The Salience of Ethnicity in Civil War: Beyond a Singular Explanation

Ethnicity is defined as “The fact or state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition” (Oxford Dictionary Online). Ethnicity and its relationship to conflict are highly relevant in the modern strategic environment; in the post-Cold war international system cleavages along ethnically defined lines have been utilised as an explanation for many of the recent internal conflicts.  The conflicts in Rwanda (1994), Sudan (1983-2005) and Former Yugoslavia (1992-1995) have been suggested by politicians, commentators and scholars to have been caused by ‘ancient hatreds’ between groups defined primarily by their ethnicity. Furthermore, the conflicts that are dominating the International System at the time of writing seem to be fought along ethnic lines; the ISIS Sunni insurgency and the secessionist ambitions of ethnic Russians in Ukraine. In these wars “people are brutalized and killed not because of anything they have done, not even their politics, but simply because of who they are” (Garnett 2002:82). Moreover, data obtained from the Correlates of War states that 45 percent of all wars from 1919 to 2001 as being fought because of ethnic cleavages. Perhaps, more stark is the statistic that of the ten most catastrophic wars of the 20th century, half were classified as ethnic conflicts (Correlates of War cited in Kaufman 2013). Therefore, in some capacity, ethnicity has an axiomatic relationship to conflict. However, an explanation of role ethnicity in internal conflict lacks clarity; “given the variety of ethnic conflicts and their dynamic and fluid qualities, no one factor can provide a comprehensive explanation” (Jalai & Lipset 1992: 600).

The purpose of this piece of work is to present the argument that ethnicity is not a singular explanation of internal conflict, and that there are a number of multifaceted factors that create the conditions in which internal conflict along ethnic cleavages may occur. Therefore, when placed within the context of this argument one considers ethnicity to be much less salient than many scholars suggest. In addition to pursuing this theoretical argument, this essay will attempt to forensically analyse ethnicity within the context of the causation and the dynamics of conflict and examine the broad range of competing theories amongst the literature.

The significance of ethnicity as an explanation of conflict has fostered a polarised debate amongst those scholars that suggest ethnicity as the singular cause of conflict (Kaufman, Kaplan, Huntington, Moro & Costalli) and those scholars that refute the simplistic understanding. The debate has produced a wealth of literature that has aimed to diminish the significance of ethnicity, placing greater emphasis upon a wide range of political, economic, geographic and structural factors that cause, or rather, permit conflict to occur. Scholars such as Mueller, Brown, Fearon & Laitin has presented compelling arguments that place ethnicity into wider context of factors.

Ethnicity has been argued as “essential to understanding the patterns of violence” (Costalli & Moro 2012: 803) and therefore central to the dynamics of internal conflict. Their argument understands that ethnicity is the singular explanation of the severity of the violence and the incidence of ethnic cleansing. Moreover, they argue that it is the relative size of belligerent ethnic groups that has the greatest affect the severity of the violence. Additionally, Cederman, Wimmer & Min (2010) argue that the most significant cause of internal conflict is thoroughly ethnic based and occurs when large ethnic groups with ‘complicated histories’ are excluded from central government (:28). Kaufman (2013) argues directly against Collier & Hoeffler’s Greed & Grievance model and Laitin & Fearon’s Insurgency Theory. Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations (1996) argues that in the absence of the great political ideological polarisation of the 20th century, wars are now occurring on the fault lines where incompatible cultures meet, such as the Russian Caucasus region and former Yugoslavia. Kaplan (1994) in his famous The Coming Anarchy argues that it is illogical multi-ethnic nations that will be swept up in a wave of regionalism and intrastate war, expressed ethnically. From these pieces of scholarly literature one would imagine that ethnicity is highly salient, and from such literature one could construct the view that many multi-ethnic state states are defined by simmering tension.

