On October 16th and 17th 2009 AHADI held a regional conference on the opportunities and challenges of ethnic diversity in eastern Africa. The conference was held at Holiday Inn Nairobi, Kenya.
The conference brought together participants from academic and civil society institutions in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Ghana, Burundi and Rwanda.
Over ninety (90) participants attended the conference, some of whom were drawn from Makerere University, the Kigali Institute of Education, University of Ghana, University of Dar es salaam, Dodoma University, Kenyatta University, Moi University, University of Nairobi, Egerton University, Masinde Muliro University as well as Non-Governmental Organizations working in the areas of culture and human rights. Prof. Kenneth Agyemang Attafuah from Ghana to showed how that country is managing ethnic diversity for political, economic and social advancement.
The aim of the conference was to create a space for candid discussions on ethnicity as an identity and ways in which diversity can be made a viable resource for political, economic and social well-being.
The conference was significant in a number of ways.
First, the eastern African region is home to close to two hundred ethnic groups and occasionally political conflicts involving these communities manifest themselves ethnically as groups seek to protect their interests, acquire and maintain resources such as land or are manipulated by the political and economic elite in the pursuit of power.
Second, ethnic solidarity within the context of limited resources is rational because people tend to congregate around those with whom they have some form of affinity, be it linguistic or cultural, giving them a feeling of security and belonging. When communities feel excluded from centers of power and when land issues are not addressed deliberately and aggressively through strategic reforms, conflicts are likely to occur and ethnic belonging solidified. But with urbanization, intermarriages and globalization ethnic belonging as a strong form of identity is being challenged in fundamental ways especially by the youth in urban settings. Interestingly, when ethnic solidarity is activated in a context of political and economic needs it can be quickly strengthened and made volatile.
Thirdly, ethnicity exists within a plethora of other solidarity relationships such as religion, class, gender and profession which may serve to reduce ethno-nationalism. These other identities are also subjected to ethnic tensions, suggesting the power of ancestral, linguistic and cultural affiliations over other identities. Because ethnicities cross national boundaries, such as in the case of Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda and Burundi as well as Maasai and Kuria in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda there is always the possibility of violence emanating from one country and spilling over to a neighboring country. Equally moral ethnicity, viewed as a positive affiliation, may cross borders and contribute to stability of families and communities.