By Chinaza Asiegbu
“Black people are not Republicans. We vote for Democrats. Being a black Republican is something we just don’t do.” I first had this maxim delineated to me while watching an episode of Blackish in my sophomore year of high school, although I was aware of the underlying expectation that marginalized people of color vote for Democrats. In the episode, the grandmother was insistent upon voting for Hillary Clinton, regardless of the fact that her ideals aligned perfectly with those of the Republican candidate, Donald Trump, on issues regarding immigration, climate change, and abortion. The blatant and ironic discrepancy between her strong political beliefs and faithful partisan allegiance elsewhere, aside from providing us comedy, presents us with the dilemma of mass ethnic voting. It convinces voters that have been traditionally marginalized to vote outside of their own interests or beliefs for the sake of cultural patronage. Yet, this problem is not contained within the United States’ borders; in fact, it manifests itself differently in many nations.
During my family visit to Nigeria last winter, I remember seeing the same wall that was demanding citizens to “Post No Bills” plastered with campaign posters. It was election period in Nigeria, and I keenly observed as my father, a firm follower of Biafran news, and his brother discussed the national election in the car. In choosing between current President Buhari and Atiku Abubakar, their attention was curiously directed towards Abubakar’s running mate, Peter Obi. Besides being a formidable governor in my family’s state of Anambra, Obi is Igbo and promised to give “the Igbos an opportunity for inclusivity in government.” Their approval of Obi extended favorably to Abubakar, which was reflected on a broader scale when the Ohanaeze Ndigbo, an apex Igbo socio-cultural group in Nigeria, endorsed the Atiku Abubakar/Peter Obi ticket in the 2019 presidential election. Despite not being a political organization, Ohaneze Ndigbo’s purpose is to “foster unity among its members in order to better allow them to be representative within the political scenario of Nigeria.”
In Nigeria, ethnicity is stratified differently than the United States, dictated less by physical attributes like skin color and more by tribal groups. Although through a different vessel of separation, ethnic politics still manifests itself in the same way when citizens are expected to vote in a certain fashion based on their heritage. The fight for the “black vote” is validated as a viable source of active discourse during the American election period, whereas these same ethnic parallels between partisanship and ethnicity have been used as vehicles for war and belittled as informal by the international world in regard to Nigeria. Although there is an understanding that ethnic cleavages, when politicized for the purpose of mobilizing votes, can lead to severe delegations of power, the manifestation of this political division is perceived as informal in Africa, while in the United States, it is characterized as “interest group politics” rather than the corrupt connotation of political favoritism.
First, the African American commitment to the Democratic party can be explained through statistics, campaign strategy, and black people’s genuine desire to overcome the racial inequality and social injustice that has suppressed them historically. Because of these factors, African Americans are the most partisan racial group in the United States, proving disproportionately loyal to the Democrats. In fact, the last Republican to win the black majority was Herbert Hoover in 1932. During the 2012 Presidential Election, Barack Obama received 94% of the black vote, compared to 39% of the white vote. In fact, Democratic candidates can typically expect to receive 85% to 95% of African Americans to rally behind them. Beyond the perspective of black voters, even African American elected officials are popularly Democrats, averaging more than 90% of total public servants and all of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Given the loyalty of African Americans to Democrats, black people are intrinsically essentialized to the fate of Democrats while also being taken for granted. They are simultaneously at the center of the party’s strategy and on the margins of the party’s priorities. Because of the superficial success of interest group politics, the problem often persists in a cyclical nature. Since presidential policymakers rely on the African American bloc, African Americans do indeed exert a degree of influence over the Democratic Party. Hence, this voting power engenders a sentiment of loyalty to the party that restores their political agency, which then inspires black people to continue voting Democrat. However, this undue gratitude for a virtue that black people should be entitled to signifies how little black people have been conditioned to expect from the political Establishment. The political agency black people believe they exercise is a paradox; the black commitment to the Democratic ticket denies agency of choice to an ethnic group that unconditionally supports one party.
In the same vein, ethnicity has infiltrated the national political system of Nigeria in a way that threatens the survival of Nigeria’s democratic system. The conception of Nigeria as a nation may bear weight internationally, but upon further inspection, it is clear that ethnic identity precedes national identity for most Nigerians. The roots of ethnic bias and favoritism were sewn in Colonialism, when arbitrarily redrawn boundaries promoted extraction of African resources, rather than any genuine development. Today, Nigeria bears the repercussions of the colonialists’ weaponization of ethnic division as a means of control. It fostered rivalries between tribes that created a desire for political power among ethnic groups as a depiction of having a stake in the nation. At moments when certain groups feel excluded from the political scene, heavy discourse of political marginalization disrupts the unity of Nigeria. An example of this grievance exacerbated to the highest degree took place during the Nigerian Civil War, when Igbos declared independence from Nigeria and formed Biafra in 1967. Although not as drastic, the dimension of ethnicism plays a vital factor in Nigerian government, from the local level to the highest political office of President. Ethnicism, or bias towards one’s own ethnic group, pervades Nigeria’s civil service structure, voting patterns, distribution of various political offices, and patronage of the citizens by the government.
