Realising that neither ethnic nor economic diversity by itself provides an adequate explanation for the raging conflict in parts of Africa, some analysts go for a combination of diversity indicators. To this class of analysts, it is a blend of diversity factors — notably, religious fundamentalism, ethnic disparity, economic deprivation, and governance failure — that undermines state construction efforts.
As argued in this three-part article, the critical factor in state construction and maintenance is neither diversity, per se, nor the conflict frequently associated with it. Diversity is, after all, the defining attribute of human societies. Indeed, if it is a hindrance to state formation in post-colonial societies, it is likely to be more so in subsequent state dismantling and reconstitution efforts. What sometimes passes for homogeneity may be nothing but a mask for deep-rooted differences. Besides, since it takes only one person — e.g., a demagogue, a deranged gunman, a paranoid newspaper columnist, or a highly persuasive hate preacher — to set neighbours on a collision course, neither civil nor armed conflict could, on logical or empirical grounds, be attributed to diversity.
All the same, diversity does matter in the state construction and state building process. While it is not a direct causative agent of construction or destruction, it can play a powerful opportunistic role. Diversity emerges as a decisive factor where a group faces an existential threat and/or perceives itself as a victim of ‘marginalisation’ and oppression. Whether it will be an aid or hindrance in state construction is thus a function of the prevailing circumstances and how they (the circumstances) are handled. Specifically, it is the identity value of citizenship, rather than any other factor, that explains the impact of diversity on state construction.
Even under normal circumstances, state construction is a risky and problematic exercise. It entails applying methods — ranging from the tried and tested to the unorthodox — to persuade individuals to transfer to an artificial, possibly unfamiliar, party the power to make authoritative and binding decisions. As the power so transferred might be exercised for good or evil, the individuals may sometimes feel the urge to resist the ‘external’ authority and withdraw to fortresses defended by the persons they know and trust — members of nuclear and extended families, clans, tribes, ‘kith and kin’.
Indeed, the enormity of the state construction challenge is such that the endeavour’s success is most often perceived to be positively correlated with the absence of diversity — or more precisely, with kinship connexion. As the argument goes, the state edifice will stay resilient, so long as the component units are compatible ab initio and will crumble where they (the associating parties) have little or nothing in common. This is the assumption underlying the argument that attempts at forging nation-states out of pre-colonial entities were ‘artificial’, and therefore destined to fail. It is the assumption underlying the call for the breakup of post-colonial states into ethnically homogeneous, self-governing, nations.
The contrary view is that rather than being a direct causative agent, diversity (particularly of the ethnic or religious type) merely plays an ‘opportunistic’ role in state construction or dismantling efforts. A common language, for instance, is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for the viability of states. After all, there are cases of multi-ethnic states that survive and prosper. There are also examples of monolingual states or political arrangements (e.g., Somalia, Rwanda, and the former Western Region of Nigeria) whose descent into chaos was not halted by linguistic affinity.
Diversity is essentially a state of being varied — a condition in which heterogeneity defines inter-personal and/or inter-group relations. This is where lies the frequent misunderstanding of the practical and theoretical import of the term. To the ordinary person in the street, diversity conjures up an image of acrimony, violence, and upheaval.
As it so happens, it is neither ethnic nor religious cleavages but chronic ‘political and economic failures’ that other observers have implicated in conflict (World Bank, 2000:57). The logic here is that we are likely to come face to face with the ‘casus belli’ once we are able to define ‘chronic political and economic failures’. Yet, this is not always the case. A state that fails on the political and economic front may still escape the devastating consequences of conflict.
Diversity is essentially a state of being varied — a condition in which heterogeneity defines inter-personal and/or inter-group relations. This is where lies the frequent misunderstanding of the practical and theoretical import of the term. To the ordinary person in the street, diversity conjures up an image of acrimony, violence, and upheaval. And strange as it may seem, serious analyses of the subject sometimes fall into the temptation of regurgitating the conventional view of diversity as a harbinger of conflict and destruction. The failure to grasp the essence of diversity can be attributed to at least three factors. These are the tendency to take a ‘unified’, monistic, view of diversity (thus ruling out the possibility of one person assuming multiple identities), the frequent recourse to reductionism, and the inadequate treatment of the sociology of knowledge of diversity.
Progress in the study of diversity entails examining it from all possible angles. While viewing it narrowly and from specific angles — ethnicity, religion, culture, ideology, political partisanship, economic class segregation — has the advantage of insight and depth, a full understanding of the concept requires that it be treated holistically. Diversity rarely takes one single form, and behaviour in circumstances where it prevails never proceeds in a unilinear, easily predictable, direction. As rightly pointed out by an observer, there is ‘diversity in diversity’. Such an organic view of the term suggests the likelihood of a single person or a group assuming multiple identities at one and the same time.
It is thus possible for a single person to identify simultaneously as a member of an ethnic group or a dialect sub-set, an adherent of a specific creed, male or female, a prince or a pauper, a healthy or a handicapped citizen, a moderate or a member of an extremist group, a criminal or a law-abiding citizen.
The second critical challenge in diversity research is how to start with the multiple identities that an individual can assume, and then proceed to explain or predict his response to a vast array of situations. Were the 1999 riots in Nigeria ‘caused’ by ethnic or religious differences, by economic adversity, or by plain xenophobia? If an individual’s declared reason for going to war is the ‘defense of his faith’, what assurance does he, or anybody for that matter, have that the underlying concern here — the real motive — is not the craving for ethnic hegemony or the wish to settle private grudges? When informed that members of his ‘tribe’ are under attack, how will an individual respond? Is he likely to: (a) run for his life? (b) take up arms to fight the ‘invaders’? (c) appeal for calm and to ‘reason’? (d) simply hoist a white flag and hand out the olive branch? or (e) do nothing but wait to die?
There is no question that diversity breeds conflict and the latter is most frequently associated with tension. This is, by itself, not too much of a disaster. As argued by Kurt Lewin back in 1935, human beings do not live in a tensionless world. As a matter of fact, a minimum degree of conflict and tension is essential to the survival and development of humanity.
These are by no means easy questions. Not surprisingly, many of the answers to questions of diversity are, at best, simplistic, at worst, too general to be perspicuous, meaningful, and verifiable. Either way, the fault lies at the doorstep of the excessive reductionism in contemporary diversity analysis. In an attempt at narrowing down a vast and complex field to a manageable proportion, analysts have zeroed in on specific diversity indicators to the exclusion of other equally relevant ones. To some, diversity — particularly of the ethnic type — is a threat to state construction in Africa.
However, since ethnicity is not the only marker of diversity, it is possible, on purely logical grounds, to equate Africa’s conflict with ‘conflict over access to resources’, in other words, to trace armed and civil strife to another kind of diversity – that of an economic type!
Realising that neither ethnic nor economic diversity by itself provides an adequate explanation for the raging conflict in parts of Africa, some analysts go for a combination of diversity indicators. To this class of analysts, it is a blend of diversity factors — notably, religious fundamentalism, ethnic disparity, economic deprivation, and governance failure — that undermines state construction efforts. Neither this nor any of the preceding hypotheses rests on a sound theoretical foundation or lays claim to incontrovertible empirical evidence.
There is no question that diversity breeds conflict and the latter is most frequently associated with tension. This is, by itself, not too much of a disaster. As argued by Kurt Lewin back in 1935, human beings do not live in a tensionless world. As a matter of fact, a minimum degree of conflict and tension is essential to the survival and development of humanity. Development after all hinges on creative solutions to problems. These (creative solutions) are inconceivable unless the problem-solvers make conscious efforts to move out of conventional ethnic, racial, religious, gender, cultural, mental, and physical boxes to share knowledge and perceptions with ‘outsiders’. Getting individuals and groups to make this momentous move – i.e., to venture out of their ‘safe and familiar’ environments in search of new experiences — is the crux of the diversity management problem.
M.J. Balogun was Special Adviser to the President of the 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly.
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