Ethnic divisions have often been invoked to explain Africa’s troubles with conflict and civil strife, and social scientists the world over have long argued that countries with high diversity risk instability. This, they say, is due to internal rivalries and factions, as well as the barrier to communication and exchange that the existence of many groups creates.
Many African critics and commentators resist this convenient explanation, which reduces Africa’s complexity and historical issues to a simple “tribal animosity” label.
But lately too, religious extremism is becoming an increasing problem with Islamic militarism spanning the breadth of Africa, and local grievances becoming intertwined with global jihadi movements.
One possible, albeit simplistic solution to the problem of tribalism in Africa is if each ethnic group could get their own country to live in, as the concept of “nation-state” and even patriotism, critics argue, is not deeply rooted in the African experience, even half a century after independence.
The reason for this is obviously the African colonial experience, where arbitrary borders were drawn separating clans and families into different countries, and expecting the new amalgamations of diverse groups to be one nation with a common identity and purpose.
The situation in most of Europe is different —national boundaries often do intersect with ethnic and linguistic boundaries: France is for the French, Spain for the Spanish, Italy for the Italians and so on.
More importantly, these nation-states came about organically, through centuries of war and civil strife, and some argue that Africa should be allowed to have some breathing room to pass through and overcome its differences in a similar fashion.
But having a country for each group is hugely impractical for Africa. As the cradle of mankind, Africa is the most culturally and linguistically diverse continent in the world—making up just a sixth of the world’s population, it has more than 3,000 distinct languages spoken. If Africa remade its boundaries according to ethnic or linguistic identification as Europe has, the number of resultant countries would dwarf that of the number of countries of the present world combined (see this map).
The other solution might be to have just one religion across the continent, which people would identify with more than they do their ethnic groups. Islam and Christianity are just about evenly matched in terms of numbers now, about 400 million to 500 million each.
But the reality in Africa is that the religious boundaries are actually quite blurred—most people may nominally identify with Islam or Christianity, but in reality infuse traditional religions as well in their daily practice.
Still, the rise in religious militarism points to a seeming deepening of fundamentalist positions in both Christianity and Islam in Africa, with religious fault lines becoming decidedly sharp in countries such as Nigeria, Central African Republic and Sudan.
But religion on its own is not responsible for the growing hostilities; another dimension is politics and government meddling. It remains easy to mobilise along religious lines and foment conflict among these. In 2012, PEW Research Center looked at countries in the world where official meddling and restrictions along religious issues is high and in their final list, Egypt, Sudan, Algeria, Somalia, Eritrea, and Morocco came out as the countries with the highest state presence in religious practice.
Diversity is good
However, a 2007 research paper argued that ethnic and religious diversity could actually be good for stability—it just depends what kind of diversity we are talking about. The researchers concurred with other studies that found that having many different languages within a nation has a negative effect on economic performance, which in turn translates to a higher likelihood of social instability. Similarly, the higher the linguistic diversity between a nation and its neighbours, the less stable the nation.
You are your neighbour
But the study also had one unexpected finding—that nations which have a different religion from their neighbours are likely to be stable, particularly if they also speak a similar language. In other words, the most stable nations are those that are religiously unique, but linguistically similar to their neighbours.
Which African countries fit this bill? If we look at the linguistic and religious divides in Africa, national boundaries sometimes coincide with ethnic boundaries, but rarely with religious ones—all the countries in the Sahel belt are mixed Muslim and Christian, and almost all of southern Africa is mixed Christian and traditional religions.
But three countries come to mind—Ethiopia, Eritrea and Tanzania.
Both Ethiopia and Eritrea have a strong Christian and Jewish tradition going back centuries in the Orthodox Church; 62% of Ethiopians, for example, are followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Ethiopia and Eritrea are surrounded by countries practising a different religion; most are Muslim majority nations: Somalia, Djibouti and Sudan, as well as northern Kenya which is also Muslim majority. Only South Sudan shares a Christian tradition, though many South Sudanese also follow traditional religion.
However, Ethiopia and Eritrea share a similar linguistic profile to their neighbours, with Tigré, Tigrinya, Amharic, Somali, Afar and Oromo all belonging to the Afro-Asiatic language family.
A similar case can be found in Tanzania, which has a big Muslim population, surrounded by countries which are mostly Christian. However, Tanzania and all its neighbours are mainly Bantu speaking.
Why does following a different religion from its neighbours have a stabilising effect in a country? It could be because of the nature of religion; its focus on morality and rewards or punishments of the afterlife, which has a binding effect in a community.
So to have a stable nation, you should be different in your view of morality and the afterlife—as this will give your community a deep sense of purpose—but similar in the language you speak today, so that you can communicate and trade with your neighbours. As Bill Clinton famously said in another context, “It’s the economy, stupid!”