars were the hallmark of the 20th century. One indicator of this crisis is the failure of state in most parts of Africa as authoritarian rule became the norm. The history of state formation in Africa has been a very difficult history in comparison to other states in other developing countries of the Third World. However, if one looks at the origin of colonial states in Africa, one can see that these neo-states were conveniently put together to further European metropolitan economic interests. The fragmental nature of these states created the conditions for abuse by local elite and their metropolitan bosses. As the continent continues to decline, economically speaking, its political landscape also continues to be marked by a plethora of dictatorial regimes, military autocracy, and one-party states. From the horn of Africa to the cape of southern Africa, where multi-racial democratic rule continues to reinforce the economic power of the old white oligarchy, the quest for true independence remains as elusive as ever. In Zimbabwe and South Africa, where multi-racial democracies are presided over by former freedom fighters, hope of true independence has since been dashed while self-rule has turned into a nightmarish dream for the majority of the African poor.

The failure of the majority of states in Africa represents a classic example of how European colonization fostered and exploited ethnicity in Africa with dire consequences for state formation. (1) For instance in Nigeria, the civil war of 1967 to 1970 resulted in the massacre of one million Igbo ethnic group of southeast Nigeria. The world recently witnessed organized ethnic pogroms of unimaginable proportion in Rwanda where more that a half a million people lost their lives to ethnic violence in less than three months. The nightmare that Rwanda represents still haunts the continent today. For several years, Liberia lapsed into chaos with the rule of gun undermining the rule of law. The question then is how do we explain the dynamics of ethnicity and its persistence in state formation in Africa without a reference to some ontological notion of inevitability? Perhaps, if we examine each of these cases separately we might be able to ascertain a common denominator or pattern for this development, which in turn, will enable us to provide answers to this question.

The paper is divided into three parts. The first part looks at the Belgium colonization of the Congo and the continuing crisis of state and society in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The second part traces the roots of ethnic crisis in Nigeria with emphasis on the role that British colonialism played in facilitating ethnic rivalries that resulted in the Biafran war, which claimed a millions lives. Finally, the third part reviews the events that led to the pogroms that took place in Rwanda-Burundi pitching Hutus against the Tutsis with tragic consequences and the degeneration of civil society into chaos in Liberia under the rule of its brutal rulers Doe and Charles Talyor. The paper ends by examining ways these tragic events can be ended through the building of democratic structures and state transparency that would reflect the needs and aspirations of African people in the continent.


Many Africanist scholars are surprised as to why the dethronement of the autocratic government of General Mobutu Sese Seko in the late eighties did not produce the much-needed peace in this resource rich nation of Central Africa. Like the rest of Africa, the turbulent history of the Belgium Congo is little known to the people of the Western World. In fact, Europeans often perceive whatever goes on in the Congo, like the rest of Africa, as exotic primitivism having no bearing on their western way of life. But hardly can the history of the West be written without a reference to the crucial role that the Congo Free State played in the development of western industrial might especially that of the Belgian imperial state. But this much is clear: The Congo and its turbulent history are both the creation of the West, and as such, the economic interests of the West in most part, determine the content and form of the political and social developments there. Thus, the West cannot morally excuse itself from the prevailing turmoil in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

A brief look at the history of modern Congo shows that the country was a product of an intense negotiation among the leading European powers in the later part of the nineteenth century. King Leopold began to show interest the Congo as far back as 1879, and with the formation of the International Association of the Congo, and the Committee for the Studies of the Upper Congo, funded by the king, Belgium imperial ambition in Central Africa was beginning to take shape. In pursuance of his ambition, Leopold organized and funded the Berlin Conference of 1884 to partition Africa. At the conclusion of the conference in November 26, 1885, The Congo Free State, a large chunk of African mineral rich land, was offered to King Leopold of Belgium as a gift for his initiatives in facilitating the conference. However, it should be stated that much of the area had been fraudulently purchased or forcefully acquired by Dr. Henry Morton Stanley for the Belgian king. (2) The principal beneficiaries of the conference were the British, French, Portuguese, and German imperial states who divided the entire continent, and its vast resources, among themselves.

In 1886, King Leopold organized an army of the most brutal officials to run The Congo Free State on behalf the imperial state. What was at stake in The Free Congo State was the King's vast properties especially numerous rubber plantations and copper mines. The King's army ran Congo with the most brutality ever known to mankind. Leopold's military commanders in the Congo Free State demanded that lesser officers bring to them maimed body parts of Africans who had either refused to pay taxes arbitrarily imposed by the king or those who refused to work without pay on the rubber plantations. Such were the brutalities of King Leopold's heavy-handed rule of his private property (Congo) in Africa.

Embarrassed by public exposure of these brutalities, the Belgian parliament was forced to take over the Congo Free State from King Leopold in November of 1908, and then re-named the colony Belgian Congo. Even though the Belgian parliament passed a colonial charter in October of 1908, removing direct control of the Congo Free State from the King, his majestic appointees continued to run the administration of the Congo with more severe brutality much the same way the King's disbanded army. President Mobutu Sese Seko's rise to power, after the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, marked a new chapter in the colonial history of the Congo. Indeed, it was the brutality of the Belgian colonial rule that eventually gave rise to a violent resistance against colonial rule, and the repression of this resistance resulted in the decimation of the population by more than a third by the time the Belgian state let its colony achieved political independence. Africans' protests against Belgian rule intensified immediately after the end of the Second World War. Rebellious Congolese peasants took up arms against settler Europeans, especially in the northeast and southeast where the Azande and the Yaka reside. The Belgian army and European vigilante groups forcefully repressed these protests. However, with the economic recession of 1956-1959 in the Congo, anti-European consciousness spread from remote regions of the colony to major cities. The unemployed educated African elite and labor unions were able to ride on the tide of these anti-European sentiments to achieve their own political agenda and began to push for decolonization.

