Ongala Maurice

To Inspire is to Empower


Ethnicity and Nationalism: A Scholarly View

Ethnicity and nationalism are twin words, not to imply that they are synonymous, but rather that they are so pertinent to each other that at the mention of one, the other seldom fails to pop up. At the same instance, it is scholarly to note that the two words are not opposites as they may appear from a shallow perspective. Let us take an intrusive look at some of the parallels of these terms.

By definition, ethnicity covers a smaller scope than nationalism. According to Thomas Hylland (1991), ethnicity refers to the social reproduction of basic classificatory differences between categories of people and to aspects of gain and loss in social interaction. Ethnicity, he says, is fundamentally dual, encompassing both aspects of meaning and of politics. This means that ethnicity plays the role of binding people of a common ancestral origin and sharing commonalities in cultural, social, religious and other aspects of living. For instance, the Baganda of Uganda can be classified basically as an ethnic group of Eastern Uganda, period. Nationalism, on the other hand may be vaguely characterized as a sentiment based on common cultural characteristics that binds a wider scope of population and often produces a policy of national independence or separatism from the other nations or countries and their territories. For example, the Baganda, may be clustered with a couple more ethnic groups in Uganda like the Banyankole, the Luo and the Acholi to be identified as Ugandans.

Levels of Identity
It is a fact that both ethnicity and nationalism are aspects of identity of individuals. Depending on the prevalent system of socialization in a given region, people may address each other in reference to their ethnic groups of origin or their nation of origin, especially if that community or nation has some outstanding feature of identity, either positive or negative. The parallel comes with the level of identity. Ethnicity, in most cases identifies the ethnic group at a country level. It is more internal and its relevance makes the most sense to nationals or insiders of a given country. Nationalism on the other side has a higher level identity. Once two or more Kenyans leave their country and converge in a foreign country, their ethnicity usually tends to fade off as they identify among people from other countries as Kenyans and not as Kikuyus, Tesos or Giriamas.

Patriotism versus Racism
Nationality, being that strong relationship between a person and his country of origin, connotes the attitude that the members of a nation have when they care about their national identity. This amounts to the feeling of deep love and concern for one’s country, commonly known as patriotism. Patriotism is a virtue of nationalism. It is the epitome of all that is positive about nationalism. Ethnicity, if not guarded against, easily slips into the negative and amounts to racism. The more the Luos identify themselves as the peacocks of Kenya and possibly any other attribute, for example, they risk being too engrossed into their ethnocentrism and cultural norms to the extent of feeling superior to the rest of the 42 plus ethnic communities that make up Kenya. This is racism or otherwise, tribalism when it extends to giving unmerited favours to kinsmen and tribesmen.

Membership also varies between ethnicity and nationalism. One has no choice of which ethnic group to belong to just as he has no choice of biological parents. One is born and enculturated into a given ethnic community by default. A Maasai Moran for example, is taught all the nitty-gritty’s of the Maasai culture and before he knows it, he is already as engrossed into the community and its way of life as the old Maasai man in his exit years. Membership in ethnic tribes is involuntary. As for nationalism, one always has a choice of which nation to belong to as it is guided by legal precepts that enable one to belong to a country of choice having satisfied the pre-conditions of the country’s constitution. I may be a Kenyan by birth but decide to register as a citizen of another country and drop the Kenyan nationality.

Difference in Dualism
Often times, one cannot have dual ethnicity except for ambilineal communities which trace their descents from family lineages of both parents. Otherwise most people belong to only one ethnic community all their lives. As for nationalism, one can have dual citizenship especially if the parents of such a person hail from two different countries.

Nationality being controlled by legal precepts, has a legal government, well structured with each arm performing a specific set of roles e.g. the judiciary, the executive and the legislature while ethnicity is usually governed by traditions and beliefs.

Positive ethnicity can complement the attributes of nationalism but if used negatively, ethnicity becomes a thorn in a nation’s flesh. Nationalism binds a larger group of people and is more broad and far-reaching as compared to ethnicity.