Ethnic identities in post-colonial Africa are probably not hardwired. Ethnicity is not an intrinsic part of who people are. Ethnicity is functional. Post-colonial African states are intensely competitive socio-ecological spaces. Ethnicity serves as a practical tool for mobilizing social capital and building coalitions that can be deployed in the struggle for political control and appropriation of scarce resources. Hence, political competition is inextricably bound to political competition. Political identities are therefore more likely to be accentuated during political elections, especially presidential elections.
Two processes appear to explain why political competition leads to a heightening of ethnic identities. The first is the mobilizing actions of politicians who “play the ethnic card” during political campaigns. Secondly, voters seem to recognize that when it comes to resource allocation, elections are the time for deciding who gets what, how much and when.
What is interesting is how politically motivated reinforcement of ethnic identities displaces other identities. People often have multiple identities. These include religion, gender, and occupation/class.
Ethnic identities in Kenya, for example, seem to wax and wane with political competition. Political competition between Mr. Kenyatta and his Vice president Mr. Odinga, triggered deep and abiding ethnic divisions between the Luo and the Kikuyu ethnic groups. The first multiparty election in Kenya in 1992 triggered ethnic conflagrations among the Kalenjin, Luo and Kikuyu. In 2002 the election were not deemed as competitive. Mr. Uhuru Kenyatta (now minister for finance) was considered a long shot against a forceful political alliance fronted by Kibaki, Kalonzo and Odinga.
In contrast, the elections of 2007 were the most competitive in Kenya’s short history of multiparty politics. The country fractured with protracted ethnic clashes that lasted a couple of months. 1, 000 people were killed and nearly 400,000 people have been displaced permanently. All other identities were smothered. I remember meeting with the Cardinal to discuss how the church could help to heal the ethnic divide. At the end of our private meeting, it was clear to me what identity was cardinal for His Eminence. It was every tub on its own bottom.
The Kenyan experience demonstrates that ethnic identities are not hardwired. They are functional and instrumental in the competition for political power.
See article on Political Competition and Ethnic Identification in Africa http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/cgi-bin/fulltext/123346101/PDFSTART