These agitations led the Belgian parliament to agree to a decolonization talk in the 1950's. Of the 45 political parties that emerged during this period, it was Patrice Lumumba's Mouvement National Congolaise (National Congolese Movement, NCM) that really had a mass support, and the only party that gave the Belgian imperial state the most concern. For example, in December of 1958, a mass rally addressed by Patrice Lumumba in Leopoldville was viciously disrupted by the Belgian Force Publique (armed riot police) killing scores of Congolese trade union workers and their sympathizers. This massacre marked the beginning of the end of Belgian rule, and it was shortly after this event that the Belgian parliament agreed to a decolonization timetable.

Fulfilling its commitment to de-colonization, the Belgian government organized "The Round Table Conference" on January 20, 1960 in Brussels. The conference was attended by as many as forty-five political parties from the Congo. While very little was achieved at this conference in terms of the future of the economic control of the Congo, it however, succeeded in forcing the Belgian state to set up a six-month timetable for the transfer of power from Belgium to the Congolese elite. As history will now re-call, it was Patrice Lumumba's National Congolese Movement that won the election under guidelines set up in the Loi Fundamentale (Fundamental Law); a sort of self-serving constitution approved by the Belgium parliament. Patrice Lumumba was not particularly agreeable to the West, especially, Belgium and the French governments because of his populist rhetoric. By June 30, 1960, Patrice Lumumba was sworn in as the first African Prime Minister of the republic of the Congo. However, once Patrice Lumumba became president of independent Congo, efforts to de-stabilize Lumumba's government became a policy of the Belgian state. Indeed, Lumumba's official independence address was considered to the King of Belgium who had previously delivered a condescending address to the people of the Congo.

On July 5, 1960, Belgium soldiers occupied the copper rich region of Katanga where they had encouraged a pro-western opposition leader, Tshombe, to secede from the new independent republic of the Congo. As if this crisis was not enough for the young government, the nominal Head of State in the new Congolese parliament, Joseph Kassavubu, also a pro-Belgium politician, was constantly undermining Patrice Lumumba's effort to the point that the country became ungovernable. In desperation, Patrice Lumumba was forced to call on the United Nations for the maintenance of order. Finally, Lumumba was attacked and captured on a trip to Stanleyville, by hostile Belgian soldiers instigated by the CIA. He was killed in mid-January 1961 even though he was supposed to be under the supervision of the UN forces. The assassination of Lumumba marked the end of a democratic Congo, and the beginning of the most brutal era in the history of the country now re-named, Zaire by Mobutu Sese Seko. This crisis eventually culminated in the enthronement of President Mobutu Sese Seko who immediately embarked on a pro-Belgian and anti-Congolese agenda for more than three decades killing thousands of opposition forces as we elaborate below.

After the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the two renegade leaders of the Congo, Tshombe and Kassavubu could not agree on how to run the country on behalf of the Belgian business interest. Thus, the failure of the civilian elite to govern the country peacefully. Eventually, Colonel Joseph Desiree Mobutu seized power in a military coup in 1964. And of course, his coup could not have succeeded without the military and financial backings of the Belgians and the Americans. Mobutu quickly gave himself the title of president for life and formed a cabinet of loyal comrades and pro-imperialist elements. Mobutu immediately embarked on a reign of terror killing most opposition leaders that opposed his rule in addition to harassing students and journalists that criticized his pro-Belgian policies. Foreign correspondents that were critical of his rule were summarily deported from the country. In his thirty-four years of arbitrary and autocratic rule, Mobutu amassed billions of dollars in private wealth, making him perhaps, one of the richest men in the world. But Mobutu could not have stayed so long in power without the unwavering support of his major western backers mainly Belgium and France. The question then is: What was the ethnic equation in Mobutus's government that western powers were able to exploit so well? The answer is simple. Mobutu ethnic group represents one of the largest tribes that supported Belgian imperialism during and after independence.

The opposition to Mobutu's rule came from a well-organized rebellion that was supported by the Zimbabwean government. Joseph Kabilla, who had fought as a foot soldier in Zimbabwe's anti-colonial war, was able to garner support from different minority ethnic groups to wage an unstoppable war against Mobutu. Unfortunately, after Kabilla took over power on May 17, 1997, he surrounded himself with loyalists from his own ethnic group and marginalized leading members of the other groups that have fought alongside him to displace Mobutu. It was Kabilla's refusal to stop anti-Tutsi sentiments in the Congo that eventually led to his downfall.

The assassination of Kabilla by a disgruntled soldier further complicated the crisis in the Congo by re-kindling the issue of ethnicity that has been the biggest impediment to state formation in the former Belgium colony. The rebel group, Rally for Democracy (RD), led by Samba da Wamba later capitalized on the assassination of Kabilla and eventually succeeded in becoming a major power in the new unity government brokered by the United States and Belgium. Despite the commitment to national reconciliation program by the new government, the situation in the Congo today is as precarious as it was in the early independence days with many rebels fighting to overthrow the current unity government. Indeed several parts of the Congo are currently under control of rebels who opposed the government of Joseph Kabilla's son. However, one can argue that some progress had been made by the unity government especially in the areas of ethnic reconciliation in spite of hostile forces that are bent on destroying the political arrangement in the country. It is very difficult to predict how long this uneasy alliance between traditional enemies is going to last. What is clear is that the continuing rebel activities on the eastern and northern borders are most likely going to impede the national reconstruction efforts of the current government.


