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Clamorous Ethnicities

Sina Odugbemi's picture

In my last post, I discussed one of the supreme values undergirding the democratic public sphere: the public use of reason, that is, a commitment to reason, to argumentation, and the possibility of agreement. I discussed the threat posed to that value and the possibilities of the public sphere if claims are based on the supposed demands of a Deity. But irrationality in the public sphere comes from another source as well: the loud and insistent claims of ethnic champions in complex, multiethnic polities.

Now, it is well-known that the problem of politicized ethnicity bedevils quite a few developing countries. Less well known is the peculiar challenge that this problem poses for governance reform. I will use an example that I know well but disguise the name of the country.

Let's call the country Lagbaja Republic. Lagbaja Republic is rich in a natural resource. That resource is mined within the geographical area of the republic inhabited by the Bubuna, an ethnic group. But the national government at the center is controlled by a very different ethnic group, the Gogoro. Lagbaja Republic is very corrupt. The Gogoro elite plunders the natural resource and all the Bubuna get is environmental devastation as a result of the mining process. Suppose you want to improve governance in Lagbaja Republic. Well, you will have to introduce transparency in public accounting, clean up procurement systems and make the government more accountable for the natural wealth of the Republic.

Let's suppose further that your plans become public and a debate ensues in the public sphere of Lagbaja Republic. As a technocrat, what kind of debate would you want? Naturally, you would want rational and informed debate about the merits of the reforms you would like to introduce. Now, what are the chances that such a debate is likely to happen? Close to zero would be my guess. The reason is simple. The ethnic champions on either side will turn the debate into a shouting match between the two ethnic groups. The Gogoro will frame the debate on the reforms as a cold and wicked attack on the vital interests of the Gogoro. The Bubuna will frame the debate in terms of justice for the Bubuna; they will insist vehemently that the resources are rightfully theirs and theirs alone. The public sphere will become the arena of deaf and contending ethnicities. The first casualty in such circumstances is reason. For, in divided multiethnic societies the tendency is to view every public policy proposal through an ethnic prism: What does this change mean for my ethnic group? Do we gain or do we lose?

If ethnic champions conclude that a proposed reform will harm the perceived interests of their ethnic group they do not go to sleep. They mobilize. They launch - you better believe this - a communication campaign. Using the media or other channels, they make others in their ethnic group see what they want them to see: precisely how the proposed reform hurts the Gogoro or Bubuna or whatever. It is important to realize that this work is usually done by highly educated members of the relevant ethnic group. They sense danger, they do the analysis, they frame the issue in ethnic terms, then they launch a campaign. Elites in other ethnic groups observe the process and they, too, frame the issue in ethnic terms and launch a campaign. And the hapless technocrats promoting the reform? They stay in their fancy offices, befuddled by it all, especially since many of them will be experts from 'abroad'. And they will ask: 'How did matters get to this? Why can't we have a rational debate on these reforms and debate them in terms of the overall national interest? What's wrong with these people?'

Now, I don't want to belittle the problem of politicized ethnicity. It is a complex problem. In political theory, it is seen as a problem of intergroup (as distinct from distributive) justice. In each instance, finding solutions requires genuine statecraft. And statecraft of a high quality is- like wisdom - often difficult to find. Having said that, I am keen to make two main points . First, that contending politicized ethnicities make rational debate and discussion around common concerns difficult. Second, that in such environments reform managers need to anticipate the danger and frame the debate proactively in a way that makes the reform in question less susceptible to the depredations of contending ethnicities. It is not enough to simply sleepwalk into a firestorm and then wonder if the 'natives' are just a tad mad.

So long!


Very well summed up. It really describes the politics of reforms when specific socio-political contexts undermine the process of 'reason' to frame some vested interests that move beyond any sense of distributive justice. In a nutshell, reaching points of cooperation and mutual benefits can be a challenging and treacherous road, given the fact that certains norms associated with trust, and the settings of public debates/dialogues are put on the way side in order to let loose and nurture a culture of fear when it comes to change and values based on informed choices.

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