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Last Updated: 10/04/2010
The role of cultural diversity in conflict resolution in Africa
Shomi Kim

In Africa, interstate and intrastate wars have hindered economic development and political stability, causing poverty and failures in nation building. The ongoing challenges of European colonial history and ethnic division continue to fuel these conflicts. In contrary to conventional views on the cause of the conflict in Africa, however, this paper defines cultural diversity as distinct concept from ethnic diversity, and argues that cultural diversity is in fact a viable instrument of conflict resolution in Africa. Finally, it proposes peace education as a key to promoting cultural diversity for peace building in Africa.

In Africa, interstate and intrastate wars have hindered economic development and political stability, causing poverty issue and failures in national building. This paper will elaborate on the root causes of conflicts in Africa originated from colonization by western countries as well as the ethnic diversity. In contrary to conventional view on the cause of the conflict in Africa, this paper defines cultural diversity as distinct concept from ethnic diversity, and it argues that cultural diversity is in fact a viable instrument of conflict resolution in Africa. By examining the role of cultural diversity in shaping national identity with respect to diverse culture and stabilizing political institutions, it presents how cultural diversity can be a good source of conflict resolution in Africa. Finally, it proposes peace education as a key to promoting cultural diversity for peace building in Africa.


Africa has experienced intrastate and interstate wars, which have hindered development in the region. According to Deng (2005), 20 % of the sub-Saharan population lives in countries at war within themselves. In addition, “over the last 40 years, nearly 20 African countries [or 40 % of Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA)] have experienced at least one period of civil war” (Elbadawi & Sambanis, 2000). The situation in Africa is devastating, as it threatens not only the regional development but also the lives of people in the continent. Hawkins (n.d) indicates that 88 % of conflict relatedthe deaths tolls from 1990-2007 occurred oin the African continent, which clearly explains the seriousness of the conflicts in Africa.

Why have so many conflicts taken place in Africa? What would beare the possible solutions to resolve the conflicts in Africa? AThe conventional interpretation on the origin of the conflicts originated from the ethnic and religious diversity in Africa. It is frequently associated with the cultural diversity, supporting the argument that cultural diversity is a root of the conflicts in Africa.

However, in contrary to prevailing ideas, this paper argues that cultural diversity can play a significant role in conflict resolution in Africa. The universal declaration on cultural diversity (UNESCO, 2001) states that “cultural diversity is one of the roots of development, understood not simply in terms of economic growth, but also as a means to achieve a more satisfactory intellectual, emotional, moral and spiritual existence.” This defines cultural diversity as the seed of the development; moreover, multiculturalism canit could create a better society with higher level of satisfaction.

This paper firstly examines the background of the conflicts in Africa. Secondly, as a response to the argument that, which regards cultural diversity ias the root cause of the problem, this paper clarifies the fine difference between ethnic diversity and cultural diversity. Thirdly, it provides evidence for the positive role of cultural diversity as an effective means to conflict resolution in Africa. This paper explores the role of cultural diversity from different angles –its impact on social environment, political institutions, and development. Moreover, it will look at how the positive role of cultural diversity transversally influences one aspect to the other aspect. Finally, it suggests that peace education for promoting cultural diversity is the key to the conflict resolution and development in Africa.

Causes of Conflicts in Africa

European colonialism

African countries have diversity in religion, ethnicity and clans, which originated from the legacy of European colonialism. By itself, Ddiversity in identity cannot sufficiently explain the generation ofng conflicts in Africa; in fact, it has a much more complexity in historical background. During the so-called “scramble for Africa”, European nations have a ruling power over minorityruled over societies in Africa for the purpose of expending the areas of their possession:. “Between 1870 and World War I along, one-fifth of the land area of the globe was added to overseas colonial possessions, which led European nations to bickering over themselves about the spoils of Africa” (Shah, 2009). European countries were keen on occupying more lands, which led to constant conflicts and devastation in this region. The congress of Berlin in 1885 was held in order to prevent further conflicts which resulted in “western power drew boundaries between colonies irrespective of existing cultural groups” (HSRC et al, 2006). As a means of undermining national solidarity within these new countriesWith the forced western power, divisions in African culture is formed diversely in its were often encouraged in terms of language, religion, and race. This artificial separation of ethnic groups in Africa by western power can be blamed as the root of the conflicts, as European nations ignored the culture and the origin of ethnic groups in Africa. This challenge generated conflicts, as they could not accept differences in identity were used as a basis of power distribution. In the E.U consortium (2003), in a description of this period, it was statedstates that “western powers ignored existing ethnic, linguistic and religious affinities between groups of people, destroyed culturally-based governance institutions, imposing artificial zones of influence, which led to an increase in ongoing conflicts and wars, ethnic cleansing or the mass movement of refugees.” This implies that western colonization has separated the groups for their political objective without consideration of cultural origin of the groups, which resulted in provoking conflicts and wars between different ethnic groups.

