Colonial Style and Post-Colonial Ethnic Conflict in Africa

Peer-reviewed Journal Article

Mason, T. David;Athow, Brian; & Blanton, Robert G. (2001) Colonial Style and Post-Colonial Ethnic Conflict in Africa , Journal of Peace Research 38(4): 473–491.

Though European colonialism had a profound and lasting impact on the development of contemporary Africa, there are few studies that assess these effects empirically. This study explores one facet of the colonial legacy: ethnic conflict. Despite the pervasiveness of ethnic strife across the continent, grievance-based approaches have had only limited success in modeling ethnic conflict in Africa. Using a structural approach, we argue that the distinctive colonial styles of the British and French created fundamentally different systems of ethnic stratification, which left contrasting legacies for post-colonial ethnic conflict. Specifically, the indirect, decentralized rule of the British fostered an unranked system of ethnic stratification, while the legacy of the centralized French style approximated a ranked system. Because unranked systems foster competition between ethnic groups - which can readily spiral into conflict - we posit that the British colonial legacy is positively related to both the frequency and intensity of ethnic conflict. French colonies, on the other hand, were left with a centralized bureaucratic power structure that impeded ethnic mobilization and suppressed nonviolent ethnic challenges. Using the Minorities at Risk III dataset, we first compare the ethnic struggles faced across former British and French colonies. Next we test the impact of this colonial legacy on two facets of ethnic conflict, rebellious actions and civil war. Results indicate that, after controlling for other salient factors, a British colonial legacy is positively associated with ethnic conflict.

Replication datasets available