How ethnic factors fuel conflicts in Central and East Africa. An ACMM interview with Dr Patience Kabamba conducted by James Hall

October 7, 2013 1:57 am0 comments by:
Dr Patience Kabamba is currently an Assistant Professor of International Studies at Marymount Manhattan College in New York, having spent several years as a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Development Studies at the University of Johannesburg. Dr Kabamba has intensive ethnographic experience concerning new social formations that emerge when states disintegrate in war-torn Africa: Burundi, the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda. His theoretical interests are the dynamics of conflict, new state formations, transnational trade networks, ethnicity, and global political and economic governance.

Dr Patience Kabamba is currently an Assistant Professor of International Studies at Marymount Manhattan College in New York.

In this exclusive Africa Conflict Monthly Monitor (ACMM) interview, Dr Patience Kabamba discusses ethnicity and conflict in Central and East Africa. Dr Kabamba has intensive ethnographic experience concerning new social formations that emerge when states disintegrate in war-torn Africa: Burundi, the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda. His theoretical interests are the dynamics of conflict, new state formations, transnational trade networks, ethnicity, and global political and economic governance.

Mr Kabamba, thank you for speaking with us. Might we begin by asking for a background in ethnic studies and how ethnicity relates to conflict situations in Central and East Africa? How did you develop an interest in this field? What are your current projects?

After my studies in Philosophy and Mathematics, I felt that I was far from what was really taking place in my country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which was engaged in a decade-long civil war. I decided then to do my doctoral studies in anthropology. When I joined the department of anthropology at Columbia University in 2002, the debate in the discipline was about, on the one hand, the understanding of culture as self-contained and self-constitutive. On the other hand, [there was] the political economic approach, which sees culture as shaped by the political economic context (the revival of Marxian theory). My own understanding is that there is a dialectical influence between culture and the political economic context, which would be the theory of Commorroffs. My interest in ethnicity, which constitutes one of the major chapters of my doctoral thesis and of the book which comes from it, stems from the observation that with the disintegration of the colonially-imposed states in Africa, ethnic unities have acquired new relevance for people in Central Africa. Despite the fact that ethnicity has been demonised in the African literature, especially in Central Africa where ethnic cleansing and genocidal killing took place in Rwanda, ethnicity has, however, a sort of afterlife in the current dynamics of state (re-)formation.

My work in the eastern DRC is about an ethnic group, the Nande in north-eastern Congo, who, in the absence of effective state sovereignty and in the presence of numerous armed contenders for power, have managed to build and protect self-sustaining, prosperous, transnational economic enterprises in eastern Congo.  As I underline in my research, the intended subject is not ‘the Nande’ as a naturalised ethnic group, but rather the historically specific social formation that Nande traders have produced and organised around the reconfiguration and mobilisation of kinship.

My interest in the Nande was born from the observation that different ethnic groups in the conflict region responded differently to the conflagration of the region. Despite the high overall level of violence, there are stark differences between various local communities in the DRC. Some groups continue to suffer, but others, especially the Nande, manage not only to insulate themselves from violence nearby but also manage to prosper in their transnational economic enterprises. The Nande case was interesting in the sense that it was mostly the only ethnic group which was able to maintain their peace and has demonstrated a sort of social cohesion in the midst of one of the most severe civil wars on the planet.

My current project is to compare the Nande of the DRC with the Bamileke of Cameroon and the Igbo of Nigeria. These three ethnic groups have demonstrated a sort of economic success in difficult postcolonial national contexts. I am studying the similarities and differences between the three groups, but most importantly, my question is about ethnicity – and the role of ethnicity and kinship in defining the success of these groups.

To what extent has ethnic insensitivity or ignorance of ethnic considerations hindered conflict resolution in the regions? How is this remedied?

As I mentioned, ethnicity has been demonised in the literature because of the fear of ethnic cleansings or genocide. However, in the entire east African region ethnic differences have new ‘afterlife.’ Capitalism has not transformed life as quickly or completely as ‘modernisation’ advocates thought it might. Mobutu’s long reign in the Congo twisted ethnicity to his own needs and the effects of this, the ‘afterlife’, linger. More importantly, I am interested in comprehending and theorising how ethnicity is being reinvented, yet again. Ignoring this reality, ignoring ethnicity as an intermediary institution, which could help understand and diffuse the conflict, has been one of the mistakes in the search for solutions to the conflicts in Africa.