However, there is numerous pieces of literature that refute the argument that ethnicity is a singular explanation of conflicts as those that have occurred in Yugoslavia, Sudan and Rwanda. The major issue that one finds with the singular ethnicity explanation is that it fails to account for the why many multi ethnic states (Belgium and Canada for example) throughout the globe do not suffer the phenomena of ethnic civil war. Therefore, one understands that a range of additional factors exist that have great significance upon the causation and dynamics of the internal conflicts. The theories developed by scholars seek to widen the understanding of why and how said conflicts occur past the simple understanding that different, incompatible ethnic groups result in warfare. Indeed, Brown states that ‘serious scholars’ reject ethnicity as an explanation of internal conflict (2001: 3). Fearon and Laitin (2003) developed ‘Insurgency theory’ where it is “not ethnic or religious differences or broadly held grievances but, rather conditions that favour insurgency” (:75). Whereas Brown (2001) has constructed a framework in which the underlying causes of internal conflict interact with ‘proximate causes’ to cause conflict. Mueller (2001) argues that ethnicity exists only in any significance as an ‘ordering device’. Overall, one understands that the “onset of civil war is influenced by a set of processes that interconnect political, economic and social factors” (Bhavnai& Miodwnik 2009: 35). The various elements of the theories espoused by the critical scholars present a compelling argument that effectively counters a hyperbolic understanding of the salience of the ethnicity.

The first significant group of factors that have attracted the majority of scholarly attention are structural/political (Brown 2001: 5). The scholarly attention is justified as conflicts are political expressions. From the literature there are a wide range of politically orientated factors identified, yet there are two highly significant factors that stand out; the weak state and the role of manipulative political elites.

The incidence of the weak state is perhaps the most significant reason for internal conflicts, with this factor perhaps explaining the enduring puzzle of why some multi-ethnic states experienced conflict whereas others do not. Indeed, from the array of scholarly literature produced, the ‘weak state’ factor is perhaps the most notable. Weak governments can come in the form of newly independent states that lack political legitimacy, sensible borders and effective political institutions (Brown 2001: 5). These newly formed weak states have come into being from either the withdrawal of Imperial powers, as had happened the middle 20th century throughout Asia and Africa, or the collapse of a federation, as occurred in former Yugoslavia. In addition to weakness of state legitimacy and the effectiveness of institutions, ethnic groups within these weak states often find themselves with a heightened perception of threat from other groups. This perception of threat may go on to create an intrastate, intergroup security dilemma, which can be easily manipulated by self-serving political elites. Established states may be substantially weakened by several internal and external processes. External processes may manifest themselves as shock inducing commodity market fluctuations or declining foreign aid from states and institutions such as the World Bank or IMF. These processes severely undermine the financial capability of the state and thus foster institutional decline (Brown 2001). Internal processes are just as significant, with economic stagnation, endemic corruption and institutional incompetency furthering the decline of effective state apparatus. Internal conflicts are argued to be much more prevalent where the weak state has an untried and untested military and security apparatus (Fearon 1998). Either because it is incompetently led, or suffering from institutional decline, the results amount to failure to project state authority throughout the country.

One understands that state weakness has its significance as facilitating the conditions for internal conflicts and worth the academic attention; as Brown states “When state structures weaken, violent conflict often follows”. (2001: 6). Laitin & Fearon’s ‘Insurgency theory’ has the weak state as the central interest; the perception of the weakened state as a display of political inertia and instability provides a clear opportunity for a ‘separatist or centre-seeking rebellion’ (2003: 81). Moreover, with the weakness of the centralised state, regional political actors may seek to increase their political capital. If such actors consolidate regional military forces then they become ‘virtual warlords’ (Brown 2001: 8); precisely evidenced by the 1991 Somalian civil war, fought primarily between various regional Warrenleh (warlords) (Laitin 1999: 148).  Such developments are fundamental in paving the way for the evolution of political tension, (whether expressed in ethnic or socio-economic terms) into a state of internal armed conflict.

Significantly with regards to the ethnic dimension; a weakened political centre acts as a highly persuasive factor for previously oppressed ethnic groups to seek greater political capital, either by seeking greater regional autonomy or secessionist ambitions. Furthermore, it is axiomatic that those ethnic groups that had invested in and were supported by the state perceive their position as becoming vulnerable (Brown 2001: 6). The decline of the political capital of the state is highly significant to both creating the conditions for internal conflict, but significantly weakened states lack the military counter-insurgency and civil policing assets to prevent the spiral of political tension into unrest and ultimately civil war. Moreover, the failure of state institutions fosters ethno-nationalism. With the inability to fulfil the people’s basic needs, then the people seek other structures to support themselves (Synder 2008: 86). With the failure of the state then the idea of civic based nationalism is therefore subverted in favour of ethnically based nationalism (ethno-nationalism). This makes citizens susceptible to political rhetoric by rogue political actors.