Failure toin stabilizeing political institutions

The civil wars in Africa are frequently power strugglesthe fights between the state and variousthe ethnic groups, which frequently occur in this region. Africa has faced frequent civil wars since decolonization of African continent, which can be at leastwas partly attributed to the period of direct European colonialism, as artificial separation of African states led to failures in building cultureal-based governance:. “These conflicts often emanate from the proto-colonial nature of the African state and its failure to devise institutional arrangements that accommodate various cultural and political entities” (HSRC et al, 2006). This indicates the governments were not capable to form national identity with various cultural entities. Moreover, the character of African countries after decolonization is that they were perceived to form a nation-state with a single political identity. However, inequity in recognition of diverse cultures causes conflicts, which can be proven by the case ofas illustrated by conflict in Sudan. The on-going conflicts of Sudan representexplained the inability of the nation to unify aroundwith a single cultural identity, as the north attempts to dominate the South (HSRC et al, 2006).

The government has yet to succeed in decentralization of the power, which triggered conflicts between the state and the ethnic groups. The instability of state-building in Africa is not only attributed to civil wars but also to political corruption. Centralizing power and insufficient accountability of leaders are in the center of the problem, as the desire for national reconstruction was hardly seen by leaders; rather, a certain group of people who controlled the state paid more attention to leading the state into a semi-private apparatus that favors the interest group who controlled it. Therefore, unstable political entities generate instability inle influence on the reconstruction of Africa.

In athe report of the secretary general of the UN (Annan, 1998), it was argued that political instability resulted from the “winner-takes-all” form of political structure in which uneven political power creates significant gaps in wealth, resource and patronage distribution. The pPolitical corruption and instability arehave inversely correlatedions with economic development, as the stable political institution contributes to development of nations.


Political instability, resulting from corruption in politics and frequent civil wars, hindersed economic development in Africa. The wars not only impedimpedeed regional development but also generated conflicts over resources. Africa is rich in natural resources, however, a high level of dependency onin resources and disparitiesy in resource distribution have led to more conflicts. States or ethnic groups are keen on occupying more resources, and with the scarce resources allocated to minorities, the wars were stimulated over the resource. Elbadaw and Sambanis (2000) also point out that “sufficient natural resources may provide sufficient revenues that the government can use to fund its army and ‘buy’ popular support.” This portrays the argument that a government’s possession of resources can produce political power, which provokes more civil wars.

Another condition that makes an impact on the incidence of armed conflicts in Africa is the internal and regional economic fragmentation (HSRC et al, 2006). The lack of regional cooperation is an obstacle to the economic development, which is the root ofa driver of continued underdevelopment in Arica. The economic rRegional economic cooperation in Africa has been atin the center of development efforts; debate issues however, it requires time and a systemic approach to establish trust building and good partnership and to move towardsfor the integrated economic development goals in Africa.

Ethnic diversity

FThe former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan (1998), argues that the “‘source of conflict in Africa reflect […] diversity and complexity.”’ African ethnic diversity has been blamed for the major source of conflicts and civil wars that are still prevailing in the region:. “One characteristic of ethnic conflicts in African is that the states are originally heterogeneous created by communal contenders, and this genuine circumstance led to a fact that different groups fighting to seek power and control over the other” (Cocodia, 2008). The different tribes had hatred for one another, as they had different identities in terms of religion, tradition, politic, and conviction. From the political view, Bailey (1994) states illustrates that when he posits that “the political map of Africa is a western colonial creation, drawn by western powers with little regard to the boundaries of historic ethnic homelands or the ethnic compositions of the subject population, and today these artificial or multi-ethnic nations lack the internal political cohesion necessary for survival as nations.” This implies that many African countries lack emotional ties within and among nations due to ethnic diversity caused by artificial separation, which supports the idea that conflicts in Africa are originally from the European colonialism. Thus, the issue of ethnic and cultural diversity has been considered as the major challenge for Africa, among all other problems, which has resulted in barbarism and underweakening the development inof the region.

Although it seems undeniable that partitioned ethnic groups and cultural diversity formed by western power in Africa has led to major conflicts, the it is still questionable that to what extent to whichthe cultural diversity has played a negative role in African conflicts is still questionable. To answer this question, the culture and ethnicity should be defined. The following sectionchapter will define how cultural diversity differs from ethnic diversity, and it will examine the role of cultural diversity in conflict resolution in Africa.

