The Creation of an Invisible Front: The Role of Ethnicity in Pre-Colonial Africa and its Transformation in Early Colonial Times


Gil KAZIMIROV, (2012), The University of Warwick, B.A. History.

Hutu? Tutsi? Twa? Doesn’t matter. In pre-colonial times, ethnicity did not play a significant role in the lives of East Africans. The main factor to blame (or thank, rather) is vagueness of ethnic borders. If communities did not bother classifying or identifying themselves along racial or ethnic criteria, there was never an authority to do it for them, before the arrival of the colonial powers. Historian Ted Gurr argues, rather convincingly, that ‘the key to identifying communal groups is not the presence of a particular trait or a combination of traits, but rather the shared perception that the defining traits, whatever they are, set the group apart[1]. Lacking this perception, it was impossible for ethnicity to play a significant role in any part of life – be it economic, social or political. This was the case in Acholi, where many different communities were almost identical in culture and politics, as well as in Rwanda where Hutu, Tutsi and Twa fought over resources rather than race and tradition. However, towards the end of the 19th century these systems of ethnic-less states began to quickly transform and dissolve: the newly-arrived foreigners either needed a guideline for social division and found ethnicity to be an easy solution or, as in the case of the Acholi, was a tool used by locals to differentiate (and thus emphasize) themselves and their culture.

                  At a very basic level the explanation for the vagueness of ethnic lines is quite logical. East Africa’s low population density to area ratio meant that labour was a highly valued factor of production. Naturally, the basic political idea of unity through exclusion gave way to vested economic interests in lowering the barriers to population flow. With the triumph of this Smithian idea of Laissez-Faire, ethnic identity was relegated to the background. This led to a very vague understanding of ethnicity – ‘inclusive rather than exclusive’ – in the words of Richard Waller[2]. Therefore, ethnic groups were often defined more by their geographical location than genealogy. This definition of identity allowed a group of people to control a scarce resource, their name providing the necessary prerogative. In other words, individuals moved across ethnic boundaries in search for profit without significant difficulty. The flexibility in social distinction based on race changed both their mode of subsistence and more importantly, at least in terms of its post-colonial legacy, their understanding of ethnic identity.

The best example of the absence of ethnic boundaries comes in the form of the Acholi. The Acholi area of north-central Uganda consisted mostly of Luo-speaking people with the same socioeconomic and political background[3]. However, the absence of a single name for this unit that was both inclusive of the whole and exclusive of others indicates that it was not perceived as a single entity – neither by the people themselves nor by their neighbours. In any case, this provided a sort of ethnic vacuum where biology was not a criterion for division. Here, most hostilities took place based on geographical zones[4]. These informal, unnamed zones were the only functionally meaningful groupings of people in Acholi and which went beyond the notion of ethnicity until the middle of the 19th century.

However, two devastating droughts in the 1790s and 1830s had a terrible influence on the social dynamics of the region[5]. To survive in this area of Africa, communities had to maintain or even augment their herds in times of draught[6]. Those who managed to remain in the area came to be ethnically identified as the Jie or Karimojong while those who were forced out of the region by the draughts moved mostly to the South and contributed to the formation of the mixed-farming Iteso or to the west as troublesome raiders and impoverished refugees[7]. With the arrival of Arabic-speaking traders, the Kutoria, from the Sudan looking for ivory slaves and another set of outsiders in 1872, the Jadiya[8], the locals found ethnicity a simple, yet effective, tool to divide this newly formed society. Therefore, it seems only logical that ideas of differentiation of political and social rights based on ethnicity, almost non-existent prior to the arrival of these Arabic traders, triumphed.

In Rwanda the pre-colonial scene was not significantly different. By the end of the nineteenth century, Rwanda emerged as a centralized, hierarchical kingdom with few ethnic distinctions. In many parts of what is today Rwanda, local populations had not been fully incorporated into the state and the ethnic distinctions of Hutu and Tutsi were simply not significant. Indeed, it seems clan, lineage, and family ties were more important for political interactions[9]. Even within the kingdom of Rwanda, the importance of ethnicity varied between the Hutu and Tutsi: in some areas, large numbers of Tutsi and Hutu lived similar lifestyles – cultivating their crops and keeping their cattle. Indeed, the integration of the Hutus, Tutsis and Twa was extensive before the arrival of the European colonists: they spoke the same language, prayed to the same deity, shared a similar culture and lived side-by-side not only in Rwanda and Burundi but also in Uganda and Tanzania[10].

