Ethnic Groups and Identity

Ethnic groups are populations that feel connected by a complex mix of kinship, culture, history, and geography. Together, the people in an ethnic group shape their ethnic identity—the sense of belonging to the group and sharing in its culture. Ethnic identity in Africa is as richly diverse as its people, and for most Africans it plays a central role in politics and social life.

Ethnicity—a person’s ethnic identity—is not the same thing as race, religion, or language. It is, however, often defined by some or all of these factors. For many Africans, ethnic identity is highly complex and has multiple layers. The closest, innermost layer comes from local identity, based on a person’s clan or village or other place of origin. The next level may be a somewhat broader idea of identity, perhaps a sense of being from a particular district.

Africa Ethnic Groups and Identity

Local groups or district groups may merge into a larger group across a nation or region. Although most of the members of this larger group do not know each other, they may see themselves as having more in common with each other than with people of other ethnic groups. Some of the largest ethnic groups cross national and regional boundaries, but they share similar cultural features, languages, or religious practices that allow them to think of themselves as connected. With all these layers, individual Africans may think of their ethnic identity in different ways. They may present that identity differently in various circumstances.

Africa’s tapestry of hundreds of ethnic groups is woven of many strands. Some strands can be traced back to the centuries before Europeans conquered Africa and ruled it as colonies. In this precolonial period, cultures emerged and mixed as peoples moved about and invaded each other’s lands. Other strands developed as a result of European colonial governments that looked for differences among groups and created ethnic categories that often had little meaning for the people themselves. Still other strands are closely linked to political and economic life in modern Africa, in which leaders depend on the backing of their ethnic groups and reward them with power and influence.

Conflict among ethnic groups lies at the root of many civil wars in Africa—sometimes on a horrifying scale, such as the genocidal violence that flared in RWANDA in the mid-1990s. Yet ethnic identity can inspire pride and hope and unite people in groups for effective political and social action. The challenge for many African countries is to balance the diversity of ethnicity with equal access to political power, wealth, opportunity, and the resources of the nation.

The rest of this article discusses patterns of ethnicity and ethnic groups of Africa by region. Following this article is the Ethnic Groups and Peoples chart, which summarizes information about 100 of the largest or most important ethnic groups in Africa.


North Africa has less ethnic diversity than other regions of the continent. The majority of people are either BERBERS or ARABS, two groups that have grown more similar over the centuries. However, many other groups also make North Africa their home, and the population of SUDAN is especially diverse.

Berbers and Arabs

The Berbers were the ancient inhabitants of North Africa. They lived there thousands of years ago, when adventurous traders and settlers arrived from Phoenicia, a land at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. Later, the Romans referred to the Berbers as Numidians.

Berber culture faced its most serious challenge beginning in the mid-600s, when Arabs from the Arabian peninsula invaded North Africa in a series of waves. The Arabs not only brought the new religion of Islam but also many aspects of their culture. The Berbers resisted the onslaught at first, but they eventually converted to Islam. Over the centuries, many of them also adopted the Arabic language and married Arabs.

Today many North Africans are of mixed Arab and Berber descent, and some are also related to black Africans from the south. Language is now the main distinguishing factor between Arabs and Berbers. People who speak Arabic consider themselves Arabs. Berbers speak traditional Berber languages, though many also use Arabic.

Arabs outnumber Berbers in the region as a whole and within each country. Berbers live in a few oases in western EGYPT and LIBYA but are more numerous in ALGERIA and MOROCCO. Despite its great diversity, the Arab population of North Africa is unified to some extent by shared language, religion, and culture. Berbers are divided into a number of smaller ethnic groups. Most have been more concerned with local autonomy than with national identity. Berber groups include the Rif, the Kabyle, and the desert-dwelling TUAREG.

Other Groups and Influences

After the Arab conquest, North Africa fell to other foreign powers. Spanish Muslims settled in TUNISIA between the 1200s and 1500s. Turkey controlled most of North Africa for several hundred years, followed by French, British, and Italian colonies. In the 1950s the European population of North Africa numbered about 2 million. By the early 1960s, the success of independence movements in the various colonies had caused most Europeans to leave. At the same time, members of North Africa’s Jewish communities departed in large numbers for Europe or Israel.

