Identity Politics: the Genie Outside the Bottle

A consistent socio-political ill that has taxed Sub-Saharan Africa is tribalism. It remains the most fatal problem there is, doing far more harm than good. It has continued to incite civil wars and hinder development.

The abuse of power and unfair distribution of opportunities is terrible by itself. When this takes place along lingo-cultural lines, it becomes toxic. Groups are formed, and enmity is centred not on individuals but around people of certain ethnic denominations. What this does effectively is reduce trust between citizens of the same nation, curtail movement along administrative demarcations and lessen trade.

The possession of strong ethnic identities separates members of a society from one another. If ethnic identities replace citizenship, shared values and individual rights as the bedrock of nationalism, political centralisation and the social capital necessary to create an economically developed state are curbed.

This situation is responsible for the ineffectiveness of the sub-continent to create inclusive economic and political institutions. The lack of these has meant inadequate political rights and less vibrant economies.

By confining arguments to the zero-sum game politics of identity, meritocracy is sacrificed. And although African nations may be able to secure economic growth, they are unlikely to be sustained as innovation will fail to be rewarded, and the necessary creative disruption is missed.

All nation-states must be able to develop inclusive institutions that can protect political rights and disperse economic opportunities fairly to progress in any meaningful way. Identity politics is anathema to this. It makes democratic processes unlikely to prevail. Political centralisation, not inclusive governance, can emerge but only under a government that suppresses political competition.

This is fundamentally reinforced by the circumstances that propel different communities to behave in different ways to protect basic interests. It may be natural resources or politically entrenched economic inequalities that create deep tensions that foster instability.

Add to this ethnic-based parties that would use identity politics to sell their ideologies and gain public office. This repeats itself in a vicious cycle with the elites fully knowing that this process creates stagnation for the many but opportunities for them personally. Political parties that do not base their survival on the fundamental principles and ideologies of political processes, but on ethnic orientation, intensify the crisis.

In countries where a culture of tribalism is intrinsic, senior public positions are obtained on the basis of tribal affiliation. As a result, a hostile environment is created. It goes without saying that mistreating people based on their ethnic identities violates their democratic and human rights. But this also entrenches hostility between people of the same nation in a matter that would not be easy to get rid of for some time to come.

Increasing regional conflicts along lingo-cultural fault lines can be difficult to tackle in a society. Many countries in Africa are examples of what could go wrong if politics is structured in this manner. Many regions remain unstable due to power struggles initiated through highly toxic identity politics.

It is not that Africans are inherently attached to ethnic politics. It is merely a genie that has gotten out of the bottle and has never been responsibly dealt with by leaders. It was perpetuated by the elite that understood they could benefit from creating extractive institutions where loyalty can be sourced from ethnicity.

It should be understood that while the majority will suffer as a result of identity politics, there are the few that benefit and specialise in mechanisms that drag most of us into this zero-sum game.

To thrive as a society, ethnonationalism should be cast off and replaced by inclusive alliances that emphasise individual rights, democracy and shared values. It is only in this way that people can contribute positively to the well-being of the society and the country.

The fundamental objective of the government should be to transform the political process into a form less destructive. It is one thing to proclaim that people should not be discriminated against on the basis of their lingo-cultural identity; quite another to put in place sufficient policies and programs to put the genie back into the bottle.

This requires a liberal arts education system, civic organisations, a transparent government and a public well informed of its rights and duties.

Identity politics is the mechanism by which we are made to forget that what matters most is being human. It is not wrong to care about cultures and languages – they are part of humanity’s collective history – but to believe that they matter more than the lingo-cultural identifications of another group. This is not just liberating but also brings equality, allowing people to enjoy their rights equally.


By Eden Sahle
Eden Sahle is founder and CEO of Yada Technology Plc. She has studied law and international economic law. She can be reached at

Published on Sep 01,2018 [ Vol 19 ,No 957]



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