Ethnic Politics and Democratic Transition in Rwanda
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Ethnic Politics and Democratic Transition in Rwanda

David Kiwuwa

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eBook - ePub

Ethnic Politics and Democratic Transition in Rwanda

David Kiwuwa

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This book offers an examination of how a deeply divided post-conflict society embarks on democratic transition. Using Rwanda as the case study, it combines analysis of democratic transition and ethnopolitical debate, asking why deeply divided ethnic societies have a tendency to fail.

Though marginalised in existing literature on democratic transition, this path-breaking book shows how ethnicity has a significant impact on the direction and success of democratic process. The initial failure of democratic transition in Rwanda shows that the current regime will need to be sensitive to ethnicity, ethnopolitical consciousness and mobility in order to be successful in its second transition attempt. Based on key informant interviews, participant observation and primary resources, this book develops beyond the case study of Rwanda to posit a new framework that integrates variables of unity, equality, trust and institutional engineering in an integrative model to study and evaluate democratic transition in divided or post-conflict society.

Ethnic Politics and Democratic Transition in Rwanda will be of interest to students and scholars of democratization, democracy, and ethnic politics and conflict.

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1 A general theoretical analysis
Ethnicity (ethnopolitics) and democratic transition
This chapter is intended to be the theoretical foundation of the book. It attempts to provide a comprehensive analysis of two theoretical premises of the project: ethnicity and its manifestation, and democratic transition. There has been an effort here to synthesise both theories in order to make a logical analysis in respect to our case study. This chapter is therefore divided into two theoretical strands. The first section introduces ethnicity as the first theoretical strand. It attempts to examine the ethnicity paradigm, showing how it has been understood, manifested itself and shaped group socio-political behaviour. More specifically, this section goes beyond an anthropological overview to offer a robust critical interrogation of how ethnicity and ethnopolitics become critical determinants to the nature and performance of a political system in which it is pre-eminent. First, the section examines the phenomenon of ethnicity, offering a brief definitional overview. Second, I offer a critical interrogation of the three schools of thought informing the ethnicity debate. Finally, I analyse the relevance of ethnicity within the framework of ethnic political mobilisation. This will provide ample context within which to situate the second theoretical analysis – democratic transition. Following the above logic, this section will initially provide a general theoretical synopsis of the well trodden transition field. Second, and most important, I will (partially) borrow from the traditions of the new preconditionalists by advancing an innovative model that addresses itself to the understanding of conditions that are critical and some essential to the potential success of transition in deeply divided ethnic (unipolar) societies. This is what I have called the ‘integrative model’.1
Ethnicity, ethnic politics and mobilisation
Events of the past decade have by now impressed upon even the more casual observer of world politics that ethnopolitics constitutes a major and growing threat to the political stability of most states. Rather than witnessing an evolution of stable states or supra-state communities, the observer of global politics has viewed a succession of situations involving competing allegiances, in which people have illustrated that an intuitive bond felt towards an informal and unstructured subdivision of mankind is far more profound and potent than are ties that bind them to the formal legalistic state structures in which they find themselves (Walker: 1978: 377).
Understanding ethnicity: a conceptual analysis
From the outset, it is crucial to point out that ethnicity is a complex and contested concept. Tonkins et al. (1989: 11) have argued that as a theoretical construct, ethnicity suffers from conceptual elasticity covering a wide range of ideas, coming to symbolise a kind of catch-all phrase for social features and organisations such as language, religion, custom, castes, culture and ‘race’ (Horowitz 1985: 53, Nederveen 1997: 37). Indeed, as ethnicity expands in the public, political and scholarly realm, it has become a way to signal virtually any category of group identity. To some critics, this is precisely where the weakness of ethnicity begins: ambiguity (Brubaker 2004: 136). While acknowledging this weakness, I do not seek to settle this definitional debate either. More appropriately, I shall utilise an approximate definition that affords analytical rigour to the book’s proceedings.