Original ethnic groups such as the Nubians and Beja remain. In ancient times, the Egyptians knew the land of NUBIA as a source of rich gold mines. Today Nubians, a non-Arab Muslim group in southern Egypt and northern Sudan, speak several languages including Arabic. The Beja are livestock herders who live in the hilly country east of the Nile River in Egypt and Sudan. They have adopted Islam and claim Arab ancestry.

Sudan is a diverse and divided country. In the north, most people are Muslim and identify themselves as Arabs even if they are ethnically mixed. In the south, the majority of people are black Africans who follow either traditional religions or Christianity. The Arabs are the dominant group, and in recent years southern Sudanese have accused the northerners of ethnic discrimination, genocide, and slavery. The country’s largest non-Arab population group is probably the Dinka, who live along the southern Nile. Sudan has identified about 20 major ethnic groups and more than 100 languages or dialects.


Ethnicity has always been an important element in the way people identify themselves. In western Africa, however, European colonial powers made ethnic categories more rigid than they had been before. The colonial authorities imposed strict definitions on western Africa’s complex and changeable social structures. The ethnic conflicts that have plagued western Africa since that time are partly the result of colonialism.

Ethnic Patterns in the Past

Before conquest by Europeans, western Africa’s ethnic groups were rarely separate or self-contained. Rather, they belonged to chains or networks of societies with many shifting connections. Even so, Arab geographers made distinctions between Arab and African regions, which they called white countries and black countries.

Other distinctions existed as well. People in various environments lived differently: nomadic herders roamed the deserts, and farmers planted crops in the savanna and forests. Meanwhile, merchants, traders, and laborers filled the cities. But even these boundaries between people were blurred. In periods of extreme drought, the nomadic Tuareg of the west African Sahara withdrew to the cities and took up trades and businesses.

Trade, war, and politics brought ethnic groups into contact and even some forms of unity. As states rose to power and expanded their territory, they created new forms of ethnic identity. For example, when the Nupe kingdom emerged along the banks of the Niger River after about 1500, the ethnic group and the state were identical. A Nupe was anyone considered a subject by the Nupe ruler. On the fringes of such states—but still under the state’s influence—people lived in societies based on local kinship groups. Over the course of their histories, these societies might be known by several ethnic names as they passed from local organization to state control and back again when the state lost power.

When France and Great Britain explored and colonized western Africa, their missionaries, administrators, and social scientists looked for fixed ethnic categories. They oversimplified the region’s complex ethnicity. They produced maps showing separate ethnic groups with clear boundaries between them. These ethnic categories hardened in place as the colonizers identified certain Africans as leaders and developed relationships with them.

This way of regarding ethnic groups suited the French and British strategy of “divide and rule.” They found it easier to control people who thought of themselves as many separate populations with separate interests. Based on the notion that some groups were racially or ethnically superior to others, the colonial powers gave favored groups some degree of self-rule or even control over other groups. In what is now NIGERIA, for example, the British regarded the FULANI as more advanced than other peoples and allowed them to be governed by their own institutions and chiefs.

Ethnicity Today

The many ethnic conflicts that occur today in western Africa do not represent a return of ancient hostilities in the absence of colonialism. Rather, the conflicts are the legacy of the colonial era, which invented artificial categories, broke up relations among societies, and fostered resentment and competition among ethnic groups. In countries such as BENIN and IVORY COAST, governments continue to divide and rule their citizens by reinforcing the separations between ethnic groups. Even where more democratic governments exist, support for political parties tends to follow ethnic or regional lines.

Colonization was not just a temporary phase. It left a lasting mark on Africa and changed relations between ethnic groups. Western Africa did not return to its precolonial state after independence. Civil wars and ethnic and border conflicts in SENEGAL, MAURITANIA, LIBERIA, GUINEA, MALI, and NIGER may be signs that the region has entered into a period of redefining itself. The states and borders that the colonial powers put in place are weakening as new social structures and new relations among ethnic groups come into existence.


Like western Africa, eastern Africa today shows the political and social effects of colonial rule, which imposed artificial divisions on ethnic groups. The colonial powers divided the peoples of UGANDA, KENYA, and TANZANIA into separate “tribes,” usually ignoring the complex relations of marriage and trade between regions and peoples. The word tribalism refers to this way of thinking of society along ethnic lines. Many modern scholars have rejected the terms tribe and tribalism because of their connection with these false and rigid definitions. However, traces of colonial practices remain. People in eastern Africa sometimes use the concept of tribalism to explain differences and conflicts among themselves, even when the differences have more to do with money, land, and resources than with customs or culture.

