Mapping ethnic conflicts

Africa: an artificial patchwork?

Understanding the dynamics of ethnic conflicts in Africa means appreciating the role of ethnic identity

In 2011 Peter S. Larson, a professor at the University of Nagasaki, Japan, published an attempt to chart the interplay between ethnicity and African conflict. Larson used the 1959 map of 835 “ethnic regions” of Africa produced by anthropologist George Murdock. While admitting that Murdock’s map is “perhaps naïve”, Larson states that it remains an important source to Africanists. He then drew on the University of Sussex’s Armed Conflict and Event Location Database to plot current conflict events onto Murdock’s ethnographic map. Mapping conflict by national borders painted huge chunks of the African map red with danger, Larson found, but plotting the Sussex data onto the Murdock map altered the patterns. In particular, conflicts became identifiable as regional rather than as national or international. Moreover, he wrote, “one can see that conflict events largely occur within Murdock’s ethnic boundaries”. Yet he argued against the conclusion that African conflicts were mainly ethnicity-driven. As one example, Larson’s map revealed that the Algerian conflict is really a conflict between the government and the Amazigh, a Berber group of the Kabyle region of the Atlas Mountains who have a tradition of independence: Amazigh means “Free People”. By contrast, the map plots the ethnic element behind the secessionist war in Angola’s Cabinda enclave, where the Bakongo majority has developed a unique culture distinct from that of other Bakongo in the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Similar convergences of conflict and ethnicity can be seen in Ogoni and Ijaw militancy in the Niger Delta, the Tuareg insurrection of northern Mali, and other regions. Larson’s map was published just before the Arab Spring rolled out across the Maghreb. The latest Sussex map, published in 2015, shows the spread of conflict into Libya, especially to Benghazi.

Conflicts in Africa by ethnic region

Source: Peter S. Larson’s blog:

In Egypt it has moved into Sinai, where most people speak Bedawi Arabic, unlike Cairo’s Egyptian Arabic majority. In the former Somalia, conflict is centred in Mogadishu. Other conflicts are mapped in north-western Nigeria (Boko Haram), South Sudan, and the Central African Republic (CAR). The map shows that violence against civilians had declined in Zimbabwe, especially in Matabeleland. Meanwhile, civil protests continued in South Africa, as well as in many West African and Maghreb capitals after the lull following the Arab Spring. Perhaps more telling is Sussex’s 2015 map of the agents of violent conflict in Africa. Searching only for “communal militia” reveals a widespread tendency to armed communal violence, in distinct regions, that likely involves an element of ethnicity. For example, in Libya communal militia-driven conflict occurs in remote and coastal areas that are homogeneously Arab or Toubou. But the civil war is not only ethnicity-based; it is also a politico-confessional conflict between former Gaddafi supporters and Salafist and democratic forces.

Spread of main languages in Africa

Source: Peter S. Larson’s blog:

Militia conflict in south-central Nigeria occurs in the Christian Igbo heartland, far away from Boko Haram’s strongholds. The conflict on the CAR/Congo border is primarily confessional, between Muslim Séléka and Christian Anti-Balaka militia. The conflict in Darfur, in the Sudan, involves a number of ethnicities, as well as ethnicised environmental drivers. In South Kivu, in the DRC, the conflict involves several ethnicities, as well as ethnicised drivers deriving from the long aftermath of the Rwandan genocide—complicated by relations with endogenous political militia sometimes supported by foreign governments. Community conflict in highland Kenya is regional and ethnic, and relatively isolated from the multiculturalism of Nairobi. The emergence of communal militia in South Sudan is mostly a result of the breakdown of the Dinka-Nuer ethnic compact, but is also driven by the fragility of the new state and a tendency by all parties to resort to military “solutions”. Communal armed conflict in former Somalia involves a power struggle between six major Somali clans, plus Al-Shabaab, and only a smattering of “outsiders”. This brief overview is an indication of the difficulty of accurately charting the role of ethnic identity in African conflicts. Each involves many facets, including the influence of ethnicity, which is itself complicated by history. Even distinctly ethnic civil conflicts such as the 2007/08 pogroms in Kenya and the wave of violence in 2008 in South Africa involved a blend of other factors and influences. In Kenya, where perhaps 1,500 were killed and perhaps 600,000 displaced, the crisis was rooted in political unrest following the contested election of President Mwai Kibaki. Opposition supporters of his opponent, Raila Odinga, went on the warpath, killing members of Kibaki’s ethnic group, the Kikuyu. This ethnicised the conflict, with Kikuyu striking back at the Luo and Kalejin ethnic groups. In South Africa 62 people were killed and 100,000 displaced in violence supposedly directed only at foreigners. But the media’s “xenophobic” tag was inaccurate; only two thirds of those killed were foreigners, among them Somalis and Mozambicans. Resource contestation and business jealousy were the root causes, while the violence also had elements of sheer criminality and the settling of personal scores. This was also the case in Kenya where land, hunger, poverty and criminality skewed ethnic tensions. More coherently, ethnic conflicts include those where a particular, identifiable group seeks to establish a secessionist movement. For instance, the ethnic Alliance of the Bakongo political party, established in 1955, wanted a Kongo Kingdom covering parts of the DRC, Congo, Angola and Cabinda, with the long-term aim of restoring the pre-colonial Kongo Kingdom of 1390-1857. But other than South Sudan and Eritrea, both of which had distinct ethno-nationalist foundations, secessionist wars have always failed in Africa.