Ethnicity has a rich history dating back millennia, though its most visible academic relevance emerged in the twentieth century. The concept traces its origin to the Greek word ethnikos, with the adjective ethnos, which refers to a people or nation, or a collectivity of humans living and acting together (Hutchinson and Smith 1996: 4; Wallman 1979: 3; Guibernau and Rex 1997: 33; Eriksen 2002: 1). Though ethnicity can be defined varyingly depending on the objective of the investigator, in all variants, some sort of group cultural affinity or distinctiveness is taken as a starting point (Sollors 1996:370). Ethnicity therefore can mean ‘the essence of an ethnic group’ or ‘the quality of belonging to an ethnic community or group’. Barth (1969: 12–17; also Geertz (see Jenkins 1997: 13)) has suggested elsewhere that ethnicity more often than not is subjective, for ‘ethnicity is what the natives say it is’. By these definitions, ethnicity is perceived as transactional, shifting and essentially impermanent (Jenkins 1986: 174–180). Within contemporary political discourse, ethnicity and its political relevance is construed through its agency, the ethnic group conceived here as a collectivity within a larger society having real or putative common ancestry, memories of a shared historical past, and a cultural focus on one or more symbolic elements defined as the epitome of their peoplehood. Examples of such symbolic elements are: kinship patterns, physical contiguity, language or dialect forms, tribal affiliation, nationality, phenotypical features or any of these combinations (Schermerhorn 1996: 17; Cohen 1969: 4). As such, ethnic groups have three ingredients: (1) the group is perceived by others in the society as different in some combination of the following traits: language, religion, race and ancestral homeland with related culture; (2) members must also perceive themselves as different from others; and (3) members participate in shared activities built around their (real or mythical) common origin and culture (Yinger 1994: 4; Jenkins 1997: 10).
Within the modern epoch ethnicity has retained a degree of resilience and in some instances a reinvigoration. While it has attracted significant scholarly attention, more remains to be done to create a degree of theoretical congruence. Reflecting on the seminal works of Geertz, Moynihan, Barth, Horowitz and, in particular, Rothschild, among others, this rich scholarly repertoire has offered incisive debate into the theories of ethnicity and its political relevance (see also Atkinson 1999: 19; Rothschild 1981). While a reservoir of destructive forces in some states, as observed in successor states of the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda, ethnicity is a foundation of unity and a tool of political assertion in others. Evidently, ethnicity can be located within a labyrinth of debates focusing on group relations, inter- and intra-state conflicts, collective action issues and the important matter of power (Cornell and Hartmann 1998: 1). However, until it proved its resilience, some had predicted its loss of explanatory value. Consequently, two principle ideas envisaged a steady or even a precipitous decline of ethnic attachments. Gordon (1964) termed the first of these the liberal expectancy. This cast ethnic identities as generally recessive and essentially transient, and as such they were expected to lose their sharpness and eventually wane over time. Reinforcing this observation, Horowitz (1985: 88) noted that ‘ethnicity . . . signified the chains of the feudal estates . . . was primitive . . . in primitive societies, kinship in blood is the sole possible ground of community in political functions. With modernisation and industrialisation, such antiquated ethnic preferences would give way to other means of social organisation’ (cf Moynihan 1993: 28; Glazer and Moynihan 1970, Eriksen 2002: 20). Smith (1981: 4) also backed the trend that ‘once the process of modernisation runs its course, the factors which make ethnicity an affective and salient basis for group mobilisation will no longer hold. It would appear that class or some other basis of group organisation will take precedence over ethnicity’. While these arguments clearly represented widely held beliefs of the transitional nature of ethnicity and its ultimate fate, to date these are evidently redundant claims.
