Scholars estimate that more than 2000 languages are spoken across Africa. Additionally, estimates put the number of ethnic groups in the thousands. While there are far fewer different religions practiced across the continent, the diversity of practices and traditions within individual religious is extraordinary.
When one compares the tremendous religious and ethno-linguistic diversity across the continent with the only 54 sovereign countries, many including arbitrary borders carved out by European powers, there is a strong potential continent-wide for ethnic conflict and the oppression of minorities within individual countries.
In its newly released annual report on the State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples, Minority Rights Group International confirms these fears, but provides important context on what has been, and therefore can be, done to prevent such conflict and oppression in the future.
In part one of this AFKInsider miniseries we will look at just how bad minority oppression can get in countries across the continent. In some of the worst cases, ethnic divisions lead to bloody conflict.
Among the most prominent examples of this over the past year is the Central African Republic. Written about extensively on AFKInsider, the CAR initially fell victim to a revolt by a mainly Muslim group of Seleka Rebels. After the rebel coalition fell apart, brutal reprisal attacks by mainly Christian anti-Balaka militias. While roughly 50 percent of the population falls under the broad category of Christian, only approximately 15 percent of the population identifies as Muslim.
The brutality of the anti-Balaka militias has led some humanitarian groups to posit the beginnings of a genocide and has led others, like The Guardian’s Global Development blog, to envision a country where the Muslim minority is entirely internally displaced or become refugees in neighboring countries.
This is a seemingly new occurrence, as the Group observed that “in the Central African Republic, for instance, there was no specific history of religious violence in that country; but after militia attacks and atrocities began, the respective communities were increasingly seen by the other side as complicit – hence reciprocated violence became increasingly widespread.”
This is a mark of just how quickly even brand new hate speech and ethnic divisions can spiral into uncontrollable violence. This is a lesson that must be learned as hate-speech and derogatory stereotypes continue to run rampant throughout the continent and the rest of the world.
In one example, the Report identifies a number of minority groups throughout Southern Africa, including the San, Himba and Khoi populations of Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa as particularly at risk for marginalization.
In all three countries such groups have been evicted from their ancestral lands and dispossessed of opportunities in education, health care and a variety of other areas. These government actions serve to reinforce negative stereotypes and the deep sense of “other” that can quickly spiral into violence if left unchecked.
Focusing on hate speech legislation (and lack thereof) across the continent, the Report finds that it has been difficult to strike a balance. Too many such countries have no legislation at all and even those that do have found it difficult to stem the speech, which often is used to incite violence or distrust, with legislation alone. Other countries, such as Rwanda, have used legislation against hate speech to oppress.
While South Africa has begun crafting a legal framework for the prosecution and punishment of hate crimes, in part in response to the country’s problem of violence against migrants including the targeting and murder of several Somalis in 2013, often such legal frameworks fail to achieve anything without wider initiatives aimed at bringing communities together and alleviating the root of the hatred. Legal schemes that attempt to do too much can be even more problematic as is the case in Rwanda.
In Rwanda, in the wake of the genocide, a law was passed prohibiting speech that foments ethnic tensions or fosters divisions. While the law’s proponents claim it is vital to ensure that the media and government driven genocide is never again repeated, its critics see in the law a darker purpose. Critics claim that the law is used as a tool by the Tutsi-led government to silence dissenters.
Since the genocide President Paul Kagame has installed a majority Tutsi government that has been accused of authoritarianism and gross human rights violations. Critics, such as Victor Ingabire, who challenge Kagame’s tyrannical leadership style, are charged with fostering division and given long prison sentences.
It is not, however, all bad news. Despite the failings of many governments and cultures of impunity for violence against minorities that have been developed, there have been successes in stemming hate speech, violence and harassment across the continent. Not only have legislators and politicians worked to stop such brutality, at the community level there have been tremendous efforts to stem the root causes of such discord. Part two will focus on the positive news from the continent in the State of the World report.
Andrew Friedman is a human rights attorney and consultant who works and writes on legal reform and constitutional law with an emphasis on Africa. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via twitter @AndrewBFriedman.
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