Ethnic Conflict: Colonialism's Never-Aging Offspring

26/02/2014 10:33 GMT | Updated 27/04/2014 10:59 BST

Yes, I referred to colonialism having given birth to modern ethnic conflict. But there are two parts to ethnic conflicts, the conflict and the term itself. That's where I believe the theoretical problem lies, in its definition and its use.

Let's be honest, whenever ethnic conflict is mentioned in the media, you don't think of the War of the Roses, or the Scottish fight for independence, or the Jewish genocide in Germany during World War II. That's because these conflicts are not called ethnic conflicts, they are Western conflicts, so they are characterised as regional or international conflicts. The first regions that come to mind when ethnic conflicts are mentioned are non-Western regions, such as Africa or Asia. Those two continents are coincidentally the two largest regions affected by colonialism going back centuries.

The First Chechen War, the civil war that led to the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and the conflict in Burma, show that ethnic conflicts are also apparent in Eastern Europe and Asia as well. But the majority of the modern ethnic conflicts are in Africa. Whether it's the Tutsi/Hutu conflict in the Rwandan genocide, or its continuance in the DR of Congo and in the Burundian Civil War, the crisis in Darfur that led to the secession of South Sudan from the Republic of Sudan, the Ogaden war between Somalia and Ethiopia, Zimbabwe's ethnic land-redistribution, they all show the same thing: ethnicity is a powerful tool in fuelling conflict.

When it comes to who or what causes these conflicts, there are many reasons. However, I am of the opinion that in the majority of these conflicts, the political leaders are using ethnicity as a tool to drum up sentiments against their opposition, usually over who controls the finite amount of resources available, and thus mobilize support for themselves to gain more power. Political leaders are the main beneficiaries of conflict, and its biggest perpetuators, and by sticking with basic economics, as conflict creates a demand for leadership, they are more than happy to supply their own versions. Subsequently, the conflict escalates.

The conflicts could be solved using a peaceful expression of grievances to resolve the conflict of interests, but here is where the colonial legacy comes in. Following the 1885 Berlin Conference, the European colonial powers drew up artificial borders to create artificial countries within Africa that they could control. Before colonialism, there existed nomadic movements of African communities, where identities sometimes overlapped and there was linguistic and cultural borrowing, with different forms of self-governance between the different ethnic communities. The colonialists re-defined and re-mapped the African communities into artificial administrative units to allow for better political control through proxies, such as the local traditional chiefs. The British and the French used different methods for this.

The French centralised their colonial administrations, as part of a Greater France, and assimilated cooperative locals into the French language and culture. This made the ambitious, and now assimilated, locals into a new elite class to govern the French colonial administrations as French proxies. The ethnic groups that had disproportionate access to the French assimilation, sorry, I meant French education programs, mainly due to their geographical distance from the administrative capitals and commercial hubs, would feel disenfranchised, setting the context for stratification along ethnic lines post-colonialism.

The British form of divide and rule usually meant that they left most strong social structures in place to use as auxiliary service agents of the British Empire. However, they would select representatives from the smaller ethnic minorities that had grievances against the larger ethnic groups, and provide them with British education and then installing them as the new colonial civil service and law enforcement. This manipulation of ethnic divisions allowed the prevention of cross-ethnic anti-colonialist mobilisation.

This permitted the colonialists to use the divide-and-rule strategy (in different forms) along ethnic lines to fortify their colonial administrations. For those who wish to use a peaceful expression of their grievances, were usually prevented from using the democratic/political tools available, as the new class of indigenous elites would repress such activities using their dominance in the civil service and law enforcement before enough resources could be mobilized to challenge their governance. That's probably the over-looked aspect of colonialism, the way that many of the indigenous groups have been brainwashed to use the tactics that their colonial masters are using on all of them, on their own local ethnic communities.

Post-colonialism, in the initial decades of independence, the relationship between the colonialist powers and their ex-colonies continued and developed. The new class of elites that they created remained in charge after independence, allowing the colonialist powers to continue to influence their ex-colonies. For those who worked against this single-party political system that became strife in Africa and where consociationalism was sold to the newly formed African countries as the best way to share and distribute national resources, they were quickly removed. As William Reno states in his book 'Warlord Politics and African States', of the 485 post-colonial African heads of states pre-1991, 59.4 % were either jailed, exiled or killed. Ethnicity began being used by post-colonialist African heads of state, to distract public opinion from the more important issues. Examples of this can be seen in Uganda's expulsion of Asians and the apartheid in South Africa.

Ethnic conflict as a term has become widely used as phrase to explain the majority (if not all) of the non-Western conflicts. Ethnicity itself has been used by political leaders to fuel conflict and consolidate political power and control over resources. It has been institutionalised in many African countries to legitimise new democracies, leaving politicians not much else to appeal to and mobilize supporters aside from within their own ethnic clans. Ethnic conflict between Africans has sprung up over national resources and political power to control borders that were created by colonial powers, with Africans using the same tactics on other Africans that the white colonialists used on them all, within a political structure created by the colonial powers to continue to divide along ethnic lines. See where the problem lies when it comes to ethnic conflict? Africans post-independence needed to dispel the colonialist structures left behind and form of their own version of governance, with borders that preserved the peace between the nomadic communities. They needed to change the Western narrative of their struggles and achievements. They needed to do it then, they still need to do it now. It is never too late.