Cultural diversity and peace building

Ethnic diversity and cultural diversity

Ethnic and cultural differencesdiversity are regarded as the core of the conflicts in Africa, and they are commonly defined as the same concept, however, they are not equivalent. Avruch (2004) argues that “ethnicity, as the cultural ‘“content’” of ethnic groups, is a resource usually mobilized by individuals and groups for political purposes.” Ethnic groups are usually organized for political rationale whereas culture covers a much broader scope of social components including ethnicity; thus, different ethnic groups can share the same culture. For instance, different ethnic groups speak the same language and practice similar traditions, which are the essential components of culture.

According to this analysis, cThe conflict originates from the boundaries made by different ethnic groups, as they are seeking their own interest. According to HSRC et al (2006), it claims that “There is distinction often drawn between ethnicities as a cultural identity – an identity based on shared cultural traits- and ethnicity as a political identity – where it becomes an organizing force for purposes of advancing the group’s broad socio-economic interest.” This implies that diversity itself does not cause conflict; however, conflicts arise when partitioned ethnic groups are conflicting for political and economical control over the other groups. A disparity in interest of diverse ethnic groups is the major cause of the conflict, but not the cultural diversity itself. Accordingly, Avruch (2003) presents that “Cultures do not cause conflict or much of anything else; they are however the lenses through which the causes of conflict are refracted.” This can be interpreted that culture is a component of a group which refracts the character of the group; however, culture itself cannot be the source of conflicts. Rather, conflicts in Africa were attributed to difference in interest of partitioned ethnic groups; yet not exactly culture traits or cultural diversity.

The role of cultural diversity in conflict resolution

Cultural diversity is an adaption of diverse cultural identity, which also includes ethnic identity and national identity. Although there are distinctions between ethnic and national identity, they are both are categorized into a broader meaning of cultural diversity:. “Cultural diversity emphasizes on influence of culture, as culture determines factors in society, structuring people’s vision of ‘other’ in terms of history, tradition, language, customs, values, politics, and products” (HSRC et al, 2006). This elaborates the point that cultural diversity involves the nature of culture, ethnicity, as well as freedom of cultural expression. According to UNESCO (2005), “Cultural diversity refers to the manifold ways in which the cultures of groups and societies find expression.” This stresses that cultural diversity respects enrichment of diverse cultural identity. Accordingly, cultural identity with respect for cultural diversity can create coexistence of diverse cultural bonding and social cohesiveness without inflicting ethnic or cultural conflicts.

Cultural diversity and political instability

A distinction between cultural identity and national identity is that there is no territorial boundary for cultural identity, as cultural identity respects allows for a greater degree of freedom of association betweenof groups whereas national identity is formed by cultural traits of a nationdefined by borders. However, cultural identity and national identity can coexist as different nations can share the same religion and ethnic background.

At the national level, integrating cultural diversity into national identity is challenging, as prevailing conflicts in Africa have led to the failure of political institution in building a national identity. One can argue that integrating diverse culture into national identity may not be realistic; however, diverse cultural integration should ideally maintain as social balance without tilting to one social group. Ross (1997) argues that “establishing harmonious relationships between the various cultures and cultural identities avoids tendency to paralyses politics.” A check and balance strategy can naturally be functional in politics with a high dimension of cultural diversity in Africa. Elbadawi and Sambanis (2000) claim that “societies with diverse cultures are significantly less prone to violent conflicts than polarized countries.” This is because larger numbers of diverse sub-groups prevents the government to forcefullyfrom controlling the nation, allowing governments to negotiate with ethnic groups more easily in comparison to polarized countries with large groups. High chance of negotiation will expectedly reduce frequency of conflict, which leads to improving political stability.

