Ever since the time of Julius Caesar, who created the Roman Empire, through Genghis Khan, who created the Mongol Empire, which became the largest empire in history, to the British Empire, powerful rulers have put together peoples of different ethnicities which constituted their empires.
Although some of those rulers were known for their brutality in some instances, they created cohesive political environments, brought communication and trade thus expanding the horizons of those cultural groups.
During colonialism formation, groups were divided or brought together with little or no regard to their common characteristics or distinctive attributes. This is what happened to the African continent at the Berlin Conference in 1884-85.
The colonies were turned into new administrative, usually larger, frameworks, governed by new values, new institutions, and new principles and techniques. The old order was replaced by the institutions of the state, in which the ultimate authority was a foreign power.
At the present time, virtually every conflict in Developing Countries has some ethnic or religious origin. Even those conflicts that may appear to be free of ethnic concerns involve factions and alliances built around ethnic loyalties.
These conflicts have gone by different names in different countries: sectarianism or tribalism are some of the names. Anthropologists, religious or semi-political institutions (Human Rights Watch) have tended to use ethnicity as a tool to promote their interests.
For example, human rights organizations and civil societies often set one ethnic group against another, however inadvertently, thereby creating conflicts among the groups in the name of protecting human rights. In this sense, ethnicity is used for manipulation.
There are cases, however, in which ethnic cleansing has been engaged in following the disintegration of nation states created by powerful rulers. One example is what we now know as the Bosnian war. After the Second World War, the Balkan states of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia became part of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia.
When longtime Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito died in 1980, growing nationalism among the different Yugoslav republics split the union apart. This process intensified after the mid-1980s with the rise of the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic
In 1992, the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina declared its independence from Yugoslavia. Over the next several years, Bosnian Serb forces, with the backing of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army terrorized Bosnian Muslims and Croatian civilians and committed atrocious crimes which resulted in the deaths of some 100,000 people (80 percent Bosnian Muslims by 1995).
It was the worst act of genocide since the Nazi regime’s destruction of the Jews. Radovan Karadzic was sentenced to 40 years in jail for ethnic cleansing.
The Challenge in Africa
After independence in the 1960s, African countries were eager to avoid tribalism or ethnicity as being divisive. Unity in diversity became the guiding principle in Africa under the umbrella of the Organization of African Unity (OAU, the present African Union).
The decision of the Founding Fathers of the OAU to respect the colonial borders established the principle that has been successfully followed. Secession movements met with strong resistance from the OAU.
Katanga province under Moise Tshombe tried to break away from the Congo but failed. The secessionist Biafran war in Nigeria also failed. Somalia’s attempt to take the Ogaden from Ethiopia was decisively defeated. The only secessionist movement that succeeded seems to be South Sudan, which broke away from North Sudan and in 2011, and the Republic of South Sudan was recognized by the United Nations.
To reinforce the OAU principle of keeping colonial boundaries, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana outlawed parties organized on tribal or ethnic lines. Houphouet-Boigny of Côte d’Ivoire distributed ministerial, civil service jobs, ethnic, social services, and development projects among ethnic groups. Julius Nyerere, stamped out tribalism by fostering nationalistic pride in Tanganyika (later, Tanzania, born out of the union with Zanzibar).
In some cases, however, there has been justification for the violating the OAU/AU principle on colonial boundaries. Eritrea’s breakaway from Ethiopia was seen not as a case of violating colonial borders, but of upholding them, since Eritrea had been a colony under Italian rule. (Ethiopia was not colonized). The breakaway of Northern Somalia was seen as a restoration of colonial borders, since the North had been governed separately by the British.
The Rohingya of Myanmar
Shortly after Myanmar’s (Burma) independence from the British in 1948, the Union Citizenship Act was passed, defining which ethnicities could gain citizenship. The Rohingya were not recognized as an ethnic group. In 1982, a new citizenship law was passed, which effectively rendered the Rohingya stateless. They were again not recognized as one of Myanmar’s 135 ethnic groups.
As a result of the law, their rights to study, work, travel, marry, practice their religion and access health services were and continue to be restricted. Since the 1970s, a number of crackdowns on the Rohingya in Rakhine State have forced hundreds of thousands to flee to neighboring Bangladesh, as well as Malaysia, Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries. The government blamed terrorism from an armed Rohingya group.
The killings led to a security crackdown on villages where Rohingya lived. During the crackdown, government troops were accused of human rights abuses, including killings, rape and arson - allegations the government denied.
The UN has accused the government of carrying out “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya. It was not the first time such an accusation had been made. In 2017, the Rohingya case has recently been so vicious that Pope Francis recently visited Myanmar to highlight international concerns.
Good governance in non-homogeneous societies has been regarded as creating a framework that accommodates cultures that are racially, ethnically, or religiously diverse. Such a framework establishes institutions that enforce respect for the law and subscribe to common norms and understanding of different traditions.
The norms and traditions are usually made part of a constitution which becomes the Basic Law of the Land. The governing principle usually comes under the rubric of equality under the law. One might say that this is the principle that governs most African countries and developing countries at large.
The march towards globalization has made it necessary for the international community to hold developing countries accountable in order to ensure good governance if and when individual nations or groups of nations require support from the international community.
The United Nations hasbeen charged with the responsibility of holding nation states accountable for human rights and other democratic values. Sometimes these values come into conflict the priories of individual states like the issue of protection of minorities, which continues to be an important consideration in the context of national stability.
African states are the creation of European conquest, which restructured continent, and the end resulted in wars of liberation However, the continent itself, and individual states in particular, realize that there are advantages in belonging to the international system of globalization.
There are benefits in the context of economic and political development. Tensions and conflicts will not be easily resolved, but diverse groups eventually discover common interests, mainly economic, that make ethnic differences a liability and disadvantage in the process development and nation building.
Prof. Geoffrey Rugege, the vice-chancellor at the African Leadership University (ALU).
The views expressed in this article are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Times.