Liberia is one of the poorest countries in Black Africa and perhaps, the only country that has suffered most since its creation in the late 19th Century. It was the American Colonization Society who began to settle freed slaves in Liberia around 1843. On July 26, 1847, Liberia achieved an independent status from the United States with the Americo-Liberian elite setting up the government of freed slaves. The government set up by the Americo-Liberians did not include African natives who were for several years treated as second class citizens. In terms of ethnicity, Liberia is made up of more than fifteen groups. The Americo-Liberian comprised 2.5 percent of the population with the Congo people (descendants of slaves from Brazil and the Caribbean) also forming another 2.5 percent of the population. The native population represents the remaining 95 percent of the population. The primary ones among these native populations are the Kpelle, Baisa, Gio, Kou, Grebo, Mano, Kran, Gola, Madingo, Loma, Kiss, Vai, Dei, Bella, and Mende. The Americo-Liberia ran the country like a plantation enslaving the native people and using them as housemaids and unpaid laborers in the rubber plantations ran by the American Multinational Corporations.

The first president of independent Liberia was Edward J. Roye, a freed slave of Igbo extraction. He was born in Newark Ohio on February 3, 1815 and came to Liberia just a year before the declaration of independence in 1847. Edward's presidency of independent Liberia only lasted for one year (1870-1871). He was said to have been murdered by those who opposed his rule. Several other Americo-Liberians ruled the divided country for short periods of time until President Tubman who ruled the country as a benevolent dictator from 1944 to 1971 serving American economic interests. Another Americo-Liberian dictator, President William Tolbert, succeeded Tubman in power in 1971. Tolbert was born in Liberia on November 13, 1913 but his father came from Charleston, South Carolina. He was elected to power as the sole candidate in 1976 after he had been forced to have elections by the Americans and the Commonwealth countries of West Africa. During his rule, Tolbert opened Liberia up for American investors, many of whom dominated key sectors of the economy. Many of the native Africans were excluded from parliament and the civil service. Those who were lucky enough were able to find poorly paid jobs especially in the rubber plantations controlled by Firestone.

The treatment of the native Africans by the Americo-Liberian elite was an embarrassment to those who had dreamed of Liberia as an experiment for an American style democracy in Africa. In April of 1980, Master Sergeant Samuel Doe, a native African led his group, The United Liberation Movement of Liberia, and sacked the government brutally assassinating William Tolbert and some members of his family and cabinet ministers.


The overthrow of William Tolbert brought an end to the more than one hundred years of Americo-Liberian brutal rule of Liberia. Samuel Doe's primary objective was to correct the injustices of the past, and this he carried to the most extreme and banal length. Samuel Doe was born in May 6, 1951 in Tuzon, a small town in the County of Geddeh. Without a formal education, and with severe mental and emotional problems, Doe managed to get into the army where he was promoted to Master Sergeant in 1979. Starting with the officer corps in the military, Doe replaced officers with the Americo-Liberian roots with poorly qualified soldiers from his own tribe of Krah. Many of his own family members along with others soldiers from other tribes, that were loyal to him, were quickly promoted to officer rank after the coup. The civil service, which was dominated by Americo-Liberians and Ba-Congo educated elite, was reformed with Samuel Doe forcing the resignation of many long serving civil servants. In turn, Doe promoted several junior officers from his own tribe to top commanding posts. One of those who lost his job during this early period of reform was Charles Taylor who later became the president after Samuel Doe was assassinated in 1990.

In April 12, 1980, Samuel Doe became the Chairman of the Peoples Redemption Council (PAC) and began a rule of terror that resulted in mass killings of opposition elements, students, college professors and anyone that disagreed with the directives and policies of PAC. The majority of those who were killed were Americo-Liberians, and other ethnic groups that have challenged Samuel Doe's capability in running the country.

In 1989, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPLF) was formed as an umbrella organization of numerous rebel groups opposed to Samuel Doe and his government. The NPLF was jointly led by Charles Taylor and Yomie Johnson. Samuel Doe was ambushed in 1990 and brutally killed by rebels loyal to both Charles Taylor and Johnson. The assassination of Doe led to a power struggle within the NPLF, and this led to Johnson breaking ranks and forming his own rebel group, INPLF. Johnson immediately proclaimed himself as the Acting President of Liberia. Since there was no one to fill the void left by the elimination of Samuel Doe, and with increasing civil disorder and mayhem, the ECOMOG peace keeping force was able to install Professor Amos Sawyer as the interim president of Liberia. In August of 1990, Professor Amos Sawyer was finally sworn in as the president of Liberia. From 1989 to 1996, Liberia was basically under civil war with different rebel factions either fighting each other for the control of the diamond mines or fighting to overthrow the government of national unity led by Sawyer.

Towards the end of 1996, rebel forces loyal to Charles Taylor overran the capital city of Monrovia, sacking the government of Amos Sawyer. By August of 1997, with pressure coming from the member states of ECOWAS, Charles Taylor was forced to hold a popular election, which he won with overwhelming votes. On August 2, 1997, Charles Taylor was officially sworn in as an elected president of war ridden Liberia. Charles Taylor's rule was marked by a number of controversies one of which was the support of the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone led by Sankoh Foday; a murderous group that specialized in cutting villagers' hands and limbs with machetes. Taylor sold diamonds on the black market to procure arms for the group; a crime that he is currently being tried for at the World Court in The Hague.

