Around 25 years ago, I stumbled upon a fascinating book while browsing through a roadside vendor in London’s Oxford Street. Priced at a mere pound, this second-hand book titled “From Under the Rubble” caught my attention despite its dusty exterior. It was during a time when Ethiopia and Eritrea were embroiled in a tragic and destructive war. After reading the book, I felt compelled to write about “life under the rubble,” but for various reasons, I chose not to pursue it at that time. However, I now feel the urge to revisit my memories and share my thoughts, drawing connections between the book’s analysis, content, and the current multiple crises afflicting the economies of Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).
“From Under the Rubble,” edited by Aleksandre Isaevich Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize laureate in Literature for 1970, was originally published in Russian in 1969 and translated into English in 1973. The book is a compilation of essays contributed by renowned Russian academics, scientists, and thinkers who were living in exile.
Solzhenitsyn himself, having faced years of enforced exile due to his open criticism and opposition to socialism in the Soviet Union, also contributed to the collection. The central thesis of the book, and the essays therein, posits that “the problem of the modern world, both Soviet and Western, cannot be solved solely on the political plane. Instead, the quest for solutions must begin on the ethical level, addressing moral and social values.” Discussing ethics, morals, and social values within a socialist system was considered heretical and tantamount to becoming an archenemy of the system, resulting in severe punishment without impunity.
Although the book does not explicitly explain the reason behind its title, clues can be found in Solzhenitsyn’s foreword and the subsequent essays. It can be inferred that the authors built upon two influential essays that had a lasting impact on Russian politics and philosophical thinking: “Landmark” and “De Profundis.” These essays, written by prominent Russian thinkers and published in 1909 and 1918 respectively, rejected the ethos of the Russian revolution, which was brewing in the early 1900s and eventually occurred in October 1917.
These thought-provoking collections were subsequently banned by the authorities, burying them from public and intellectual discourse. The authors of “From Under the Rubble” were greatly influenced by these preceding works and chose to “speak about people from beneath stone blocks and masses of debris that have buried them alive.” Like many literary and philosophical giants of the time, including Ayn Rand, they perceived Soviet Russia, particularly during the revolution, as a “macabre of the living.” Hence, the apt title “From Under the Rubble” was born.
The authors’ essays presented a well-founded and objective assessment of socialism, foreseeing its eventual downfall, and proposing alternative solutions to overcome the political, social, cultural, moral, and economic challenges of the time. Together, they expressed concerns about the coercive and authoritarian nature of their country’s system, which contradicted the professed principles of collective decision-making under socialism.
Instead, they advocated for individual and societal freedoms, including freedom of expression and governance based on moral principles. They also emphasized the importance of societal control over mass media, rather than it being controlled solely by the government and the communist party.
Regarding freedom, the authors argued that the most crucial aspect of our freedom, inner freedom, is always within our control, and if we allow it to be corrupted, we cease to deserve the label of ‘human’. They further stated that our primary task is not to pursue political liberation, but rather the liberation of our souls from the lies imposed upon us. Achieving this does not require physical, revolutionary, social, or organizational measures; no rallies, strikes, or trade unions. It simply requires each individual to take a moral step within their own power—nothing more.
In essence, the contributors to the book emphasized the significance of “social justice for all” and advocated for the abandonment of violence as a means of solving social problems. In their view, when “social injustice prevails,” chaos and fragmentation become the norm, leading to a desire to divide states into smaller national entities. However, the authors believed in the potential for people of different backgrounds to coexist and, through cooperation, create a culture of higher quality than any of them could achieve in isolation.
When I read the book many years ago, I was struck by these simple yet profound statements, which seemed to me as sensible principles that should guide those entrusted with the power of governing countries. Regrettably, in the Soviet Union, these ideas fell on deaf ears until Gorbachev’s perestroika in the 1980s.
The assessments, arguments, and proposed remedies put forth by the authors were viewed by previous political leaders, particularly Joseph Stalin, as anti-communist, pro-Western (capitalist), treasonous, and a disgrace to the nation. The authors were often denounced as traitors, unpatriotic individuals, and agents of the CIA. However, these accusations could not prevent the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union, which ended up embracing the very changes that the authors had predicted three decades prior.
