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Ethnic Diversity in Africa: From Pitfall to Business Opportunity

April 26, 2023
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Is it even possible to imagine a country where everyone has the same ideas, experiences, and perspectives, as well as the same set of problems and challenges? To the best of my knowledge, none exist. The concept of a homogeneous state is a myth in which humans, in an effort to exert control over other humans, have coerced certain groups of people (via hard or soft power) into sharing a common worldview, religion, and social norms. Out of the realms of imperialism and despotism, where we find the tragic histories of attempts to build homogenous states, we may thus assert that human diversity is as natural as the world itself, and that we must become accustomed to it again as it is our true nature. Even the soil becomes prone to erosion when monoculture prevails. This is why environmentalists advocate for greater biodiversity in agriculture.

Diversity is certainly natural and ubiquitous in all societies. Unfortunately, the devastating effect of colonialism and the rapid pace of globalisation in the 21st century have influenced some people to perceive certain types of diversity as more divisive than others. These forms of diversity need to be given special consideration. I am referring here to ethnicity and religion.

History shows us that religious and ethnic conflicts are the most challenging to resolve. The main cause is that conflicts of this nature rob us of our ability to think rationally. People become emotional when defending their blood and their god. The pious might view violence as a divine act because of their “unquestionable” beliefs. This explains why conflict management, rather than conflict resolution, is occupying a substantial portion in peace studies. Ethnic diversity is extremely important due to the economic and political instrumentalization of people. 

The term ‘ethnicity’ became popular in the 1970s, perhaps because in that era ethnic groups were mostly equated with nationhood. The prevalence of ethnic diversity and religious diversity in humanity has led many individuals to view nations like Germany and Sweden as more ethnically homogenous than settler colonial nations like the United States, Australia and Canada, but due to the rapid pace of globalisation we are experiencing, it would be difficult for any country today to be considered homogeneous. 

For the sake of this article, emphasis shall be laid on ethnic diversity in Africa and its impact on socioeconomic development in the context of diversity studies. Given how big and diverse the African continent is, this article shall focus mostly on Sub-Saharan African countries. 

The Specificity of Ethnic Diversity in Relation to Other Diversities

Ethnicity is structured and organised in similar ways to religious organisations. What distinguishes an ethnic group is not only its blood affinities with strong emotional bonds, but also its potential to have a central force (ancestry, institutions, symbols, authority, history, hero) that stirs its members to allegiance and convergence. Therefore, ethnicity becomes the purest manifestation of human beings’ innate communal nature. While some Westerners may view ethnicity as pre-industrial, the human instinct for collectivism as a means of survival persists and this collectivism is often organised around ethnicity. 

People with political, socio-economic and professional affinities also come together to create groups or associations. They are fully conscious that they can only be strong and survive as an interest group when their associations are institutionalised. Most often, the raison d’être behind the formation of associations like bar associations or teachers’ associations are to organise themselves better to have greater impact in their society and fade out threats to their particular profession. This example enables us to see beyond the dualism of individualism versus collectivism. Collectivism, otherwise known as the “I am because we are” worldview, is subtly practised around the world without people being conscious of it. Indeed, community and not individualism is what actually defines human nature. Meaning that it is in a community where people come together with common ideas to defend their rights. This mostly happens when a group of people are ignored, not appreciated or valued. Diversity and inclusion go hand in hand because of this habit of humanity to seek solidarity in groups.

Returning to ethnicity, if it remains an important form of diversity, this is mainly because of its cultural nature, which does not involve specific individuals but a whole family. This is in contrast to other metrics of diversity we can think about like gender, disability, sexuality and perhaps religion in today’s context. Ethnicity could be defined as a sense of collective identity in which a people perceives itself as sharing a historical past and a variety of social norms and customs, including the roles of elders and other age groups in society, relationships between genders, rites and practices of marriage and divorce, legitimate forms of governance and the proper means of resolving conflicts. The definition of ethnicity could involve everything that culture is, and humans are first and foremost a cultural animal. 

It is basically this cultural aspect of ethnicity and how it defines the behaviour of human beings and a whole community that makes ethnic diversity so important and influential in terms of social action. African cultures are essentially communal to a very high degree, making it difficult to find words in many African languages to differentiate between brother and cousin, mother and aunty or niece and daughter. It is so because there is no word like there is in Western languages that makes this distinction. The communal lifestyle is very prominent in the African worldview and a typical African will hardly see himself without a community. Pope John Paul II himself acknowledged that, “African cultures have an acute sense of solidarity and community life. In Africa it is unthinkable to celebrate a feast without the participation of the whole village.” 