Charles Taylor's rule was as turbulent as those of the Americo-Liberians that ruled before him. The numerous factions of the NPLF, who broke away, continued to wage war against the government of Charles Taylor, and these wars were primarily over the control of the mines. While Taylor occupied the seat of power in Monrovia, the rebels continued to sell diamonds on the black market to American and European traders who by now had aligned themselves closely with the rebels. In some of the remote areas, where these diamonds mines were located, rebels routinely invade villages killing women and children. Those children who were spared the bullets were carried away to join the rebel soldiers where they were trained to carry raids against government forces and local resistant units. This brutal war, which claimed several thousands of innocent lives, was supported by money coming from the illegal trade in diamonds or what is now dubbed "blood diamond". Once it became clear that Charles Taylor could not win the war against the rebels, the West became increasingly uneasy with him in power. And with the allegations of genocide against ethnic groups that were opposed to his rule, the Nigerian government, on the prompting of the United States, forced Charles Taylor to leave Liberia in 2003 and was given asylum in Nigeria.

After the departure of Charles Taylor from Liberia, a presidential election was held in October of 2005. The two prominent parties in the election were the Unity Party led by Ellen Sirleaf, a former World Bank and UNESCO executive, and the Congress for Democratic Change led by the former soccer star and millionaire, George Weah. In the first count of the election results of October 11, 2005, Weah won the highest votes among the twenty four presidential contenders with 28.9 percent of the votes but did not have enough votes to claim victory. In the run off election that was held on November 8, 2005, Ellen Sirleaf mysteriously emerged as the winner with 59.4 percent of the votes as against 40.6 percent for Weah. Observers questioned the long delays in releasing the result of the run off election, and the UN's management of the voting and counting procedures. It was clear from the beginning that the only candidate that the US would accept is one that is pro West. George Weah's candidacy was not one that the West especially Americans and British government of Prime Minster Blair would like because of the support he received from poor Liberians, and from former rebels loyal to Charles Taylor. This was an election that for many people in Liberia and for that matter, the rest of Africa, would not forget anytime soon given the many irregularities that marred its conduct. The unusually strong support that Ellen Sirleaf continues to receive from international circles, and her open embrace by George Bush's administration, raise the questions as to whether Liberia has truly made the leap towards democracy.

What is at stake in Liberia is not just the diamond mines, it is also the vast American economic interest in the country. In 1926, an American business man from Akron, Ohio, by the name of Harvey S. Firestone, purchased a large amount of a land in Liberia to set up rubber plantations in the country. Two years after the purchase, Harvey Firestone, with the backing of the US government, signed a concession agreement with the Liberian government effectively making Liberia one the largest producers of rubber in the world. Native Africans who worked on the Firestone's plantations were paid next to nothing, and those who refused to work for the multinational corporation were treated harshly by the Liberian government. Harvey Firestone's primary objective was to turn Liberia into a huge slave plantation much the same way King Leopold did in The Congo Free State. Whether Sirleaf's government will bring the much needed stability to this poor country, where more than ninety percent of its population lives below the poverty line, is too early to say. But what the election did was to bring Liberia back to the control of the Americo-Liberians and their western imperialist backers.


The ethnic situation in Nigeria immediately after independence in 1960 was very similar to that of The Democratic Republic of the Congo except that the ideology of British colonialism was slightly different from that of the Imperial Belgian State. In spite of this, British colonialism in Nigeria, and elsewhere in West Africa, produced similar consequences in terms of the destruction of local conditions that might have supported authentic state formation. Nigeria is perhaps the most heterogeneous nation-state in modern Africa with its over two hundred and fifty ethnic groups, and more than four thousand different linguistic and dialect groups) The four dominant ethnic groups are the Fulani and Hansa in the North, the Igbos in the Southeast, and the Yoruba in the Southwest. Within each of the principal ethnic groups, there are mini-groups united by language and claims to common heritage but whose minority statuses, continue to generate political discontent, and ethno-nationalism that characterized the shaky Nigerian political landscape today. Indeed, the perception of ethnic domination by minority groups may help explain why the political landscape has been, and continues to be, susceptible to constant state instability.

In terms of natural resources, the country is probably the richest in all of sub-Saharan Africa with vast deposits of crude petroleum, uranium, tin, gold, timber, and rubber. It is among the poorest nations in Africa. During colonial era, the abundance of natural resources led to several clashes between the major colonial masters especially the British, French, and Germans. In 1884 at the Berlin conference, Nigeria (comprising of three protectorates then) came under the colonial influence of the British. Initially, the British exerted control over the three protectorates, namely the northern, eastern, and Lagos. These were merely economic entities exploited primarily by the British crown for its own aggrandisement.

By 1914, in response to the constant violation of colonial boundaries by French bandits and outlaws, and also in response to increasing opposition to colonial exploitation by local chiefs, the British merged the three protectorates and declared a new nation that was to be known today as Nigeria. In a sense, one could argue that the creation of Nigeria was merely for administrative convenience of the British imperial state. As far as geopolitics is concerned, Nigeria is merely an amalgam of different cultures with very little shared historical or socio-cultural characteristics as William Graf observes:
   Thus the territory of present Nigeria was defined, not on the
   basis of its peoples' shared historical, economic or social
   experiences, but merely by arbitrary amalgamation of a
   number of disparate ethnocultural units which happened to
   occupy contiguous land areas that were then under British
   colonial administration. Today, the ruthless, often brutal,
   methods of British conquest of Nigerian peoples, and the
   latter's prolonged resistance to it, are often forgotten or
   downplayed. (4)

For the nearly one hundred years of colonial rule, no attempt was made by the British at creating a nation out of the several nationalities. Instead, the British overlords used ethnicity as a weapon to sustain its own rule. Thus it is not surprising that the nationalist elite, who took over the running of the state after independence, have very little idea of what the enormous task of nation building was all about. Rather than building a nation out of these diverse and sometimes incompatible ethnic groups, the nationalist elite found it convenient, like the British colonialists did, to maintain this divisiveness as a means of sustaining their hold on power.


