2018 and Africa’s Politically and Economically Marginalized Groups

African Continent on Tiles

John Mukum Mbaku discusses some of the stuggles that minority groups in Africa have faced.

During the last several years, there have been struggles, many of them violent, by many of Africa’s economically and politically marginalized ethnocultural groups either to force a recognition of their fundamental rights by their governments or to secure some form of self-governing rights. Some groups, such as Cameroon’s Anglophone separatists, are seeking secession to form their own sovereign nations.

The failure of Africa’s multiethnic nations to provide themselves with governing processes that enhance their ability to manage ethnocultural diversity fully and effectively has haunted these countries since independence. In fact, this failure has produced economies and political systems that are pervaded by extremely high levels of political instability and violence, much of it attributable to destructive mobilization by subcultures that consider themselves marginalized, pushed to the economic and political margins, and effectively denied opportunities for self-actualization.

During general elections in Kenya in 2017, the Luo, under the leadership of opposition leader, Raila Odinga, lashed out at the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin, the two ethnocultural groups that have ruled Kenya since independence in 1963. In fact, the election was marred by violence as members of the opposition alliance called the National Super Alliance (NASA), whose support came primarily from the Luyha, Kamba, and Luo ethnocultural groups, claimed that they have been systematically exploited and marginalized by the two ethnic groups that have ruled Kenya since independence in 1963—the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin.

In Cameroon in 2016, the Anglophones, who have complained of marginalization at the hands of the Francophones since unification and the founding of the bilingual republic in 1961, launched a series of strikes to protest the government’s decision to impose the French language and the French-inspired legal system on the Anglophone regions of the country. The government responded to the peaceful protests with violence and brutality, resulting in the deaths of many protesters. By 2017, the confrontation between Anglophone protesters and the country’s security forces had turned into what some Anglophone activists were calling a war of liberation. The president subsequently declared a state of emergency in Anglophone Cameroon and implemented other measures (e.g., indefinite suspension of Internet services, and closing of the border between Anglophone Cameroon and Nigeria) that have completely dislocated the economy of the two Anglophone Regions. Perhaps, more important is the fact that students in this part of the country have not been able to return to school.

South Sudan gained independence from the Republic of Sudan in July 2011. In 2013, the political organization that led the way for independence, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, split along ethnic lines, after President Salva Kiir (a member of the Dinka ethnocultural group) accused his vice-president, Riek Machar (a Nuer), of an attempted coup. A civil war soon emerged, resulting in the killing of many people and the displacement of thousands of others. Over the course of the war, many peace agreements were signed but they have all been repeatedly violated. The latest peace agreement was signed in December 2017 between the Dinka-dominated government and the Nuer-dominated opposition group. Already, anti-government rebels and the South Sudanese army are accusing each other of violating the terms of the ceasefire, which went into effect on December 24, 2017.

In 2000, people calling themselves “pure Ivorians” amended the Constitution of the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire to prevent citizens that they claimed were not real Ivorians—mainly the descendants of the Burkinabè and other immigrants who had migrated from neighboring countries to work in the country’s cocoa fields—from participating in the presidential elections as candidates for the Office of the President of the Republic. Under the new constitution’s Article 35, former prime minister, Alassane Ouattara, who was born in Côte d’Ivoire from immigrant parents from Burkina Faso, was disqualified from ruling for president.

During the last several years, civil wars have been fought in many African countries, including Liberia, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Rwanda, Nigeria, and several other countries. Virtually all of these violent confrontations can be traced to the extra-constitutional activities of ethnocultural groups that considered themselves permanently marginalized economically and politically by a government dominated by their enemies—fellow citizens who are members of other ethnocultural groups.

Most of these problems can be traced to the failure of post-independence governing processes and institutional arrangements to (1) fully protect the fundamental rights of some groups; (2) adequately constrain the state and prevent its custodians (i.e., civil servants and politicians) from acting with impunity; (3) effectively manage diversity and enhance peaceful coexistence; and (4) provide all citizens, regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliation, with opportunities for self-actualization.

But, why have the institutional arrangements and governing processes in many countries in Africa been unable to fully protect the fundamental rights of citizens, including especially those of minority ethnic and religious groups? The answer lies in the process through which these laws and institutions were developed and adopted. In many of these countries, constitutional design and the development of institutions has been top-down, elite-driven, and non-participatory. The outcome has been institutional arrangements that do not adequately constrain the state and which have also failed to reflect the values and ideals important to each country’s various ethnocultural groups.

The way forward for these countries is for them to engage in process-driven constitutional design, keeping in mind that the process through which the rules are chosen, ratified and adopted is very important to the extent to which the people will consider them legitimate tools of governance. Through such a participatory and inclusive process, all the country’s relevant stakeholder groups can produce institutional arrangements that reflect their values and which adequately constrain the state and hence, prevent civil servants and political elites from engaging in various forms of opportunism. Perhaps, more importantly, these groups would be able to produce a governing process undergirded by the separation of powers with effective checks and balances, a political structure that should, hopefully, minimize tyranny directed at some individuals and groups by the government, while at the same time, enhancing the ability of all groups to participate effectively and fully in political and economic markets.

John Mukum Mbaku, Weber State University, US 

Mbaku Protecting

Protecting Minority Rights in African Countries is available now.


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