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  • Institutions and Ethnic Politics in Africa
  • Charles Ambler
Daniel Posner . Institutions and Ethnic Politics in Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. xv + 337 pp. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $70.00. Cloth. $26.99. Paper.

There is certainly no dearth of studies that examine the nature of ethnicity in colonial and postcolonial Africa. During the last two decades, especially, a number of scholars have produced work that shows the dynamic character of ethnic groups (or "tribes") and ethnic affiliations. Yet, as Daniel Posner points out in this very original study of postcolonial Zambia, the nature of the impact of these groups is still more often assumed than studied. In Posner's words, "most studies of ethnic conflict begin their analyses after the cards have already been played. This book argues for starting the explanation at the time they are dealt" (288). [End Page 162]

Posner brings to bear an impressive grasp of the large body of literature on colonial and postcolonial Zambia, relevant archival materials, election and voting data, and his own survey, focus group, and interview findings in an elegant, systematically presented (if occasionally overly schematic) argument that explains why tribe and language are the key components of identity in Zambian politics and, most important, why one and not the other of these has emerged as salient at particular moments since independence. In a concise summary of Zambia's colonial history, Posner shows how the country's tribal map was rigidified while the majority of people came gradually to identify with one of four larger language groupings. The argument that he develops from that foundation is a deceptively simple one: during the periods (in the 1960s and again since the early 1990s) of multiparty competition, both politicians and voters have tended to emphasize the larger language identities, while during the period of one-party rule, more localized tribal affiliations dominated. In a situation marked by increasingly scarce resources (a reality that might have been more carefully explored), people sought benefits for themselves by building the smallest possible coalition that guarantees victory at the polls. The context of party competition has led to the construction of alliances based on language affiliation. And as Posner shows, local sons with all the right ethnic credentials have regularly been defeated by "outsiders" who represent the party that is seen to support the larger ethnic-language community.

Posner does on occasion display some fancy footwork: in particular his argument that during the twentieth century "Zambia's linguistic map was transformed from one containing more than fifty languages to one containing just four major ones" (60) deserves some closer scrutiny. In making this case, Posner notes that, whereas "tribal" affiliations number forty or more (depending on how you count), an overwhelming proportion of Zambians have come to use Bemba, Nyanja, Lozi, or Tonga as their first or second language of communication. Thus what his evidence actually suggests is not a simplification of the language map, but its complication, as growing numbers of people speak multiple languages—including English. Examination of the relationships among these languages (and similarly the existence of linking traditions that draw associated "tribes" together) would have added to his arguments relating to the roles of state and missionary policies in building tribes and preeminent languages. Such analysis would also have been helpful in teasing out distinctions between the rubric of tribe and language upon which Posner rests his analysis and the closely related, but conceptually distinct, idea of locality and region.

Deceptively straightforward, this book looks at ethnicity in new ways—both conceptually and methodologically. In the final two chapters, Posner makes a persuasive argument for the relevance of his conclusions first in Africa (and especially in the case of Kenya) and then in other parts of the world. Yet I predict that the broader significance of this book is likely to be [End Page 163] less its specific theoretical conclusions and more the highly original kinds of questions that Posner applies to political behavior and ideas and his rigorous and creative methodological approaches to those questions.

Charles Ambler
University of Texas at El Paso
El Paso, Texas


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