Second, there was the Marxist radical expectancy that ethnicity would give way to ‘proletarian internationalism’. Social class, an economic category, would be the only determining factor of individual or group identification and drive social action. The Marxist viewed ethnicity as an epiphenomenon, a remnant of pre-capitalist modes of production, a false consciousness masking class interests, a mystification of ruling classes to prevent the growth of class-consciousness (van den Berghe 1987: 17). While its relevance was widely challenged and its demise perceived as just ‘a matter of time’, ethnicity has proved enduring, more so after the Cold War (Dubow 1994: 355). In fact to the contrary, ethnic groups have increasingly morphed into interest groups.
Why is the critical examination of ethnicity and its political manifestation primarily important? Quintessentially, within contemporary political discourses, ethnicity has become the term of the hour as scholars grapple anew with its role in socio-political conflicts and international security (Tilley 1997: 497; Ericksen 2000; Eriksen 2002). In his much earlier works, Walker (1973: 1–21, 1977: 19–45, 1978) anticipated this renewed interest, noting that ‘nearly half of the independent countries of the world [then] had been troubled . . . by some degree of ethnically inspired dissonance’ (see also Yinger 1994: 330). This appears to have coincided with (post-)independence (power) struggles. Most recently, examples abound from South America (Mexico, Peru) to Europe (Northern Ireland, Belgium, Former Yugoslavia), the Middle East (Palestine, Israel, Iraq) to Africa (Nigeria, Rwanda, Congo, Sudan) and Asia (Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Malaysia). This perhaps is best captured by the final 1991 issue of The Economist (page 12) highlighting a survey of on-going conflicts around the world under the heading, ‘Tribalism revisited’; Yugoslavia served as the prototype:
Yugoslavia has brought civil war back to Europe . . . Yugoslavia may well be the war of the future: one waged between different ‘tribes’, harbouring centuries old grudges about language, religion and territory and provoking bitterness for generations to come . . . the tribes may want to dominate each other, to escape each other’s clutches or merely to kill each other. But the main ingredient is the same: visceral hatred of the neighbour.
Moynihan (1993: xii) opined that ‘there have not been many wars this century whose origins do not include inter-ethnic hostility in some shape or form and the resultant failure of the democratic polity to reflect ancient or modern ethnic realities’. One may however wonder whether these ethnic tensions and conflicts between different communities are not as old as civilisation and whether one should waste time focusing on them. True, ethnic discord has been present in different forms and for different rationales for a long time but its forceful reinvigoration (ethnic reawakening) and intensity in the twentieth century has quickly captured political and intellectual attention. My interest in ethnicity, therefore, is predicated upon the understanding that certain groups purportedly deriving their membership from putatively ancestral inherited ties perceive these ties as affecting and shaping systematically their place and fortunes within socio-political structures of the modern state.
Competing theories of ethnicity
For purposes of systematic analysis, it is important first to unpack the ethnicity paradigm into distinct schools of thought. On the one hand, we encounter highly durable ethnies, some of them indeed tracing their origins over centuries, or millennia; on the other, we observe the rise of new ethnies and the dissolution of older ones as well as the many transformations in culture that existing ethnies have undergone (Hutchinson and Smith 1996: 7). This differential characterisation of ethnicity underscores the debate about the nature of ethnicity, its durability and salience and how this informs socio-political behaviour within society. From a number of scholarly works, three main schools of thought stand out (Smith 1981; Rothschild 1981; Glazer and Moynihan 1970; Enloe 1981; Nielsen 1985). The primordialist and the rational instrumentalist occupy opposite ends of the theoretical continuum, while constructivism occupies the middle ground (Tilly 1997: 499). Nevertheless, critical analysis of these schools of thought indeed indicates that they are not entirely as dichotomic as presumed.
Primordialism was a term first used by Shils from his experience in sociology of religion and later developed by Geertz (1963: 109–110) who observed that primordial attachments are:
Congruities of blood, speech, custom . . . are seen to have ineffable, and at times, overpowering, coerciveness in and of themselves. One is bound to one’s kinsmen, one’s neighbour, one’s fellow believer, ipso facto, as a result not merely of interest, or incurred obligation, but at least in great part by the virtue of some unaccountable absolute import attributed to the very tie itself. . . . But for virtually every person, in every society, at almost all times, some attachments seem to flow more from a sense of natural – some would say spiritual – affinity than from social interaction.
Unequivocal in the primordialism logic is the view of ethnic belonging as involuntary; one has no control over membership or attac hment to the group; it is non-rational, for primordial attachments stem from the ‘givens’ of social existence (Burgess 1978: 266). This school of thought developed from the need of late nineteenth-century social scientists to explain what makes people not only different, but also the foundation of communal groups. Social Darwinists attributed the various social differences like ethnicity (race) and physiological features to biological explanations and hence regarded them as intrinsically distinct. Isaacs (1975a: 38; 1975b) in reference to his ‘basic groups’ and drawing from Weber, Geertz (1963, 1973) and Shil’s (1957: 130) works wrote that ‘these consist of the ready made set of endowments and identification that every individual shares with others from the moment of birth by the chance of family into which he is born at that given time in that place’. Deductively, the logic from this theorisation is that ethnicity is a deeply rooted affiliation, fixed and primordial in nature (see Stack 1986; Grosby 1994: 164).
From a synopsis of the various sub-fields of primordialism – biological, psychological and cultural – we gain a clear understanding of what it is that primordialism attributes to ethnic behaviour. Drawing primarily from the works of Shil, Geertz, Eller and Coughlan, I summarise the three basic premises upon which primordialism rests;
1 That primordial identities . . . are underived, prior to all experience or interaction’, and are considered ‘natural’, even ‘spiritual’ rather than sociological. Primordial attachments have no social source. Ascription here is not really a matter of choice much less a rational one but of tradition, and the emotions evoked by the perceptions of common ancestry. Thus what motivates the behaviour of ethnic actors is not some calculation of their interests but rather of history that binds them as they themselves perceive this history (Gil-White 1999: 802).
2 That primordial sentiments are ‘ineffable’, overpowering and ‘coercive’, such that individuals necessarily feel certain attachments to that group and its practices (especially language and culture) are binding by virtue in and of themselves. Patterns of interaction follow the categorical cleavages and not the other way round. Geertz observes here that people’s perception of kin ties seem to them to reflect natural rather than culturally or cognitively constructed relations and that some people define such fundamental relations as sacred (Tilley 1997: 501).
3 That primordialism is essentially a question of emotion or affect. This mainly reflects the primordial attachments, that is, ‘sentiments’ and ‘bonds’, and has more to do with feelings.
Primordialism has come to offer an explanation of the strength of ethnic sentiments and the various beliefs that have underpinned ethnically couched political claims. It has also given credence to the understanding of the non-rational and non-economic manifestation of ethnicity, for instance, competition for social symbols of prestige, inter-group status and their political legitimacy (see Horowitz 2000: 131; Gurr 1970: 24).
However, the primordialists have come under scathing criticism for taking ethnicity as a priori and presenting it as a static and naturalistic phenomenon (Eller and Coughlan 1993: 185; Stack 1986: 2). The reality is that ethnic identity is perceivably malleable, often overlapping with other kinds of social identities with people retaining the capacity to assume multiple identities in different situations. The argument that ethnicity is seen as ‘given’, when in fact we can see it as constantly renewed, modified and remade over generations, and far from being self-perpetuating has required creative effort and investment, significantly weakens the primordialists’ case. For instance, primordialism has failed to account for the dormancy and variation of ethnic sentiments over time, while also failing to account for the disappearance of many ethnic identities within modern societies (Bayart 1993: 51). To this end, ethnicity can be taken as a social construct, a variable definition of self or other whose existence and meaning is continuously negotiated (Hutchinson and Smith 1996: 46).
