Secessionism and Separatism Monthly Series: “Rethinking Nationalism, Ethnicity and Separatism in African Studies” by Miles Larmer and Baz Lecocq

Emmanuel Dalle Mulle's picture

H-Nationalism is proud to publish here the ninth post of its “Secessionism and Separatism Monthly Series”, which looks at issues of fragmentation, sovereignty, and self-determination in a multi-disciplinary perspective. Today’s contribution, by Miles Larmer (Associate Professor in African History, University of Oxford) and Baz Lecocq (Professor in African History, Humboldt University of Berlin) provides a critical assesment of the existing literature on African nationalism, ethnicity and separatism. The piece is a synoptic version of an essay to this topic that the authors are still developing. Therefore, as usual in our series, all comments are welcome.


In this paper we propose rethinking nationalism as a political ideology and political force in Africa outside the boundaries of the postcolonial African state, in order to reach a better understanding of the continent’s political trajectory in the late colonial and postcolonial period. Such an approach can help improve understanding of the genealogies of contemporary African politics.

It is still generally assumed that in Africa, “official” national identities, as Benedict Anderson dubbed them, are weak or even non-existent. This reasoning is, we think, based on both “methodological nationalism”—the obfuscation of state and nation in an emic nationalist perspective—, and the perception of the African state as “weak”. Where states are weak, it is reasoned, national identities will also be weak. In this reasoning it is accepted that Africans imagined national identities on the basis of the colonial territories in which they lived, which gave a cohesive force to their struggles for independence. Once independence was reached, and once the inability or willingness of independent states to promote national identity further became clear, national identities were assumed by outside observers to have axiomatically lost importance. In many cases, so it was argued, the state was further weakened through “ethnic conflicts” that undermined national identities and coherence, as well as the state itself.

This reasoning is flawed for two reasons. First, it overstated the direct connection between state capacity and national identity. The inherent weakness of the notion “weak state” left aside, African states (like other states) allocate finite resources to specific policies, and (again, like other states) tend not to spend abundant material resources in the construction of national identities as these are inherently political cultures, and not political economies.  National identities are largely discursive creations that can come about with few physical resources. In many African countries, including some perceived as “at the brink of collapse”, citizens express strong patriotic sentiments, regardless of the workings of the state or their appreciations thereof. Second, we think it was mistaken to label all internal conflicts over state legitimacy as "ethnic conflict". In many cases, these were unequal struggles between competing national imaginaries, a competition in which the prize was the privilige to define what was “the nation” and what was “ethnic”. It should be stressed however that the outcome of this competition was commonly inconclusive and in many countries still continues.

Surprisingly few of these conflicts have (had) separatist aims. Although the African continent experienced many armed conflicts after political independence, few of these were of an overtly separatist nature.[1] Rather, most take the existence of the state for granted, but rather contest the definition of national identity, or assert the right to define plural national identities. The most important example of such conflict took place in the Horn of Africa. After the effective secession of Eritrea from Ethiopia in 1993 and the decision of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front to let Tigray remain part of Ethiopia, the Ethiopian constitution was rewritten, giving each region the right to secede from the state under set conditions.[2] This remains however a virtually unique experience of ultimately successful separatism.

As, from an analytical perspective, the difference between “nation” and “ethnic group”, as well as the distinction between nationalism and ethnicity, seems impossible to make when it comes to the aspirations to state formation and nation building, we reject this distinction since it traps historians in a post ante teleological interpretation of the past in the present that obscures the political realities of both past and present. The political significance of such teleologies is to provide post fact legitimacy to official nationalisms as a reward for their contingent political success. Instead the role of historians should be to analyse the historical political imaginaries that led to political contestation between specific groups, all of which are best understood as nations that competed—and in some cases still compete—for the right to form a nation-state. This necessarily involves rejecting the dominant characterisation of those nationalist political movements that failed to create or dominate a state as “ethnic”. Replacing the distinction between “national” and “ethnic” with the idea of competing nationalisms frees analysis from the influences of historical outcome, enabling a proper focus on historical process.

Nationalism, we argue, is an anti-colonial or anti-imperial ideology that imagines a nation to be a political community that by right should be politically sovereign and independent from rule by others. By this definition, nations were being created in the African political imagination long before the independence of colonial territories became a feasible political project, indeed from the outset of Africa’s encounter with European imperialism. The anti-imperial and anti-colonial origins of nationalism, and its capacity to provide a common identity to people where none existed previously, made it an excellent and highly appropriate ideological tool not only for African anti-colonial movements, but also for those movements that subsequently sought independence from African post-colonial states.

Competing nationalism is a widespread phenomenon, indeed one common in the multiple instances of anti-colonial nationalism from the late eighteenth century onwards, which expressed and continues to express itself in ways similar to African demands for independence in the mid-twentieth century and the ways that formally recognised independence movements sought to establish nation-states out of the European colonies. The contestation of national projects by others, as they gained shape during and after the anti-colonial struggle, is best understood as an integral part of the national political process, but one so far surprisingly neglected by Africanist historians and political scientists.

