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Peoples Versus States: Minorities at Risk in the New Century (review)

From: Africa Today
Volume 49, Number 4, Winter 2002
pp. 143-144 | 10.1353/at.2003.0047

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Africa Today 49.4 (2002) 143-144

Gurr, Ted Robert. 2000. People Versus States: Minorities At Risk In The New Century. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press. 399 pp.

This book is the sequel to Ted Gurr's highly acclaimed 1993 work, Minorities at Risk: A Global View of Ethnopolitical Politics,which studied ethnic conflict around the world and detailed the rise of ethnic violence. People Versus States picks up where Minorities at Risk left off, and studies ethnic groups at risk for conflict or repression. In contrast to his earlier work, however, Gurr gives a more positive outlook for ethnic conflict in the twenty-first century, with his contention that ethnic violence has declined.

Gurr is a professor at the University of Maryland and director of the Minorities at Risk Project at the Center for International Development and Conflict Management. He has authored eighteen books, including the aforementioned Minorities at Risk. His most recent work is a global survey of signs of conflict between states and identity groups. He focuses upon conflict and its consequences through a database of 275 politically active ethnic and communal groups around the world. The time period of his study is from 1986 to 1999.

According to Gurr, identity groups are likely to mobilize along communal identity, group incentives, and their capacity for ethnopolitical action. With an array of qualitative and quantitative data, Gurr postulates that communal or ethnic conflict was actually on the decline in the 1990s. This conclusion he bases on statistical analysis of several risk factors, including the level of group political protest, the salience of group identity, the capacity for group collective action, domestic and international opportunities for collective action, and the effect of the makeup of a group on the form of its political action. For Gurr, the reasons for this decline can be attributed to three factors. First, the shocks of state formation in the republics of the former Soviet Union have declined. Second, the civil capacities within states for responding to ethnopolitical challenges have all increased, especially so in democratic countries. Third, because of the influences of media, international organizations, and NGOs, states have been more willing to respond to ethnic or communal challenges with preventive or remedial action, rather than retribution.

In contrast to the larger trend, Gurr finds that in Africa twenty of sixty-seven ethnopolitical groups in his study have a relatively high risk of rebellion, particularly groups in the Great Lakes region, the Sudan and Ethiopia. He offers a dire forecast predicting a rise in ethnopolitical conflict. In Burundi, he notes that whereas international pressure forced the military ruler, Pierre Buyoya, to allow democratic elections in 1993, international groups now give more primary status to events in the former Communist block and the Middle East. This, coupled with Nyerere's death, according to Gurr, dims the prospects for ameliorating ethnopolitical tension between the Hutu and Tutsi in Burundi. The recent December 2002 ceasefire between the Tutsi-led government of Buyoya and the rebel forces of the Defense for Democracy make it interesting to see how ultimately his assertions will stand the test of time. With Buyoya tentatively agreeing to hand over power to his Hutu vice president following the first transition phase, the prospects for peace are either in sight or merely another mirage.

Gurr's work is another fine contribution to the study of ethnic conflict in the world. It will serve as a useful reference work for students. Although Gurr does a masterly job in prognosticating and describing the causes of ethnic conflict, he does not, in some cases, give enough credence to the impact of the global economic system upon fostering ethnic conflict. However, this book will serve as a useful tool in the class room for testing the validity of his assertions in light of the ever-changing political nature of group conflicts in the world.

Opolot Okia
University of Tennessee



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