Meanings of Ethnicity

Whether imposed from outside or claimed as one’s own, ethnicity divides people into categories. Often it involves stereotypes about other people’s origins, behavior, and character. It may even suggest that some groups are more “human” than others. The names of some groups indicate that they view themselves as special. Both the Nuer and the Dinka of southern Sudan call themselves by names that mean “people.” The general term for many of the peoples of eastern Africa is BANTU, which is a family of languages but also means “people.”

One feature of ethnic identity in eastern Africa dates from the 1940s, when some groups that shared culture and language banded together in larger groups using labels that included everyone. In Kenya, for example, the Nandi, Turkana, and Pokot peoples allied themselves under the name Kalenjin. Individuals use the name of their small group locally, but in national or political matters they often identify with the more influential Kalenjin—the group to which Kenya’s president, Daniel arap MOI, belongs.

Modern Ethnic Relationships

As in other parts of Africa, ethnic identity in eastern Africa has been changing. More people have gone to live and work in the cities, where different ethnic groups intermarry, share cultures, and create new styles. Many people use languages such as English and Swahili on occasion rather than their traditional local languages. Political events have also created upheavals in ethnic identity. To counter these trends, ethnic leaders often launch cultural revival movements or make ethnic awareness a political goal.

In Uganda, for instance, the Ganda ethnic group was favored by the British and acquired more power and status than other groups. After Uganda gained independence in 1962, two political parties emerged. One represented the Ganda, while the second had members from many of the country’s other ethnic groups. The two parties formed an alliance, but within a few years a power struggle shattered the alliance, and the party of the Ganda king was banned. The country became deeply divided along lines that were partly ethnic: Ganda versus non-Ganda, southerners versus northerners, speakers of Bantu versus speakers of Nilotic languages. During the 1970s Ugandan leader Idi AMIN DADA took advantage of these sharp divisions by explaining his government’s failures as the treachery of one ethnic group after another.

Kenya is a striking example of the problems caused by colonial policies to identify ethnic groups and establish territorial boundaries. The political border that the British created between Kenya and Uganda cuts across ethnic groups linked by language, culture, and history. Kenya’s borders with Tanzania, ETHIOPIA, Sudan, and SOMALIA also disregarded ethnic relationships. As a result, artificial differences arose between related peoples.

Tanzania has taken a different approach to ethnicity. The government encourages the use of SWAHILI, the coastal language, as the national tongue, and people often identify themselves as belonging to several ethnic groups. But although Tanzania’s ethnic divisions are not as deep as those of Uganda and Kenya, economic tensions tend to highlight small differences. For example, the Chaga, who live in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, have enjoyed success in farming and business. They have faced envy and discrimination from neighboring groups, even though they are very similar to them ethnically.


Colonial administrators of central Africa divided the region into units and considered each unit home to a specific “tribe” with a leadership structure, a unique culture, and centuries of tradition. This practice was no more accurate or effective in central Africa than in other regions. It ignored the flexible, changeable, and evolving nature of ethnic identity. Christian missionaries reinforced this colonial concept as they chose local languages for education and Bible translation and created a structure for the churches’ own administrative units. Research in the late 1900s showed that many ethnic names of this region came from colonial practices rather than indigenous African tradition.

Even after independence, some central African politicians and intellectuals have continued to reinforce the colonial concept of tribes, which favors certain individuals and groups. However, ethnic identity can also benefit less favored groups by promoting a sense of unity and pride and giving them political influence. Politicians and ethnic leaders with varying interests have tried various approaches, including sponsoring ethnic festivals and associations, working to define the histories and folklore of ethnic groups, and calling for the return of traditional leadership.

Multiethnic Societies

Before the colonial era, most African states were multiethnic, that is, they usually had one dominant ethnic group, several other groups, several languages, and a shared culture. The colonial powers remolded ethnicity into a hierarchical structure of separate geographical units, each governed by a traditional ruler who served as a colonial official. Today, however, everyday life is multiethnic again, especially in towns but increasingly in rural areas as well.

Although many associations are organized along ethnic lines and designed to promote ethnic identification, numerous recreational, sports, and religious organizations resemble society in general and are multiethnic. In them, individuals learn to operate in the wider society. World religions such as Islam and Christianity are perhaps the least ethnically divided institutions in central Africa. Many churches offer services or rituals in more than one language.

