Even the least attentive reader will have gathered by now that ethnic consciousness is an inescapable (and irreducible) part of African social life. Yet, despite its apparent pervasiveness, ethnicity is a concept with which many scholars are distinctly uncomfortable. They find it difficult to define in a way which covers all instances of group solidarity and exclusiveness labelled ‘ethnic’. They are also unsure as to whether ethnicity is a brute datum which explains political behaviour or whether it is really ethnic identity and discrimination that stand in need of explanation (Hyden, 2006, ch. 9, summarises the academic literature). A further reason for scholarly unease lies in the association, in much public discussion (within Africa and without), of ethnicity with ‘tribes’ and ‘tribalism’, and the grossly distorting assumption that postcolonial conflicts are historically rooted in primordial ‘tribal’ identities and animosities. Anthropologists working in Africa long ago dropped the word ‘tribe’ from their professional vocabulary because it was irredeemably tarnished with a vulgar social evolutionism: a ‘tribe’ implied a lower form of social and political life. The notion of a self-sufficient ‘tribal society’, maintaining its distinctive culture and identity in an ahistorical limbo, was an illusion (Southall, 1970; see also Young, 1976, p. 35).
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