This structural/political factor is paramount in explaining why mature and secure multi-ethnic states such as Canada, Switzerland or Belgium are in no danger of sliding into civil wars.  These states have widespread political legitimacy, low corruption among public officials and functioning institutions that contrast starkly with the caustic and faltering states in which ethnic conflict occurs.  Perversely, authoritarian regimes such as Tito’s Yugoslavia, the former Soviet Union and Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq suppressed ethnic conflict through strong armed governance. With the collapse or removal of such regimes then the absence of credible and effective states ultimately lead to internal conflicts, manifesting themselves with an ethnic dimension. Ultimately, it is the status of the state that is fundamental in understanding ethnically expressed internal conflicts. Such structural explanations address the feasibility of internal conflicts much more than a simple understanding of ‘ancient hatred’ ethnicity as a single issue explanation.

There has been notable academic activity on the role of political elites in the incitement of internal conflicts. Operating in duality with the diminished political legitimacy of the state, proponents of the political entrepreneur approach contend that when faced with diminished political legitimacy, political elites often use highly emotive ethnicity as a political instrument. Kaufman states “belligerent leaders stoke mass hostility; hostile masses support belligerent leaders, and both together threaten other groups, creating a security dilemma…” (1996: 109). This ‘ethnic card’ is a widely used instrument, and naturally highly derisive. With the creation of a security dilemma then the evolution from cooperation to political tension is easily achieved. The political discourse is severely distorted by abrasive rhetoric and propaganda (Brown 2001: 20). Often, “ethnic violence provoked to simply legitimize a coup d’etat” (Fearon & Laitin 2000: 855). Islamist/Arab propaganda and symbolism was implemented by the once secular Sudanese President Nimeiri to maintain his position in power amid the collapse of his secular government. By allying himself to the strong Mahdi faction in Khartoum, forming a government with the Muslim Brotherhood and blatantly fostering war with the Southern regions through the implementation of chauvinist policies,  he solidified his presidential position (Kaufman 2013: 272). With striking parallels with Sudan, “…Serbian leader Slobadan Milošević and Croatian leader Franjo Tudjman rose to power by polarizing their societies even though Serbs and Croats had co-existed peacefully for decades.” (Brown 2001: 20). Kaldor’s work substantiates this argument; stating that ‘exclusive conceptions of identity’ are being instrumentalised by political elites to achieve their political goals (Mello 2010: 7). Moreover, Kaldor validates the instrumentalist approach within the context of state weakness, by providing political legitimacy and fill the vacuum of crumbling state structures (2006: 81).

The role of political elites is highly significant in constructing a thorough understanding of the causation of the internal wars and the relationship to ethnicity. One understands that ethnicity as a singular explanation is complicated by the actions of the specific individual political elites. Mueller states that “Ethnicity proved essentially to be simply the characteristic around which the perpetrators and politicians who recruited and encouraged them happened to array themselves” (2001: 117). From this political factor one views that ethnicity only has significance as an ‘ordering device’, and not as the ‘crucial motivating’ factor in explaining the conflict. An extension of Mueller’s argument can understand that that, ethnicity as a ‘card’ may be substituted for ideology or theology as an ‘ordering device’. Such has occurred in internal conflicts throughout the globe with class based conflicts that scarred South-East Asia, South America and the Middle East (Lake & Rothschild 1998: 6).

The emphasis placed upon structural and political factors as facilitating internal conflicts by scholars is well deserved. Yet there are socio-economic theories of civil war, most notably the seminal work by Collier & Hoeffler (2002) which diminishes the role that ethnicity in internal conflicts by placing economic aspiration as the main driving force in civil wars. In this model, political and ethnic ‘grievances’ are found to have little significance as a ‘determinant’ of internal conflict. Yet, ‘greed’ offers greater explanative power; “…the critical parameters are the financial opportunities for rebels, the social and geographic constraints which they face, and the financial capability of the government to provide defence…” (Collier & Hoeffler 2002: 2). Similar to the weakening of the state, it is the availability of finance for rebellions that allow such internal conflicts to occur. Laitin & Fearon’s Insurgency Theory substantiates the Greed explanation, arguing that civil conflict will be made much more likely in countries where the land “supports the production of high value, low-weight goods such as coca, opium, diamonds and other contraband…” (2003: 81). Where potential rebels have easy access to finance for arms and the possibility to enrich themselves then conflict will be much more likely. Collier & Hoeffler’s empirical analysis suggest that ethnicity and religious differences simply do not have the effect on the incidence of internal wars as the availability of economic means to finance and escalate the conflict. Moreover, one finds a profound link with the Collier & Hoeffler model and Kaldor’s New Wars theory. Kaldor highlights the economic motivating element by stating “…motivation of the paramilitary groups seems to be largely economic” (1999: 53). This supports Mueller’s argument that ethnicity is merely an ‘ordering device’. During the wars in former Yugoslavia the effective Serbian units were not composed of vehement nationalist’s, nor locals attacking their neighbours, rather there were comprised of professional criminals that were motivated with the intention of economic gain through criminal activity, mostly looting (Mueller 2002: 104).