As we argued elsewhere, (5) the preponderance of irreconcilable ethnic contradictions that marred the colonial rule in Nigeria may provide us with a window into understanding the political crisis that embroiled the First Republic immediately after independence in 1960. However, ethnicity by itself is not a sufficient explanation. This is because of the fact that, behind the facade of ethnic politics of the nationalist elite, there were fundamental class contradictions. In the Nigerian context, ethnicity goes beyond group identification; ethnic solidarity determines the relationship of power and resource distribution that Nnoli describes as follows:
   Ingroup-outgroup boundaries emerged with (ethnicity) and,
   in time, become marked, more distinct than before, and
   jealously guarded by the various ethnic groups. Acceptance
   and rejection on linguistic-cultural grounds characterise
   social relations. These are expressed inevitably through
   inter-ethnic discrimination in jobs, housing, and admission
   into educational institutions, marriages, business transaction
   or the distribution of social welfare services. The factor of
   exclusiveness is usually accompanied by nepotism and
   corruption. (6)

The pervasiveness of ethnicity in Nigeria's social formation as described by Nnoli above, undermined class solidarity because potential class issues were often analyzed and articulated in ethnic terms. This had given way to the fragmentation of the struggle for justice and equitable distribution of power and resources, which may explain why many years of opposition to military rule failed to achieve its concrete objective. However, despite the pervasiveness of ethnicity, the First Independent Government, headed by a northerner, Alhaji Tafawa Balewa, could hardly be described as a class neutral government as some authors have suggested. (7) Indeed, it could be argued that prior to colonization, class formation was progressing along lines that made European conquest possible. Local merchants who colluded with European slave traders as middlemen soon converted their capital into mines and trading creating a powerful class of comprador bourgeoisie before independence. To suggest otherwise is synonymous to reducing the history of class contradictions in the Nigerian society to colonial rule.


If we accept the above analysis, then we can begin to understand the politics of the First Republic in its proper perspective. Political parties that emerged after independence were based on ethnic loyalties, and each of the three regions produced candidates for the federal elections based on ethnic affiliation alone. Members of the northern oligarchy or their representatives dominated parliamentary representation in the federal house in Lagos during the First Republic. The Prime Minister, Sir Alhaji Tafawa Balewa, wielded political power on behalf of the Emir of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello, who was the regional governor of the North. The National Peoples Congress (NPC) was the party that represented the economic interest of the northern oligarchy and the merchant class. However, party politics was largely, but not entirely, based on ethnicity; class distinctions were under-played by the elite.

The northern merchant class derived its political and economic power from the ruling houses of the North, most prominent of these is the Arewa House. Thus, it was not surprising to political observers that the coalition formed under the umbrella of the NPC was to dominate the political arena in Nigeria immediately after independence and beyond. The constitution that was forced on postcolonial Nigeria by the British was one that not only recognized the political primacy of the northern oligarchy but also affirmed its economic dominance. Two political parties represented the southern opposition in the federal parliament. The National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC), led by Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe, was an uneasy coalition of parties representing the economic interests of the Igbo merchant class and the warrant chiefs. Their political demand was limited to participation in the postcolonial bureaucracy and the expansion of business opportunities for the nouveau rich Igbo merchants.

The other party, Action Group (AG), under the leadership of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, a Yoruba populist politician and an autocrat, only aspired for the control of federal power for the purposes of executing personal agendas but failed to galvanize the support of the Yoruba elite. While claiming to be the party of poor peasant farmers, AG was, indeed, a party of privileged elite with very strong ties to metropolitan merchant capital. Of the three political parties, the NPC was the only party that showed some degree of class unity and organizational cohesiveness, and as a result, it was able to take advantage of the conditions created by the colonial structure to achieve its own economic and political goal. On the other hand, intra-class struggle within the AG, especially the failure of the merchant class to establish its hegemony over the party, consequently led to its disintegration and the subsequent civil strife that engulfed the former western region during the early sixties.

The political crisis that overshadowed the transition to independent nationhood in late 1950s was quickly resolved when class compromises were made between the northern oligarchy and the comprador elements of the southern bourgeoisie. This compromise led to the appointment of the leader of the NCNC, Dr. Azikwe, a front line pan-Africanist, as Head of State without much political clout, while the Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, effectively controlled political power at the federal level.

The same class compromise also led to the marginalization of the leader of the AG, Chief Awolowo, whose only support came from the tiny ethnic constituency that he had in the western region. Once this alliance was concluded between the southern merchant class and the northern oligarchy, the stage was set for the ethnic struggle that later degenerated into the civil war of 1967. By then, crude petroleum wealth had become a serious issue in regard to the distribution of federal funds to the regions. The southern enclaves, where most of the crude resources are located, became the locus of the war.


