Taming Ethnicity

Managing intercultural diversity for effective leadership

By: Bishop David A. Oginde, P.h.D.

The world has been gripped by the recent flare up of hostilities in the newest nation of the world, South Sudan, only a few years after its celebrated inception. At the center of the violence that has left more than one thousand people dead and several others displaced, is the sharp differences between the President and his former deputy. But the key cause of this hostility seems to lie in the interethnic conflict between the two main tribes of South Sudan. Whereas this type of conflict is extremely sad, coming at a time when the nation should be gearing up for a takeoff in growth and development, it nonetheless follows a now familiar pattern of intercultural conflicts in Africa and other parts of the world. 

In 1994, the world awoke to the shock of a mass genocide in which over one million people were killed in 90 days in an interethnic fight between the Hutus and Tutsis of Rwanda. Yet, apart from Rwanda, genocidal wars in Africa have been in Burundi, Liberia, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, and Sierra Leone. Kenya, once considered an island of peace in a fairly volatile region, surrendered its innocence when it courted inter-ethnic conflict after the 2007 election. All these conflicts have had combinations of forced relocations, massacres, and famine involving nations, regions, ethnic groups, clans and lineages. Outside of Africa, similar atrocities were experienced in Bosnia in 1992 in a genocide that culminated in the sudden slaughter of over 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in July 1995. Whereas each ethnic conflict has had its own unique history, studies have suggested that they share a variable incubation period for predisposing factors, followed at some point by a set of triggering factors that results in mass violence. The big question is why at critical times of national crisis, ethnic identities seem to supersede national bond.

An interesting thesis has been posited by Anderson who argued that the nation is merely an imagined political community—and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.  His argument is that the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them; as compared to members of the same ethnic or cultural community – which therefore makes the ethnic bond more concrete than the national. Yet, in the minds of each of such members of the nation linger the conception of common bond.

While agreeing with Anderson that nations are socially constructed entities open to processes of negotiation and revision, Wa Ngugi argued that to successfully negotiate, revise, construct, and maintain a nation as a uniform whole, there are two fundamental schools of thought that inform our attitudes that must first be resolved. According to Wa Ngugi, the first and most popular vision is one that is founded on the perception that “modern democratic ideals are incompatible with African ethnic consciousness, cohesiveness and identity.” In Wa Ngugi’s view, such a perspective rejects the fact that the tribe shall continue to be “the most powerful tool for mobilizing political opinion in Africa and some other places in the world.” Thus, the real but undeclared purpose of this perspective is “to destroy African ethnic consciousness, identity and cultural values. Its origin and driving force is neocolonial brainwashing.” Wa Ngugi argued for a second perspective that recognizes ethnicity as a critical and integral part of society that cannot easily, or perhaps never, be wished away. In this conception, claims of authenticity of tribe or race are not based on original belonging to a place but on original being from a strain of DNA. 

It follows that if the world in general, and Africa in particular, is to stem the tide of intercultural conflicts and in its place nurture a more harmonious and peaceful camaraderie among the peoples of Africa, then there is a serious need to consider and appreciate the nature of interethnic relations within the particular context. 

Interethnic Relations

Human behaviour is such that the personal and collective meaning of ethnicity is always present, even if it is not always salient to everyone in the environment; and it affects leaders, followers, their relationships, and the context where leadership happens. It is thus important to understand how these cultural meanings and ethnic identities, construct the social context as well as our individual identities. 

Welsh observed that, whereas ethnicity in Africa may have been a product of the colonial era, its major stimulus derived from the introduction of competitive politics and its subsequent use as a political resource. Indeed, in his title, Ethnic conflicts in Africa, Nnoliargued that ethnicity in contemporary Africa is associated with competition, exclusiveness and conflicts in relations among ethnic groups, which are members of a political community. Accordingly, the genocidal wars and ethnic violence witnessed in the continent, though extreme in nature, bring to the fore the salient reality of ethnic animosity in its many forms; that seems to affect leaders, followers, their relationships, and the context where leadership happens. Consideration must therefore be given to the fact that, if societal, community, and individual relationships are all significantly informed by ethnic identities, then leadership must be as well. 


Interestingly, the Bible equally records some very unusual interethnic conflicts, some of which resulted in serious genocidal wars. For example, Shiboleth was an unusual word used in the time of Jephtha, in the days of the judges. It was used as a password by the Gileadites at the fords of the Jordan River to detect the fleeing Ephraimites in a conflict between the people of Ephraim, who lived west of the Jordan, and the people of Gilead, who lived east of the Jordan. According to this story found in Judg 12:1-6, Jephtha had been confronted by the Ammonites and when he called for help, no one came to his aid. His own brothers the Ephraimites did not bother to come to his rescue. He therefore mustered an army together with the Gileadites and by God’s grace they fought and defeated the Ammonites. But as soon as the battle was over, the Ephraimites called out their forces, crossed over to Zaphon and said to Jephthah, “Why did you go to fight the Ammonites without calling us to go with you? We’re going to burn down your house over your head.” 

When the Ephraimites angered their brethren, the Bible says that Jephthah then called together the men of Gilead and fought against Ephraim. Led by the judge Jephthah, the Gileadites seized the fords of the Jordan, where they met the fleeing invaders and asked them to say “Shibboleth.” Unfortunately for the Ephraimites, they could not pronounce it right and instead said, “Sibboleth.” And so, betrayed by their own speech, the unlucky Ephraimites were killed at the fords of the Jordan by Jephthah and his men. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time – in a battle over nothing!

Shibboleth in our days

The sad bit is that even in these days, Shibboleth seems to be the criteria for the life and death issues. In many instances people are regarded on the basis of race, tribe, language, gender, or social status. And this pervades all sectors of society: In some governments across the continent, appointments, promotions, or development can only come your way if you are able to say, Shibboleth. Even the private sector is not immune. Some companies are exclusive to the CEO’s people. Some multi-nationals are exclusively white at the top. Similarly, there are NGO’s serving only one area or one community. The saddest bit is that even Churches/ religious organizations have at times fallen victim of the Shibboleth criteria, and so certain churches or denominations are almost totally exclusive to one tribe or region. There are some families that have outlawed marriage from other tribes. To be a son or daughter in law you must say Shibboleth! The result: Africa is being torn apart and destroyed!

Biblical Response

In Biblical days, there were basically two groups of people – Jews and Gentiles. By divine prerogative, God had chosen to bless Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and thus the Jews. The Jews became God’s chosen people and the world was divided between Jews and Gentiles. The Jews enjoyed God’s blessings while the Gentiles suffered God’s wrath. However, in the coming of Christ, God through reconciled the whole world to himself. The Bible says in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Accordingly, that little word – whosoever – placed the Jew and the Gentile on same platform. Thus Paul told the Galatians in Gal 3:26-29 – You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. 

Accordingly, to discriminate against another on the basis of tribe, race or gender is to reach back to pre-Christian days. It is to be primitive, uncivilized and totally ungodly! Whenever differences in language have been allowed within a group or community, there has always been a falling apart of that group or community. Paul told the Corinthians – So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! (2 Cor 5:16-17)

We are all one people, one nation, one family. To judge, reward or punish any one on the basis of how they pronounce Shibboleth is to be backward! Instead, the Bible declares in 2 Cor 5:18-21 that God gave us the ministry of reconciliation and he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.