The Trouble with ‘Tribe’: Beyond a Monocausal Explanation for Ethnicized Conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa
The trope of the African “tribe” is often invoked as an all-encompassing explanation for ethnicized political conflict across the continent. This argument places both too much and too little emphasis on ethnicity. It neglects the structural considerations that grant ethnicity its salience, whilst placing too little emphasis on the flexibility of ethnicity as a social construct and its differing usage in political structures across the continent. Instead, this paper begins with the presumption that ethnicity is a function of the circumstances in which it becomes significant. It examines the colonial (mis)management of ‘tribe’, and proceeds to investigate several structural causes that lead to the instrumentalization of ethnicity. These causes include the use of ethnicity as a political currency; the interaction of ethnicity with patron-client state structures; ethnicized political mobilization as a response to a lack of political institutionalism; as well as the Cold-War and post-Cold War international contexts. In examining these structural causes of ethnicized political conflict, this paper hopes to reshape the discourse around African political conflicts away from a presumed irrationality to an understanding of the intersecting factors that create and exacerbate ethnicized armed conflict in post-colonial Africa.