That ethnic attachments are ‘ineffable’ is equally questionable. Critics have argued that ethnic feelings in fact arise out of specific social conditions, that primordial sentiments have to be elicited by some sort of experience, hence rationally tied to circumstances. For instance, when groups are faced with forceful assimilation within a dominant group, this generates ethnic feelings which are their oppositional collective response to ensure self-preservation (Geertz 1963). On the whole, a comprehensive analysis of primordialism exposes particular inconsistencies in its explanatory rigour leaving it unable to address convincingly contentious identity debates. This points to very interesting lines of further inquiry to which the next school will partially address itself.
Sometimes referred to as circumstantialist or essentialist, instrumentalism has advanced an allegedly pragmatic understanding of ethnicity, in contrast to primordialism, in respect to ethnic socio-political dynamics (for some earlier works on instrumentalism see Wallerstein 1960: 129; Comhaire 1956: 45; Gould 1955: 428; Dahlie and Fernando 1981: 1; Leach 1977). It essentially asserts that ethnicity has nothing natural and ineffable about it. Rather, it advances a rationalist argument that people emphasise their ethnicity when it is in their best interest to do so, in other words, it is optional. This flux in ethnic identification reflects not the purported resilience and fixity of ethnicity but rather in its rational utility. Far from being an antecedent phenomenon, representing a fixed and immutable set of static social facts carried over from the past, ethnicity should be perceived as constitutive of fluid social markers that reflect rational group response to prevailing socio-political pressures and a basis for group action (Duran 1974: 43; Lonsdale 1992). Hence, ethnicity has evolved into an important resource and tool for different interest and status groups in competition within contemporary state structures.
Cohen (1974: 96) has argued that ‘ethnicity is fundamentally a political phenomenon . . . a type of informal interest grouping’. To him ethnicity in the modern world, more so in Africa, ‘is the result of intensive struggle between groups over new strategic positions of power . . . places of employment, taxation, funds for development, education, political positions and so on’. Simply put, it is a medium through which various groups and the elite organise to pursue their collective interests in competition with one another. Instrumentalists point to the elite strategies of seeing ethnicity as rather utilitarian in given situations. It is assumed that actors generally desire goods measured in terms of wealth, power and status and by claiming them as ethnic collectives help to secure these ends by exerting influence on states that are sensitive and responsive to ethnic claims (Hutchinson and Smith 1996: 8; Roosens 1989: 14; Young 1976: 77; Nagel 1993; Enloe 1978: 339). Thus, ethnicity as something readily manipulated and situational can be taken as a deliberate social and functional construct to further actors’ interests. Elsewhere, Adam and Giliomee (1971: 21) reflects this argument on writing about South Africa: ‘Ethnic identification should be seen as the result of efforts by underprivileged groups to improve their lot through collective mobilisation or conversely the efforts of a super-ordinate group to preserve the privileges they enjoy by exploiting subjected groups.’
Perceived as driven by rational calculation, this school has been crucial in contemporary politics in rendering some explanation as to why and how ethnic groups organise and aggregate their socio-political interests and utilise these in interaction and/or competition. Sharp (1988: 79) submits that ‘ethnicity is a political process by which people seek to form groups and to differentiate one set of people from the another . . . it is the pursuit of political goals – the acquisition or maintenance of power, the mobilisation of a following – through the idiom of cultural commonness and difference’. This requires active and shrewd innovation, a kind of ethnic entrepreneurship; here signalling a kind of commerce, a commerce of identity, through which ethnic mythologies, raw cu...

Table des matiĂšres

  1. Cover
  2. Author biography
  3. Title page
  4. Copyright
  5. Dedication
  6. Contents
  7. List of Tables
  8. Foreword
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. Introduction
  11. 1 A general theoretical analysis: Ethnicity (ethnopolitics) and democratic transition
  12. 2 The fallacy of existing transition models: Consociationalism revisited
  13. 3 Rwanda: The pre-colonial and colonial background
  14. 4 The First Republic (1959–1973)
  15. 5 When democratic transition killed
  16. 6 Slouching towards democratic transition
  17. 7 Crowning the transition? The 2003 legislative and presidential elections
  18. Conclusion
  19. Glossary
  20. Notes
  21. Bibliography
  22. Index