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Recent events in Africa, such as the massacre of hundreds of thousands of people in Rwanda and the civil wars in Somalia and Liberia, have reintroduced ethnicity as a significant issue in African political discourse. As Eghosa E. Osaghae argues, "Ethnicity has intensified and assumed more problematic dimensions in several African countries."(1) Similarly, Ike E. Udogu maintains that the potency of ethnicity remains salient in Nigerian politics.(2) Western press coverage of Africa paints it as a continent steaming in an ethnic cauldron. Press reports tend to explain every conflict in Africa in ethnic terms. Accordingly, the press has attributed the recent political violence in Sudan, Burundi, Ghana, South Africa, and many other African countries to ethnicity.
Side by side with heavy press coverage of ethnicity is the renewed scholarly interest in using the ethnic framework to explain political phenomena in Africa.(3) Although in the 1970s the ethnic framework was disparaged by radical scholars who used class analysis to refute the claims made by proponents of the ethnic model, the model was not totally discarded. From this framework's perspective, ethnicity is the only politically relevant form of identity in Africa. Africa's ethnic groups, according to this perspective, are culturally diverse and in stiff competition with one another over scarce economic resources.
Political issues are perceived in ethnic terms and political competition is structured primarily on an ethnic basis. For example, Ken Post, writing on Nigerian elections, maintains: "From 1951 onwards ... nearly all Ibos supported the NCNC [National Convention of Nigerian Citizens], most Yorubas backed Action Group, all but a small minority of the Hausa and Fulani were associated, if indirectly, with the NPC [Northern People's Congress]."(4) According to Post, Nigerian politicians and the Nigerian electorate perceived their electoral behavior in tribal terms. The politicians considered their "tribes" as the main basis of their political support. At the same time, the electorate recognized ethnicity as the basis of its support for individual candidates.(5) Individual Africans, according to the ethnic framework, owe primary loyalty to the ethnic group rather than the nation-state.
Similarly, political threats are defined in ethnic terms. It follows, therefore, that in a multiethnic society, any conflict can develop into intercommunal and interethnic conflict with resultant consequences for political stability and economic development. Seen in this light, the ethnic framework seemingly allows scholars to explain political behavior in Africa as well as to account for Africa's economic underdevelopment. As the proponents of this framework see it, the intense ethnic competition conducted within the context of winner-takes-all engenders political instability, which in turn inhibits economic development.(6) David and Audrey Smock noted that economic scarcity "tends to generate intense conflict among groups, who, for the most part, correctly perceive that they are engaging in a zero sum game."(7)
The primordial attachment to ethnicity will remain a perpetual feature of African societies. As David and Audrey Smock have claimed: "Events in the last decade attest to the fact that communal attachments do not quietly wither away with the exposure to modernizing influences. Quite the contrary, modernization often creates the very conditions necessary for the incubation of strong communal identities and sets the stage for communal competition."(8) This perspective, propagated by adherents of the modernization theory, has been seriously challenged by scholars using the Marxian framework. Richard Sklar, Okwudiba Nnoli,(9) Yusufu Bala Usman,(10) and many other scholars view ethnicity as an ideology employed by the modern elites in Africa to enhance their material interests.(11) Accordingly, within the Marxian framework, ethnicity is seen as one of many manipulative tools used by the African bourgeoisie to enhance its material advantages. As Richard Sklar has noted:
Tribalism is widely supposed to be the most formidable barrier to national unity in Africa. Nearly every African state has at least one serious problem of ethnic or regional separatism. It is less frequently recognized that tribal movements may be created and instigated to action by the new men of power in furtherance of their own special interests which are, time and again, the constitutive interests of emerging social classes. Tribalism then becomes a mask for class privilege. To borrow a worn metaphor, there is often a non-traditional wolf under the tribal sheepskin.(12)
Similarly, Peter Ekeh views ethnicity as a manipulative tool used by the African ruling classes in their own interests. He sees Nigerian ethnic groups as a product of modern Nigerian politics. As Ekeh has pointed out:
As we know them today, Nigerian ethnic groups developed their character only within the context of Nigerian politics. But ideologies and myths do have reality-creating functions, and the corporate character now attributed to the various ethnic groups is the reality that flowed from the ideologies and myths invented by the bourgeoisie to consolidate their parcels of influence in the new Nigeria. No ethnic group existed before Nigeria as a corporate entity with the boundaries now claimed for them and the loyalties now directed at them.(13)
While he does not totally subscribe to the notion that ethnicity is a mere manipulative tool used by the bourgeoisie, Eghosa Osaghae has nevertheless recognized that "most of the present-day ethnic groups and the relations among them are recent creations, many of which evolved only within the context of the new states which were created under colonialism."(14)
If Sklar is right in asserting that ethnicity is a mask for class privilege, when is the mask most likely to be worn? Is this mask always worn? Do the wearers of the mask always recognize that they are wearing a mask? A central presumption in Sklar's analysis is that the bourgeoisie's use of ethnicity is a conscious and deliberate act. In other words, the use of ethnicity as a manipulative tool is a deliberate political choice made by African political leaders. If true, this insight is an important element in understanding the dynamics of ethnic relations in Africa.
Accordingly, the primary purpose of this article is to show that ethnicity may not always be invoked when two or more ethnic groups are involved in a conflict. Using land disputes between the Igbos and Idomas of Nigeria, this essay seeks to demonstrate that a conflict between two ethnic groups is not necessarily depicted as an ethnic conflict even when the conflict ostensibly appears to be rooted in ethnicity. In addition, the manner in which conflict between two groups is explained by the contesting groups represents a conscious political choice. Political leaders may choose to depict a conflict between two culturally distinct groups in ethnic terms, or they may choose several alternative bases. This essay analyzes the role of hometown associations in political conflicts. More specifically, it focuses on the case of the Agila Development Association (ADA), which rejected the ethnic label in depicting conflicts between the Igbos and the Idomas over a disputed piece of land. This article also demonstrates that the leaders of the ADA deliberately chose to characterize the conflict in nonethnic terms to enhance its …