Negative Ethnicity cover

Negative Ethnicityfrom bias to genocide

by Koigi Wa Wamwere

published in 

first published in 2003


✔ Available to borrow

207 pages

published by Seven Stories Press

published in New York

owned in Printed Book format

This book shines a light on a poisonous concept that interlocks with racism to keep African nations and people all over the world divided and conquered: negative ethnicity. This can be described loosely as intra-group othering: though most of the 42 ethnicities of Kenya would be categorized as Black by outsiders, the differences in language and heritage between them has been used by people in power throughout history to pit groups against each other.

This legacy of division felt like it would end with the successful bid for independence against British colonial domination by the Mau Mau freedom coalition, but Mr. Wamware traces the lineage of elites choosing negative ethnicity as a tool to consolidate power since independence, leading to disaster. Mr. Wamwere was a political prisoner in Kenya under an administration of his own ethnicity—Gikuyu, the largest ethnic group in Kenya—and under a Kalenjin presidency.

He plainly lays out that the root of this tribalism and lack of national identity is based on several pillars:

  1. A nihilism that things will never fundamentally improve for the country as a whole
  2. A mistrust of other groups, especially with different language, to not have your groups interests at heart
  3. A belief that the only kind of egalitarianism possible is a rotational system of "eating", i.e. a different group gets to be in power and reap its benefits

He then demonstrates how these small allowances for seething coexistence with enemies will always fester into mass theft, violence, and ultimately genocide, with numerous contemporaneous examples from then-present Africa like Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, and Somalia.

He lays out how each facet of society is responsible for engendering negative ethnicity in turn, and points toward how better behavior could look. He then gives colonial rule and white racism its due in laying the historical groundwork and poverty-riddled environment for negative ethnicity to fester in Africa, and points to ways in which negative ethnicity is a global problem with examples from white and wealthy nations. Finally, he lays the last stone in his house speaking to how the fundamentally exploitative worldview of capitalism is what serves as the oxygen the flames of negative ethnicity.

This was a lucid and urgent treatise on the tense realities of current global political economy. I am looking to keep my notes from it handy to speak out against negative ethnicity in America and elsewhere.

Selected quotes

When the ethnic volcano of Kosovo erupted, no other crisis in the world mattered to the BBC, CNN, or any other of the Western news agencies. When it comes to saving lives, racism determines that the lives of white people are more important than those of non-whites. Unfortunately, too many Africans still naively look up to Europeans and Americans to bury the dead and feed the refugees of their own ethnic wars. —pg 30

This quote made me think of the invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 and the lack of coverage of other ongoing atrocities alongside it, like Iran or Somalia.

Like racism, negative ethnicity has spawned many genocidal forces. But while genocide, the product of negative ethnicity, is rightly regarded as a crime against humanity, negative ethnicity is not. It is indeed funny logic that considers the child worse than the parent. —pg 32

Racism is negative ethnicity's chief ally because racism creates distance between people, allowing them to dismiss each other's suffering. —pg 37

From 1953 to 1956 there had been a total ban on African political organization [under British colonial rule]. When the Lyttelton Constitution with increased African representation was in the offing, the government decided to permit the formation of district political associations...but no national political movement under any circumstances. This was the start of a policy that for the next years prohibited the formation of supra-tribal political bodies and fostered every kind of local separatism. When, as a result, a profusion of parties and leaders developed, all with district and not national loyalties, the African people were blamed for tribalism and disunity! —pg 59, a quote from Oginga Odigna's Not Yet Uhuru

In my notes I said local-first politics can be used as a distraction, fracturing coalitions that could be regional or national and preventing a wave from forming. I believe that this is often the case with the Democratic party in the United States, and more broadly with the deeply cultivated fear of federal policy and politics in the US.

Concerning the hideousness of our negative ethnicity in Africa, white people should not laugh. They would be like apes laughing at the red behinds of other apes. —pg 62

The end of a passage outlining the various genocides and apartheids executed by white people against other white people and other races, such as in South Africa which was just winding down at the time of the book's writing.

Kalenjin strategies of cutting down the numbers of larger ethnic communities were many and varied. The most obvious ones included reducing the number of people that could register as voters in opposition areas by giving them few registration centers, opening these late, and closing them early. —pg 79

I wrote "sounds like home" in the margin.

Today the biggest purveyors of negative ethnicity in Africa are ethnic political parties. These are popular, influential, and appealing. Abandoning multiethnic nationalism is not portrayed as betrayal but rationalized as jumping off a sinking ship. That it is ethnic leaders who have blown gaping holes into the floor of the ship is a fact never mentioned. With multiethnic nationalism sabotaged, negative ethnicity has come forward as the ideology of salvation—to deliver African people from poverty, dictatorship, discrimination, insecurity, oppression, and exploitation. —pg 107

Speaks to the nihilism of elites that is explored more later in the book, and is shared by most of American elites as well, especially fundamentalist Christian ones that believe the world is fallen and unfixable.

