How Tribalism has Fuelled Conflict in Africa

Adedoyin Shittu
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There is no continent more blessed with striking beauty and diversity than Africa. Home to the most genetically diverse people on Earth. The continent has over 3000 distinct ethnic groups and more than 2000 languages.

The Democratic Republic of Congo with a population of over 72 million persons has more than 250 ethnic groups and Nigeria with a population of about 200 million persons has more than 300 ethnic group.

Africa covers about 30.2 million km², and that is six percent of the Earth’s total surface area and 20.4 percent of the total land area. With approximately 58 countries. It occupies a wide dynamic latitude has; deserts, forest, snow, temperate climate, tropics, sub-tropics, lakes, the longest river, lowest point on Earth, mountain ranges.

Despite the beautiful landscape and the strength Africa has in its diversity, the continent is unstable. From North to South, East to West and Central, Africa is riddled with conflicts; in fact, Africa have called the home of war and instability. This has impacted the growth of Africa and stunted democracy in the continent.

Many African countries gained independence in the early 1960s, since then Africa have been ravaged by series of civil wars. Most of the civil wars fought in the continent is fuelled by tribal dominance and control of resources.

Before the arrival of the colonial masters, tribes function as a distinct nationalities, artificial boundaries that brought about the creation of states and countries were drawn by the colonial masters in the Berlin Conference in order to carve out their sphere of influences.

Also Read: France and Italy: A Deeper Rift Over Africa Migrants Crisis

Some African Wars fuelled by Tribal Conflicts of the Twentieth Century

Nigeria Civil War also known as the Biafra War

In 1960, Britain granted independence to Nigeria. Nigeria is a diverse country dominated by the Hausa in the Northern region, the Igbos in the Eastern region and the Yorubas in the western region. It was not long that Nigeria was plunged into political and ethnic turmoil. This involves two military coup in 1966, soon the tension along tribal line led to the killings of thousands of Igbos in the North part of Nigeria.

This led to the migration of Igbos from the North to the East. In the East, Emeka Ojukwu, a military officer declared the independence of the republic of Biafra on behalf of the Igbos but the Nigerian government did not accept this.

On the 6th of July, 1967; civil war broke out and it went on for two and half years. It is estimated that more than a million civilians, mostly Igbos died, mainly from diseases and starvation due to a food blockade imposed by the Nigerian Federal government. Also about 10,000 Nigerian soldiers died.

On the battlefield, the Nigerian army were stronger and equipped with better ammunition due to backings from the UK and Russian government.

In January  1970, Biafra separatist surrendered and decided to agree to the existence of one Nigeria inclusive but the idea of an Igbo nation – Biafra, the land of the Rising Sun- lives on.


The Angolan Civil War (1975-2002)

Angola boast of vast amount of natural resources, such as agricultural products, fish, mineral resources and oil. Immediately after Angola got its independence from Portugal in 1975, the country descended into war which lasted for 26 years. The war was basically a struggle for the control of government within Angola.

However, the Angolan war soon morphed into a proxy war for the major actors involved in the Cold War: the USSR and the US. The USSR sided with the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the US sided with the National Frot of the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) and South Africans trained and funded the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) formed in 1966.

The MPLA were mainly the Kibundu speaking people from the Northern part of the country as well as the mixed race people. The FNLA were the Kikongo people from the North West while UNITA were mainly the Ovimbundu and Lunda-Chokwe people from the South.

Consequently both sides were guaranteed an endless supply of ammunition that fuelled 26 years of intense fighting and created Africa’s longest-running war.

Some other African nations such as South Africa and Congo joined in the civil war and there interest is to expand their territory

The interest of these West nations is to increase their sphere of influence and also for economic interest due to Angola vast amount of resources especially oil.

By the time the MPLA declared victory in 2002, Angola’s public infrastructure had been completely destroyed, more than 500,000 people had died, and over a million more had become internally displaced.

The outside world may have intervened to “save” socialism or freedom, but the Angolans themselves were fighting a tribal war.


The First Liberian Civil War (1989-1997)

The First Liberian Civil War was fought along ethno-religious lines. This war claimed more than two hundred thousand Liberian lives in a nation of 2.1 million people and displaced a million other citizens in refugee camps in neighbouring countries.


Samuel Doe, a sergeant in the Liberian army, had led a coup that overthrew the government of President William R. Tolbert. Doe became the first indigenous Head of State of Liberia.

Accused of corruption and preferential treatment towards his native Krahn ethnic group, President Doe’s highhandedness against the Gio and Mano tribes led to widespread resentment against his regime. Doe was paranoid that opposition might plan a coup to overthrow his government so he oppressed other tribes except his.