The Nigerian civil war that claimed the lives of a million or more innocent Igbo peasants has been sufficiently documented in many books written by both the Southern and the Northern scholars. However, none of the accounts presented by these authors had questioned the moral basis of the war. The question that all of these books have been unable to answer is: Whose war was it? The answer is simple: It was an elite war of greed, fought over the private distribution of petro-dollars. The Nigerian civil war broke out amidst confusion over the ethnic composition of the regime of General Yakubu Gowon after the mindless assassination of several northern leaders during first military coup of 1966. But as the war progressed, it became clear what specific class interests were at stake. The council of civil commissioners that was set up, during the early phase of the war, by General Gowon played an important role in the prosecution of the war. In order to secure the support of the Yoruba, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the imprisoned leader of the Action Group, was released from prison to become the federal commissioner for finance. Awolowo had been previously charged, convicted, and sentenced to life imprisonment for treason by Balewa's government. Thus, General Gowon was able to portray the war as a just war, as opposed to ethnic pogrom, to the international community by bringing the leader of the Yoruba into the war cabinet and promising to cede large portions of Igbo crude oil to western backers of his military rule. Increasingly, military propaganda during the war stressed that the survival of the "Nigerian nation" depended on the successful prosecution of the war. Not too sure of the allegiance of the civil society to the war efforts, General Gowon consolidated the power of the civil commissioners and declared a state of emergency with new military decrees promulgated severely curtailing civil rights of the citizens.

By consolidating the power of the civil commissioners, General Gowon was able to temporarily displace the economic power of the merchant class, and in the process, strengthened the power of state bureaucrats and senior civil servants. The civil servants, in particular, played a significant role during the first fifteen months of the war. As the war progressed, the civil servants were replaced by another set of social actors who had strong connections to international capital. Indeed, some observers have argued, that the replacement of the civil servants as decision-making functionaries with civilian commissioners marked a new beginning in a desperate attempt by the Gowon's regime to seek legitimacy for his crisis ridden government. Captain Adamolekun, one of the plotters of the first failed military coup, comments on this sudden change of power thus:
   A reorganization of the federal executive council to include
   civilian politicians was widely interpreted to mean that the
   military leaders saw a need to appeal for support from the
   civilian population. With civilians brought into key decision
   making positions, the civil population became formally
   committed to, and identified with, the purposes of the
   federal government and the federal military. (8)

Competition within the elite class over the sharing of war generated booty was limited to the procurement of armaments and supplies to the military. The civilian commissioners and civil bureaucrats fought over the accumulation process, while foreign capital played one group of actors against the other. During the duration of the war, the national bourgeoisie consolidated their grip over state power. Several corrupt military commanders also accumulated capital by diverting resources meant for the war to private accounts and by pocketing the pay checks of dead soldiers under their command.

As the war waged on, the competition between civilian commissioners and civil servants deepened. At every turn, the civil servants attempted to usurp the power of the commissioners by resurrecting the process of accumulation in the direction of the merchant class. This excessive corruption and graft, during and immediately after the war, led to the decline of Gowon's popularity among junior officers and civilians who did not benefit financially from the war. Government contracts were usually given out to close associates of the dictator. By and large, Gowon's continuing hold on power depended largely on the support of senior military officers who had accumulated enormous wealth through kickbacks from government contracts. Generalized abuse of power by Gowon's civilian ministers led to civil litigation across the country, and the government response was the enactment of more draconian decrees that made jail term mandatory for those bringing litigation against government officials; most of whom are either from the south or the middle belt. Towards the end of the war, the Gowon regime butchered thousands of Igbo villagers by burning villages and recklessly killing those Igbo who were considered to be informers rather than confronting the Biafran soldiers on the battle fields. All of these atrocities were perpetrated by General Olusegun Obasanjo, who later became the military Head of State after the assassination of General Murtala Muhammad, a reformer soldier. Instead of being tried for war crimes, Obasanjo indeed went on to become a civilian president with two terms. A favorite of the Americans, Obasanjo, presided over a corrupt government that facilitated a reckless looting of state treasury.

By the end of the civil war, attempts at creating a democratic state were fraught with military interventions, and the instability of the post-colonial state. After General Gowon was displaced from power, several military dictators followed in his footstep all reeking havocs on the civil society. A desperate attempt at reviving democratic governance, which resulted in the election of Chief Moshood Abiola in 1992, a southern Muslim, was annulled by a very powerful wing of northern military officers, led by General Sanni Abacha; a brutal general who opposed the idea of the country being ruled by the southerners. Today, the Igbo ethnic group of southeast Nigeria continues to' be marginalized from Nigeria politics, while the current "democratic" government is dominated by former military generals who have retired from the force to partake in politics Ethic rivalry continues to deepen and the general opinion in the country today is that the country again is heading towards another civil war.


The last case study of ethnic violence that we examine in this article is the orchestrated genocide that occurred within the artificial state boundaries of the poorest nations of Rwanda and Burundi, where ethnic violence claimed the largest number of casualties in modern history within a short period of time. Burundi for example, with a total population of 5 million people spread over a 27, 000 square kilometers (10,000 sq. mile), is probably one of the most populated (per square mile), and the poorest nation in black Africa. In both Rwanda and Burundi, export of coffee is the mainstay of the economy, and the majority of the people are pastoral farmers relying, for their survival, on the most elementary technology known to human kind. In both states, the problem of ethnicity has been the most destabilizing factor in state formation. The latest ethnic pogroms, according to international observers, resulted in the death of more than half a million people within the first few weeks of the outbreak of ethnic violence. Like other African states, ethnic animosities, in Rwanda and Burundi, arose out of European colonization as we reveal below.

