Kenya should take note: Recognising ethnic identities can lead to positive outcomes


Countries that adopt ethnic recognition go on to experience less violence, more economic vitality, and more democratic politics. (Simon Maina/AFP via Getty Images)


By Elizabeth King & Cyrus D Samii


Kenyans are preparing to amend the country’s 2010 constitution, with a referendum tentatively scheduled for June 2021. The amendments focus on ensuring shared prosperity, managing ethnic diversity, and avoiding divisive elections.


They were first proposed in the Building Bridges Initiative report, which came about after the country’s election stalemate of 2017.


After two rejected polls, increasing tensions and pockets of violence, opposition leader Raila Odinga and presidential victor Uhuru Kenyatta shook hands in March 2018 and agreed to work together under what they termed the Building Bridges Initiative.


Its report has a section on “Ethnic Antagonism and Competition which highlights the need to "find ways of managing … diversity” and preventing “ethnic conflicts in Kenya.”


The report holds that the ethnicised winner-takes-all nature of Kenyan politics has been at the root of the country’s election instability. But debate over its proposals, which are now included in the Constitution of Kenya (Amendment) Bill, continues.


Much of the debate is around ethnic representation in government, equitable sharing of resources among Kenya’s diverse ethnic communities, and the role of the current political elite in future governance structures.


In our book, Diversity, Violence, and Recognition: How Recognizing Ethnic Identity Promotes Peace, we investigate some of the same issues debated in Kenya today.


We focus on contexts around the world that, like Kenya, are ethnically diverse and have experienced violent conflict on so-called ethnic lines. This means the religious, tribal, caste, racial, or other descent-based characteristics along which politics and society have been structured.


We examine the strategies that different countries have chosen to manage such conflict. In particular we study how and why leaders choose to recognise or avoid reference to ethnic identities in government institutions and the effects of this choice on peace.


Our findings were surprisingly clear: countries that adopt ethnic recognition go on to experience less violence, more economic vitality, and more democratic politics. But these effects depend on which ethnic group is in power.


Recognising ethnicity


We studied constitutions and peace agreements from 57 countries around the world from Afghanistan to Ethiopia, Burundi to the United Kingdom (Northern Ireland). The countries we studied experienced violent conflict between 1990 and 2012. We searched each document to determine whether or not they named different ethnic groups as part of the body politic.


We found that globally, 43% of post-conflict constitutions and peace agreements named ethnic groups. Sometimes this ethnic recognition comes with group differentiated rights like representation quotas or autonomy arrangements. But in other cases it is largely symbolic.


In Kenya’s case, the 2010 constitution mentions “ethnic diversity” but it does not name specific ethnic groups. The same is true of the Building Bridges Initiative proposals and the constitution amendment bill.


We also found that there was a pattern that distinguished the contexts where ethnic recognition was adopted: the leader was typically from the largest ethnic group. When leaders from the largest ethnic group were in power, ethnic recognition was adopted 60% of the time. However, in contexts of minority ethnic rule, ethnic recognition was adopted only 24% of the time.


Ethnic recognition is less common in Africa than in other regions. Still, there are notable instances of recognition on the continent like Burundi and Ethiopia.


Why it matters


We used statistical analysis to compare trends in countries with and without ethnic recognition. On average, countries that explicitly recognise different ethnic groups in their constitutions or peace agreements go on to experience less violence, more economic vitality, and greater democracy than countries that did not.


We believe that this is because ethnic recognition, and policies connected to it, help to manage mistrust between groups.


Recognition allows groups to know how they are doing compared to others through metrics like group-based statistics. This brings issues pertaining to inequality or exclusion out of the sphere of rumour and speculation. In addition, group-based rights such as representation quotas dampen fears that one group will dominate state institutions.


While recognition leads to a number of positive societal effects, we found that these effects depend on the ethnic group in power. The beneficial effects of recognition have been most powerful for countries where the leader is from the largest ethnic group. In contexts of minority ethnic rule, leaders have to balance the rights that recognition offers with countermeasures to prevent larger ethnic groups from winning power.


Take for example, Burundi. It’s last three presidents have been from the majority Hutu ethnic group. Some may worry that formally recognising ethnic identities could entrench mobilisation along ethnic lines. But political dynamics in Burundi illustrate the opposite.


For example, it named ethnic groups in the Arusha Peace Accords of 2000. The accords are widely attributed with having brought the country out of its 1993–2005 civil war.


It also named ethnic groups in its 2005 constitution. The constitution established ethnically based quotas for parliament, political parties, the military, and other state institutions. As a result, inter-ethnic conflict has become increasingly less relevant politically.


This has not been the case in neighbouring Rwanda, which is led by an ethnic minority leader. Rwanda’s post-genocide constitution seeks to “eradicate ethnic identity”. But deep inter-ethnic mistrust persists. This is despite laws that restrict references to ethnic identity except when commemorating genocide victims.


Integrating ethnicity


Ethnic recognition policies can appear in different sectors from the executive, legislative or judiciary, civil service and the security sector, to education and language. It can be the basis for different types of national strategies to build social cohesion.


For example, Burundi’s approach since the enactment of its 2005 constitution has been to use ethnic quotas to balance and integrate groups within state institutions. This has promoted cooperative intergroup contact, which has helped to reduce inter-ethnic mistrust.


Since its 1995 constitution Ethiopia has also taken an ‘ethnic recognition’ approach to governance. However, its ethno-federal regime has put more emphasis on granting regional autonomy rights, including a right to secession.


It is conceivable that an autonomy-based strategy could offer assurances that promote national unity, but the current dynamics in Ethiopia suggest a high degree of volatility.


Many wish for a foolproof recipe for managing diversity in conflict-affected contexts. There isn’t one. But Kenyans are not alone in debating best strategies. Our book offers accounts of other countries’ experimentation and reminds us that constitutional moments are high stakes and that institutional choices matter.


This article was published by The Conversation.