The Fate of a United States of Africa: Insights from Robbers Cave
The United States of Africa is the idea that Africa could one day unite and work together towards common goals. There are different versions to this idea including a united Africa that is a single country or a united Africa with countries as they are currently but works like the European Union. The idea is so much entrenched in Africa that most people believe Muamar Gaddafi, the Libyan dictator, was killed for his role in pushing for a United States of Africa (The original idea comes from a poem by Marcus Garvey-1924). As the theory goes, the Western world felt threatened by a united Africa, so they decided to kill Gaddafi. Many Africans who believe this story, want a united Africa characterized by size and number to stand against the west. If our country is huge and we are many, they believe, nobody would bully us. A united Africa is also a prominent talking point among Pan-Africans. Pan Africans have theorized how Africa would develop and grow to western heights if we united, traded together, stood for each other, loved one another, and worked together to establish a common military, a common currency, single passport, and common markets. However, as I will endeavor to elaborate in this long form essay, uniting Africa will present more challenges than any of these factions have anticipated.
Africa as we know it
Even before someone dreams of uniting Africa, they should probably ask themselves why countries in their current form are not united. Why isn’t Ethiopia united? What’s with the Anglophone crisis in Cameroon? Why is Nigeria torn into two, and why are South Africans pushing other nationalities out of their country? North Sudan and South Sudan split into two different countries after years of war just a decade ago. In Kenya, Dr. David Ndii, an ethnic federalist and a prominent economist has argued that in order to end Kenya’s ethnic woes, especially during elections, some ethnic provinces should secede. From those examples, it is clear that even before we think of a United States of Africa, we should probably think about the fragmented nature of African countries today and why unity is scarce. Countries are warring and others seceding, but there are none uniting. These examples reveal the difficulties of uniting people, groups, and even countries. In this essay, however, I will show why unity between different groups is hard to achieve while wars and secession are much easier. To do this, I will rely on a good analogy stemming from a famous psychological experiment called the Robbers Cave Experiment. The experiment showed how people tend to group themselves into “us versus them” owing to group contrast effects. These contrast effects are made possible by proximity between groups that differ based on a set of self-defining categories. Examples of categories that people are likely to adopt to evoke group differences include ethnicity, religion, race, and in many cases, new categories could be formed such as East African. Before we discuss whether a United States of Africa is possible, it’s important to highlight some details of the Robbers Cave Experiment.
The Robbers Cave Experiment
The Robbers Cave Experiment is a classic psychological experiment conducted in 1954 by a team of researchers from the University of Oklahoma headed by Muzafer Sherif. The study is a classic because it reveals a fundamental truth about human nature. Human beings when left to their own devices, tend to group themselves into coalitions that ultimately become deadly. The Robbers Cave Experiment was an exploration of group differences and the conflict that arise when two distinct groups are in close proximity. So what is the Robbers Cave Experiment and why is it relevant when analyzing Africa’s quest to unify?
Muzafer Sherif and his colleagues recruited 22 boys who were very similar in their features and attributes. All of these students were eleven years old, white, male, and protestant. Their IQs ranged from average to above average and so were their academic performances. None of these students was fat, had an eye problem or wore glasses, had an history of delinquent behavior, or was new in Oklahoma. Furthermore, all students were from Oklahoma, meaning they all had the same accents. However, none of these students knew each other since they all came from different schools in the region.
The researchers divided these students into two groups of eleven students each. Initially, none of these groups were allowed to meet, and were transported in different buses to Robbers Cave State Park. The students ate at different times and did not occupy the same grounds in the camp. For the students, it was yet another summer camp and they expected to have a good time. The researchers pretended to be counselors and made efforts to conceal their true identities. Sherif and his colleagues intended to run this experiment in stages. They first stage needed to study in-group differences among the boys then follow up with inter-group relations in stage two. The boys by this time had already found names for their groups choosing to call themselves the Rattlers and the Eagles.
Before the researchers could even study in-group differences, the two groups learned of each other’s presence. The Eagles were playing in the field and suddenly the Rattlers felt the need to go chase them off. With this turn of events, the researchers hurriedly ushered in stage two of the study. This stage was a study of group conflict. There was no better way to spark conflict than to allow the children to play baseball, tag-o-wars, and other competitive games.
Hostility was already evident in the first baseball game. The Rattlers believed that the field was “ours.” The researchers recorded instances of name calling and after the game was over, the Eagles who lost the game tore the flag belonging to the Rattlers and burned it. The Rattlers became angry and within minutes a fist fight broke. The researchers quickly intervened and warded both groups to their respective camps. However, animosity did not end. After a tug-o war which the Eagles won, the Rattlers invaded the Eagle’s camp at night and vandalized equipment, destroyed nets, and fell beds. During the day, the Eagles retaliated and messed up the Rattlers camp. The Rattlers were expected not to be around, but the Eagles carried with them baseball bats and stones nonetheless. Back to their cabin, the Eagles set up a fortress including filling their socks with stones and storing more stones in buckets. From name calling, to fist fights, to projectiles. A simple research study had become a war. The researchers had to move to stage 3 which involved re-uniting the group. Uniting people, however, has never been easy.
A United States of Africa
The Robbers Cave Experiment reveals what happens when different groups are in close proximity- there is a tendency for tensions to rise and inevitably violence erupts. Even though the study started off with boys who were all the same in their backgrounds, age, and features, it did not take long before each group started to resent the other. Psychologists have called this phenomenon group contrast effects, where differences between groups appear larger than they really. Even though the study started with children who were relatively the same, they over-perceived the differences between themselves and the rival group, and that was enough to trigger resentment, fear, and eventually war. However, Africans are not similar as the boys in the study were. Africa is a diverse continent with different people living in different regions. There are more than two thousand languages spoken in the continent, there are people from different races, different religions, and even the most genetically diverse people in the world, the Khoisan. That is not to say that the Robbers Cave Experiment is irrelevant, instead it shows we don’t have to create new categories to distinguish groups; we already have existing differences among us that could potentially cause chaos.
A United States of Africa would eliminate borders and barriers between people from different social categories. An Egyptian could go to Uganda and roam freely. Somalis would come to Kenya and start businesses. A Zimbabwean or a Zambian would feel free marrying a South African woman. By eliminating barriers and boarders, a United States of Africa would bring to close proximity previously distant groups. A Ugandan currently does not have to worry about an Egyptian because national boarders are tight. The same can be said about national borders of all other countries. However, we all have a sneak peak of what happens when borders are porous. For example, Kenyans consistently worry about Somalis. The idea is not that Somali people are bad, but because the fear triggered by Al-Shabaab makes Kenyans distrust all Somalis. South Africans are consistently accused of being xenophobic against fellow Africans. However, the resentment they harbor arises due to the competition they face from previously distant groups.
Just like the children in the Robbers Cave Experiment, when two groups are in close proximity, there is always an inevitability of chaos. Many people make the error of thinking human beings are benevolent creatures that will always act rationally in every situation. Pan Africanists want us to believe that we can all live together in harmony and peace without scuffles. They also tend to think that this united Africa will be devoid of disagreements and malice. However, that is not true of human nature. It is Jean Jacques Rousseau that argued that humans are born good and that we are not innately selfish or evil. His contemporary, Thomas Hobbes went in the opposite direction and argued that humans are innately violent and that without a unifying social order- or a Leviathan, people would tare each other into pieces. However, both of these philosophers were wrong because human beings have the capacity for both good and evil. As Judith Rich Harris says, it all depends on which side you are looking from. People tend to treat their kin well. Families exist in harmony, and it’s common place for a tribe or village to live in harmony too. However, you get a different picture when you look at behavior between different groups. The love and goodness showed to members of one’s group, suddenly becomes war and genocide towards a different group. The Hutu and Tutsi of Rwanda showed us what happens when two groups in close proximity finally descend upon one another.
Charles Darwin was right when he observed that people will risk their lives to protect individuals in their group while at the same time waging war against outsiders. A United States of Africa would heighten these dynamics, and out-group hostilities would intensify. However, it is not clear what social categories would be the main cause of strife in this new Africa. A category, as I have alluded to before, is a concept that serves to differentiate groups. People can differ based on their race, religion, ethnicity, tribe, traditions, values and geographic region. In the United States of America, the main category that differentiates between groups is race. The United States is a diverse country, but their race relations are the worst in the whole world. Even though there is no outright genocide in the US today, it cannot be forgotten that the American Civil War was fought because of slavery. The northerners and southerners or the Union versus Confederates became two distinct political categories defined both geographically and politically depending on whether they were in favor of expanding slavery. Currently, race relations are so strife that the stability of the United States for the long term is in question.
Historically, similar people also differed based on the religion they professed. Catholics versus protestants or Christians versus Muslims. Wars fundamentally influenced by religion are too many to be detailed here. Judaism as a religion and Jewish as an ethnicity has invited religious and ethnic hate from surrounding races and religions. The holocaust was culmination of antisemitic sentiments based on class and religion against a single group. Ethnic or tribal clashes can also be a cause of conflict. In the 2007/2008 post-election violence, ethnic violence in Kenya erupted as different ethnicities took advantage of the political turmoil and purged other tribes from their districts. The same ethnic scuffles still bedevil Kenyans to date. The Rwandan genocide as alluded to earlier, is also a good evidence that shows what happens when ethnic groups clash. In Rwanda, the Hutu and Tutsi had co-existed for millennia until contrast effects revealed group differences and violence broke. Since there are many different categories that could easily be adopted as a cause for “us versus them,” I cannot guess beforehand which will be the cause for strife in a United States of Africa. However, I can only imagine what would happen when North African countries try to Arabize the whole continent or coerce everyone into turning the United States of Africa into a caliphate.
I can only imagine also what would happen when the new United States of Africa was torn apart between ethnic lines. Instead of fighting as small tribes, a coalition of tribes culminating into the three language groups: Bantus, Nilotes, and Cushites could be the reason for strife. Bantus are so distinct from Nilotes and Cushites that putting each one of them in the same room would be disastrous. A United States of Africa would bring these groups together inducing intense competition for resources and even women. The more dominant groups will want to have more and the weaker groups will organize a rebellion to defend themselves or even retaliate. A video doing rounds on Kenyan Twitter highlighted how ethnic differences can be potentially dangerous. The person in the video complains of a potential takeover of businesses and lands in the coastal region of Kenya by people from Mount Kenya (Kikuyu and GEMA communities). In a hostile voice, the guy urges Kikuyus to do business but not venture into politics. According to him, leadership in the area and coastal political positions can only be filled by an indigenous person. That is despite the fact that Kenyans have the right to seek political office anywhere in the country.
Assuming the United States of Africa would be divided into states, will a Bantu be allowed to seek political office in Somalia? Will a Cushite be allowed to seek political positions in Zambia? Of what religion will these leaders be? Can a Christian, for example, be a governor in Egypt? I cannot tell for sure, what I know is that there will be potential chaos surrounding such debates. Socioeconomic status could also potentially cause conflict. Kenyans are fond of complaining about Indians taking over lucrative businesses in Kenya. The business acumen of most Indians is believed to be better than that held by most Kenyan tribes including the Kikuyu. The same way the world is rife with anti-Semitic sentiments against Jews, there is a possibility some African ethnicities will be hated in equal measure for their wealth and political control. Another line of “us-the victims of economic exploitation” versus “them- the beneficiaries of economic exploitation” would arise. Wealth would accumulate within certain groups as others lose out to these free markets made possible by a United Africa. Suffice to note that wealthier countries like Egypt are hostile to the idea of a United Africa.
A Bantu Federation
When different groups are in close proximity, violence is inevitable. People have benevolent feelings towards their in-groups and violent feelings towards out-groups. As many critics of a United States of Africa have suggested, it is much easier to iron out such issues by only uniting similar groups. A Bantu federation is one of those ideas. This idea is modest compared to the one promoted by Pan Africans (In theoretical lingo, it could be called a weaker version of a much stronger idea. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has both a weak and strong version). Instead of uniting the whole continent, these critics argue that a union of similar language groups like Bantus would be more productive, less violent, and likely to yield successful economic results. A Bantu federation would comprise of some nations in Eastern Africa including Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, and other Bantu majority countries. The federation excludes horners and other Cushitic groups like Somalis. It also excludes Arabs from North Africa and Nilotic groups in Sudan. In essence, the Bantu federation is a culmination of all Bantu speaking countries. When pressed to a corner, this is a solution to the impracticality of a united Africa that I would easily embrace. However, it also presents some problems.
Remember the Robbers Cave Experiment. The groups were initially similar in most aspects just like a Bantu federation would be. However, the kids created new categories to define them. In psychology, the idea is called differentiation. Differentiation happens when in-groups look for differences within themselves. For example, even though Luhya is a Bantu tribe, it comprises of many other sub-tribes like Bukusu. If they were to war with out-groups like Luo, all sub-tribes would join and fight together as Luhya. But during periods of relative calm, the Luhya sub-tribes would compete against each other for hierarchy and other in-group positions of status. Differentiation is natural and occurs when in-groups are looking to fill different roles and niches within the group. Who will be the leader? Who will be the clown? And so forth. Therefore, a Bantu federation is only important when there’s constant threat from Cushites or Nilotes. If these external threats diminish or are too far, Bantus would start differentiating within themselves. Take for example, the Pokot and the Tugen. Both have been fighting and stealing cattle from each other for generations despite the fact that both are Kalenjin sub-tribes.
Psychologists claim a category-that describes a group- is only important when it is salient. Salience, as described in the previous paragraph, is measured by an “other,” a “them,” or more precisely an out-group. A Bantu federation is a salient category only if there is an out-group called Cushite, Semite, or Nilote. If we adopted a Bantu federation without these “others,” chances are the salience of the world would be missing and Bantus would seize identifying themselves as Bantus and adopt a more salient category that reveals differences between close groups. To be more specific, they could settle on tribes or the specific ethnicities as defining categories. Let me further elaborate what I mean by salience. You cannot have a group of boys unless there are girls in the vicinity. You cannot have a group called “the rich” unless “the poor” also exist. Salience is defined by the other group. That said, people will not buy the idea of a Bantu federation unless they face imminent threat from Cushites or Nilotes. Is there such a threat? I don’t think so. Such conflicts only exist in select places like Kenya and Somalia. The same can be said of a United States of Africa. We can choose to unite as black people of Africa, but that category is only important if we are under constant threat from whites or Asians. Are we looking to fight Europeans in future? If the answer to this question is yes, then you don’t need a United States of Africa to achieve African unity, the war between Africa and Europe will make us align appropriately without being coerced.
I have criticized the possibility that a United States of Africa will come to be. I have also presented my doubts about a Bantu federation. However, as I said before, I would prefer a Bantu federation to a USAfrica. This federation would have its internal problems as different Bantu tribes poke fingers; however, it only becomes a salient and important region if standing firm against the infiltration of Nilotes and Cushites is its aim. Currently, different African regions are occupied by different ethnicities, religions, races, and classes. Some countries are wealthier than others and I am sure members of these countries would prefer not to be associated with poorer countries. Kenya is predominantly a Christian nation and we do not have religious problems. However, if Africa was united, religious problems would become our problem as tensions between Christian states and Muslim states arise. A clash of traditions and cultures would also be evident as people shun those who don’t share the same values as them. Therefore, even though Africa was divided up arbitrarily in Germany, the nations we have currently are more workable as they are than if they were united into large countries. Countries that were wrongly divided will fight and ultimately secede. But it is unlikely that any will be willing to unite and increase potential enemies. As a Kenyan, I am more comfortable knowing I have potential enemies in certain tribes, than inviting more religious, racial, and class enemies from a United Africa.
In the meantime, I can assure you that South Africans will continue being xenophobic, Nigeria could potentially split, and Kenya will continue having ethnic problems. I have argued previously that covert racism and microaggressions in the United States won’t end for as long as race remains a salient category for identifying in-groups and shunning out-groups. If people do not have out-groups to compete and fight with, they will invent categories through a process of differentiation, and potential enemies will be created. Where groups already exist, group contrast effects will exaggerate perceived differences, further worsening conflicts. Human nature has never been this damning. However, it also promises peace and tranquility if we do not invent chaos by bringing different (and distant) groups together under the same roof called a United States of Africa.