Brown has placed significance in underlying socio-economic factors that are potential sources of conflict, where tension and poverty amongst the population provides a nursery for predatory political actors aiming to set an ethnically or ideological agenda. Economic shocks such as the transition from centrally planned economies to market based economies, may cause “…unemployment, inflation, and resource competitions, especially for land, contribute to societal frustrations and tensions, can provide the breeding ground for conflict” (Brown 2001: 10). Discriminatory economic practices in countries along ethnic or class lines that promote ‘unequal economic opportunities’, ‘unequal access to resources’ and ‘vast differences in the standard of living’ leads to alienation and polarisation of victim groups, creating a basis of tension (Brown 2001:11). This can be evidenced by the employment discrimination experience of the ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka, providing a caustic political environment and acting as a polarising force (Burke 2010 in The Guardian Online).

Yet, some scholars have rejected the primacy of greed over grievance. Kaufman (2013) refutes the Collier & Hoeffler economic model and Laitin & Fearon’s Insurgency Theory. Kaufman states; “The truth, however, is that while economic grievances are almost always present, in ethnic conflicts they are expressed in ethic terms” (2013: 269). Kaufman makes an insightful critique of the economic focus; if economic issues are indeed central to the cause of instability and conflict then why are they not expressed economically? Many internal conflicts occur ‘horizontally’ along ethnic lines, rather than ‘vertically’ with the distinction made in the rich/poor economic spectrum, confirming that although economic pressure do create instability, they are expressed in ethnic terms. Furthermore, contrary to the view that it is the economically dispossessed being the driving force there are examples of the relatively economically prosperous groups, such as the Croats and Slovenes, that sought secessionist ambitions from Yugoslavia in order to shrug off the other economically underdeveloped groups (Kaufman 2013: 270). However, the main issue that Kaufman fails to acknowledge is the use of ethnicity as a political instrument by political actors and his argument does not contradict the view of ethnicity as an ‘ordering device’. Economic pressures do undoubtable play a significant role in creating the instability that translates into political or ethnic internal conflicts. Although there is a large occurrence of conflicts not expressed along a classic Marxist rich/poor cleavage, this does not reduce the importance of economic factors.  Rather, this merely accentuates the significance of instrumentalist political actors in utilising economic instability as a basis to increases ethnic tension. Furthermore, specific economic factors are intrinsically linked to the feasibility of internal conflicts as expressed by both Collier & Hoeffler and Laitin & Fearon’s theories.

Fearon & Laitin’s Insurgency Theory places great emphasis upon geography, mainly topography and demography, as influencing the development of internal conflicts. Their work argues that harsh mountainous terrain, with fragmented lines of communication, openly favours insurgency; “The presence of (a) a rough terrain, poorly served by roads, at a distance from centres of state power, should favour insurgency and civil war” (2003: 80). Such variables allow the rebel forces to hide and make it difficult for the state to operate counterinsurgency operations. Such terrain diminishes the asymmetry between that of the superior state forces and the rebels, therefore furthering the chance that prolonged insurgencies in the periphery may escalate into a civil war.

The ethnic geography and large populations are the two significant demographic aspects identified in the literature. Large populations are cited by Fearon & Laitin as increasing the chance of civil war as large populations make it harder for the central state to keep an accurate intelligence on potential insurgents at a local level and increase the number of possible rebels (Fearon & Laitin 2003: 81). Brown (2001) has attributed Ethnic Geography to being central to the cause of civil wars. Although not emphasising the importance of ethnicity in the singular sense, Brown concedes that the positioning of ethnic groups has a profound impact on the internal conflicts; “Countries with different kinds of ethnic geography are likely to experience different kinds of internal problems” (Brown 2001: 7). It is the geographical distribution of ethnic groups that affects the dynamics of internal conflicts. When ethnic groups are distributed along regional lines then they are much likely to pursue a secessionist agenda. Whereas countries that have ethnic populations that are intermingled throughout the country then they are less likely to be faced with secessionist demands, and more likely to encounter struggles to control the central state. Furthermore, in the case of intermingled ethnic distribution, conflict dynamics manifest themselves as unconventional, with unsavoury strategies of purposeful attacks upon civilians, ethnic cleansing and genocide to clear and control territory. Additionally, the intermingling of ethnic groups greatly encourages the fragmentation of the as combat more often than not expresses itself as ‘Intense guerrilla warfare’ and terrorism amongst militias, paramilitaries and regulars. This is exemplified by the 1994 Rwandan genocide, as the Tutsis and Hutus were distributed evenly throughout major metropolitan areas.  In contrast, if warfare occurs from regionally grouped then it will be more conventional in nature, with majority of fighting occurring along the frontier; as has occurred in Turkish Kurdistan.