On December 24, 1989, a band of Libyan-trained rebels led by Charles Taylor invaded Liberia from the Ivory Coast. Taylor’s rebel group which was called the NFPL (National Patriotic Front of Liberia) consisted mostly of Gio and Mano peoples from Nimba County in Eastern Liberia.  


Rwanda Genocide -1994

Rwanda population is divided into two ethnic groups; the Tutsis and the Hutus. The root of the Rwanda genocide dates back to 1924 when Belgium first took over the country. The Belgium view the Tutsis to be superior to the Hutus. This created animosity between the two ethnic group. There was a major boast in the ego of the Tutsis and mistreatment of the Hutus for decades.

This angered the Hutus and led to ethnic conflict between the two groups. This led to a major attack in 1959  causing the death of about 20,000 Tutsis by the Hutus.

Rwanda gained independence from Belgium in 1962 but the divide and rule strategy created by the colonial masters continue to cause problems for the country and fight between the two ethnic groups becomes more prevalent.

In July 1974, The Hutu-led revolution was accompanied by mass killings in which tens of thousands of Tutsi died. Tens of thousands more Tutsi fled to neighbouring countries.

From then on, the political sphere was confined to the Hutu in Rwanda and the then president of Rwanda, President Habyarimana would not let the refugees in the neighbouring countries back into Rwanda, this led to the formation of  Rwandan Patriotic Front, RPF.

Most of “RPF” soldiers were Tutsi whose parents had fled after the revolution in 1959 to the neighbouring countries Tanzania, Uganda and Zaire, called the Democratic Republic of Congo today. The RPF invaded Rwanda and the aim of the invasion was to enable the return of Tutsi refugees and to force the Rwandan government to include the Tutsis in the political decision-making process. Undoubtedly, the vast majority of the Hutu elites regarded the RPF invasion as a major threat to everything that had been done to restore the dignity of the Hutu masses since the 1959-62 revolution.

At the same time it raised the feared prospect of a return to Tutsi domination. Besides widespread reinforcement of Hutu solidarity in the face of the Tutsi invaders, the invasion unleashed the rage of scores of Hutu politicians against local Tutsi communities. This resulted in recurrent cycles of genocidal massacres, as for example against the Bagogwe, a Tutsi subgroup, in January 1991, and against the Bugesera Tutsi in March 1992.

In 1993, the racial division between Hutu and Tutsi was finally institutionalized with the issuing of mandatory identity cards which marked the ethnic origin of a person. 

During the genocide people were selected to be killed on the basis of their ethnic affiliation. Selection was particularly evident at road barricades. Anyone attempting to pass had to present an identity card.

On April 6, 1994, President Habyarimana was shot down by a missile and the president was killed. It is not known for sure who performed the attack but it was assumed that the RPF was responsible; this event triggered the Rwanda genocide.

Over the next 100 days, a blood bath occurred which consumed more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate amount of Hutus. These attacks were often carried out by by their former neighbours, friends, or colleagues, who were being motivated by hate messages and propaganda delivered over the radio. The killings were intimate and sickening as marauding bands of militias armed with nothing but machetes and cudgels butchered their fellow citizens in broad daylight. Hutus who were killed were either married to Tutsi, resembles Tutsi, had Tutsi neighbours or were opposed to the killings of Tutsis.

The Hutus plan was to wipe off all Tutsis from the face of the earth and all Rwandans were required to carry identity card wherever they went. This genocide wiped about 75% of Rwanda Tutsi population.

Finally in July of 1994, the RPF captured Kigali and declared a ceasefire. An estimated 1 million people had lost their lives. Many more would die later from malnutrition and communicable diseases in refugee camps. As soon as it became apparent that the RPF was victorious, an estimated two million Hutus fled to Zaire now Congo. Rwanda’s now Tutsi-led government has twice invaded its much larger neighbour, saying it wants to wipe out the Hutu forces.

The rest of the world stood by and watched the mass slaughter in Central Africa and did nothing.

Government round the world were aware of the genocide taking place in Rwanda yet they decided not to get involved. It was reported that Bill Clinton, who was the president of the United State, received daily news on the killings happening in Rwanda yet he remained not interested. Belgium was also aware of the genocide happening, yet it chose not to help the country.

Rwanda has come a long way from the genocide in 1994  and one of the first things the post-genocide government did was to eliminate the ethnic designation on national identity cards, which were manipulated by the Belgians after World War I to divide the population and keep it subjugated. The government has implemented a campaign encouraging people to discard these labels on their own, and it’s widely considered impolite to ask someone about their ethnic background. We are all one nation is the idea. If you ask one of these people what are you, he or she is likely to answer Rwandan.


The Second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005)

The British colonise the Sudan in 1898 and govern the North and the South differently while most of the investment was received by the North Sudan, economic development was suppressed in the South part of Sudan.

The country gained independence from the British colonial rulers in 1956 and the two regions formed Sudan but the political, economic and cultural differences were deep.

In 1983, the Sudan relapsed into a second civil war. The war was fought between the Sudanese government and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). Largely considered a continuation of the first Sudanese civil war, many consider it to be an ethno-religious conflict. Some of the immediate reasons for the war include the imposition of the Islamic sharia law on non-Muslims in the south of the country.

The North Sudan is dominated by Arabs and were Muslims while the Southern Sudan is dominated by Africans who are mostly Christians. Most South Sudanese people and other people who were non-Muslim living in the north were now punished by Sharia Law.

Also there was a clamour by the people of the South for greater autonomous control of the natural resources available in their part of the country. Sudan oil is located mostly in the Southern part of the Sudan and this region has mostly be neglected by the government before oil exploration.

After the discovery of oil in the region, the government embarked on a mission to wipe out locals in the region in order to take over the land for oil exploration

The fighting lasted for 22 years, making it one of the longest-running conflicts in Africa. The shooting war that originated in southern Sudan soon spread to areas around the Blue Nile and the Nuba mountains. The war eventually gave birth to the country of South Sudan in 2011.

At the end of the fighting, estimates put the number of dead civilians at over 2 million and more than 4 million displaced persons.  Most of the deaths were the results of diseases and a drought that led to widespread famine.

The creation of South Sudan has not stopped tribal conflict in the region as political affiliation is attached to ethnicity and what started as a political struggle in South Sudan has degenerated into ethnic conflicts between the two major ethnic group (Dinka and Neur) in the region and other smaller ethnic groups have also taken up arms to defend their community.

African Conflicts still fanned by Tribalism in recent times

In Nigeria, Biafra war might have ended but Nigeria is still divided along tribal lines. This divide is evidence in the election of leaders and fanned by most candidates seeking political offices.  Also many Igbos still believe in the Biafra course; marches and meetings are held home and abroad on how to actualise this Biafran dream.

The prominent group is the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB, under the leadership of Nnamdi Kanu, who have been a thorn in the flesh of the Nigerian government as he has gathered a large followers in and out of the country. With the emergence of the IPOB, many have feared that Nigeria is on the brink of another civil war

South Africa, another giant in Africa is still plagued by the “divide and conquer” strategy set by the colonial masters even after apartheid. This has caused tension along the tribal lines and as their election comes close the tension have been more defined within groups.

From Cameroon to DRC to Central African Republic to Ethiopia and Somalia, tribal conflicts has resulted to instability in those countries.

What African countries have lacked as independent states after the colonial era of  “divide and conquer” 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 government in most African states are guilty of fanning the flame of tribalism in order to hold onto power or cover up for their corrupt practises.

Also Read: Shell Faces Trial In The Netherlands Over Nigeria Oil Block Deal.

Role Played by the West in Conflict in the Continent

In all these conflicts, we cannot downplay the influence of the West, in fact the West is the major catalyst driving tribal conflicts in the continent.

Most of Africa’s biggest conflicts can be considered to be the direct consequences of the actions by European colonial powers during their time of selfish misrule in Africa. Many blame the divide-and-rule policies of colonial administrations for fostering mistrust, angst, and unnecessary rivalry among various ethnic groups within most countries.

The Colonial powers successfully used the “Divide and Conquer” scheme to merge and rule their colonies and they have given a upper hand to a region and made another region feel inferior. In the case of Nigeria, the North was given the political power and the South were made to follow though each region have their differences.

This style of governance contributed to the Rwanda genocide, where the Tutsi tribe was made to feel superior to the Hutu. This led to the killings of millions of lives within 100 days and conflict have continued in other region due to this style of government. These conflicts have grown into full blown wars and genocides in part of Africa

In recent times, the West in not interested in peace in Africa because more conflict means more money for the West. The West is in the middle of these conflicts sponsoring groups with mercenaries and weapons while they chart away resources. Take a look at what is happening in Congo and see how western powers all fight for a piece of the rich country. Many other African countries have also joined in the battle against Congo for economic benefits.

When we hear of Blood diamond, blood oil and all sorts and we see the sophisticated weapons rebels use, we wonder how they are funded? Do not look farther than the West because they are the culprit.

It is more cheap to conduct illegitimate business with rebels and with the elimination of taxes makes it better.

True democracy cannot be achieved in Africa if tribalism is not eliminated, instead of looking at what makes us different, why not see the strength in our diversity. Tribalism is a killer and Former Kenyan President, Daniel Arap Moi describes tribalism as a cancer and “the foundation of all evil” and I agree totally with him.


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