MICHAEL SCHMIDT is a field reporter who has worked in 45 countries across six continents, but with a focus on Africa. He is the author of five books including Drinking With Ghosts (2014). He is a 2009 academic leader at Tecnológico de Monterrey (Mexico), a 2011 Clive Menell Media Fellow at Duke University (USA), and a 2017 Arts Rights Justice Academy Fellow at Universität Hildesheim (Germany). He researches and writes on African affairs and continental human rights.


Reporting ethnicity in African politics

Africa: the scourge of ethnicity

Understanding ethnicity—inherited or imposed—can go a long way to ensure accurate coverage of conflict in Africa

As a journalist I have covered a range of conflicts, some of which had a clearly ethnic dimension. But ethnicity is a multidimensional concept that blends race, colour, creed, class, clan, language, lifestyle, identity and culture in an ephemeral and continually shifting matrix. This can make it a tricky subject at the best of times. Moreover, politics can be distorted through an ethnic lens, making it treacherous territory for journalists, especially when they can’t speak local dialects or know little of the ethnic dynamics they are reporting on. There is also a historical dimension. Some ethnic conflicts have their roots in precolonial times, yet they survive tenaciously into the current era, amplified by access to modern technologies.

Michael Schmidt and colleagues in South Sudan

In South Africa, for instance, rural conflicts are often written off as “tribal”, even when they occur between clans of the same tribe. In 1996, I reported on intense fighting in the Umvoti River Valley in Zululand. The area was chicken-and-goat territory, the hills studded with thatched rondavels, tiny mielie patches and dozing cattle, but the belligerents were armed with modern assault rifles. Old grudges continued to simmer in a contemporary context. The conflict had started in 1951 when a rebel chief formed his own clan and the two factions had been at war ever since. This had included the assassination of the first-born son of the chief of the original faction. Moreover, the bloody conflict had got caught up in political warfare between the African National Congress (ANC) and its rival, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). Former soldiers, taxi warlords, and white right-wing farmers in the area also played shadowy roles. Journalists are mostly urban-based and disdainful of provincial folk, and the situation was dismissed as a clash between ignorant peasants. But the urban-rural divide is an important inflection of ethnic identity. Because of the apartheid migrant labour system, the Bomvu clan feud had moved to the cities, with murders in Johannesburg and Durban. South Africa’s population is two-thirds urbanised, but the country’s cities continue to be affected by rural contestations since most of its citizens are rural-born. Then again, an urban ethnic identity can be fluid and creatively cosmopolitan, with new supra-tribal ethnicities being formed, as I found reporting from Kinshasa in 2003 on the implementation of the Pretoria Peace Accords. The country, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), is a vast hinterland of more than 250 ethnicities including whites and Twa. To live in Kinshasa and jive to the music of Werrason is to be quintessentially Kinois, regardless of one’s ethnic origins. Yet an undertow of ethnicity prevails in the political arena, as with persistent rumours that President Joseph Kabila is Tanzanian and not Congolese by birth. Ethnicity is supposedly inherited; but it is just as often imposed. In 2007, I reported on the Darfur conflict in Sudan. But Sudan was not at all what I had supposed it to be. The mystical Sufi version of Islam was more in evidence than the hardline Salafism with which Khartoum had been erroneously associated. And in Darfur itself it rapidly became obvious that the Western characterisation of the war as a confessional race war between Muslim Arabs and Christian blacks was a projection. I was part of a team of journalists, one black, two white. Although we were briefly detained on arrival in El Fasher, we were leapfrogged in the queue for permits. We had readier access to the warzone than the Westerners we left languishing in Khartoum. A journalist’s real or perceived ethnicity may have a bearing on his or her access to stories. White Africans are often seen as outsiders in Africa, like Western aid workers. This may get them better access, but may also confront them with anti-Western hostility. Meanwhile, a slender light-skinned Tswana photojournalist friend and colleague had trouble taking pictures in refugee camps in South Sudan because he was thought to “look like a Janjaweed”, or a member of the camel-herding militia that was plaguing the region with violence. In El Fasher, the region’s capital city, the Fur and Arabic languages cohabited, apparently peacefully, with other regional Nilotic, Mande and Kanuri tongues. Both in the town itself and in its sprawling refugee camp a visitor expecting clearly delineated evidence of ethnic conflict was immediately disoriented. Yet the drivers of the conflict lay as far back as 1972, when Gaafar Nimeiry’s socialist regime tried to break the power of the Fur chieftains. Undermining their