It is not unreasonable to consider that questions regarding nation-nationalities, ethnolinguistic, and religious identities, which have long been a source of concern in SSA, may have some connection or origins in the ideologies and political philosophies of former communist countries. It is also not entirely incorrect to suggest that identity-related issues in Africa have escalated following the collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War. However, it is important to recognize that internal factors also hold significant relevance in understanding these dynamics.
In short, despite the differences in context, time, and prevailing conditions between Soviet Russia and present-day Africa, there are valuable lessons that can be applied to address the diverse challenges facing SSA. These include the need for a system that ensures social equality, equity, and distributive justice. It is crucial to foster social (national) capital through collaboration and cooperation, while actively working to bridge ethnolinguistic or religious divisions.
Renouncing violence as a means of resolving socioeconomic, environmental, and political problems is another vital lesson. Violence only perpetuates further division and instability, hindering socioeconomic progress. Instead, peaceful and constructive approaches to conflict resolution should be embraced.
Building confidence and mutual trust between governing elites (regimes) and the public, as well as among different ethnolinguistic and religious groups, is essential for sustainable development. Open and transparent governance, accountability, and inclusive decision-making processes can help bridge the trust deficit between the people and their leaders. Additionally, promoting dialogue and understanding among diverse groups can foster a sense of unity and shared national identity.
Why do lessons hold significance for the SSA?
SSA’s socioeconomic progress remains inadequate, plagued by recurring political instabilities. Consequently, the sub-region lags behind the rest of the developing world in terms of socioeconomic standards, despite its abundant natural resources. This can be attributed to a combination of internal and external adverse factors, including cascading crises that hinder its socioeconomic advancement.
In a situation where poverty is widespread, opportunities are wasted, and development gains are meager and unevenly distributed, marginalization or exclusion based on ethnic, linguistic, or religious identities becomes a destructive force.
Regrettably, coup d’états, armed conflicts, and open wars have once again become the norm in SSA. Major news outlets and political discussions capture episodes of upheaval and turmoil in the sub-region, reminiscent of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Among the recent instabilities, notable occurrences include coup d’états in several West African countries, a full-scale war in Sudan, protracted conflicts in Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Somalia, a “no-peace no-war” situation in South Sudan, insurgency in Mozambique, and religious tensions in various countries within the sub-region, including Nigeria – Africa’s largest economy and most populous nation.
Excluding South Africa, Mauritius, Seychelles, and Cape Verde, only five out of the 45 countries in SSA (10 percent) can be described as having “stable political systems.” Only about five (10 percent) are making progress towards such systems of stable governance, albeit with some level of uncertainty.
In terms of population, only approximately 30 percent of SSA’s population live in countries with stable and non-violent political systems, while over 70 percent reside in violent, conflict-ridden systems and/or countries experiencing conflict situations. Some countries suffer from autocratic regimes led by leaders with absolute power, making state formation and consensus-driven nation-building nearly impossible, further eroding trust between state institutions and the general public, as well as the international community.
These distressing situations exacerbate longstanding governance issues such as inter-ethnic violence and unresolved inter-state or regional conflicts, all of which are detrimental to socioeconomic development. These instabilities occur at a time when the sub-region is grappling with the aftermath of multiple global crises, including COVID-19, the war in Ukraine, external debt burdens, reduced global demand for commodity exports, and the impacts of climate change.
Despite these adverse socioeconomic conditions, African political elites have taken commendable steps to accelerate regional integration through the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), aiming to enhance intra-regional trade and leverage comparative advantages and opportunities. However, there are growing concerns that the persistent political, social, environmental, and economic crises in SSA, all of which are man-made, may undermine the modest socioeconomic gains achieved in previous decades and impede the potential benefits of AfCFTA.
Recurring and protracted conflicts in SSA necessitate a deeper understanding of their root causes and consequences, as well as the exploration of collective remedies.
Societal or ethnic marginalization is the least understood or most ignored “causative factor” behind conflicts and political instabilities in SSA.
While various authoritative studies in the field suggest that ethnically diverse societies often experience higher levels of conflict, weak institutions, and lower economic growth, I strongly contend that the issue is not diversity itself. Rather, it is the marginalization, neglect, or feelings of exclusion that lead to prolonged conflicts, making governance, state formation, and nation-building impossible.
In other words, with the right approach, including a commitment to social justice, ethnic diversity can be an asset rather than a source of conflict or instability. Therefore, the marginalization and exclusion of ethnic groups in economic and political decision-making processes in SSA deserve open debates, analysis, and investigation, with the aim of seeking comprehensive solutions to the unfolding crises.
