Identity Politics in Sub-Saharan Africa

Virginia Beard, Ph.D. | Associate Professor of Political Science

Dr. Virginia Beard was into identity politics long before the issue showed up on America’s front pages.

For more than a decade, she’s investigated how religion, ethnicity and gender influence democratic attitudes and behaviors.

In two papers finished in 2019, she lays out how religious identity affects attitudes toward democracy in some countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and how ethnic identity plays out in elections in Kenya.

Religious identity significantly influences both a demand for democracy and the rejection of its alternative forms, she argues in one of those papers, which wrestles with two research findings that at first blush seem contradictory. The first is that Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa are slightly (but statistically significantly) more likely than the region’s Christians to demand democracy. In documenting this point, Beard’s research contributes to the global conversation about whether Islam is compatible with democracy.

“A lot of that research uses countries in the Middle East, but there’s not much that looks at how Islam plays out in different parts of the world,” Beard says. “In sub-Saharan Africa, in countries like Senegal — which has roughly 98 percent Islamic adherents — they are extremely democratic relative to other countries in sub-Saharan Africa. So, yes, Islam is as compatible as any other religion to democracy. It might look different, but context matters.”

It’s her second finding that, when set next to the first, provides the head-scratcher: Muslims are also more likely than Christians to be open to autocracy in the form of military rule.

To unknot this puzzle of seeming incompatibility — expressed preferences for both democratic governance and military autocracy — Beard scrutinized the historical experience and context of nations where this finding surfaces. In addition to her own research in Kenya and nearby East African nations, she drew on data made available by the Afrobarometer Survey Research Project, a non-partisan research institution that conducts public opinion surveys in 18 African nations on topics including democracy and governance. (Beard worked on the Afrobarometer as a graduate student.)

When she first explored this question while developing her 2006 doctoral dissertation, the Afrobarometer was tracking four countries that had significant Muslim populations: Senegal, Nigeria, Mali and Mozambique. In two of them, citizens had witnessed the military stepping in to restore order to an ill-functioning state, holding control temporarily, and then transitioning to some form of democratic elections. In those nations, the seemingly inconsistent preferences persisted. In the other two, they did not.

If individuals’ personal experience of their country’s past demonstrated that military autocracy could lead to democratic governance, Beard notes, then it follows that people in that country might be sympathetic both to democracy and to military rule (provided that the latter is expected to be provisional).

“I reviewed the data to see if it holds over time that those ‘inconsistent’ preferences are found in people who live in countries where the military might have actually worked in favor of democracy,” Beard says. “My argument is that it was their regime experience — how the military could coalesce with a type of democracy — that meant they would allow for it provisionally. It’s not actually inconsistent preferences, but the experience of how the military worked in democracy.”

The other paper Beard completed in 2019 examines the role of ethnicity in Kenyan elections. She compared quantitative Afrobarometer data to what the Kenyan media reflects about identity politics.

Of Kenya’s 42 ethnic groups, just a small handful — Kikuyu, Luhya, Luo, Kalenjin and Kamba — are politically relevant, with allegiances and alignments that shift from election to election in a particularly Kenyan iteration of the universally relentless struggle for political power, Beard says — and to keep that power they “pull the ethnic lever to keep the masses supporting one side or the other.”

Afrobarometer data gets at whether a respondent identifies primarily with a nationality, or with an ethnic group. For example, one question asks whether a respondent feels only Kenyan; more Kenyan than, for example, Kikuyu; equally Kenyan and Kikuyu; more Kikuyu than Kenyan; or only Kikuyu.

“A lot of these show a waxing and waning of people feeling more Kenyan,” Beard says. For a time, it became increasingly common for people to identify as Kenyan first, and less intensely with their ethnic group. That recently shifted, she reports; now, more Kenyans put the two on equal footing, or identify most deeply with their ethnic group.

As Beard analyzes Kenyan media coverage, she includes opinion pieces and letters to the editor, which she suspects may express people’s perceptions more accurately than journalists’ articles and reports do. Many of the letters and op-ed pieces include statements that reveal the persistent importance of ethnic identity: as Beard sums it up, “‘In my gut I’m both Kenyan and Kikuyu. But the one that gets me a job or gets me arrested? That’s my ethnicity.’”

Beard’s been amassing media samples and qualitative information since 2014, when she spent two months in Kenya and had access to print newspapers. Back at Hope, she and a student entered her findings into a data set, and she resumed the analysis she’d begun in Kenya. She continues to add and analyze articles obtained from online editions of the newspaper.

She took advantage of an unrelated Great Lakes Colleges Association faculty study tour to Kenya in summer 2019 to gather additional information. “I get a better sense of things when I’m on the ground,” she says, “especially with things that don’t make international news but are reported on local Kenyan television or in print editions of the newspapers.”