The Rise of Ethnic Tension in Africa’s Multi-Ethnic States

Several intellectuals have regrettably examined ethnic conflicts in Africa through the lens of Africa’s post-colonial leadership crisis. If we use the independence of African states as a starting point for comprehending ethnic violence, we may misdiagnose the origins of ethnic tension in Africa, which can be found in the establishment of colonial states from the mid-1880s. Ethnic violence was the legacy African leaders were forced to inherit upon gaining independence. African republics are renowned for their multi-ethnic configurations and ethnic diversity due to the colonialists’ legacy of creating artificial borders. It is worth mentioning that ethnic diversity is best understood as a plurality of ethnic groups coexisting in one state.

The arbitrary partition of Africa by Europeans during the Berlin West Africa Conference in 1884–1885 is largely responsible for the artificiality of current African states. Europeans divided the vast continent into unequal portions, totally disregarding the borders of ethnic groupings and the opinions of the indigenous people. Following this conference, King Leopold II of Belgium acquired the Congo as his personal property, a land mass 77 times the size of his nation. 

Several rival kingdoms that had fought each other for decades were suddenly forced to cohabit. In the early 19th century, for instance, the Asante and Fante kingdoms fought multiple wars against each other and were compelled to coexist under the British Gold Coast colony, currently known as Ghana. Similar situations occurred in other regions of Africa, when European conquerors coerced autonomous states or kingdoms and small villages without a state structure to live without a binding agreement and later became a republic.

To better comprehend the complexity of ethnic friction in Africa, it is crucial to underline the dysfunctionalities that colonialism introduced to the continent. The colonists’ creation of artificial territories resulted in policies that bolstered “divide and rule” policy strategies, granting some ethnic groups greater privileges than others. This resulted in various ethnic groups occupying privileged positions in colonial administration. The power struggle between the Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda will be a good example. 

Also, most Africans who were favoured by the colonisers came from villages faraway from where they resided who became later known as settlers. Thus, the indigenous people were marginalised in their own land, causing tensions between ethnic groups. In Cameroon, for instance, the Germans discovered fertile land in the coastal areas of the Bakweri people, where they established massive plantations. The vast majority of the labourers were Tikars from the grassfields regions of Cameroon, as far as 400 kilometres away. They were granted several privileges by the Germans and, later, the British, which led to tensions between the Bakweri people and the grassfield people, the latter being dubbed “Cam no go.” Indeed, the indigenous-settlers conflict in most African major cities has been one of the most  devastating effects of colonialism. 

Another devastating aspect of colonialism in Africa was the arbitrary imposition of European economic institutions on its colonies. Colonisation in Africa was so absolute and arbitrary that it determined what the people could plant – frequently cash crops that the indigenous people could not eat. Also, the colonialists decided to unilaterally tax indigenous people to raise funds for infrastructure. Locals were never required to make these decisions, resulting in imbalanced development. In order to get access to natural resources, roads and railroads were built, transforming some areas into cities for European settlers. A glaring example was Chad, where France practically neglected the northern part and focused its investment in the southern part due to its production of cotton. Interestingly, when Chad was granted independence in 1960, the south, dominated by farmers and non-Muslims, had to form a state with the nomadic Muslims of the north. Today, Chad still remains one of the most politically unstable countries in the world. 

Generally, imbalanced development meant that some ethnic groups had easy access to Western schools and churches, which became the primary requirement for indigenous people to serve as colonial administrative auxiliaries. As a result, when independence was granted to many colonial territories, some ethnic groups were more privileged than other ethnic groups in terms of access to Western schooling and modern infrastructure.

 The Colonial Legacy of Ethnic Tension in Africa

The circumstances leading to independence in the majority of African states could be summarised in this manner: numerous ethnic groups within a colonial territory were compelled to cohabit, breaking their natural process of getting to know one another without prejudice and stigma. Many of these communities grew apart, fostering an attitude of mistrust. Some ethnic groups were instrumentalized by colonial interests to view other communities as a threat to their existence. Hostility between ethnic groups began to intensify at an exponential rate. Ali Mazrui the famous Kenyan political scientist once opined that after the colonisers left, notably in the former British colonies, “different sections of the population perceived each other as strangers, sometimes as aliens, increasingly as rivals, and ominously as potential enemies.”[1]

To make matters worse, the colonisers had carefully eliminated indigenous merchants and traders giving all trading benefits, and in some cases monopoly, to European traders and companies. Consequently, Africans could only compete to occupy the few positions of auxiliary administrators offered to them which the colonisers shrewdly capitalised on to further divide the Africans. The African elites began to perceive the government as their main source of wealth and those who could get control of the government, had to make sure they had all the state resources to consolidate power. It gave little chance for most African governments to establish a conducive environment for the private sector to thrive, but however foreign investment was encouraged. The famous Nigerian political scientist beautifully put it this way: “To become wealthy without the patronage of the state was likely to invite the unpleasant attention of those in control of state power. Political power was everything; it was not only the access to wealth but also the means to security and the only guarantor of general well-being.” (Ake, p7) 

Against this backdrop, everything was put in place for the struggle of power to be defined by ethnic group interest. In this regard, post-colonial Africa was definitely going to be defined by African elites instrumentalising their ethnic groups to replace the Europeans in what will become the civil service after independence. It is important to keep in mind the communal nature of African culture with strong family ties. This means recruiting one person implies attributing positions to other family members; if not, you could be cursed. Since the government at the time was the largest employer, the multi-ethnic configuration of African states brought about competition among ethnic groups, and many also suffered from marginalisation. Consequently, in the immediate aftermath of colonialism and even today, ethnic communities violently compete for property, rights, jobs, education, language, social amenities, and good healthcare facilities. These are the main reasons why ethnic diversity has been a cause of ethnic conflict and violence in Africa and an impediment to economic development, including the state-building of African states. 

The struggle for political power has also brought about poor public policies and decisions by African governments. For example, after independence, despite all the promises of politicians to transform the colonial states to respond to the needs of Africans, the artificial colonial states were unfortunately maintained with all their features. Instead of implementing African education, given that only about 20% of the population went to Western schools, Western education and languages were pursued and extended after independence in almost all African countries. The continuation of Western education meant some ethnic groups would continue to have an edge over others and greater access to the government.

Given the uneven development of colonisation, the marginalisation of some communities, in addition to  the discrimination and nepotism of the elites after independence, which led to a serious problem of nation and state building making many to feel they do not belong. Even up to today, marginalisation is a prevalent topic of conversation among many African communities. As a result, there are so many secessionist movements growing in the continent and could lead to political instability which is definitely not good for business.  Therefore, there is an urgent need in African states to manage ethnic diversity and promote intercultural understanding.

Transforming Ethnic Diversity from a Liability to an Asset

It is unfortunate that politicians in the post-colonial era have exacerbated ethnic conflict in Africa by creating competition for government jobs among ethnic groupings. Ethnicity is one of the most prominent political cleavages, thus it is not surprising that political parties in African countries are based on ethnic lines. In fact, many observers will readily concur that party politics, fuelled by ethnic competitiveness, is the primary escalating force in Africa’s ethnic violence. In this regard, presidential elections in almost all Sub-Saharan African countries are smeared by a lot of uncertainty and political instability. However, the moment has come to bring ethnic diversity out of the political sphere and into other arenas where its value could be recognized.

The primary issues of ethnic diversity mostly depend on the lenses we employ. People typically suffer because they are unable to identify and value the wealth accessible to them. Human beings are made to interact, and interaction is only possible with others. Our lack of appreciation for difference is the reason why we view ethnic diversity as a liability rather than an opportunity. Despite the devastating effects of colonisation on Africa’s ethnic diversity, it is still possible to reinvent ourselves and nurture the appropriate attitudes towards others in order to establish a society where everyone feels like they belong. The desire for belonging is even included in Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs. When human beings feel like they don’t belong in a society, it can lead to mental disorientation and violence.

Unfortunately, we have been programmed to perceive ethnic diversity as synonymous to conflict, leading many to believe that multi-ethnic states are not conducive for development. However, genuine civilisation hinges on people’s ability to collaborate rather than compete. It is time to recognize that genuine harmony doesn’t force out differences but rather safeguards them. True unity instead embraces diversity. We are obliged to cooperate due to our differences. In this light, conflict should be viewed as a natural occurrence even within families, including between spouses. Conflict is not always negative; its trajectory, whether violent or peaceful, may depend on how it is resolved. Human beings’ true nature is being able to find solutions to problems. Our creativity is what allows humanity to survive in an ever-changing world.