However, early colonial rule did manage to change the interpretations of ethnic diversity amongst the local populace. Although German and later Belgian colonial authorities did not create state domination and the Hutu-Tutsi inequality that proved so tragic in post-colonial Rwanda (for this already existed), colonialism did manage to alter the power held by the state, the forms of domination and the nature of ethnic competition[11]. The hardest hit by the particularly arduous demands of the colonial state and its chiefs were rural cultivators classified as Hutu. This situation accentuated ethnic distinctions and gave them a cultural meaning different from earlier periods.

Exacerbating this, perhaps, was the European colonial authorities’ intent to preserve what they saw as ‘traditional’ structures of power, in which ethnic Tutsi aristocrats ruled over ethnic Hutu peasants. Not only was this hierarchical model rarely accurate in central Rwanda, it was even less so in the periphery. Nevertheless, the Belgian government was determined to nationalize mixed social relations and to structure social order by reinforcing the powers of the ‘national rulers’. In fact, this aspiration for a pseudo-utopian social hierarchy reached its zenith with Soviet-esque issue of identity cards indicating ethnic categories in the 1930s. Again – this did not create ethnicity; instead it served to accentuate the role of ethnicity within the social framework.

In this way, ethnic differences came to signify the individuals’ opportunities in life – with the second-class Hutus allowed only very restricted access to education and were almost entirely excluded from high administrative positions. The Twa, a ‘Pygmy’ people who originally lived as hunters and gatherers in the area, were treated even harsher. The Tutsi, Hutu and Twa came to be viewed as internally homogenous groups and their members were treated differently by the state[12]. Ergo, groups that previously showed flexibility came to be seen (and saw themselves) as biologically distinct. The notion that colonialism disrupted social harmony is fundamentally flawed: pre-colonial Rwanda was a state with intimidating social inequalities but the arrival of the Europeans served to emphasize the role that ethnicity played in deciding an individual’s upward mobility. However, opposing this, perhaps is the fact that in this fragmented society, the elite, who by 1899 was largely made up of Tutsi, saw themselves as distinctly superior to both poor Hutu and poor Tutsi[13]. If political and economic considerations override social ones, this casts significant doubt over the real importance of ethnicity.

However, the exception confirms the rule, they say. And here as well, this is the case. Ethnicity did serve an economic purpose in pre-colonial times – to oil the wheels of trade. Groups who could claim a biological connection to other groups, and considering the frequency of migration this was often the case, were more benevolent at the outset, establishing trust early on. The Arbore people, for instance, claimed descent both from the Dassenetch and the Boran people. This not only improved trade in this tripartite grid, but allowed the Arbore people to serve as mediators between these two ethnic groups[14].

                  And so, the argument still stands. Pre-colonial inter-group divisions based on ethnicity did exist. They simply did not play a significant role and were overridden by a series of economic and social considerations. However, the colonial authorities, probably at their decision making nadir, decided to emphasize class differences according to ethnic background. Effectively, the new arrivals managed to create a new front for warfare and violence – and whose influence was not felt in its devastating entirety until many, many years later.

[1] Gurr, Ted R., Minorities at Risk: A Global View of Ethnopolitical Conflicts (Washington, D.C.: US Institute of Peace, 1993), p. 4

[2] Waller, Richard. “Ecology, Migration and Expansion in East Africa”. African Affairs, Vol. 84, no. 336 (London: Oxford University, 1985), p. 349

[3] Atkinson, Ronald. The Evolution of Ethnicity Among the Alcholi of Uganda: the Precolonial Phase. (New York: Duke, 1989), p. 31

[4] Ibid, p. 32

[5] Ibid, p. 32

[6] Ibid, p. 33

[7] Ibid, p. 35

[8] Ibid, p. 37

[9] Newbury, Catharine. “Ethnicity and Politics of History in Rwanda”.  Africa Today, vol. 45, no. 1 (Indiana: Indiana University, 1998), p. 10

[10] Uvin, Peter. “Ethnicity and Power in Burundi and Rwanda: Different Paths to Mass Violence”. Comparative Politics, vol. 31, no. 3. (New York: City University of New York, 1999), p. 255

[11] Newbury, Op. Cit., p. 11

[12] Newbury, Op. Cit., p. 12

[13] Jefremovas, Villia. Contested Identities: Power and the Fictions of Ethnicity, Ethnography and History in Rwanda. (Toronto: Canadian Anthropology Society, 1997), p. 96

[14] Ibid, p. 359

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