The problem of African ethnic disunity has a long and complicated history, some of which can be attributed to the interventionist policies of international agencies such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and even the United Nations.
Critics claim that these organizations exaggerate the differences between ethnic groups in Africa. Often this exaggeration is achieved by adopting a "divide and rule" strategy that favors some ethnic groups over others. This is nothing new; "divideandrule" has been a hallmark of Euro-African relationships since colonialism began 500 years ago.
The European powers often played off different ethnic groups against each other by favoring one or two, and giving them elite economic and political status as compared to the rest. Obviously it would be the group co-operating with the colonial power that would receive better treatment. Such favoritism had a double impact on African society. First, it created violent animosity between the ethnic groups, which often diverted attention from the interventionist actions of the colonial powers, and prevented possible mobilization against them.
The second impact of ethnic favoritism was the creation of a complicated network of institutional corruption. The colonialists set up this system so that they could withdraw privileges quickly if a group refused to participate, make a new alliance with a competing ethnic group that was willing to cooperate, and use the system to reward them. Most of the system of rewards and privileges was illegal, but it was kept flexible so that it could not be easily proved. This network of corruption remains institutionalized in the politics of many African nations today.
During the 1950s and 60s, when African nations became independent from the colonial powers, the new governments vowed to bring equality and stability to their political and economic spheres. However, they discovered that extensive reforms would be required and they were not capable of eliminating the powerful institutional corruption, which had existed for hundreds of years. Ethnic favoritism also continued because international agencies such as the IMF preferred to deal with the elite of each African nation, rather than encourage political and economic redistribution. Moreover, since the elite usually consisted of a single ethnic group, it clung to its traditional power after independence, continuing the old politics of favoritism.
The IMF, the World Bank, and even the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) seem unconcerned about promoting economic and political equality within these nations. In fact, these organizations not only support the system of favoritism, but sometimes even play off the ethnic groups against each other for their own ends, as colonialists did for hundreds of years.
Ethiopia provides a telling example. The country has been traditionally ruled by the Amharas, an ethnic group that gained power in World War II and held it until recently. Emperor Haile Selassie, who was favored by the United States, ruled from 1930 to 1974, running an oppressive, totalitarian regime. However, because Selassie was favored by the United States, which regarded Ethiopia as having strategic importance, the former Italian colony of Eritrea was forced to integrate with Ethiopia, even though most Eritreans opposed the idea. Without consulting the people, the United Nations voted to bring Eritrea under the government of Ethiopia. By 1962 Eritrea was completely assimilated into the national structure of Ethiopia. The international community ignored the explosiveness of the ethnic problem.
During Selassie's reign, aid from international organizations did not usually go where the nation needed it most. When the government forces siphoned off aid, the international agencies ignored such illegal activity and continued providing it.
Two main ethnic groups reside in Ethiopia. The Cushite group comprises seven other subgroups, including the Oromo. The Oromo make up 40% of the Ethiopian population. The Semitic group comprises the Shankella, Tigray, and the Amhara. The Amhara, although few in numbers compared to the Oromo, have had political and economic control over Ethiopia for the last century. This elite group had been bolstered to a very powerful status thanks to international aid organizations, such as the IMF. By supporting the Amhara, organizations such as the IMF exacerbated ethnic inequality with aid conditions which implicitly supported the Amhara's dominance over Ethiopia until 1991. Both the Selassie government, and the socialist "Dergue" government (which took over in 1974 after Selassie was overthrown) were pro-Amhara. Supported by international aid programmes from the United States and the former USSR, these Ethiopian governments used violent and repressive measures primarily against the minority groups.
After the fall of Selassie and the rise of a new socialist government, named the "Dergue," interventionist policies came less from agencies such as the IMF than from the former Soviet Union. The leader of the Dergue, General Mengistu, saw the ethnic problems of Eritrea and other areas of Ethiopia and called for a land reform program. This program has been criticized as actually a system of genocide that relocated independent farmers to state-run communal farms. These farmers were usually of the ethnic group that was causing the most political interference at the time. The land reform program broke up entire ethnic groups that had lived together and had been organized politically. Food production dropped and many villages and towns were destroyed, along with many lives, to make room for these new "farming cooperatives."
After the famine of 1983 to 1986, the Dergue government began to falter and it eventually disintegrated in 1991. Currently, Ethiopia is in political disarray, as ethnic groups continue to compete against each other for the attention and support of international organizations. Eritrea has now seceded from Ethiopia, and Ethiopia is attempting to hold democratic elections. However, age-old animosity between ethnic groups, such as the Oromo and the Amhara, are impeding this process.
The situation in Ethiopia today is one of grave uncertainty. Both the Oromo and the Amhara accused each other of fraud during the 1991 election. Still, it is the Amhara who have the upper hand, since they currently dominate the ethnic make-up of the military.
Unfortunately, Ethiopia's political stalemate may lead to civil war in the near future. Due to a lack of trust between ethnic groups as a result of the Amharas dominating the political sphere, ethnic groups are now challenging each other for control over the government. Add to this distrust an economic situation in which most Ethiopian people live far below the international poverty line, and it is clear that the situation in Ethiopia is explosive.
With such a complex political atmosphere, the solutions to these problems are not easy to determine. Certainly non-governmental aid organizations can play an effective and progressive role. In addition, political groups in the developed world can place pressure on their national governments to change their position on selling arms to Ethiopia at such a sensitive time in its history.
Ethnic favoritism was a strategy which was created by colonialist nations and carried out for hundreds of years. Today international organizations continue to behave in a neo-colonialist fashion. It is clear that these agencies must refrain from an implicit policy of "divide and rule" so that the African nations can put an end to the ethnicstrife that occurs within their boundaries and finally take control over their destinies.
Kourosh Farrokhzad is a fourth year political science student at the University of Toronto.