Peace and political stability are essential prerequisites for SSA to fully benefit from its diversity and foster state formation and nation-building. Consequently, addressing marginalization and exclusion through inclusive, transparent, and accountable political and economic decision-making should be given due consideration in deliberative, executive, and legislative bodies.
Sub-Saharan Africa has long been characterized by a “multiple dependency syndrome.” Domestically, SSA overwhelmingly relies on the extraction of natural resources for exports, employment, and output. In most countries, primitive farming methods, rain-fed agriculture, or unprocessed mineral resources account for the majority of employment, exports, and GDP. In a few countries, the informal, low-skill, and low-technology services sector has contributed significantly to the GDP and employment, exacerbating SSA’s premature deindustrialization.
Internationally, the region is highly dependent on development aid, including technical assistance, humanitarian aid, and food aid. Moreover, SSA has been a battleground for international rivalries over natural resources and geopolitical dominance. Unfortunately, SSA also remains a hub of widespread poverty and deprivation, with systemic and structural vulnerability to internal and external shocks, such as recurrent financial and economic crises, communicable and non-communicable diseases, vector-borne disasters, as well as pervasive conflicts.
Despite these challenges, the sub-region still possesses significant potential in terms of natural capital that, if carefully harnessed, can serve as a “mega-growth pole” and a catalyst for recovery and socioeconomic transformation.
One of the most pressing and yet often overlooked or least acknowledged problems hindering or reversing the socioeconomic progress of SSA is marginalization. I strongly argue that marginalization is the primary cause of ethnic fractionalization and polarization, which, in turn, lead to ethnic tensions, conflicts, and the wastage of productive factors, including labor.
Thus, marginalization, whether real or perceived, can be a ticking time bomb that must be urgently addressed.
What makes “marginalization” a critical issue?
Marginalization, as mentioned earlier, involves the establishment of political systems that prioritize ethnic identity at the expense of inclusive political narratives. It includes overt or covert denial of access to productive resources such as land, agricultural inputs, capital, and biased dominance of certain ethnic groups in economic sectors and employment opportunities. It encompasses unequal access to key public services, as well as the prioritization of infrastructure development and developmental opportunities for specific ethnic, linguistic, religious, or political groups. Rules, and regulations may also be designed to serve the interests of the ruling ethnic group(s), while ethnic-based biases and skewed allocation of resources persist.
These problems were prevalent during the colonial and post-colonial periods in SSA and continue to contribute to corruption, interethnic conflicts, civil wars, coup d’états, and overall political instability, with severe impacts on the socioeconomic development and progress of the region.
The irony is that these issues remain unaddressed, unrecognized, or entirely ignored in Africa’s socioeconomic and political discourses, despite some academic and research-based writings pointing to the problems and offering potential solutions. The political and educated elites of the sub-region are often criticized for prioritizing personal influence and self-aggrandizement over collectively seeking practical solutions to complex socioeconomic challenges and problems.
Another paradox that requires careful examination is the political history of countries in SSA. They united and fought valiantly to free themselves from slavery, colonialism, and resource exploitation. This raises the question of why SSA is now plagued by ethnolinguistic or religious fractionalization, polarization, and conflicts.
Why don’t we learn from our own history and unite our efforts, visions, knowledge, and resources to overcome underdevelopment, poverty, marginalization, and multiple forms of deprivation faced by our people and societies? Why don’t we collectively build our socioeconomic resilience to mitigate the impacts of climate change, environmental degradation, and deadly diseases? How long will we continue to lament the past and attribute our interethnic, linguistic, or religious divisions solely to the era of divide and rule?
In my opinion, socioeconomic underdevelopment, poverty, disease, and climate change do not recognize national boundaries or ethnic and religious identities. These common challenges and problems affect all of us, regardless of any specific identity.
Countries like Ethiopia, which have a long history of independence and fought against colonialism and apartheid alongside other countries in SSA, struggle to maintain peace within their own borders. Beyond poverty and underdevelopment, Ethiopia’s internal conflicts have become vicious, protracted, widespread, costly, and devastating. They have shifted from economic or class-based conflicts in the 1970s to increasingly ethnolinguistic conflicts, particularly since the country adopted an ethnolinguistic identity-based political system in 1991.
