May 9, 2023
ASN interviews Dr. Koter about a role of ethnicity in shaping African politics and the robustness of national identity in African countries, an area of research often overshadowed by ethnic identity.
April 3, 2023
Can we (and should we) compare China to other countries when analyzing nationalism? David Stroup discusses his latest article “Chinese Nationalism: Insights and Opportunities for Comparative Studies” (Nationalities Papers, vol.51 #1)
February 26, 2023
Interview with Vladimir Đorđević, Mikhail Suslov, Marek Čejka, Ondřej Mocek and Martin Hrabálek about their latest article in Nationalities Papers.
May 9, 2023
ASN: Do you have a favorite case study that illustrates the role of ethnicity in shaping political outcomes in Africa?
DK: I have always been interested in how ethnicity shapes voting behavior. Benin is a good, and in many ways typical, example of how ethnic considerations drive voters to support candidates from the same ethnic group, as is the case in many other countries, such as Kenya or Zambia. Scholars have known for a long time that the desire to access resources is an important driver of ethnic voting. I found that to be the case in Benin as well, and the way that voters explained it was quite telling. One of the most frequent phrases that I heard during my research was that with a coethnic politician it would be easier “to knock on his door” if a voter needed something. This highlights that voters believe that they are more likely to get help from a coethnic, but that this help is often more theoretical than tangible.
Understanding how ethnicity matters is important, but when I began researching ethnic politics, I was actually more intrigued by cases such as Senegal or Mali, where ethnicity didn’t matter much for political outcomes, despite being socially salient. It was these non-conforming cases that I found particularly interesting.
ASN: Ethnic politics plays a big role in some parts of Africa, but not in others. What are some factors that determine variation in ethnic politics across the continent?
DK: Scholars have pointed to several possible factors, such as cross-cutting cleavages (Dunning & Harrison), or the size of the largest group (Elischer), as factors reducing political manifestations of ethnicity. In my book, Beyond Ethnic Politics in Africa, I draw attention to the role of local authorities, such as religious and traditional leaders, who shape the electoral strategies available to politicians. I argue that in a context of strong local leaders, politicians were in a stronger position to forge linkages with voters through these local leaders, establishing ethnically diverse electoral bases. In contexts where such leaders were lacking, politicians were much more likely to resort to ethnic politics, relying disproportionately on the support of their co-ethnics.
ASN: In your discussion of ethnicity vis-à-vis other social identities, you touch on national identity. Do religion, gender, and class intersect with ethnic politics? And if so, how?
DK: Religion and class can certainly intersect with ethnicity. For example, different ethnic groups often grow different crops, or some might be farmers, whereas others are pastoralists. Their representation among different professions can vary and so can their economic position. Colonialism also had unequal impact on different ethnic groups, resulting in different socio-economic circumstances. Ethnic groups also have different religious composition. Some can be almost entirely Christian or Muslim whereas others can be divided. Shared religion with other ethnic groups (or lack thereof) can also affect ethnic relations. Sometimes ethnic, regional, and religious cleavages can be layered on top of one another, as was the case in Cote d’Ivoire, magnifying division. Gender obviously bisects all ethnic groups. Where ethnic groups differ is in the role that women play, or in existing hereditary rules; some ethnic groups in Africa are patrilineal whereas others are matrilineal.
ASN: How are ethnic politics in Africa different from ethnic politics elsewhere?
DK: The main difference that I see is how citizens perceive ethnic politics and how ethnic politics are portrayed by analysts. As I explain in the article, ethnic politics in Africa are predominantly seen as a negative phenomenon, both by African citizens and outside observers. This is in contrast to the often laudatory language around identity politics in the US. Even the terminology that is sometimes used, for example tribalism (in Africa) versus identity politics (in the West), has different connotations. Many African citizens see ethnic politics as something undesirable and would like to see it diminished. Ethnic politics in Africa are also to a large extent focused on access to resources rather than on cultural issues.
ASN: Earlier, we interviewed Vladimir Đorđević and a number of other authors about the role of pan-Slavism in Eastern Europe. Does pan-Africanism still play a role in Africa? Does it represent a challenge to ethnic parties?
DK: Pan-Africanism remains an aspirational idea, but we do not see it affecting domestic politics to a significant degree. Unfortunately, pan-Africanism is not a viable antidote to ethnic politics. It is not common for politicians to make effective use of it, and it does not affect outcomes the way that ethnic appeals and ethnic ties do.
ASN: What project are you currently working on?
DK: I am currently working on a book-length project on national identity in Africa. What attracted me to this topic is that national identity in many African countries is very robust, even in rural areas and among people in the informal economy, despite absence of largescale state-led nation- building projects. The African experience of nation-building is for the most part very different from the Western experience and we need a better understanding of it. National identity in Africa as a topic has also been rather neglected, especially in comparison to ethnic identity.
Koter, D. (2023). Africa and Ethnic Politics. Nationalities Papers, 51(2), 245-257. doi:10.1017/nps.2022.86