Ethnic animosities in Rwanda and Burundi (Ruanda-Urundi) are very similar to those in Nigeria, and elsewhere in black Africa where ethnic consciousness played a major role during and after decolonization. In the case of Rwanda-Burundi, the Bahutus, also known as Hutus, are geographically spread across international boundaries of Rwanda and Burundi, coexisting with the physically dominant Tutsis. Unlike Nigeria, the Watutsis (Tutusis) have a history of social stratification with the Mwami (King) exercising absolute power over the kingdom.

The original colonial state of Rwanda-Burundi attained political independence from Belgium in the early 1960s with a colonial structure that ensured the political dominance of the Watusis elite. The native inhabitants of pre-colonial Burundi were Batwa (Twa) who are a sub-clan of the Twide pygmies. Demographically, the Bahutus comprises 85 percent of the population, while the Tutsis only represent less than fifteen percent, and Twa one percent of the population in Rwanda. Historically, the minority Tutsis constituted the economic and political ruling class with its power backed by the occupying Belgium military force. In short, the political power of the Tutsis is exercised through an elaborate stratification system that ranks the Tutsis highest with the Hutus below them, and the Twa at the very bottom of the stratification ladder. The social and political domination of the Hutus and the Twa by the Tutsis lasted for more than four hundred years and continued all through Belgian colonization.

Originally, the Watutsis were non-sedentary pastoralists who migrated from the forest of the central Africa and settled amongst the original natives of Hutus and the Twa. The economic power of the Watusis, expressed in their wealth in cattle and as warriors, enabled them to maintain themselves in power through the use of force before the arrival of the Belgian colonialists. During colonial times, the language of authority was French, which the Tutsis elite spoke very well, while Kirundi was the native language shared by all the three tribes. Business and bureaucratic administration were conducted in French thus giving the Tutsis an edge over the Bahutus.

The colonization of Rwanda-Burundi started with the Germans and lasted through the end of World War I. By the end of the war, the region became a Belgian mandate in 1916 with the approval of the League of Nations. Like its other territory in the Old Congo, the Belgian administration of Rwanda-Burundi followed the same brutal pattern of governance established by the German imperial state. Just like in Nigeria where the British colonialists exploited the elaborate system of Islamic governance and its odd system of stratification amongst the Hausa-Fulanis, the Belgian imperial state used the Tutsis elite to secure its colonial rule. By the end of World War II, the status of Rwanda-Burundi changed from being a mandated state of Belgium to a trust territory of the United Nations, and within a year, Belgium was requested to prepare the territory for self-rule.

The idea then was that self-rule would give the minority nationalities, namely the Hums, a say in government. This idea of power sharing was not very palatable to the Watusis elite who saw self-rule as an attack on its own hegemony. This situation is also very similar to the Nigerian experience when the Hausa-Fulani delegation to the 1953 conference in London strenuously opposed early self-rule for colonial Nigeria on the ground of perceived domination by the southerners. In fact, while the southern delegates pressed for immediate British withdrawal, the Hausa-Fulani delegates, who were the favorite of the British colonial officials, insisted on a delayed independence for another fifty years. The Watutsis' opposition to self-rule, as mandated by the United Nations, led the Bahutus to take up arms against the Tutsis in a desperate move to displace them from power.

Unable to sidetrack the United Nations' authority, the Belgian imperial state was forced to grant limited independence with the hope that the Watusis monarchy would be a stabilizing force in post-independent Rwanda-Burundi. Limited sovereignty was granted in 1961. On July 1, 1962, Rwanda became an independent state, and a Hums dominated government was led by a southerner, President Gregoire Kayibanda, who was later replaced in a Coup de Etat organized by Major General Habyariama, a northerner, who became Head of State on July 5, 1973.

In the meantime, the Belgian colonial power had formally recognized Burundi as an independent monarchy. In Burundi, there was the same ethnic ratio as in Rwanda, and similar resentment to Tutsis hegemony permeated the culture. However, it was in Burundi that this ethnic animosity first degenerated into organized pogroms. During 1962 and 1963, Bahutus vigilante groups slaughtered twenty five thousand Watusis. While discountenancing Bahutus violence, the Belgian imperialists were solidly behind the Tutsis encouraging them to keep their hold on the bureaucracy and the education system. In Rwanda, between 1959 and 1961, rural uprising, led by Hutus peasants, repudiated the political authority of the Tutsis chiefs, and denounced the Belgian administration of the colony. This uprising resulted in massive migration of Tutsis to neighboring states of Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, and Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

By the time self-rule was achieved, Bahutus had made significant progress in terms of cutting into the traditional power base of the Watutsis. For example, by June 1972, elections into national assembly in Rwanda produced twenty three seats out of thirty six for Hutus elite. But the major stumbling block to Hutus total control was the military and bureaucracy, where the Tutsis still remained largely in control of the officer corps. The 1965 coup attempt aimed at overthrowing the Tutsis minority failed woefully simply because of poor planning, and more importantly, because of the support that the Tutsis officers received from the former colonial masters. During the first coup, nearly five thousands Hutus rebels were killed while eighty five captured Hutus rebel officers were publicly executed in late 1965. These killings were later to set the stage for the sporadic pogroms on both sides, the worst of which occurred more recently.

These executions did not stop the Hums rebels from their goal which, of course, was the overthrow of the Tutsis minority from power, and the establishment of a Bahutus dominated republic of Burundi. Another coup attempt in 1972 failed, and Tutsis soldiers killed nearly three thousands Hutus rebels in the first few days of brutal fighting (see US State Department's documents).

