Ethnicity not politicised

Most political scientists treat politicised ethnicity in Africa as a given, especially in the rural areas. Many also assume that state institutions barely penetrate the countryside. Research carried out in the Manyara region of Tanzania by Catherine Boone, Professor of Government and International Development at the London School of Economics, shows otherwise. In fact, the ethnicity card is rarely played for political purposes there, especially when it comes to attempts to claim land.

– In an African context, Tanzania stands out as exceptional in the sense that ethnic belonging has little political value when it comes to making demands on the state. This is one reason Tanzania has less trouble with land conflicts and violence based on ethnicity, compared to many of its neighbours, says Catherine Boone.

In mapping land-related conflicts in the three western districts of Manyara region, she found that the disputes could be traced to several causes and took various political forms. However, conflict between ethnic-insiders and ethnic-outsiders was not one of them.   Land disputes were often taken to administrative courts at the ward level (and sometimes to the district level), but in Tanzania local chiefs are not adjudicators of land conflict.   She argues that this is evidence of the kind of "detribalisation of rural power" that Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani wrote about in his book on African state-building, Citizen and Subject.

– People give more importance to ward tribunals and state authorities than to traditional systems of settling many land disputes. The strong role of state institutions in land administration has contributed to the development of a strong Tanzanian national identity, more compatible with a bureaucratic state and uniform legal system.   The downside is the risk to the poorest rural people who, in an earlier era, would have had a claim to land in an ethnic homeland. These are the ones most likely to need help from communal institutions, but in much of Tanzania these have given way to the governmental systems of land administration, says Catherine Boone.

In Tanzania, state institutions do reach the rural areas, and as people generally accept as legitimate state functions within the land domain. Ethnicity can still be important as an individual identity.

– However, the fact that it´s rarely politicised around demands for land is a marker of the development of more ethnically-neutral forms of state authority. This also creates possibilities for building a more democratic form of state, says Catherine Boone.

See the filmed seminar with the title 'Land Regimes and the Political Structuring of Ethnicity'.

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