Bringing ethnicity out of politics requires treating diversity as an asset rather than a problem. With the growth of the private sector in the majority of African states, many businesses that embrace competition are compelled to adhere to the rules of the corporate world. When it comes to business, it is all about people: not only are human resources the most valuable asset for every business, but clients are also people. 

Since the 2000s, the African private sector has been making great strides, prompting the former African Development Bank (AfDB) president, Donald Kaberuka, to state that “after being hamstrung for decades by difficult political and economic conditions and burdensome government policies, [the private sector] is now poised to become the main engine of growth for the African continent.”

Indeed, the private sector is on the rise in Africa and trade in the continent has been boosted with the 2021 launch of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which has the potential combination of “consumer and business spending of $16.12 trillion by 2050, creating a unique opportunity for people and businesses – and meaning the region can be the next big market for American goods and services.” This means that the private sector will have a great influence on the economic development of the continent, putting it in a unique position to transform ethnic diversity. 

Studies in both business and academia show a strong correlation between diversity in teams and organisational performance. Companies with more ethnic and cultural diversity among their top management are 33% more likely to achieve above-average profits. Mor Barak argues that diversity and inclusion make “business sense,” and here is where businesses in Africa can benefit from the continent’s rich ethnic diversity. Meanwhile, some African researchers, like Erasmus Kofi Appiah, Akwasi Arko-Achemfuor and Olufemi Patrick Adeyeye, believe that effective management diversity has positive outcomes on the socio-economic development in the continent. 

Another aspect relating to the African economy which many analysts try to ignore is how culture matters to African and there are still many people unreached and by recruiting just a member of that ethnic group, it is possible to reach out to an attire village.Unfortunately, most multinational companies have experienced the downside of African solidarity. Most human resource managers or local managers have fallen prey to local cultural realities. The private sector has been tainted by the ethnic favouritism and prejudices of the government. A local manager who does not recruit from his or her family or town may suffer disapproval from the family head, the traditional ruler, or even politicians. As a result, several multinational corporations have come to realise that the vast majority of their employees hail from the same village as the human resources manager or local manager, leading to widespread prejudice and preventing staff from other ethnic groups from feeling completely integrated in the company and might cause people of different ethnic group to form unfavourable impressions of some multinational firms. 

For this reason, multinationals have to pay great attention to ethnic diversity and be aware that more than 60 per cent of Africans still live in the rural areas, despite the rapid urbanisation taking place on the continent. African cities are the fastest growing cities in the world, where much of its economics activities take place with the youngest population in the world. The market in Africa is greatly emerging, especially with new technologies leapfrogging and finding markets in rural areas. According to the International Labour Organisations, more than 80 per cent of the African workforce is found in the informal sector, which means there is a rising entrepreneurial spirit with a lot of potential, skills and experience of the local market. Recruiting talent from these ethnic groups in the rural areas is a huge business opportunity but must be done with sensitive awareness of the deep communal values and attachment to culture of most people in these areas.  

Although the business benefits that come with effective management of cultural diversity have led many companies to embrace Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) as a management strategy, it is important to know which DEI approaches in an organisation can massively help to encourage intercultural understanding, social inclusion, peaceful coexistence and, why not, effective state-building. The more enterprises reflect the diversity of their customer base and the society where they serve – i.e. the greater the workforce mutuality — the more intercultural understanding and inclusivity will be encouraged.  

To conclude, fortunately, we live in an age where new technologies like Diversity Atlas have been developed to assist businesses, organisations and institutions to manage DEI by providing accurate data which measures the diversity and mutuality within their companies. There are many new opportunities for companies in Africa to seize. In fostering an inclusive culture where no one is left behind, companies in Africa could contribute immensely to political stability and reduce political violence, which is the greatest challenge to trade. Enhancing organisational performance through social inclusion with awareness will lead to thriving economies and a resilient private sector, thereby creating a peaceful environment.  


  • Ake, Claude, Democracy and Development in Africa, Washington DC: The Brookings Institution, 1996.
  • Mazrui A. Ali, The Africans: The Triple African Heritage, Toronto: Little, Brown and Company Limited, 1986. 
  • Nasong’o, S. Wanjala, The Root of Ethnic Conflicts in Africa: From Grievances to Violence, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015 
  • Schraeder J. Peter, African Politics and Society: A Mosaic in Transformation, 2nd Edition, Belmont, CA: Wardsworth/Thompson Learning, 2004. 

[1] Ali Mazrui, Africa: The Triple African Heritage, p. 267

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