David Leonard and Scott Straus’ Africa’s Stalled Development: International Causes and Cures, strives to address the question of what has caused civil conflict in Africa to continue, ultimately reaching its current scale. Attempting to break down the stereotypes that have prevailed surrounding the continent, Leonard and Straus pose the theory of personal rule as an answer. Although they identify personal rule as the prevalent cause of civil conflict on the continent, they strive to better understand what has enabled it to persist and become as viable as it appears to be today. In order to do this, they continue to dismiss longstanding beliefs they consider ill founded including the argument that ethnic roots established before colonialism may be responsible for instigating conflict. While it may be true that the composition and role of ethnicity has changed across the continent over time as it has been subjected to the impacts of various influential actors, the value attributed to ethnicity, which allows it to maintain significance is, in fact, founded in pre-colonial Africa.
Undeniably relevant to all aspects of African society, ethnicity would not exercise its current influence on conflict had it not been for relations that were established prior to colonialism. The continent of Africa is one that has endured numerous struggles, many of which have been induced by the characteristically inconsistent and harsh climate conditions, which have been widespread in spite of regional variations. These conditions forced individuals to develop group dependencies in order to maximize survival rates and to handle the consequences of such crises in the most productive manner possible. As such, groups formed and developed their own, independent ethnic identities. The sense of necessity associated with the development of these relationships served to strengthen and ingrain ethnicity in African culture.
In addressing the question of what causes civil conflict in Africa, Leonard and Straus base their argument on the notion that conflict in Africa is falsely projected: “this image of barbarous Africa is exaggerated, misleading, and sometimes racist,” (Leonard, Straus 57). This same argument of misconception is used to discredit claims that pre-colonial ethnic relations still hold importance; despite this, Leonard and Straus continue to acknowledge the pertinence of conflict on the continent, instead attributing it to the colonial experience. The relevance of personal rule established by ethnic affiliations within Africa is a valid concept, unlike many of those that have been widely projected and currently persist. This perception of Africa as valuing ethnicity is very true and was, in fact, fundamentally established prior to colonialism.
Pre-colonial ethnic ties instilled in the continent a deep regard for and orientation towards trust and relationships: “Many Africans still rely on extended family organizations and call upon kinship behavior to maintain justice and cultural and territorial integrity … as in the past, many Africans still see any state without at least some symbolic lineage-based authority as inherently tyrannical.” (Gordon, 36). Colonial leaders were able to manipulate these ethnic relations to further their own interests. Although these figures did serve to create vast changes in the composition of ethnic relations across the continent, this was only effective because of their ability to exploit these values that were already in existence as a result of the role of ethnicity prior to colonialism. The fundamental trust and deep regard for such relationships is what was ultimately exploited in order to allow personal rule to thrive. This concentration on and regard for trust has also enabled the acceptance of such systems of personal rule. Colonial leaders utilized a framework that was already established and therefore familiar; this allowed for an effective segue in which an alternative system could take root. As the foundation for personal rule was still trust, it was in essence undeviating from former systems and therefore widely accepted.
Ethnic roots have undoubtedly enabled the persistence of personal rule; the foundations on which these roots are grounded were established prior to colonialism. Pre-colonial ethnic ties attributed trust and relationships a degree of importance that enabled colonial leaders to employ systems of personal rule. Although the composition of ethnic relations has been vastly altered as a consequence of colonialism, its pre-colonial legacy continues to afford it importance. The roles of trust and relationships in dictating authority were instilled by ethnicity prior to colonialism giving it continued relevance. Personal rule has been able to thrive as a consequence of these foundations of trust and relationships established by pre-colonial ethnic relations. As such, despite changes in the composition of ethnic relations induced by colonialism, it is pre-colonial ethnicity that is largely responsible for causing civil conflict.
Gordon, April and Gordon, Donald. Understanding Contemporary Africa. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2013.
Lenoard, David and Straus, Scott. Africa’s Stalled Development: International Causes and Cures. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2003.
*In working on this piece I consulted with a writing mentor, Rachel Earnhardt, through the Wesleyan Writing Program.