Political Competition and Ethnic Identification in Africa


  • This article builds on earlier work coauthored with Alicia Bannon. The authors thank members of the Working Group in African Political Economy, the editors of the Afrobarometer Working Paper Series, two anonymous reviewers, and seminar participants at UCLA, Yale, Princeton, and Michigan State universities for their helpful comments. An earlier version of this article was published as Afrobarometer Working Paper No. 89.

Benn Eifert is a Graduate Student in Economics, University of California, Berkeley, 508-1 Evans Hall #3880, Berkeley, CA 94720 (benn@econ.berkeley.edu). Edward Miguel is Professor of Economics, University of California, Berkeley, 508-1 Evans Hall #3880, Berkeley, CA 94720 (emiguel@econ.berkeley.edu). Daniel N. Posner is Associate Professor of Political Science, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1472 (dposner@polisci.ucla.edu).


This article draws on data from over 35,000 respondents in 22 public opinion surveys in 10 countries and finds strong evidence that ethnic identities in Africa are strengthened by exposure to political competition. In particular, for every month closer their country is to a competitive presidential election, survey respondents are 1.8 percentage points more likely to identify in ethnic terms. Using an innovative multinomial logit empirical methodology, we find that these shifts are accompanied by a corresponding reduction in the salience of occupational and class identities. Our findings lend support to situational theories of social identification and are consistent with the view that ethnic identities matter in Africa for instrumental reasons: because they are useful in the competition for political power.