These are serious questions and issues that necessitate collective reflection, understanding, and response. Surprisingly, political elites, wealthy ethnic entrepreneurs, and so-called intellectuals behind ethnic identity-based political narratives in SSA have shamelessly exploited the sub-region’s potential, opportunities, and virtues, often favoring one ethnic or religious group over others.
This exploitation, combined with nepotism and corruption under an ethnic-based political framework, is not only prevalent but also accompanied by a complete rejection or denial of the devastating impacts it carries. Furthermore, there is a total reluctance to address the root causes of conflicts and instabilities. Rather than seeking solutions, SSA’s political elites are occupied with prophesying, mesmerizing, and stupefying poverty and marginalization, attributing them to “divine interventions” or the “law of positive attraction.” Such rejection and blind denial conceal our political viewpoints and narrow our technical knowledge, undermining our collective capacity to seek solutions to the problems that cause and result from our underdevelopment.
What is even more disturbing is that ethnolinguistic or religious identity-based political narratives have become the quickest path to political power and personal enrichment for individuals. These narratives have created fertile ground for the emergence of ethnic entrepreneurs and fostered rent-seeking behaviors among ethnocratic regimes and political elites. Undoubtedly, they have also contributed to ethnic fractionalization, polarization, interethnic tensions, and devastating conflicts.
Economic and political policy making that marginalizes certain groups and engenders feelings of exclusion, whether real or perceived, hinders the development of positive and synergistic state-population relations. It also widens credibility gaps and intensifies mutual mistrust, making political consensus, state formation, and nation-building increasingly unattainable. Numerous studies clearly demonstrate that broken state-people relations, when ignored or left unaddressed, easily lead to armed conflicts or civil wars.
The World Bank, in one of its earlier studies, provided evidence-based analyses, arguing that “ethnic cleavage can affect development outcomes, influence the internal organization of governments, and the allocation of public spending, resulting in an unequal distribution of public goods and services, heightened rent-seeking behaviors, and reduced efficiency of public spending.” Clearly, such circumstances can easily lead marginalized groups to complete dissatisfaction, rebellion, and eventually to conflicts and civil unrest unless promptly remedied.
Trade-offs, values, and policy options
Modern and progressive politics are the result of trade-offs, dialogue, compromise, and value exchanges between political elites and society (the electorate). In democratic societies, political elites who adhere to a unified national political agenda receive support from the majority. In return, they provide collective security, justice, economic well-being, equal opportunities, and access to education, health, and infrastructure.
This reaffirms that the relationship between inclusive political regimes and the public is not a “zero-sum game” where one side gains at the expense of the other. Instead, it is a “non-zero-sum game” or a “win-win” situation for everyone.
In contrast to national identity-based political narratives, political systems centered around ethnolinguistic or religious identities directly and indirectly thrive on ethnolinguistically or religiously biased allegiance, dominance, and “extractive entrepreneurship.” Prejudice and discrimination based on ethnolinguistic and religious identities also perpetuate persistent inequalities and can lead to increased systemic risks, structural vulnerabilities, and multiple deprivations, ultimately resulting in devastating conflicts. This means that the trade-offs in ethnolinguistic identity-based political systems or regimes are based on “zero-sum games.”
Evidence shows that “developmental states,” which aim to mobilize and recalibrate all productive resources, including labor and capital, for inclusive growth, transformation, and development, opt for non-zero-sum or win-win trade-offs. To ensure sustainability, such states establish consultative, transparent, accountable, and non-partisan public administration and governance structures.
One of the most detrimental consequences of ethnolinguistic and religious fragmentation and fractionalization is the erosion of societal values that have been built over centuries. This can be observed from the postings on social media by Ethiopians from different or competing ethnic backgrounds, which often contain vengeful, hateful messages and horrifying pictures of indiscriminate ethnically motivated killings of children, women, and the elderly.
This behavior is shocking to many because such inhuman conduct would not have been expected before the introduction of the ethnic identity-based political system in Ethiopia. In the 1994 Rwanda Genocide, which is still fresh in the minds of those born before the mid-1980s, the local media fueled the genocide, while the international community and mass media largely ignored or remained oblivious to the unfolding events.
