#BookClub: Building peace out of diversity and violence

Facebook Twitter Email

A potent issue in designing institutions to address violent conflict is whether such institutions should explicitly recognize or avoid reference to ethnic identities.  Conflicts around the world, including in Africa, are often animated by intergroup inequalities and mistrust, which can be addressed directly by using ethnic identities for allocation. But classifying people on the basis of such identities departs from liberal individualist ideals and sustains differences made salient through violence. Our new book, Diversity, Violence, and Recognition: How Recognizing Ethnic Identity Promotes Peace, addresses the questions of why recognition is sometimes adopted and to what effect.

Our research was inspired by institutional experimentation by leaders in post-conflict contexts across Africa. Consider Burundi’s 2005 constitution that marked the end to Burundi’s civil war. The agreement mandates ethnic quotas for the country’s executive, political parties, military, and civil service, an example of “ethnic recognition”.  Now contrast this to the strategy adopted next door in Rwanda, where the post-genocide constitution aims to “eradicate” ethnic identity and the government bars reference to ethnicity in public life, except in commemorating the genocide. Intriguingly, Burundi’s current strategy departs from a previous era of non-recognition, and Rwanda’s current non-recognition strategy departs from its pre-genocide recognition regime.  Having worked in each of these contexts where opposing strategies preceded violence, we began our research open, and eager to learn which strategy may best contribute to peace.

Based on data from around the world and a synthesis of theoretical arguments, we come to a remarkably clear conclusion:  recognition strategies can help diverse societies overcome the legacies of their painful histories. This conclusion has a caveat in that the dynamics associated with recognition depend on whether a leader from the largest ethnic group is in charge.

What is ethnic recognition?

By recognition, we mean explicit reference to ethnic identities in constitutions, peace agreements, or legislation. Recognition may be symbolic or serve as the basis of group-based rights like quotas or autonomy arrangements.  Recognition, as we use it, is different from informal practices of ethnic balancing without rules requiring it, a practice common in Africa. Our focus on explicit ethnic criteria is also different from “replacement” practices that indirectly address ethnicity.

Recognition in Africa

We studied all violent conflicts around the world that ended between 1990 and 2012 and found that governments are split: 40% of post-conflict agreements and constitutions worldwide involve some form of ethnic recognition, whereas 60% do not.

In sub-Saharan Africa, though, just 7 of the 40 post-conflict agreements and constitutions that we studied include recognition.

Part of the reason for this relatively low rate of adoption may have to do with post-colonial norms.  Post-independence African leaders often embraced national unity strategies to counter colonial divide-and-rule tactics. But, while political scientist Peter Uvin noted that the denial of ethnicity was “general African practice”, such denial is not uniform, as indicated by the seven sub-Saharan African cases of recognition in our dataset. Colonial influences also leave variation to be explained — Rwanda and Burundi, for example, were both Belgian colonies and adopted different strategies post-independence and then subsequently.

We focus on a domestic political variable that proves to be more predictive than rival variables: whether a country is under minority ethnic rule or not.

Recognition allows for transparent assurance that one’s group has a place in the state and is not being shortchanged. But it also facilitates or even licenses political mobilization on ethnic lines. How these effects play out depends on whether minority or plurality ethnic group elites are in charge. Both effects are beneficial to plurality group leaders. But, for minority leaders a “dilemma of recognition” arises as possibly positive assuring effects clash with threatening mobilization effects, leaving minority leaders to choose recognition significantly less often. Our findings may be surprising to those who might guess that leaders from minority groups would be most interested in ethnic recognition.  Also, it would be naive to think that a leader choosing non-recognition means that ethnicity is unimportant.

Does recognition promote peace?

While our analysis allows us to understand when leaders adopt recognition, most readers are probably especially interested in the effectiveness of these competing strategies for building peace in conflict-affected contexts.

On average, countries that adopt recognition go on to experience less violence, more economic vitality, and more inclusive politics than those that do not recognize ethnic identities. Looking more closely, these effects are driven by cases in which ethnicity was especially salient in the conflict and where plurality group leaders were in charge after the violence. When minority group leaders rule, we find no clear indication of the benefits of recognition. The effects of recognition policies are thus contingent on the domestic political calculations of incumbent elites, and these calculations depend on ethnic demographics.

Our case studies in Burundi, Ethiopia, and Rwanda suggest important paradoxical effects.  Burundi’s recognition-based 2005 constitution uses extensive ethnic quotas, but the result is that ethnic cleavages are increasingly less relevant to the strategies of political factions, a dynamic that has been noticed elsewhere too.  In Ethiopia, the minority Tigray-led regime used recognition as a strategy to sustain an interethnic coalition to succeed the Derg. Ethnic identities and mistrust have remained politically salient, but these ethnic factions would not likely have worked together in the first place in the absence of recognition. Rwanda’s non-recognition-based 2003 constitution severely circumscribes references to ethnicity, but ethnicity continues to matter and deep mistrust persists.


The pessimism that dominates reporting and scholarship on peace processes today, not to mention African politics more generally, often overlooks noteworthy institutional innovations by political leaders. Our book joins others offering a different take, learning from institutional experiments and advancing a more optimistic account of the power of post-conflict institutions.


Elisabeth King is Associate Professor of International Education and Politics at New York University and Founding Director of NYU’s minor in Peace and Conflict Studies. www.elisabethking.com. @DrElisabethKing

Cyrus Samii is Associate Professor in the Wilf Family Department of Politics of New York University and Executive Director of the Evidence in Governance and Politics network. www.cyrussamii.com. @cdsamii



Join in the debate... let us know what you think!

Discover more from Democracy in Africa

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading