Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Is Geography Destiny, part two

In response to my previous post, an anonymous commenter posted a link to a NYT map:

This map nicely illustrates that the Europeans drew up the borders of Africa with little regard to the distributions of linguistic groups, not to mention religious or racial composition.  We can see a mixture of colors in some new and old conflict zones like Nigeria, Cote d'Ivoire, and, of course, Sudan.  The problem is that this would cause us to overlook other places that have seen lots of violence that do not appear to be all that "colorful":
  • Somalia: always the exemplar of homogeneity breeding conflict, as Somalis speak the same language, worship in the same way (Islam), and are of the same race.
  • Both the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia appear more homogeneous than they really are.  Of course, Ethiopia's borders were not drawn as much by the colonial powers since it was only conquered by the Italians in the 1930's.  
  • Angola had heaps of conflict in the aftermath of the Portuguese, but you would not guess it from this map.
  • Rwanda and Burundi have both seen heaps of violence over the years, and the colonial powers (Belgium) did heaps of damage here, but boundaries are not really the issue.
  • Zimbabwe would not appear to be problematic, but Robert Mugabe has more to say about that than the lines drawn.
I don't want to minimize the colonial inheritance.  My point is simply there is heaps of variation across the continent, both in terms of the diversity of populations and the levels of conflict (ethnic and not so ethnic)--and they do not co-vary.  Indeed, one of the critical mistakes made by lots of scholars studying civil war is to toss into their quantitative analyses an indicator for ethnic fractionalization (how diverse is the society) and usually find no statistical significance.  Since few scholars of ethnic conflict actually make claims that more diversity leads to more conflict, this is not surprising. 

The key is how ethnicity interacts with political institutions.  Sometimes, institutions mitigate ethnic conflict and sometimes they exacerbate it.  I used to study this question, and hope to come back to it soon (problems with data sets should be fixed soon).  The importance today is to remember that borders are not destiny and the past only shapes but does not completely determine the future.  Southern Sudan's diversity can be a strength if it can be like Tanzania, which has always been one of the most diverse countries on the planet .... and has had very little violence.


Chris C. said...

Tanzania also had gifted political leadership under Nyerere, who did a a pretty good job of keeping TZ stable and incorporating the coastal portions into the rest of the country.

South Sudan is an interesting case of the "norm" in Africa against secession being reversed; any ideas on if it might inspire more separatist pushes? While South Sudan was a unique case of intense persecution, it's fair to question why they get the int'l community's blessing while other areas haven't (Cabinda anyone?). Although of course, we'll see if the rump state of Sudan can really keep its hands off or if we'll see another Biafra.

Steve Saideman said...

Tanzania had Nyerere, but that is exactly the point--diversity is not destiny.

About South Sudan reversing the norm against secession. Well, secession has always been "the norm" in Africa--heaps of groups tried to become independent. What is "new" is that the international community is facilitating this one. But Eritrea was the first to leave. The question really is: once the international community realizes that the secession of South Sudan will not cause a stampede, perhaps they might consider Somaliland's qualifications since it is far more functional than Somalia.

And, it would not be so much another Biafra but another intra-Sudanese war, which we have seen several times.