In the context of accelerating decolonisation from the 1940s onwards, the custodians of some “national identities” aspired to translating these identities into new African nation-states. While some such national identities then became "official nationalisms", imagined by those political elites who successfully gained control of independent states, other such nationally re-imagined older identities did not make it to official status. This did not however prevent their continuing articulation in the run-up to and after independence. These nationalisms, in competition with those officially propagated, were shaped in the margin of colonial rule and in the shadow of the official state and articulated in relation to colonial oppression, politically operable collective identities, and histories shared with other polities.

Between the 1950s and 1980s, historians played a vital legitimising role in providing usable pasts for the dozens of new African nation-states under construction. They furnished a new and politically necessary narrative of African-oriented societal progress involving inter alia the construction of pre-colonial Weberian states; a normative pattern of African resistance to colonial rule; and—implicitly or explicitly—the inexorable coming together of diverse peoples to make nation-states to which they could all belong. This fertile period of research and publishing produced a canon of nationalist historiography that, among other things, bequeathed to subsequent generations a set of national histories that would provide a problematic framework for future analysts of Africa. [3]

Importantly however, the actually existing process of nation-state making did not fall under the purview of historians but of political scientists, concerned not with the historical basis of national identity but rather with the capacity of new nation-states to govern, broadcast authority and deliver services. Thus, the widespread expression of dissenting nationalisms against the states under construction was studied neither by historians concerned with the deeper past, nor by political scientists focused on those in control of the state. The relative ineffectiveness of secessionist or irredentist initiatives, and the acceptance by the Organisation of African Unity that colonial borders would provide the basis for nation-state boundaries, was understood as a sign of Africa’s successful adoption of the nation-state. Violent political conflicts which occured at the moment of independence or soon after were either ignored, blamed on external manipulation, or described (and thereby dismissed) in tribal terminology, phenomena reflecting the pre-colonial past, inherently opposed to the modern nation-state in which such identities were extinguished or rendered of purely cultural value. Thus, to the extent that they were taken into account, nationalist movements in competition with the state project of national construction were dismissed. Because they largely accepted the endorsement by nationalist historians of newly independent nations as rooted in a meaningful pre-colonial and colonial history, political scientists did not identify the inherent weaknesses and continuing challenges to the formulation of nationhood in many of the states they studied.[4]

By the 1970s however, optimism regarding the capacity of African states to build nations from above had dissipated: economic stagnation and decline, political repression and internal conflict were the key characteristics of what came to be seen as a failure of African nation-states. Where this failure manifested as overt conflict can now be understood as a reflection of the limited purchase of the dominant nationalism, for example in the Biafran war, the Sudanese civil wars, or the post-1975 Angolan conflict. In other places, the inability or refusal of state elites to deliver on developmental promises or respond to periodic crises reawakened dormant competing nationalisms that had been suppressed or initially withered in the wake of independence. Such challenges gathered pace with the onset of global recession from the mid-1970s and the fully-fledged debt crisis of the 1980s.

The problematic dual transition to multi-party democracy and economic liberalisation in much of Africa in the early 1990s re-fuelled some of those competing nationalisms that had become quiescent, and brought some that had not to a conclusion. Multi-partyism and the relative easing of authoritarianism permitted the open articulation of alternative political futures where they had previously been denied space. The effect of this opening varied enormously. In many countries, it legitimized the expression of national identities in organised electoral politics which were, however, commonly labelled as “ethnic” following the already established analytical framework. In a small number of cases where seperatist conflict had previously occured it enabled their legitimation, as with the independence of Eritrea from Ethiopia in 1993, which provided an example for others to follow. The survival of UNITA’s nationalist challenge to MPLA rule in Angola proved that this had not simply been a Cold War phenomenon as previously thought.[5] Throughout the 1990s East and Central African states harboured and armed regionalist or irredentist separatist movements as a way of undermining or threatening their neighbours, movements over which they had only limited control. As Mobutu’s grip on Zaire’s outlying regions weakened, his opportunistic encouragement of regional conflicts refuelled latent but unresolved contests over what it meant to be ‘Zairian/Congolese’.[6]

However, the continuing inability or unwillingness of social scientists to question or interrogate the role of nationalism in electoral, social or military conflict led to the characterisation of virtually all such clashes as “ethnic”. One form of, perhaps unintentional, deligitimization of African political identities by both historians and political scientists was their characterisation not only as tribal but also as invented by colonial officials, albeit on the basis of older existing identities.[7] Despite the empirical evidence to the contrary, the hegemony of the nation-state imaginary increased over time: researchers increasingly specialised in one state or another and conducted research within the geographical and conceptual boundaries of those states; in the absence of new editions of more considered national histories, those of the 1960s continued to hold sway and to be read uncritically by successive generations of social scientists, giving them the tools necessary to accept at face value the claims to nationhood of the problematic nation-states they studied.

