In the eyes of a University student: Ethnicity

Ethnicity is to a large extent a very complicated word in particular when looking at it in the context or pre and post-colonial Africa. It was a word that during my studies most people tried to avoid. It has different definitions and in some cases links, but in others contrasts, to areas like religion and politics. For the intention of this discussion I am following the definition that Ethnicity is a group of people who share common believes ideas, or physical characteristics, with a desire to be identified as a group in their own territory, leading their own lives.  An interesting case study for ethnicity which we looked at during the course is Rwanda, and most obviously the Rwandan Genocide.

The Rwandan genocide in 1994 resulted in the most horrific mass murder of “800,000 people in 100 days” all under the argued umbrella of ethnicity. However, was the Rwandan Genocide a result of colonial policy, or would the ethnic divide have emerged anyway? An even more controversial question, was the Rwandan genocide even based on ethnicity? There are many different theories and arguments, such as primordialism and instrumentalism. Furthermore there are even articles today on the recent trials of some of the people involved in 1994 Genocide, but these articles don’t pose any more answer, but merely more questions.

A most interesting and in some cases representative quote of the naive view of many of our politicians, is a quote the guardian recorded of Tony Blair that “Africa needs strong governments to emerge from poverty”. I find this quote very problematic, is he really implying the reintroduction of European control, does he realise that some strong governments that did emerge in Africa just lead to more poverty due to the corrupted hierarchy, and is he naive like others in ignoring the inability to control through a government or even a European body the issues of ethnicity.

The guardian website is in interesting one to follow on the Rwandan Genocide as it is regularly kept up to date on the trials, new truths, and murders of journalists trying to discover more views on what happened before, during and after the Rwandan Genocide.

Furthermore let me return to the questions I posed. To a large extent the easiest answer is that yes colonial policy did result in the Rwandan genocide, and the emergence of ethnic groups. This is an instrumentalist view and in some ways the most supported. Colonial policy through indirect rule in particular, used the introduction of chiefs and divisions in areas to further help countries such as Britain control their areas more efficiently, through the appointed chiefs themselves. However this is argued to have led to divided competing areas, and the areas inventions of traditions and believes, through the colonial powers encouragement of ‘finding their identities’. Moreover in the case of Rwanda, the Belgian Congo through favouring the Tutsi ethnic group and issuing expected jobs and identity cards, they further divided the two groups of the Tutsi and the Hutu who before then had existed together quite peacefully.  This also lead on to the next question that without colonialism ethnicity would have existed anyway due the geographical and in some cases very isolated occupied areas in Africa. Instead colonialism had the effect of creating negativity and competition between the ethnic groups, instead of them living in mutual harmony. I don’t necessarily agree with the primordialist view that ethnicity exists since birth but in some sense get where it is coming from, born into a particularly in a defined group or ‘tribe’, you grow up learning their ways and traditions, and this is passed on. Ethnicity could develop even in a family of 5 ideas and traditions emerge just to do with the people in this family, and they are a particular group. A somewhat dramatic example I am not saying families are ethnic groups but I hope you see roughly where I am coming from, and in particular in a country like Africa tribes existed for a long time but grew into ethnic groups due to the world changing into a political, religious, and economic bubble where only these things mattered.

Finally what I see as the most important question is was the Rwandan genocide based on ethnicity at all? Was it not just the Hutu’s jealousy that the Tutsi were favoured by the colonial policy, given better jobs and lifestyles? Therefore the Rwanda genocide was not an ethnic fight but a fight against colonialism and everything linked to it, so therefore against the Tutsi’s themselves! This can be seen most evidentially in the propaganda used by the Hutu calling the Tutsi western foreigners.  To a large extent this led to the United Nations encouragement of demobilisation and the Hutu then being favoured by the Belgian Congo, over the Tutsi. This was a clear attempted power strategy of Belgium to enable them to still have influence in Rwanda whilst the dominant Tutsi group could not overpower them. Moreover the Rwandan genocide can be seen as a result of fight against colonialism and the power strategies of the west that led to the final fight between these two groups.

Another interesting view mentioned by journalists is the counter genocide led by the Hutus and the Tutsi being to blame for their own mass murder.

Ethnicity could be argued to be evident everywhere due to the cultural, religious, social divides in our world, it depends how you define ethnicity. However, in the case of Rwanda I felt these questions inspired the most concern for my research and developing my ideas. I will continue to in particular follow the guardian’s coverage on Rwanda in hope that some more questions will be answered instead of just more being asked. My next entry will be looking at a interesting view of the Biafran Civil war in Nigeria between 1967 – 1970.

Jessica Duncan


About perspectivesonafrica

Research and news about Africa
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