Many of the towns of central Africa began as settlements created by colonial authorities to meet the needs of government and industry. The towns have been laboratories of multiethnic social life. They have attracted migrants of many ethnic backgrounds who speak a variety of languages. Townspeople learn to communicate in a common language, and they share the common experiences of urban life. But many people have complex ties to rural cultures as well.

The region, rather than the individual ethnic group, also shapes politics in central Africa. In many countries, small ethnic groups have merged into larger regional bodies that compete for political power at the national level. In ZAMBIA this process has given rise to “mega-ethnic groups” such as the Bemba. This name once referred to only one of the many ethnic groups in northeastern Zambia. Today, however, it refers to a cluster of groups in northern Zambia that has adopted Bemba as a shared language. The trend toward mega-ethnic groups appears to be continuing.

Ethnicity and Conflict

A society divided into different ethnic groups does not necessarily produce equal groups with the same amounts of power and status. Some groups may be seen as older, larger, richer, or more advanced than others. Ethnic groups tend to compete, striving to improve their positions. When they fail, individuals may try to move into more favored groups by changing their dress, language, or name.

Many Central Africans regard ethnicity as the most important factor in politics, and they tend to view any disturbance as an ethnic conflict. Ethnic labels allow complex social, economic, and political issues to be reduced to a simple case of “us against them.” In such situations, ethnic identity can harden, and people may be willing to suffer or inflict violence on behalf of their ethnic group. In many states in this region, poverty and political disorder have been regarded as ethnic conflicts. This viewpoint has led to bitter confrontations and, in some cases, to large-scale violence. In Rwanda the dominant Hutu waged a gruesome genocidal campaign of violence against the minority Tutsi in the mid-1990s. This tragedy continues to be felt throughout the region.


For many years, ethnic identity in southern Africa was shaped by APARTHEID, the policy of racial segregation that the white government of SOUTH AFRICA adopted to maintain control over the indigenous population. The government used ethnicity to justify its creation of ethnic “homelands” for black people. Many people who opposed apartheid and supported African nationalism rejected this approach as racist. To them, ethnicity was created entirely by the racist state to support its aims—property and profit for white people based on the cheap labor and obedience of black people.

Since the end of apartheid in the 1990s, South Africa has had a continuing debate about ethnic identity. Some people believe that as the racist structure of South Africa has been dismantled, more authentic forms of ethnicity have emerged. Others still feel that ethnicity is an expression of earlier racist policies and only serves the interests of the ruling class—whether black or white. According to this view, British and Dutch colonists used ethnicity to make black Africans easier to divide, control, and put to work in diamond mines and other white-owned industries. In addition, tribal identities kept people obedient to tribal leaders who were either appointed or influenced by the colonial powers. However, culture is a powerful force, and the fact that ethnic identity was largely invented does not make it a less real part of society.

The difficulty of defining ethnicity in southern Africa is illustrated by the ZULU. The Zulu state formed in the mid-1800s when many independent chiefdoms that shared culture and languages came under the rule of the Zulu king. Even when the Zulu kingdom united against the British, however, regional loyalties remained important, and most subjects of the state did not regard themselves as Zulu. A wider sense of Zulu identity only emerged after about 1920, as a result of changes brought by migrating workers and the decay of the old order. That identity received official recognition through the policy of apartheid when the South African government created a territory called KwaZulu as the Zulu “homeland.” Since the end of apartheid, some Zulu politicians continue to emphasize the rich Zulu history and to campaign for a selfgoverning Zulu region or even a fully independent state.

Ethnic identity tends to emerge most strongly when different groups interact and compete for power or resources. In southern Africa during colonial times, many indigenous groups were united in their opposition to foreign rule and tended to overlook their own differences. After independence, however, ethnic distinctions reappeared as groups struggled for the power once held by colonial administrations. In the same way, ZIMBABWE’s two major ethnic groups, the SHONA and the NDEBELE, worked together to defeat the white-dominated government and to win independence. Afterward they came into conflict.

The question of how to balance ethnic and national identity will likely remain a central issue of political life throughout the African continent. In NAMIBIA, for example, the years since independence have brought a number of ethnic claims for the recognition of rights to ancestral lands or kingdoms as well as a continuing public debate about how to reconcile these claims with national unity. (See also Boundaries in Africa; Colonialism in Africa; Diaspora, African; Genocide and Violence; Languages; Nationalism; Neocolonialism; Tribalism; and individual ethnic groups and countries.)