The current dominance of social media, which relies more on emotions than reasoning and fosters hate instead of love or mutual respect, can be a destructive force. Social media lacks appropriate censorship, self-censorship, and accountability. It operates without collective societal norms and values, which can further fuel interethnic divisions, conflicts, and structural or systemic animosity.
Similarly, media outlets based on ethnolinguistic or religious affiliations, openly operating in some countries with the direct support of ethnic-based political parties, ethnic entrepreneurs, or ethnically formed regional states, may do more harm than good to social capital formation, interethnic relations, and cross-cultural communication.
Ethnic-based institutions and service providers can further deepen divisions between ethnolinguistic and religious groups rather than bridging them. Instead of correcting historical misconceptions and narrowing divisions, they may exacerbate fragmentation.
In countries with ethnolinguistic and religious diversity that adopt identity-based political systems, political elites often design public institutions and allocate public resources to serve their ethnolinguistic political agenda. This means that policy advisors, experts, and technocrats are selected based on their ethnic identities, disregarding meritocracy, expertise, experience, and professional backgrounds. Thus, the legitimacy and accountability of officials in such systems are focused solely on narrow ethnolinguistic or religious interests, rather than protecting and promoting collective national interests.
In Soviet Russia, as described by Solzhenitsyn and other authors, political cadres and decision-makers assumed the role of scientists and experts in various fields. They would lecture professionals and respected scientists in their respective fields, often on topics beyond their comprehension. Moreover, the political cadres and leadership were unwilling to acknowledge challenges, problems, or failures in policy and intellectual discourses.
Failures were portrayed as successes, lagging behind was presented as collective progress, deprivation was touted as communal prosperity, and hunger, malnutrition, and diseases were framed as socialist health. Negative but factual words or phrases were considered displeasing to the ears of the political elites of the time. For instance, even when programs and projects lacked the necessary financial and technical resources for implementation, final assessments and reports would be adorned with flowery phrases such as “resounding success,” “great achievements,” or “excelling success stories.” Such systems often strive to create positive images despite glaring fallibility, systemic decay, and malfunctioning.
Religious establishments in sub-Saharan Africa also face interethnic divisions, disagreements, and tensions. Recent tensions within the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church (EOTC) demonstrate that ethnicity and ethnic identity-based governance systems have no limits. This indicates that narratives that begin as ethnic can quickly descend into religious or linguistic fractionalization, polarization, and conflicts. The divisions within the EOTC also highlight the erosion of long-established common societal values, such as belief in one God.
In the case of Rwanda’s 1994 Genocide, post-genocide evidence shows that the Catholic Church either encouraged or silently witnessed the actions of its members who massacred Tutsis, including those seeking refuge within the Church itself.
The silence and inaction of reasonable and experienced individuals in the face of growing animosity between societies, often along ethnic or religious lines, is a cause for concern. This echoes the historic speech of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during America’s civil rights movement, where he spoke about the “appalling silence of the good people.” Similarly, the deafening silence on episodes of coup d’états in West Africa reflects a zero-sum game mentality with a general feeling that “West Africa’s problems are not the problem of Africa or the rest of the world.”
The inability of African countries, regional entities, and the broader international community to bring warring factions in Sudan to negotiate a peaceful settlement reflects the failure of existing regional and global governance structures. In Ethiopia, there was intense mobilization and overwhelming support for wars in various regions along ethnic lines, yet there was a complete silence from regional bodies and the international community to prevent these tragic conflicts.
The combination of national mobilization based on ethnic identities and the silence of the international community raises questions about the legitimacy of domestic political agendas and the trust in national, regional, and global institutions to resolve grievances, political crises, and conflicts.
Resetting moral, cultural, and value-based systems and reevaluating mindsets to find lasting solutions to development challenges in sub-Saharan Africa is more important now than ever before. Many governments in the region still view advocating for social justice, societal values, fairness, equality, and ethical values as anti-state behavior and incompatible with the current ethnic and ethnolinguistic-based political systems prevalent in the region.
Unfortunately, it seems that not much has changed since the days when Solzhenitsyn and his co-authors expressed this dilemma over five decades ago.
To achieve win-win trade-offs and uphold social and ethical values, vibrant institutions and legal mechanisms that treat all citizens equally are necessary. Institutions and legal frameworks function effectively when they are complemented by moral obligations embedded in societal value systems.
Ethnicity in SSA is not only eroding the unity of purpose but also undermining society’s moral-based value systems, leading to disastrous consequences for collective progress and survival. Shared history and destiny should have been the foundation of SSA’s societies. Ethnic divisions should not have eroded common value systems, heroism, or knowledge systems, whether tacit or technical.
Therefore, SSA’s elites must work towards unity in diversity and prevent ethnic identity-based politics from becoming a new tool of “divide and rule” in the face of the sub-region’s socioeconomic challenges, which hinder the capacity to invest, innovate, grow, and develop as free nations.
Fostering diversity dividends
Ethnic diversity, if properly harnessed, can be a powerful tool for addressing the collective underdevelopment and backwardness in SSA. The diversity dividend, which is the synergistic gain from embracing diversity, can be achieved by harnessing the talents and abilities of all individuals in society without labeling them based on ethnicity, language, caste, or religion.
Building inclusive public institutions for governance and prosperity is crucial to harnessing diverse assets, resources, and multiple identities to maximize development outcomes and social welfare while minimizing the risks of marginalization, uncertainty, and conflicts. Bridging ethnolinguistic and religious gaps in multiethnic nations is essential for socioeconomic development and the formation of social or national capital, rather than ethnic capital.
It is important to learn from the lessons presented in the extensive essays that there was a tendency to denigrate social justice, moral values, and ethical norms as a “Western ploy” to undermine socialism and communism, which were seen as the desirable ethos of Soviet Russia. The importance of these values and societal norms in fostering solidarity among various peoples and regions of the Soviet Union was widely denied.
Sub Saharan Africa, which has consistently lamented its marginalization in global trade, investment, output, and global governance systems, cannot afford to marginalize its own population based on ethnolinguistic and religious grounds. Before demanding equality, equity, and distributive justice from the global economy and governance architecture, countries in SSA should first strive to grant these to their own populations under inclusive political narratives and development agendas. A domestically unified political and development agenda is key for SSA’s regional and global integration.
Fostering inclusive politics and maximizing the diversity dividend must be integral to the development policies and strategies of SSA. Development does not discriminate based on ethnolinguistic or religious identities, just as global challenges like climate change and environmental disasters affect everyone.
These are collective challenges that can only be addressed and resolved through collective efforts at the national, regional, and global levels. SSA’s economic viability and relevance require a shift from the current dominant paradigm of zero-sum games towards a win-win paradigm that fosters and maximizes the diversity dividend.
Global movements like “Black Lives Matter,” which drew diverse congregations and demonstrations worldwide, and demonstrations in France following the killing of a French national of Arab origin by a policeman, deserve recognition. All these positive occurrences and movements reaffirm that solidarity and unity in diversity are the only solutions to our myriad socioeconomic, environmental, and political problems. Just as multiracial societies strive to foster a solidarity dividend, SSA must work towards addressing ethnic divisions, marginalization, and interethnic conflicts by fostering a diversity dividend for the benefit of “the sum of us” instead of “some of us.”
The way forward
First, there is the need for unifying political narratives to address socioeconomic underdevelopment, backwardness, and the inability to meet basic needs. Breaking free from multiple dependency syndromes in SSA is crucial.
Collective actions and efforts centered on ethnolinguistic and religious plurality, harmony, and equality are advocated to reverse the marginalization of SSA in global trade, investment, output, and decision-making processes. The political leadership and educated elites in SSA bear primary responsibilities in reeducating the public. This involves resetting moral values and mindsets towards collective development and social (national) capital formation, moving away from ethnic capital formation.
Furthermore, fostering cross-ethnic communication is essential to harness the dividend of diversity. Equal access to productive resources, quality education, health infrastructure, including electricity and ICTs, should be ensured for all. It is crucial to emphasize that ethnic identity-based narratives should not undermine common value systems or erode unity in diversity. Shared history and a common destiny should be fostered, promoting a sense of togetherness among SSA nations.
Lastly, SSA’s development policies must prioritize inclusive growth by fostering public institutions that remove distortions and discrimination based on ethnicity, language, or creed. Such policies should address the challenges and widespread deprivation faced by the region, without being sidetracked by erroneous political narratives.
In light of these key messages, concrete steps and measures are necessary.