The final factor that encourage internal conflict are cultural in nature and revolve around the discriminatory actions that the state upon ethnic groups. As with economic discrimination, when the central state actively discriminates against the cultural identification of an ethnic group, by enforcing education, limiting the use of symbols (regional flags) and banning the use of ethnic languages, then this may lead to a form of ‘cultural’ genocide when practiced in the extreme (Brown 2001: 12). As with economic turmoil and political upheaval, policies by governments that actively discriminate culturally and economically cause resentment. If governments were to not pursue such draconian polices then the occurrence of ethnically expressed tension would be much less. Thus, in democratic liberal states that allow ethnic cultural expression (such as Belgium, Canada and the UK), then ethnic resentment is much less.


To conclude, the salient factors that one has identified from the selection of literature seek to explain how and why internal conflicts occur. One acknowledges from the factors above, internal conflicts that appear superficially as caused by the incompatibility of ethnic groups are in fact caused by a wide range of multifaceted factors. As no two conflicts are the same, then each internal conflict will be caused by a number of the political, economic, geographic or cultural factors which interplay together to incite internal conflict, with ethnicity being the ‘ordering device’. One understands that ethnicity does exist and is very important as a provider of identity. Yet, one views the understanding of ethnicity as the salient point of understanding intrastate conflict flawed and hyperbolic; ethnicity is simply not a singular explanation for internal conflicts. By becoming a proponent of this view one reduces the salience of ethnicity in conflict. The understanding that ‘ancient hatreds’ lead to provocation and ethnic cleansing is lazy and unacceptable as an explanation of such conflicts; this view ignores the depth of the explanation that is provided by Brown, Mueller and Laitin & Fearon.

Moreover, it is important that one views ethnicity in the context of the ‘rarity of ethnic violence’ (Fearon & Laitin 1996: 716), where in the vast majority of countries around the Globe peaceful ethnic cooperation takes place. This provides the central puzzle to the debate is centred upon why some multi-ethnic countries experience problems along the spectrum, from ethnic tension to civil war, and others are characterised by peaceful ethnic cooperation. Understanding the mechanics of this puzzle allows for the appreciation of the explanative factors of internal conflicts. Thus, from the examination of the literature there are two significant points that are made clear. Firstly, there exists a highly complex interaction between a plethora of factors that lead up to conflict. It is structural, political, economic and geographical factors that encourage and allow conflicts to occur; these account for the feasibility of internal conflicts. The structural/political factors such as state weakness are the most significant of all the factors identified. As substantiated by Kaldor’s work, state weakness provides the perfect breeding ground of instability and reduces state power projection. In order for ethnicity to be instrumentalised by political actors there must be a breeding ground of mistrust, economic disparages and a state that is seen as illegitimate and unable to keep an monopoly on violence. This solves the puzzle why some multi-ethnic states remain conflict free and others suffer the plight of conflict waged along ethnic lines. Therefore, structural, political, economic and geographical factors have greater explanative power than the simple understanding of the incompatibility of different ethnic groups within states causing conflict. Secondly, one considers it obtuse to argue that ethnicity it is little more than an ordering device in internal conflicts. As argued by Mueller, ethnicity is simply a political instrument used by politicians, which is exploited as a legitimising instrument for cynical political or material gain, rather than for purely ethno-nationalist endeavours. Furthermore, many internal conflicts have been ordered differently, along ideological lines (the Russian civil war 1917-1923) or religious lines (post invasion Iraq); it is naïve to not to view such events through a realist, Hobbesian nature lens. Therefore, one does not refute the existence of ethnicity; one merely understands that it is not a singular explanation of internal conflict.




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Categories: Africa, Middle East

Author:Thomas Hall

Recently graduated with a MA in Politics and International Relations from the University of Aberdeen. An interest in Conflict, specifically with regards to irregular warfare and the Middle East.

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