In October 2012, the Nobel Committee surprised the world by awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union. The Committee explained its decision by pointing out that the EU seems to have put an end to war in Europe, at least in Western Europe. In the 70 years before the start of the EU, so in the period between 1880 and 1950, Germany and France had fought three wars. And of course, the Germans and the French were by no means the only Europeans involved in fighting in that period.
In 1880, there were 15 independent countries in the part of Europe now divided up between the European Union’s 27 nation states. Austria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovenia and Slovakia did not exist yet. Bulgaria, Greece and Romania had only just gained independence and did not have their present borders yet. Finland and Ireland still had to fight their bitter wars of independence. Austria-Hungary, the most multi-cultural of the countries that existed in 1880, was completely broken up in 1918, after the First World War. The many wars in Europe led to enormous streams of displaced people and refugees, as more homogeneous states were formed, with one dominant ethnic group per country. Not all ethnic groups survived the upheavals – who, today, has heard of the Friulians, the Livs or the Sorbs? And of course, even today, the process of forming nation states with one dominant ethnic group per country in Europe is by no means over. In the Balkans, the process is continuing. Within the EU, the Basque, the Catalans, the Flemish and the Scottish are clamouring for independence.
In 1880, there were no independent nation states in the modern sense yet in Africa, with the exception of Liberia and Morocco. Colonisation was about to begin. It had started in South Africa, and European fortresses dominated parts of the Africa’s coasts – the Ivory Coast, the Gold Coast, the Pepper Coast and of course the Slave Coast.
In the 70-year period between 1880 and 1950, the colonisation of Africa was completed and decolonisation was about to begin. In 1950, Egypt, Ethiopia, Liberia, Tunisia and South Africa were Africa’s independent states. The rest were colonies. And even though the European nations were busy establishing their peace in Europe, they were not about to let go of their African possessions without a fight. Bitter colonial wars were fought in many countries, a process that lasted more or less for thirty years, until Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980.
The outcome of the process of forming nation states in Africa was very different from what happened in Europe. Most of Africa’s states do not have a dominant ethnic group. Ethnic groups are referred to as ‘tribes’ in articles about Africa and the urge to form a nation state and the right to self-determination are taboo subjects. Anybody wishing to discuss the subject is branded a ‘tribalist’ and a ‘racialist’. Europe’s five million Slovaks were free to secede from Czechoslovakia – nobody thought it was bad to strive for independence or that Slovaks were particularly racialist for trying to achieve their independence. When Nigeria’s almost fourteen million Igbo seceded to form the state of Biafra in 1967, they were scorned internationally and lost their independence in a gruesome war.
Nevertheless, some states were formed in Africa after 1980: Eritrea in 1991, South Sudan in 2011. In addition, some territories now exist as de-facto independent states, even though they are not recognized internationally: Puntland and Somaliland in Somalia and Azawad in Mali.
In Europe, the process of nation-building also led to an amalgamation of related, though different ethnic groups. In a country like Germany, the Prussians and the Bavarians were long seen as ethnically and linguistically different, besides many other groups. Today, differences remain – but there were enough commonalities to build a strong, shared German identity. This amalgamation process did not happen in Africa. In fact, to this day, ethnographers go to great lengths to describe what distinguishes the ‘tribes’ from each other, rather than looking at what unites them and sets them apart from their neighbours. Thus, Eritrea is seen as a heterogeneous nation, with approximately half of its population belonging to the Tigrinya people and a further 30% belonging to the Tigre people. But the Tigre and Tigrinya languages are closely related. One cannot help but wonder if there is not a strong basis for a similar amalgamation process as what took place in many countries in Europe.
Of course, it is a fallacy to assume that all peoples of the world will naturally follow the same development path as the peoples of Europe. On the other hand, it is equally wrong to assume that Africans are so radically different from Europeans that they do not, or do not need to, or should not aspire to form states with one dominant ethnic group.
In any human society, development goes hand in hand with the forming of allegiances and identities that go beyond family and clan allegiances. In many countries of Europe and elsewhere, it has been demonstrated that some degree of cultural homogeneity is a precondition for forming effective nation states, with effective governments that can act in the interest of the nation’s citizens. In some countries in Africa, with Somalia as the clearest example, no or very weak allegiances exist beyond the clan. These countries cannot function as effective states. In other countries, the state power has been usurped by small élites whose loyalty is only to themselves. In countries such as Kenya, a careful divide and rule act has taken place to appease the most powerful élites of the most important ethnic groups – with varying degrees of success. However, success in these countries is defined as stability – meant, in the first place, to create optimum conditions for self-enrichment by the élites, with the development needs of the wider population as a secondary concern at best.
The experience of the European Union has shown that constructive and peaceful international collaboration is possible, at least to a larger extent than what was thought possible sixty years ago. However, this collaboration is founded on well-established democratic nation states which, internally, have a certain degree of cultural and linguistic homogeneity. Only where such nation states exist can national allegiances and national identities be formed that are strong enough to withstand the pressures of clan and élite interests.
For Africa, the consequence of this is that new forms need to be found to manage a transition away from the national boundaries that were dictated by the colonial powers over a century ago, in complete disregard of ethnic realities. In Europe, this process took seventy years. A huge price was paid in terms of human lives and suffering. If the African Union could help to manage this transition in a more peaceful way – it will certainly merit a Nobel Peace Prize. As a first step, one thing is inescapable: the taboo on a rational discussion on this topic in Africa has to be broken.