An African once drew up a map showing what Africa would look like if each African tribe was an independent nation all on its own. The result was a constellation of hundreds of tiny nations, none of them self-sustainable, in a continent that could not function. In terms of ethnic identity versus the need for social and economic advancement in the modern world, was the 19th century division of Africa by European colonial powers into today’s nation states a blessing or a curse?

Before answering the question let me note that the ‘tribe’ is a fundamentally colonial concept derived from the Latin tribus, referring to barbarians at the borders of the Roman empire. The word ‘tribe’ has since been associated with a dichotomisation of the world’s people into uncivilised and civilised – the ‘raw’ and ‘cooked’ of human historical experience. Furthermore, the depiction of colonised people as ‘tribes’ was profoundly routed in the denial that they could ever be constituted at ‘nations’ that might be reasonably expected to be capable of governing themselves. In the literature related to the Sub-Saharan African, especially in anthropological work, the ‘peoples’ studied have generally been reduced to ‘tribes’ or ‘ethnic groups’. Consequently, according to this creed, there are, in fact, no genuine ‘nations’ in Africa. As (Ugandan academic and political commentator) Mahmood Mamdani explains:

While the debate on ‘nations,’ ‘nationalities’ and ‘national minorities’ within Europe and America was a lively controversy, its flip-side was once again a point of consensus. All were agreed that there were no nations amongst colonised peoples; and this was said to be particularly true of the ‘dark continent.’ For Africa was said to be the land of ‘tribes’, not nations.

So, in the 19th century, Africa was not divided into nations, but into ‘extractive spaces’. The Congo, for example, was conceived as an extractive space from where raw material including minerals and rubber would be taken from to send to Belgium. The interest was not in the people of Congo. The latter were concerned only as far as they facilitated the extraction and the shipment of goods to Europe. All the infrastructures were organised to ease the movement of goods from the place they are extracted to the seaport. So, Congo was never conceived as a nation (a political space where people organise their economic and political lives). In the independence, without any preparation – almost overnight – Congo went from being an economic and an extractive space to a ‘political’ space without any political consensus between different groups of almost 400 languages occupying that space. Moreover, the extractive economic structures remained intact and protected by the new leaders who are sometimes referred to as ‘gatekeepers’. The African continent participated, from the outset, to the world market as providers of raw materials. We remain, even today, connected to the world market as providers of raw material, which, in the ladder of production, produces the least value added. That is why we are at the bottom of the world economic order. We urgently need to go from an extractive space – providers of raw material – to a nation; to a political entity with a political consensus – which, historically, has always come with violence (or revolution) and turned the well-being of its people away from an extroverted economy.  So, this goes beyond curse or blessing!

How can the study of East and Central African ethnicity be incorporated into conflict resolution efforts? Perhaps such study can provide background or relevant data?

For countries which were created not from political consensus but which were shaped by colonial violence of occupation for extraction, one must go back to the elementary groupings, which are ethnic dynamic entities. These are intermediary institutions from which to apprehend social conflicts and to contemplate their resolutions.

The recourse to ethnicity in Africa would not be seen as a result of involution or frustration, but rather, in part, as a dynamic expression of distinct histories. To resolve the conflicts, they need to be historicised and these efforts necessarily bring ethnicity into the game.

Specific to East Africa, what are the principal conflicts fuelled by ethnicity?

The Rwandan genocides of 1994 and 1996 were the most dramatic ethnicity conflicts in east Africa; other ethnic conflicts that are less dramatic but incurred many deaths nonetheless, occurred in Kenya and in eastern Congo.

What are the preventive steps that can be taken to ensure that ethnic rivalries do not devolve into internecine conflict and genocide?

I think that as far as ethnic identity is concerned, the most productive question would be: “when is ethnic identity mobilised?” Generally, during the electoral period, politicians resort to a strong political mobilisation of the electorate at the basis of ethnic belonging. This is because ethnic belonging and ethnic majority precede any democratic majority or any ideological identification. This is a difficulty inherent to the fact many of our multi-ethnic countries were conceived as extractive spaces by the colonial powers. And they have remained as such to this day. A fundamental change is needed, a sort of revolution to create or to build real nations!

What, in your opinion, would be the time-frame whereby different ethnic groups inhabiting a country or region will look beyond their own group identities for the purpose of nation-building – recognising that a rising tide lifts all ships? Or are Central and East Africa already there in some instances?

I understand that the wars that are taking place in the Congo are still wars of primitive accumulation in the sense that some powers are dispossessing people, and other armed groups are resisting dispossession. But, these are not yet the wars or revolutions which will transform extractive spaces into real nations. The nation-building processes are still to come with its violence – the price of real freedom and the labour preceding the birth of the nation.


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