Emotional mobilization and development

Culturally diverged countries contribute to balance of power, strengthening emotional mobilization for development. Hagg and Kagwanja (2007) argue mention that “respect for cultural diversity is an useful way of depoliticizing identity, and promoting coexistence and interaction within society.” By forming cultural identity in recognition of diverse cultures, it strengthens social cohesion is strengthened; accordingly, well-built cultural identity promotes emotional mobilization in the nation. SuchThe emotional mobilization not only promotes national integration but also mobilizes people to support leaders. Mohamed, the ambassador of Sudan to Korea, claims that lack of leadership in Africa hindered the economic development which led to conflicts in Africa (personal communication, March 11, 2010). Moreover, “the process of democratization is slow partly due to undermining colonialist legacies, partly due to lack of resource, as well as self-enrichment attitudes of the elites” (HSRC et al, )This explains that ‘bad leaders’ have hindered development of Africa. However, cultural diversity that focuses on the enrichment of diverse cultural expression becomes a driving force for emotional support for leader, as it encourages people to seek the same interest for development. The leadership of Nelson Mandela is a representative case in Africa. He committed his life to the equal rights for all, which respects diverse ethnic and cultural groups, regardless of their race and skin color. His conviction was widely admired by people, and he succeeded in building the nation with virtue of fairness for various ethnic groups. The practice of integrating diverse culture into a national identity required time, however; it resulted in creating emotional mobilization of people to support the leader, and it eventually contributed to the development of the nation. South Africa is a melting pot in which diverse culture and ethnic groups exist, however, the economic development has been accelerated in comparison to other neighboring countries in Africa since the collapse of apartheid regime. Therefore, merging cultural diversity with respect of diverse culture into cultural identity can be a good instrument for leaders to use as conflict resolution and management. Consequently, by reducing conflict, it will improve political stability, which is thea backbone of the development.

Education for peace building

Cultural diversity is an asset for national building and political stability, which entrenches unity and development in Africa. In fact, promoting cultural diversity tofor encourageensuring peace in this region is a great challenge to accomplish. Institutional change and policy implementation can be possible solutions; however, intercultural understanding and tolerance for other cultures should be firstly manifested. The concept of a culture of peace can be established through education, knowledge of other cultures, and use of information technology.

As information flows through media, the targets for education are not only the youth, but also teachers and journalists. UNESCO has been implementing training projects and workshops for Ethiopian and Somalia refugee teachers. These workshops are contributing to implementing a culture of peace education at three levels:; school, community, and nation (UNESCO, 2002).

Enhancing education to promote cultural diversity links indigenous knowledge systems throughto modern information technology. However, underdeveloped technology and low levels of literacy hinder thes progress of educational and informational approach to promoting cultural diversity. By promoting intercultural dialogue, it will increase tolerance and deepen understanding of indigenous people. If intercultural understanding and tolerance are practiced through education, diverse cultures can easily be integrated into the formation of cultural identity of the nation, which is a key dimension to conflict resolution in Africa.


Conflicts and wars in Africa have been hindrances for the development of the region, dispersing the regional cooperation as well as remaining this region as underdeveloped areas. The origin of the conflict can be found in European colonization, which has artificially partitioned regions, causing eruptions of violence and conflicts among ethnic groups after western power was removed from Africa. Another view on African conflicts refers to low level of economic development and poverty issues, which have hindered political stability and the effectiveness of public building a good institutions. Failures in nation building, which have resulted in conflicts and low levels of economic development, have been attributed to lack of integration of cultural diversity. Furthermore, a Hhigh level of resources dependency and fighting over power seeking behavior among ethnic groups has resulted in intra-state wars, and frequent wars have impeded not only the political stability, but also the economic development. This has led to the misleading can be interpreted at diverse ethnic groups, each seeking their own interests, caused problems both with politics and economy, which associated with the conventional idea that cultural diversity is the major cause of African conflicts.

Contrary to this conventional view, cultural identity in enrichment of diverse culture can play a significant role in enriching and unifying nation, as well as mobilizing people to support leaders. Failure in national building, which resulted in conflicts and low level of economic development, was attributed to lack of integration of cultural diversity. Cultural diversity, when combined with can deter conflicts when national identity is built based on respect for diversity, cane ethnic groups in a manifold way that diverse groups and societies find cultural expression. Building national identity engaged in cultural diversity is necessary to create cohesiveness, which could helpwill mitigate ethnic conflicts in Africa. Thus, cultural diversity is an asset for the peace building in the nation; peace initiatives become more entrenched in society, leading the nations to become much more prosperous. Such multicultural valuesCultural diversity can be embedded through education, knowledge, and information technology. With the limitation of spread of information due to the lack of technology in Africa, intercultural dialogue should be established for three target groups– teachers, journalists, and youth. By promoting tolerance among diverse ethnic groups through education, it gradually strengthens cooperation and national bonding are gradually strengthened. Furthermore, the social cohesiveness will create emotional mobilization for development and trust building among nations and between nations, which will lead to cooperation and development both in politics and economy. By enhancing national bonding, it will contribute to establishment of stable political institution; furthermore, regional cooperation is expectedly to rise when intercultural understanding and tolerance for other cultures are entrenched. Therefore, promoting cultural diversity through education for a culture of peace is a meaningful approach to conflict resolution and development in Africa.


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As a program specialist at the Koran National Commission for UNESCO, I have developed and implemented various multicultural education programs. I have completed my mater MPP at the Korean Development Institute School of Public Policy and Management with concentrations on International Relations and Social Policy.