Managing diversity in Africa



MANAGING diversity remains a key challenge across Africa. Failure to do so effectively has led to devastating civil conflicts in Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Sudan, Rwanda, and Burundi. Following the “curse of Berlin” with the notorious conference of 1884/1885, European imperial powers not only imposed artificial governance systems on Africa, but – as Ugandan academic, Mahmood Mamdani, has noted – also politicized indigeneity, thus sowing the seeds of many of the divisions the continent has experienced. Over six million Africans have died in a bid to defend colonial boundaries.

Africa’s post-independence leaders also did not do enough to reverse this blighted legacy, and to develop indigenous systems for managing diversity. Crafting federations and conceding autonomy to minority groups were rejected by most nation-builders who argued instead that one-party states were the only means to avoid destabilising ethnic wars and to preserve the unity they needed. No ruling party lost power in Africa between 1960 and 1990, and only three leaders voluntarily left power. Ethno-regional differences were thus exacerbated by nepotism and favouritism in appointments to military, political, and bureaucratic positions. The state became a cash cow to be milked for political patronage. Many national armies in countries like Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, and Sudan were turned into ethnic warrior enclaves in which the core consisted of kinsmen of the head of state. South Sudan’s euphoric independence in 2011 has already resulted in an ethnic-fuelled civil war within three short years. All these trends have complicated the management of diversity in Africa, and increased socio-economic inequalities.

South Sudanese scholar-diplomat, Francis Deng – one of the world’s leading intellectuals on managing diversity – perceptively noted in 1998 that African countries have yet to craft effective post-colonial political frameworks to manage their rich cultural diversities, promote democratic governance, and tap into the wealth of indigenous African cultures, values, and institutions as sources of strength and legitimacy. Traditional conflict resolution mechanisms have thus often been neglected. Deng went on to argue that African constitutions and governing frameworks must embody the soul of African nations by reflecting the essential cultural values and norms of their populations, while building on their worldview. Among solutions he proposed for managing diversity include: proportional representation systems (such as in South Africa and Namibia); the need for elected presidents to win 25% of votes in all regions of the country (similar to Nigeria); all groups being represented in the public service and judiciary; protecting indigenous languages and guaranteeing minority representation in parliament; and placing constitutional term limits on presidents. Tanzanian diplomat, Salim Ahmed Salim, argued that “Every African is his brother’s keeper”, and similarly called for the use of African culture and social relations in managing conflicts on the continent.

For all its flaws, Nigeria represents an innovative experiment in managing ethnic diversity through federalism involving 250 ethnic groups speaking over 100 languages; while South Africa represents an effort to manage racial diversity through democratic constitutionalism. Viable indigenous institutions for managing conflicts and preventing them from becoming violent will, however, still need to be built across Africa. The continent’s civil society actors must thus be used more effectively in efforts to manage diversity.

A radical proposal for managing diversity on the continent would involve African leaders organising a new Berlin conference on their own continent. The original Bismarckian conference of 1884/85 divided Africa; this one would aim to unite the continent. While the decision to freeze the map of Africa in the 1960s may have been sensible in a sovereignty-obsessed era of unconsolidated nation-states, Africans must now muster the ingenuity and imagination to craft new arrangements that better reflect their own current realities. Federations and regional trade blocs must be negotiated, and territorial boundaries agreed in the long term that reflect the political, socio-economic, and cultural realities of a vast continent.

After detailed planning, African leaders and civil society actors must proceed to the ancient empire of Ethiopia – the seat of African diplomacy – to reverse the scandalous act of cartographic mischief inflicted on the continent by imperial European statesmen in Berlin 130 years ago. Africa’s ancestors must be invited to this grand diplomatic banquet, where Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah will pass on the torch of pan-Africanism to South Africa’s Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, so that the “curse of Berlin” over Africa can finally be lifted.
• Dr. Adekeye Adebajo is Executive Director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town, and a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

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