international analysis and commentary

Ethnic integration and economic growth: Cameroon, Gabon and Kenya


If we think of African history after colonialism, a number of civil wars and social conflicts come to mind. Inevitably, those conflicts are reduced to ethnic disputes: Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo, Nigeria, Sudan and most of all Rwanda are blatant examples of how different groups in the same nation can originate conflicts. Nonetheless, against this tragic backdrop, some countries have somehow managed to overcome their internal difficulties through peaceful coexistence. These (few) successful cases empirically demonstrate how forms of racial and cultural integration will eventually bring about durable economic stability. These positive examples are notably Cameroon, Gabon and Kenya.

As a matter of fact, they all share similar demographic backgrounds (with due differences): they all have dozens of sub-ethnic groups, each with its own language, culture and peculiarities. Also, the central governments have – at different times – decided to favor social integration and urbanization, which at the same time affected directly or indirectly the mutual coexistence of groups and their inclusion in a common framework. Today their economies are unquestionably on a growth path that seems more promising than elsewhere on the continent.

Cameroon is considered one of the most ethnically fragmented countries in Africa. It has five well-known regional divisions: the Semi-Bantu groups, with the Bamiléké, living in the west and being the majority of the population; the coastal people, the Douala; the Bani-Pahuin, who live in the south of Cameroon; the Islamic groups, such as those living in the Sahel; and the Kirdi, who live in the highlands. Amongst these ethnic groups, many speak different languages or dialects, others have varying tribal traditions and some of them even have diverse racial traits. These facts suggest that Cameroon hosts more than 200 distinct ethnic groups. To further complicate things, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism have won an almost equal number of adherents in Cameroon. However, its history is not filled with disastrous civil wars: on the contrary, it bares the positive demographic consequences of a sound integration policy. Difficulties from geographic separations between Anglophones and Francophones were overcome by the end of the 1970s. In 1972, in fact, then President Ahmadou Adijho abolished the federal system, thus favoring the displacement of populations (mostly from the south to the northwest).

Straight after the 1980-90s crisis, President Paul Biya acknowledged the necessity to proceed to a more powerful form of integration: the idea was that economic stability flows from internal peace. His focus was to concentrate populations in the largest cities – such as Douala and Yaoundé – and to create agricultural communities in the north. People were given land to work on and such reform led them to a peaceful coexistence whilst massive yet voluntary population displacement took place through internal migration. In the cities people from different ethnicities began to live side by side. The economy is still rather traditional: the two major sources of income are agriculture (70% of the workforce and almost 50% of the GDP) and oil exports. But Cameroon has successfully been following reform programs advocated by the World Bank and the IMF since the late 1980s. These programs feature industry privatization, large liberalization and cuts to government expenses. Now, the country is well placed to become a full-fledged emerging economy over the next few years.

Ethnic boundaries are less sharply drawn in Gabon than elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa. It is thought that over forty ethnic groups live in this country, each of them with different languages and traditions. Yet, boundaries are blurred, and most groups are spread all over the territory. Contrary to Cameroon, there was only one colonial language (French) and this remains a formidable unifying force. President Ali Bongo Ondimba recently encouraged marriage between ethnicities, which was already quite common in Gabonese society. In addition, the fact that education is compulsory for children until age 16 regardless of ethnicity has given the whole country the same educational basis, providing people with a common cultural background.

This social merging produces effects in the economic realm. On one hand the only party (the Parti Democratique du Gabon) has established a clear semi-dictatorial dominance over other political forces; on the other however it has so far managed to somehow co-opt most Gabonese political and social forces, unifying diverse interests. Looking at economics, two major export products make up the bulk of Gabon’s assets timber and oil. Investments in the wood industry called upon workers from all over the country, i.e. all Bantu sub-groups: this produced a massive internal migratory movement, regardless of ethnicity. The oil extraction processes had the same social merging function. These two activities are bringing Gabon to the top of the African charts for per capita GDP (over $8,000). Also, Gabon has successfully completed long-term structural reform programs with the international financial institutions. Although income distribution remains very uneven, Gabon nowadays has the highest HDI (Human Development Index) figure in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Kenya is perhaps the most effective example of how ethnic integration can lead to either regional conflicts or social and economic development. Kenya has experienced both. Its ethnic groups include a wide variety of sub-racial communities. Although the majority of the population has Bantu origins, many others share a common Nilotes ancestry. Sub-groups for those ethnicities supposedly number over forty and the dialects spoken outnumber them. However, common languages have been major unifying forces: English, the colonial language, and Swahili, the “language of the people”, are the framework of reference. Swahili in particular has been used since the 1960s as a social binding agent both in the less urbanized areas and in most coastal cities. In recent years English has taken on a bigger role as the economy began to diversify and modernize.  As it can be easily guessed, agriculture is still the main sector for the Kenyan economy. Despite recent reforms to widening exportations and foreign investments, 75% of the active population works in plantations. Recently the country carried out large investments in the tertiary sector, thus diversifying sources of income. This somehow testifies to how labor is created when social inclusion happens, but also the other way around. GDP growth has been very significant, especially in the tourism and communications sector: this has made Kenya the largest and the most advanced economy in central Africa, with current growth estimates around 7%.

As a general conclusion, integration strategies offer undisputed advantages in the long run, even when stability is fragile or elusive. The countries that have carried out painful social reforms are now among the wealthiest in Africa. Reasonable integration policies, along with sufficiently long periods of peace, can indeed create the preconditions for remarkable economic results.