authority weakened centuries-old agreements on the sharing of watering holes. Meanwhile, the Sahara was marching implacably eastwards at the rate of about 5km per year, swallowing up the increasingly contested remaining wells. Disputes over Darfur’s oil also contributed to the conflict, which was exacerbated by the availability of modern weaponry. A resource battle had been ethnicised by unscrupulous local leaders and by Western observers— for whom an Islam-versus-Christianity narrative was attractive of political support and donor funding. Darfur was more about power than it was about creed or colour, as I would find again with the Israeli “Summer War” on Lebanon, which I covered in 2006. The tendency to ethnicise a pre-existing resource contest is not unique to Africa. Ethnicising a conflict obscures the asset-stripping objectives of many partisan leaders. Perhaps, more importantly, it provides warlords with a pool of potential fighters for their cause. I experienced this in the Solomon Islands, South Pacific, in 2010, where I trained journalists to cover a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that had been established in the wake of a war between the two primary islands of Guadalcanal and Malaita between 1998 and 2003. The “Tensions”, as the war was euphemistically known locally, were almost invariably described as an ethnic clash between Guales and Malaitans in an increasingly bitter struggle for scarce jobs and land. Upon further investigation, it emerged that multinationals had purchased swathes of timberland, displacing large numbers of peasants. The work of a brilliant investigative journalist, Mary Louise O’Callaghan, had also shown that the “improper” acquisition of Guadalcanal land by Malaitans had occurred because Guale men had subverted the traditional matrilineal control of land to make a quick buck selling land to Malaitans, and had then blamed the buyers for the resulting dissatisfaction. In making these observations I’m not reducing such conflicts to the purely economic sphere, as Marxists tend to do. Ethnicity can be a powerful mobilising force though its compelling aspects can often be invisible to foreign correspondents who have been “parachuted” into a complex fight on short notice, and who are not stationed long-term in the countries they cover. Working in Bamako and Ségou in Mali in 2008 I was unaware that I was in the heartland of the Bambara ethnic group—Mali’s largest at 25 percent of the population. I had no indication of tensions with the Tuareg I met, even though they were in the middle of their fourth insurrection since 1916, demanding ethnic balance in the government and military. Though I knew of the potential ferocity of the Tuareg nomads, whose homeland was the Sahel band to the north-east of Timbuktu, I was unprepared for the anti-Bambara brutality of the Ansar al-Dine and other rebel groups that swept to power in the entire north of the country by January 2013. I did not have the “ethnic radar” or the languages I needed to pick up on the undercurrents. My ignorance was partly a factor of geography. Ethnicities in Africa can be resiliently localised, even when they bridge colonial-era national borders, as in the Sahara, in the Sahel and the Great Lakes regions. But it was also partly because ethnicity can fade in and out of the foreground as a focus of national tensions. South Africa is a good example. After the advent of democracy in 1994 the ANC maintained a public ethic of multiracialism during the Mandela presidency. But with the Thabo Mbeki presidency, rumbling dissatisfaction within the country’s largest ethnic group, the Zulus, at the favoured status of the “Xhosa-Nostra” resulted in the rise of Jacob Zuma, an isiZulu speaker, whose presidency has seen a reversion to an atavistic, ethnicised politics. And when ethnicity is suddenly foregrounded, it can be with a barely matched explosiveness. As is generally known, the Rwandan genocide was trip-wired by the downing of President Juvénal Habyarimana’s jet on April 6, 1994. But it had been simmering ever since the 1950s, when the Belgian colonisers introduced “ethnic” classification cards for groups identified as Tutsis, Hutus and Twa. These were, however, essentially fake ethnicities. Of the 18 clans in Rwanda, all, except arguably the royal clan, were ethnic mixes of groups that had intermarried over a millennium. Those classified Tutsi had to own more than 10 cattle, and it helped if they were tall. In fact, this was a class designation with spurious racial elements appended. The result of this faux ethnicisation was 100,000 slaughtered in 1959 and 800,000 in 1994. The spillover from the latter continues to generate fresh ethnic and ethnicised conflicts in the Great Lakes today.


MICHAEL SCHMIDT is a field reporter who has worked in 45 countries across six continents, but with a focus on Africa. He is the author of five books including Drinking With Ghosts (2014). He is a 2009 academic leader at Tecnológico de Monterrey (Mexico), a 2011 Clive Menell Media Fellow at Duke University (USA), and a 2017 Arts Rights Justice Academy Fellow at Universität Hildesheim (Germany). He researches and writes on African affairs and continental human rights.

Joseph Conrad. Image Wikimedia Commons

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