Africa Today 48.3 (2001) 161-164
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This book originated from an international conference held at the University of Oslo in September 1997. It is a collection of contributions by scholars of such diverse disciplines as literature, history, anthropology, sociology, political science and international studies. The African countries discussed include Somalia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Rwanda, Congo-Brazzaville, Angola, and Mozambique. They all experienced severe political dislocation and civil war in recent years. All the contributors to the volume (with the possible exception of Cahen) attempt to downgrade the importance of ethnicity as the cause of the protracted violent conflicts that have ravaged those countries and sub-Saharan Africa as a whole.
The three editors, two of whom have also contributed separate chapters to the volume, jointly wrote the introductory and concluding chapters in which they quite successfully tie together, in a common explanatory scheme, the different issues raised in the various chapters. As a result, the book achieves greater unity and consistency than is usually found in edited volumes of conference papers.
The Introduction sets the main explanatory framework of the book (its main points are repeated in the Conclusion, which does make it a bit [End Page 161] redundant). The main argument runs as follows: Many of the current violent conflicts that are depicted as ethnic conflicts would be better understood if they were viewed in the larger sociopolitical context of the nature of the postcolonial state and reaction to it. The postcolonial state is characterized by neopatrimonialism in which the distinction between the public and private spheres is blurred. Power becomes personal and politics becomes the main means to acquire economic resources. The root cause of conflict is not ethnicity but the societal reaction to the expansion and then retreat of the neopatrimonial state and its effect on resource allocation. Following reduced resource allocation, conflicts between the contestants grow and they are increasingly "militarized" as the different parties resort to violence to further their interests. As things start to fall apart, the state's authority is seriously impaired, social exclusion sets in, insecurity and anxiety rise. Under these circumstances, people take refuge, for their daily needs, in the basic solidarity of family, religion, region and ethnicity. The leaders of the conflicting sides further use such group solidarity and belief in common fate to mobilize support and strengthen the fighting spirit of their camp. Hence, conflicts are increasingly represented in ethnic terms. Sometimes the conflict and its ethnic representation are further exacerbated by the involvement of external factors, whether neighboring countries, international troops, former colonial powers, or foreign companies that transcend country boundaries and interfere, at times quite blatantly, in favor of one group against another.
This, according to the Introduction, is the context in which "ethnicity kills." However, after coining their book's rather provocative title, the authors fail to develop further the idea behind it. Having determined that ethnicity is being used as a conflict management tool and that it is raised in the context of postcolonial state decay, they still have to explain what continuing effect such "ethnic representation" of conflicts has on the conflicts themselves. Does it intensify them, exacerbate them, make them more total, or more comprehensive? Does it raise or reduce the level of anxiety of the parties involved? Does it improve or reduce the likelihood of accommodating conflicts by nonviolent means? The authors do state, in the concluding chapter, that ethnicity plays a major role when the militarization stage is reached in socioeconomic and political struggles. They point out that ethnic solidarity helps reinforce civilian support to the armed people. However, such hints are not developed systematically any further and the authors are strangely mute about what character conflicts might take as a result of such ethnic input. Perhaps they are afraid that this would raise again the salience of ethnicity as an...