Poverty in Africa is not accidental, natural, or God-given. It is the result of the slave trade, colonial exploitation, restricted trade with the West, and corrupt dictatorships. In countries that nurture negative ethnicity, dictators intentionally create poverty as a means of political control. —pg 143

‼️ Must-read passage.

Majimboism will not lead to a democratic transformation or renewal at the grassroots level. It will merely constitute a geographical dispersal of authoritarian structure from the center into the regions. At the village level, majimboism will merely perpetuate the absolute dictatorship of the chiefs under the guise of preserving tribal customs, tradition, and culture. It will bring oppression closer to the people (Sunday Standard, December 9, 2001). —pg 162, A quote from Kenyan journalist Kiraitu Muriungi

Majimboism is a potential solution posed by some Kenyans and other Africans in multiethnic states, of splitting government administration by ethnically-defined regions. Mr. Wamware disassembles this idea in his section on "False Solutions", and majimboism sounds familiar to me in Unites States discussions of federalism, separatism, and states' rights, particularly on abortion restrictions in 2022.

On the other hand, when an opposition party today call for a government of national unity, it is asking to be incorporated into the ruling ethnic dictatorship. Its goal is not to end negative ethnicity but to reap the benefits of power, money, and privilege. In these negotiations, ethnic elites do not ask for the inclusion of their supposedly different policies and ideologies, but for their inclusion as eating partners. ... A government of national unity talks ethnic unity but survives on ethnic disunity, which must be preserved if the government is to be preserved. —pg 174-175

see also: the United States Democratic Party.

Though Museveni's argument might have some merit, I disagree with him. When motivated by the greed and negative ethnicity that grows out of the capitalist scramble for resources, people will sacrifice the economic benefits of living harmoniously with other people as their customer in the false conviction that these same people cause their problems.

The reality is that negative ethnicity is more important in Africa than money. In Kenya, I have seen Maasai and Pokot peoples chase away Gikuyu shopowners and farmers, uncaring about the loss of food and much-needed commercial goods. Many even believe they will get richer by taking over shops they will not run and land they will not farm. Museveni fails to comprehend that capitalism comes with deadly competition among classes and ethnic groups. —pg 179

Coexistence itself is not the basis of conflict between different ethnic communities. Instead, it breeds unity and harmony. When there is trouble, more coexistence should be sought, not less. Communities that cannot coexist when they are neighbors are just as likely to fail at coexisting as neighboring countries. Ethnic conflicts arise not out of living together but out of the urge to exploit and dominate. If people end this urge, there will be no need for separation. —pg 182

⭐️ I very rarely come across passages I agree this much with. I want everyone to hear this, and believe it. I have seen it.

A more viable approach to an ethnic redrawing of the map of Africa is to join communities and countries into larger countries. Dr. Makau wa Mutua has suggested that today's fifty African states could be compressed into fourteen larger states—Kusini, Kisiwani, Angola, Congo, Nubia, Somalia, Ethiopia, Egypt, Libya, Benin, Ghana, Mali, Algeria, and Sahara. Even better, the whole of Africa could become one country—Africa. This would benefit the economy and might also help to end negative ethnicity. If African elites can learn how to fish in oceans instead of trolling tiny fonds for small fish, they will become better fishermen; their small fish will swim out and become bigger in big seas and they will catch whales instead of sardines. —pg 183

With socialism discredited, ordinary people thought they could best fight for their survival by uniting with ethnic elites to stop other communities from exploiting them. No longer thinking of ending exploitation, people could only seek partial protection from other communities, while their own elites exploited them at will. —pg 189

Capitalism and colonialism breed nihilism and rely on it to constrict the political imagination of lower classes.

Through an equitable distribution of resources, a humanist social democracy can avoid class conflict. People will not fight if they are fed and their basic needs met. The same concept applies to ethnic conflict. It can be avoided if there is a fair distribution of resources among everyone in a multiethnic country. —pg 191

Although I will say from American experience that the hedonic treadmill is not your friend in convincing the people who have an unfair amount of power and privilege that them losing any of it is fair and just.

Some people also argue that seeking to extinguish negative ethnicity with love is pointless because love has no political or economic value. Every political and economic development implies a stability that is impossible without love. Love makes growth possible, it has economic value, not to mention that the happiness it gives us is the elusive purpose of all our economic and political activities. —pg 193

🖤 A forthright and bold assertion of the non-utopian, practical and vital importance of love for social building.


Wamwere, Koigi Wa. Negative Ethnicity: from bias to genocide. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003. Printed Book.