Brian Dillon on Ethnic Diversity and Civil War in Africa

This is a guest post by Brian Dillon, Assistant Professor in the Evans School of Public Policy & Governance at the University of Washington. Dillon is a CEGA affiliate and co-organizer of the Working Group in African Political Economy (WGAPE).

WGAPE 2018 NYU-Abu Dhabi (Credit: Melina Platas)

I recently returned from an exciting few days at NYU-Abu Dhabi, where three dozen researchers from Africa, Europe and the US gathered for the 3rd international meeting of CEGA’s Working Group in African Political Economy (WGAPE).

WGAPE meetings are different from other conferences. They feature a mix of political scientists and economists, emphasize attendance and participation by junior researchers, and have no presentations. Instead, everyone reads the papers in advance, and we have a structured hour-long discussion about each one. It is a great set-up, one that fosters deep engagement with every aspect of a paper. It also gives economists and political scientists who study Africa the opportunity to read and learn from each other’s work. (The next meeting will be at UCLA in May — watch the CEGA website for an announcement).

WGAPE 2018 NYU-Abu Dhabi (Credit: Melina Platas)

Among a slate of great papers discussed in Abu Dhabi, one in particular stuck with me: “Minority Presidents, Ethnic Diversity, and the Onset of Civil War,” by Constantine Manda. Manda is a graduate student in political science at Yale and a former CEGA EASST fellow. He is tackling a big question: what is the link between the ethnicity of a country’s leader and the likelihood of civil war? This is the subject of foundational work in political economy, and has implications for how we understand the onset of violence in a conflict-prone region.

In his paper, Manda asks: when the president is an ethnic minority, is there a link between the degree of ethnic diversity in the population and the likelihood of civil conflict? He theorizes that there is, and that the mechanism is ethnic politics. When there are few ethnic groups, leaders from a minority group are more likely to contest politics along ethnic lines. This increases the likelihood of conflict. In contrast, when the population consists of a large number of relatively small ethnic groups, there is less need for a minority leader to emphasize ethnicity in order to motivate supporters. In this case, the chance of conflict is lower.

Manda tests this theory in a panel data set spanning 50 years. He finds evidence consistent with his main hypothesis: in countries with an ethnic minority leader, the likelihood of conflict goes down as the degree of ethno-linguistic fractionalization (a workhorse measure of ethnic diversity) goes up. This finding provides support for Manda’s theory. It does not rule out other interpretations, and he is up front about that in the paper. But the correlational result is striking, and highlights the importance of taking national ethnic diversity into account when studying the link between conflict and ethnic politics (see this book by Philip Roessler for a related read on ethnicity and conflict).

WGAPE 2018 NYU-Abu Dhabi (Credit: Melina Platas)

One reason Manda’s paper struck me is that he motivates his theory with anecdotes about Julius Nyerere, the founding president of Tanzania.

I spend a lot of time in Tanzania. Nyerere is revered, especially by the generations that remember his time in power (he ruled until 1985). Few would argue that Nyerere was not a shrewd politician. But a key component of the Nyerere legend is that he emphasized nation over ethnicity. He is credited with building a shared vision of people and country among Tanzanians, through his push to make Swahili the national language, and through the “Villagization” program that established ethnic mixing in planned communities. The dominant narrative is that Nyerere downplayed ethnic politics, and that the effects are visible even today, as Tanzania has remained free from the ethnic violence that has rocked its neighbor Kenya and many other countries.

Nyerere was from the small Zanaki tribe, and he governed a country consisting of over 100 other ethnic groups (none of which accounts for more than 16% of the population, at present). Manda argues that Nyerere was not averse to ethnic politics, or particularly nationalistic — he was simply responding to incentives he faced as leader of an ethnically diverse nation.

I don’t know if Manda’s hypothesis is correct. These are tough questions, and this paper will not be the final word. But the ideas in Manda’s paper pushed me to think harder about both the link between ethnicity and conflict, and about the narrower issue of Nyerere’s legacy and place in history. His paper demonstrates exactly the kind of fresh thinking and exciting new scholarship that makes WGAPE great.