Firstly, it is crucial to acknowledge the detrimental effects of ethnic identity-based politics, which result in the marginalization and exclusion of many individuals from vital decision-making processes. Recognizing this reality is essential in fostering a wider consensus on the negative consequences of marginalization, such as inequality, policy distortions, grievances, and cycles of protracted conflicts. Ignoring or denying these impacts for an extended period can lead to severe consequences for societies as a whole, even for those perceived to exclusively benefit from ethnic identity-based narratives and systems.
Secondly, there is a need for well-informed, conscious, transparent, and accountable processes that promote solidarity and collective commitments among citizens. Additionally, institutionalized mechanisms should be established to address inter-ethnic tensions and grievances effectively. Recognizing the complexity and dangers associated with identity-based politics, it becomes clear that public institutions alone cannot effectively address these issues. While governments have primary responsibilities, tackling ethnic fragmentation, polarization, and the resulting devastating conflicts requires the active involvement of all stakeholders at various levels, including national, sub-regional, regional, and global.
Thirdly, it is imperative to break the link between political leadership and ethnic entrepreneurship. This bond poses significant challenges in building consensus and forging public alliances against ethnic divisions and narratives. Ethnic entrepreneurs and opportunistic individuals profit from an unbalanced distribution of resources and unrestricted access to productive resources, often at the expense of their own ethnolinguistic and religious groups or other competing ethnic groups. This gradual erosion of trust between states and the public is a consequence of their actions.
Extensive studies and empirical evidence demonstrate that ethnic entrepreneurs contribute to further ethnic fractionalization. They utilize various channels, including formal and informal organizations, religious associations, village elders, and grassroots movements, to enrich themselves.
Their influence can be dangerously powerful and difficult for political establishments to manage or control. The economic, political, and social costs to societies are significant, as they wield substantial power that may lead to a sense of marginalization among those who do not benefit as much or at all. Moreover, they intentionally tarnish the reputation of political machinery to fuel fear and promote a sense of “divide and rule” among the general public.
Fourthly, deliberate policies and clear rules and regulations are necessary to ensure equal access for all citizens to productive resources, education, health services, infrastructure, institutionalized incentives, and capital. This equal access should apply not only to publicly funded projects and institutions but also to private initiatives financed through public-private partnerships (PPPs). Discrimination based on ethnolinguistic or religious labels should be eliminated, and public goods should be provided without bias.
Fifthly, political and public discourses, educational systems, research and development (R&D) institutions, and formal and informal organizations should promote civic duties. This approach fosters cross-ethnic communication, mutual coexistence, and social cohesion. Zero-sum-game approaches centered on self-enrichment and exclusionary preferences are not sustainable in the long run.
Governments in SSA need to address social injustice, inequality, and inequity. They should develop legal and institutional mechanisms to effectively address ethnic-based diatribes, incitement, and hate speech, particularly from political leaders, officials (including army and security personnel), exclusionist elites (including academic or policy advisors), and ethnic entrepreneurs.
Sixthly, governments in SSA must take a leading role and assume primary responsibilities in creating enabling conditions for interethnic communication, cultural exchanges, and social (national) capital formation. They should devise policies and strategies to combat social fragmentation, marginalization, and exclusion, with the aim of reducing risks and uncertainties that affect all citizens regardless of their ethnolinguistic or religious background.
Public institutions and administration should prioritize meritocracy, expertise, and competence in the delivery of public goods and services, thus eliminating ethnic-based and quota-driven career systems. Policymaking functions and institutional authorities should not be overtaken or undermined by profiteering individuals who exploit extreme poverty for their own gain and extract scarce public resources. Rebuilding vibrant and capable state institutions, as well as regaining public confidence and trust in political governance, are crucial. Fostering public trust and confidence in political leadership is of utmost importance for effective management of economic resources and for facilitating social cohesion and coexistence among various social, religious, linguistic, or ethnic groups.
Lastly, there is an urgent need for SSA to leverage the potential of its intellectuals, academics, researchers, and scientific and technical communities, both within the region and in the diaspora. These individuals can serve as sources of knowledge, expertise, and experience for policymaking in pursuit of inclusive development. Many citizens from the sub-region work in renowned global innovation labs, cutting-edge technological centers like Silicon Valley, prestigious universities, and world-class research institutions.
Systematically harnessing these vital competences and resources can significantly transform the socioeconomic and political dynamics of SSA for the better. Ignoring or undermining such untapped capital for an extended period can have fatalistic or detrimental effects on the overall progress of the sub-region.
Contributed by Mussie Delelegn Arega