The Afro-pessimism gripping both the general public and academia outside (and partly also within) Africa, since the late 1990s, is largely linked to perceptions of the African state as “failed”. There is wide debate about the validity of this view, but in the context of these debates a growing number of scholars have identitified the fallacy of African national unity and the potency of competing nationalism in the face of independence.[8] Our point is that most of these views on the African state, studied in connection with what are generally called “ethnic conflicts”, automatically presume the failure of African national projects, which results from implicitly taking a statist perspective. Analysing the failure or success of what are generally described as “(Weberian) European state models” tends to passively accept the perspective and assumptions of that state, failed or not.  It also revives the old colonial imposture that only Europeans truly live in authentic nations, and the late colonial and early postcolonial idea––so powerfully promoted by the first generation of African rulers and their academic allies––that only by forming national states could African tribalism be overcome. And this, we believe, is false. Nationalism is as created and as imagined in Africa as it is elsewhere. We reject the notion that there is some inherent difference in the imaginative capacities in the political field between Africans and the inhabitants of other parts of the globe. The specificities and outcomes may be different, but the bases are the same. We do not see why nationalism could not successfully spread to Africa, and indeed, we posit that it did, more successfully than some might think. Indeed, its energetic and imaginative power means that it was by no means restricted to, or curtailed by, the imposition of the postcolonial nation-state order. Studied in depth, national independence, like colonialism, can be understood to be a gradual process with various stages and scales of interdependence. Its coming about was neither unproblematic nor complete, and neither was the accompanying process of active nation-building in which all newly independent states engaged. National cohesion proved to be as gradual and reversible a process in Africa as it had proved itself to be elsewhere.


[1] Since 1956, the main competing nationalist projects resulting in seperatist conflict were, in roughly chronological order: South Sudan (Sudan), Katanga (Congo), Biafra (Nigeria), Eritrea and Tigray (Ethiopia), West Sahara (Morocco), Ambazonia (Cameroon), and Azawad (Mali).

[2] Christophe Van der Beken, Unity in Diversity: Federalism as a Mechanism to accomodate Ethnic Diversity; The Case of Ethiopia (Berlin: Lit Verlag, 2012).

[3] Among the most important examples: Dennis Austin, Politics in Ghana, 1946-60 (London: Oxford University Press, 1970); James S. Coleman, Nigeria: Background to Nationalism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1958); William Foltz, From French West Africa to the Mali Federation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965); John Iliffe, A Modern History of Tanganyika (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979); Andrew Roberts, A History of Zambia (London: Heinemann, 1976); Robert Rotberg, The Rise of Nationalism in Central Africa: The Making of Malawi and Zambia, 1873-1964 (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1965); Djibril Tamsir Niane and Jean Suret-Canale, Histoire de l'Afrique occidentale (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1961).

[4] Examples of such studies include David Apter, The Gold Coast in Transition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955); Ruth Schachter-Morgenthau, Political Parties in French Speaking West Africa (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964); Aristide Zolberg, Creating Political Order: The Party-States of West Africa (Chicago: Rand & McNally, 1966).

[5] Justin Pearce, Political Identity and Conflict in Central Angola, 1975-2002 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

[6] Kevin C. Dunn, Imagining the Congo: the International Relations of Identity (New York: Pagrave Macmillan, 2003).

[7] Terence Ranger, "The Invention of Tradition in Colonial Africa." In The Invention of Tradition, edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 211-62; Leroy Vail (ed.), The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa (London: James Currey Ltd, 1989). Alternative approaches, which stress African agency in the creation of new “national” identities, can be found in Bruce Berman and John Lonsdale, Unhappy Valley: Conflict in Kenya and Africa (London: James Currey Ltd, 1992) and Derek Peterson, Ethnic Patriotism and the East African Revival: A History of Dissent (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[8] Among the main examples of such studies are: Jean Allman, The quills of the porcupine - Asante Nationalism in an emergent Ghana (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993) ; James Brennan, Taifa: Making Nation and Race in Urban Tanzania (Athens: Ohio University press, 2012); Emma Hunter, Political Thought and the Public Sphere in Tanzania: Freedom, Democracy and Citizenship in the Era of Decolonization (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Miles Larmer, Rethinking African Politics: A History of Opposition in Zambia (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011); Baz Lecocq, Disputed Desert: Decolonisation, Competing Nationalisms and Tuareg Rebellions in Northern Mali (Leiden: Brill, 2010); Kate Skinner, The Fruits of Freedom in British Togoland: Literacy, Politics and Nationalism, 1914-2014 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015); and Meredith Terretta, Nation of Outlaws, State of Violence: Nationalism, Grassfields Tradition and State Building in Cameroon (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2014).