The most serious threat to General Habyriama came in 1990 when a group of well armed Tutsis guerrillas invaded Rwanda from Uganda. Soldiers still loyal to General Habyriama repelled this invasion. However, several sporadic invasions from Uganda and Tanzania, by Tutusis rebels, weakened the chain of command of the army. By the middle of 1992, President Habyriama and his ruling party, Mouvement National Rwandis pour le Development (MNRD), were under attack from the opposition party and the Trade Union movement. Given the persistence of international call for democratization, especially from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and donor nations, President Habyriamma was forced to organize a transitional election. The election, which was scheduled for 1993, was largely a credibility cheek for Habyriama whose government has been accused of corruption and widespread violations of human rights. The election was won by Dismas Nsengiyaremye who was later installed as the Prime Minister.

In the meantime, Burundi also achieved its own independence on July 1, 1962 when the King briefly returned to power. Like in Rwanda, a military coup, staged in 1968, quickly displaced the power of the Mwami (monarch) with Colonel Micombero assuming state power declaring Burundi as a republic. But President Micombero's reign was marked by terror and a suspension of constitutional rule. For instance, between 1978 and 1989, Micombero personally ordered systematic killings of educated Hums whom he perceived as a threat to his regime. Colonel Micombero was later replaced in 1989 by a group of junior army officers. Today, an international tribunal is probing and trying those involved in the massacres in Rwanda. However, the mandate of this tribunal is questionable given the fact that the international community sat back while these pogroms took place. It is clear that this sort of ethnic violence will continue given the volatility of the African boundaries. The current government, in Rwanda especially, is by no doubt trying its very best to ensure that these atrocities do not occur again. The test is going to be how the on-going trials of those Hutu vigilante members accused of killing Tutsis are resolved. However, given the activities of guerilla fighters supported by both the Rwandan government, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it is difficult to predict how things will develop in the area in the near future.


There is no doubt that some revisionist scholars may take issue with this paper for emphasizing the role that ethnicity, and its exploitation by European colonialists, continues to play in politics in these selected countries for obvious reasons. However, to underestimate the effects of ethnicity on state formation in post-colonial Africa is, to say the least, ignorant and apologetic. Indeed, the common denominator in the cases elaborated in this paper is European colonization with its emphasis on the strategy of "divide and rule" of different ethnic groups within their colonial boundaries. The nightmare that Biafra and Rwanda-Burundi represents could have been avoided if the European powers had acted quickly in resolving the problems rather than backing one ethnic group against the other.

That said, it is important to stress that political instability cannot be blamed solely on ethnicity, there are other forces at play that create the conditions that made ethnicity a rallying point for political mobilization as we have shown in the four case studies above. One of these is corruption and its excruciating effects on political formation. It is therefore necessary for African political scientists to explore new mechanisms for raising public awareness and identify internal and external obstacles to effective public management and governance.

Indeed, we cannot ignore one crucial element in the African crisis; the role the former colonial powers, and their American ally, continues to play in destabilizing the new states in modern Africa. Therefore, finding a lasting solution to the African crisis will entail former colonial masters relinquishing their hold on their former colonies by allowing newly independent states to resolve their internal contradictions. If this can be achieved, then Africans can go about the business of identifying ways of mobilizing the continent's enormous human and natural resources in addressing issues affecting good governance and democratization. However, we must also realize the dictum that building stable political structure on dependent and unproductive economic system is like pouring water into a basket. Clearly, with widespread poverty, famine, and disease embroiling the majority of African states, the talk of political modernization seems like an empty talk. Democracy can only flourish when the means of survival for a large majority of the population are guaranteed. Therefore, reducing economic dependence on the former colonial masters, and by pursuing an internally generated and sustainable economic growth strategy, Africa may at last recapture her own glory.

In conclusion, then, African social and political scientists must develop new models of politics and economy in order for Africa to move forward. These models must take into account the specificity of the African conditions, the complexity of ethnicity, and the lingering attachment to former colonial powers. The idea of a pan-Africanist democracy might provide useful insights into the construction of a political paradigm capable of ensuring basic civil and human rights without which democracy cannot flourish. In the end, good governance must entail exploring ways through which corruption can be reduced so that social policies will be based on rational calculations geared toward meeting the basic needs of the society in general. The assassination of President Laurent Kabilla of the Republic of the Congo demonstrates clearly how bad policies could intensify bad blood amongst competing ethnic groups with dire consequences.


(1.) Pade Badru. Imperialism and Ethnic Politics in Nigeria, 1960-1996. (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1998.)

(2.) A. Hochschild. King Leopold's Ghost." A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. (New York; Houghton Mifflin, 1998.)

(3.) Pade Badru. Imperialism and Ethnic Politics in Nigeria, 1960-1996.

(4.) W.D. Graft. The Nigerian State. (London; James Curry, 1988.)

(5.) T. Turner. "Commercial Capitalism and the 1975 Coup," in K. Panther-Brick, (ed.) Soldiers and Oil. (London: Frank Cass, 1985.)

(6.) Okwudiba Nnoli. Ethnic Politics in Nigeria. (Enugu: Fourth Dimension, 1978.)

(7.) Ibid.

(8.) L. Adamolekun, The Fall of the Second Republic. (Ibadan: Spectrum Books. 1986.)

Pade Badru, Professor of Sociology and Pan African Studies, University of Louisville, Louisville, KY 40292.
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Author:Badru, Pade
Publication:Journal of Third World Studies
Geographic Code:6RWAN
Date:Sep 22, 2010
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