Ethnic consciousness in the African context mostly refers to a sense of acute awareness and attachment to one’s ethnic, linguistic, religious, tribal, clan and other forms of group identities. Such awareness can be short-lived or sustained, depending on various factors that trigger and intensify deep allegiance to one’s identity group.
Members of an ethnic group exhibit varying degrees of ethnic consciousness and allegiance to their group and an individual’s sense of attachment to their ethnic group fluctuates over time and is not constant. But how does ethnic consciousness relate to nation-building?
Nation-building mostly refers to the ways in which state elites attempt to integrate otherwise diverse or distinct social groups into a common territorial-based national identity through shared state institutions and unifying symbols.
The main purpose of nation-building projects is fostering a sense of an overarching national identity that transcends religious, regional, ethnic, tribal, clan, linguistic, racial and other forms of social divisions. While nation-building is concerned with promoting a broader form of nationality-based self-identification such as South African, Kenyan, Gambian, ethnic identity is concerned with narrower forms of group-based affiliations such as Venda (South Africa), Shona (Zimbabwe), Amhara (Ethiopia) and Hausa (Nigeria).
But are ethnic consciousness and nation-building opposites? Can they co-exist as complementary forces? Ethnicity- and nationality-based self-identifications are not necessarily contradictory and they can reinforce each other. Ethnic identity can be a powerful tool in strengthening and maintaining a positive, unifying nationality-based identity.
Someone may identify as Ndebele-Zimbabwean, Bamileke-Cameroonian or Kunama-Eritrean, thereby subsuming their ethnic identification within a broad collective, nationality based self-identification. A degenerative form of ethnic self-identity may appear in the form of, “I am Bambara first before I am Senegalese” or “I am Igbo first before I am Nigerian”. Such modes of self-identification tend to engender inter-ethnic competition and rivalry. The healthier form of self-identification should be, “I am South African before I am Sotho”, “I am Algerian before I am Sahrawi”.
We should acknowledge our collective, unifying nationality-based identity at the same time that we claim our ethnic identity. Our ethnic identity gives us a sense of belonging to a social group we are closely attached to and our allegiance to our broad national identity links us to members of other ethnicities in a political territory.
Created largely out of colonial encounters, most African territorial states comprise a heterogeneous mixture of ethnic groups and many leaders make the mistake of repressing ethnicity-based identifications in their quest for nation-building. People will always feel attachment to their ethnicity and hence leaders should acknowledge the tendency but promote a powerful, unifying national identity in the context of heterogeneity.
It is true that in the African continent, ethnicity is a dreaded term because of the continent’s experience with ethnicity- or tribe-based inter-group animosities and conflicts that, in some countries, morphed into genocides. We should never politicise ethnicity, we should never organise along ethnic affiliations, we should never foster ethnic competition.
Ethnicity in Africa can, in fact, be harnessed to strengthen inter-ethnic solidarity and a common nation-building. You can identify as Chaga and another as Maasai but you are all Tanzanians; you can identify as Yao and another as Lomwe but you are all Malawians.
We can even transcend nationality-based identification and foster a unifying continental-based African identity. One person can identify as South African and another as Togoan, but we are all Africans if we can arrive at the point where we recognise that unpoliticised, ethnic-consciousness is not harmful to nation-building.
Dr Amanuel Isak Tewolde is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Social Development in Africa at the University of Johannessburg