As black voters in the United States and Nigeria have demonstrated, ethnicity has the power to inform the political parties with which ethnic groups affiliate. Ethnic kinship was fostered in part through the collective support of a party believed to be most closely representative of the internal makeup of that ethnic group’s values and interests. The dangers that ethnicity-informing political party affiliations pose to the interests of those marginalized groups arise from the systemic sameness that it creates. It distributes a dangerous amount of power to the receiving political party to maneuver the ethnic voting public against its own interests. This is said not to fault black people or Nigerian ethnic groups but to begin to understand the origins of this shared voting trend. In order to evaluate how ethnicity in different regions can manifest itself in similar electoral decision-making, we must also define ethnicity. According to Nelson Kafir, the concept of ethnicity can be summarized as the product of underlying objective characteristics associated with common descent like language and culture that establish insiders and outsiders, which generally become the basis for mobilizing group consciousness and solidarity. The formation of social solidarity in response to a situation unites members of an ethnic category into an ethnic group.
Gradually, this solidarity can develop into political mobilization, thus producing ethnic political participation. American black people and Nigerian ethnic groups share similarities, not only by virtue of mass voting for ethnic group but also based on the historical roots of that mobilization or the circumstance that incited social solidarity. Both groups endured similar periods of enfranchisement—independence for Nigeria and civil rights for African Americans—that afforded them a political efficacy they had not experienced prior. Hence, these rights introduced a newfound confidence that fostered a voting stronghold in retaliation against the systematic forms of oppression that caused unionization, mobilization, and organization in the first place. Violence in the structural and physical sense fostered a kinship among ethnic groups that transitioned dissatisfied sentiment from slavery, discrimination, and colonization into action, political solidarity, and mobilization.
By unpacking the parallels between American black voter decision-making and Nigerian ethnic group voting, we can begin to decipher the racial undertones that govern perceptions of African governments as being informal. This also helps explain how the presumed informality of African government serves as a lens through which the Global North regards the voting behavior of African ethnic groups. Chabal and Daloz refer to transitional politics of colonization in an attempt to excuse African governments from their poorly institutionalized politics. But if “poorly institutionalized politics” alludes to a lack of agency from people because of their tendency to vote according to race, the United States, a self-proclaimed institutionalized political power, must question its capitalization on that same methodology to procure votes. In fact, the main aspect that differentiates them is the United States’ exploitation of the link between ethnicity and voting. Is the defining trait of exploitation based on power dynamics? What formalizes American politics in contrast to African politics? The caverns of informalization were widened not by the nature of African culture, but by “the intensification of the informal sector” and “the social reshuffling” that were by-products of Western colonization and interference. Ultimately, “the actions of interest groups” that Chabal and Daloz inevitably characterized as unusual were only acting in contestation with the looming threat of Western power as a way to recapture ownership of the state.
Therefore, the question remains: why is the “black vote” formal and “ethnic politics” informal? Criticism in the United States that black people are selling their political capital too cheaply establishes a recognition that equating ethnicity to “political capital” is acceptable. Leveraging ethnicity for political means is capitalized upon by politicians domestically while exoticized abroad. Jackson and Rosberg fairly recognize that ethnic cleavages can result in “national political stability and the capacity of governments to control their territories;” however, they selectively isolate Africans as the only arbiters of ethnic divide. The efforts by African governments to emphasize nationhood can also be analogized to the efforts of the Democratic Party to be endorsed by the “black vote.” Nationalism is weaponized in each American political election to stabilize the tensions and hesitation of voters, primarily from marginalized groups that have been taken advantage of and overlooked. The issue arises when the author abnormalizes the problems of quelling instability of political communities in African countries.
Rather than recognize the parallels between electoral politics in Africa and the United States, Jackson and Rosberg characterize African politicians’ “preference for political monopoly generally, their lack of sympathy for federalism, and their attack on political liberties”  as underdeveloped and primitive. Along with misappropriating these actions as exclusively African, the authors employ such language that portrays African government as haphazard, clumsy, and negligent. Because of its blatant disregard for democracy and order, the authors insist, Africa sabotages itself by allowing ethnic divides to dictate political outcomes. To make matters worse, the Global North paternalistically attributes much of the success and “survival of Africa’s existing states” to its own contributions. However, in the same breath, they condemn African states for having pervasive issues, such as ethnic politics, and necessitate that these nations bear the burden of solving them. In many ways, this Western tendency projects the perception of Africa as a child that will never grow up.
Regardless of where in the world it is conducted, politics is ultimately still politics. Politicians fail to put ethnic groups at the center of political decision-making unless there is a tangible benefit, yet the most vulnerable ethnic groups, coupled with socioeconomic status, always feel the effects of their policies most strongly. The Democrats’ directness about racialized voting tactics reflects a Western privilege and domination over the epistemology of formalization and government. Likewise, the United States is not immune to the political instability that it and other Western bodies claim Africa will fall victim to by virtue of its ethnicism.
Chinaza Asiegbu is a junior at Harvard University, concentrating in History with a secondary in African Studies and a French citation. Chinaza is the Co-Founder and President of the United Nations Association of the United States of America, Harvard chapter. Currently, she works with Integrity Initiatives International and has also participated in past internship programs at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the United States District Court - District of Massachusetts. She currently has work in press with the Yale Historical Review and Journal of African Union Studies.
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