The issue of identity has been one of the most central in human society. It has inspired the creative endeavours of many artists and writers. On a more negative plane, it lies at the root of most of the conflicts that have bedevilled the world for quite some time. Even a cursory look at most of the conflicts in the recent past would show how much many of them have revolved around the question of identity. The Irish Question, which had become perhaps one of the most intractable problems of identity and for long made normal life in the United Kingdom a difficult proposition, lasted for over a century. The Basques have been fighting for independence from Spain for a number of decades. In Asia, Kashmir has continued to pit India and Pakistan in interminable conflict, dangling ominously the prospect of a nuclear flare out. Chinese identity has been split since 1949 between mainland China and Taiwan, with the latter determined to hang on to their separate identity and the former pursuing with equal determination the goal of one China. In bi-lingual Canada, the issue of Quebecois identity has been a perennial test to the integrity of the republic.
The collapse of the Soviet Union has released a veritable floodgate of national and ethno-national identities not only among the formerly federated Soviet republics but also throughout the satellite states of Eastern Europe. As a result Yugoslavia is no more, having broken up into its constituent units of Serbia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The world has also had to come to terms with thinking in terms of the Czech Republic and Slovakia rather than Czechoslovakia. Only the relatively homogeneous states such as Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania seem to have escaped this fundamental shake-up.
Africa has been no exception to this global phenomenon. Particularly since independence in the 1960s, the continent has been rocked by both intra-state and inter-state conflicts, many of them concerned with the issue of identity. The post-colonial state has not been particularly successful in establishing a pluralist order that could accommodate multiple identities. Indeed, identity has tended to be manipulated by the political elite in the service of political power.This partly explains the persistence or even virulence of identity-based conflicts side by side with the formal declarations of African leaders to forge regional and continental unity. Examples of such conflicts abound.
The Eritrean struggle to forge an independent state succeeded only after thirty years of war (1961-1991) that claimed hundredsof thousands of lives, massive displacement and the fall of two Ethiopian regimes. Sadly enough, the attainment of independence by Eritrea in 1993 has not been followed by peaceful relations between the two neighbouring countries. On the contrary, what could be characterized as the lingering ramifications of identity have ensued in a bloody war of unprecedented ferocity (1998-2000) and continuing tension that has defied and baffled international intervention. In neighbouring Sudan, a civil war that had pitted the south against the north went on intermittently for nearly half a century until the rather precarious Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that was signed by the two warring parties in 2005. In Rwanda, nearly a million people perished in 1994 because they happened to belong to the wrong ‘ethnic’ group. Coming fast on the heel of that cataclysm was the movement of the Banyamulenge in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo). Triggered by the issue of citizenship, the movement removed the venal dictatorship of Mobutu but at the same time plunged the Congo into a civil war from which it is only now recovering. Côte d’Ivoire, once the paragon of peace and stability, has become a hotbed of strife and xenophobia around the question of ‘Ivorian-ness’ (ivoirité). In Zambia, the citizenship of the very person who led the country to independence and ruled it for more than two decades (Kenneth Kaunda) was put to the test when it suited his opponents. Ironically, the same opponents were subsequently alleged to be ‘un-Zambian’ or ‘not Zambian enough’.
Likewise, identity has been at the root of many other conflicts in states like Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Angola, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Mauritania, and Uganda, even if those conflicts have been recast as conflicts of governance or merely as problems of civil violence. Yet, pre-occupation with the all-absorbing and often oppressive present can easily obfuscate both the deep-rooted character of the problems of identity and the mutations they have undergone over time. It is the task of historians to investigate those roots and delineate the mutations.
Countering the policy of fragmentation and a history of inter- and intra-state conflicts has been the ideal of pan-Africanism that marked the struggle for independence from its inception. The pan-Africanist movement had its genesis in the quest of African-Americans and African-Carribeans for their lost identity. Underpinning the movement was the conviction that all oppressed peoples of African descent shared a common destiny and should fight in concert the common enemy, colonialism and racism. After the Second World War, pan-Africanism was appropriated by African nationalists, spearheaded by Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta and given continental focus and direction. The establishment of the OAU in 1963, three years after the majority of African states attained independence from colonial rule, underscored the convergence of the ideals of national independence and continental unity. While the record of the OAU has not been without controversy, its successor, the African Union, has set off with a good deal of promise. Its organs not only provide for regional intervention in times of crisis but also go some way to accommodate non-state actors, thereby dispelling somewhat the image of the organization as a club of African heads of state.
It is in recognition of the contemporary salience and the historical depth of the issue of identity that the Association of African Historians decided to dedicate its Fourth Congress to the theme of ‘Society, State and Identity in African History’. The Association thereby hoped to marshal the expertise and knowledge of African historians and historians of Africa into examining the issue of identity from a historical perspective. The following sub-themes were suggested to ensure the maximum possible participation as well as a multi-faceted treatment of the subject: pre-colonial identities, migration and acculturation, the formation of colonial boundaries, colonialism and identity, urbanization and multiple identities, conceptions of the nation-state and identity, perceptions of the other and xenophobia, the challenge of writing regional histories, federalism and devolution, trans-national artistic and literary expressions, lessons of regional integration organizations (ECOWAS, SADC, etc.), and the challenge of creating a pan-African identity.
The Congress took place in Addis Ababa on 22-24 May 2007. The response to the call for papers was much more than the organizers had anticipated. One hundred seventy interested academics sent in their abstracts in response to the call. After a rigorous process of selection by the scientific committee designated for the purpose, a total of sixty-seven papers were finally read at the Congress. The papers included in this volume are those selected from among the papers presented at the Congress. They explore and analyse the issue of identity in its diverse temporal settings, from its pre-colonial roots to its contemporary manifestations.