Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand

The Banality of Ethnic Conflict

In recent weeks, Sudan has returned to the headlines. Reports are coming out of South Sudan, the 193rd Member State of the United Nations, as it becomes engulfed in what has been described as inter-ethnic fighting and mass ethnic killings. To be fair, the actual power struggle behind the purported ethnic dimension of the conflict has been discussed in a number of media. And yet, there seems to be no escaping the habit of attaching the marker of ‘ethnicity’ to conflict, so one can read in the Washington Post that in ‘South Sudan’s case, the divides are ethnic. Or rather, they began as ethnic and have since become political.’

This is nothing new: reporting on Sudan has been plagued by such biases for a long time. The 22-year civil war between North and South which ended in 2005 with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) has been oftentimes defined as a fight between the predominantly Arab and Muslim north and rebels in the mainly Christian and animist south. In this case, religion – one of the markers of ethnicity – occupied pride of place as the main catalyst for conflict, conveniently overlooking the role of colonial legacies in fueling war, among other factors.

Between the civil war and the current situation, unrest in the Western Sudanese region of Darfur since February 2003 – where the population is overwhelming Muslim – has been generally attributed to the ethnic cleavage between Arabs and non-Arabs, namely African ethnic groups such as the Zaghawa, the Massalit and the Fur. In this way, the intricate political economy of the relationship between sedentary farmers and nomadic cattle and/or camel herders has been glossed over in a region increasingly starved of resources, including water, in the face of growing populations, marginal habitats, and an unprecedented ecological crisis.

The concept of ethnic conflict is problematic in at least two respects. Firstly, it seems to suggest that markers of identity (‘ethnicity’) are at the origin of conflict. While on the surface this may appear to be the case, a deeper analysis reveals the deeply political and economic causes of violence and war the world over. Divisions along community – so-called ethnic – lines are often the result of conflict and cannot alone explain sustained violence, whose root causes have to be found elsewhere. For years, reporters filed countless dispatches describing the raging ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavia, which was ascribed to age-old hatred between Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks, adding religion as a further drive behind the war (the first are Orthodox, the second Catholic and the third Muslim).

Not only do such a-historical accounts fail to capture the complexity of the situation, but they risk feeding into the discourse of those war mongers on the ground who, in the words of Susan Woodward, transformed ‘conflict within elite circles over economic choices […] into non-negotiable questions of identity.’ Seldom was the conflict analysed within the historical context of the fall of the Berlin Wall and Yugoslavia’s loss of all the privileges accruing from non-alignment. Or from the standpoint of a decade of structural adjustment, including the 1989 shock therapy package, which wreaked havoc on the federation’s social fabric, while striking at the core of the delicate balance of resource redistribution between the various republics that formed the federation.

Secondly, ethnicity is as hazy a concept as nation, a fact that severely limits its analytical potency. That the former is used – inter alia – in the context of Africa, the Balkans and Central Asia raises the suspicion that an inherent prejudice is at play, whereby some people have ethnic groups and others – read: Westerners – have nations. In 1978, anthropologist Ronald Cohen wrote that:

 “in  ideological  terms,  “tribes” are  a  fundamentally  colonial  concept derived  from  the Latin term tribus meaning  barbarians  at the borders  of the empire. This etymology reflects and explains the significance of the word in Western culture, its link to  imperialist expansionism and the associated and overgeneralized  dichotomization of  the world’s peoples into civilized and uncivilized – the  “raw”  and the “cooked” of human historical experience.”

I would argue that the same dynamics apply to the term ethnicity, the implication being that (a somewhat undefined) modernity (civilisation?) has by-passed some, and blessed others.

Franco Galdini, Italy
Rotary Peace Fellow
January 2014 Session


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This entry was posted on January 20, 2014 by .
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