Ties that Bind? Evidence of both Unity and Division in 18 African Countries

In this year of COVID-19, the ability of societies to work collectively to respond to challenges has taken center stage. In fact, early public support for and adherence to public health measures has been cited as one factor explaining Africa’s far lower per-capita infection and death rates compared to other global regions. Analysts study social bonds and social divisions precisely because they believe that societies that are more cohesive, i.e. that have stronger, more positive relationships across social groups, and between social groups and the government, will be more capable of solving shared problems and promoting greater well-being and development. How strong or weak are social bonds in Africa? The continent has often been portrayed as conflict-ridden and characterized by divisions, especially divisions based on ethnicity. What is the reality? Do citizens of African countries share a sense of common identity and national purpose that can bring them together to serve collective goals, as some of the recent experiences fighting the coronavirus pandemic would suggest? Or are they, as the stereotypes suggest, riven by cleavages and distrust that thwart the pursuit of the public good? Extensive research, built around concepts such as social capital, social cohesion, and pluralism, has explored how people identify themselves, where social cleavages are deepest, and how relationships develop horizontally across identity groups and vertically between these groups and the state. Both identities and relationships are complex and multi-dimensional. Recent data from Afrobarometer shed new light on some of these identities and relationships. Afrobarometer has focused on three key sources of identity and potential cleavage – ethnicity, religion, and economic status – while also examining the pull of collective national identity. In terms of relationships, in addition to measuring trust, Afrobarometer explores tolerance as well as identity-based discrimination. Findings reveal the complexity of social cohesion. Generalized trust is exceedingly low – seemingly quite a bad sign for African societies – and the experience of discrimination, especially unfair treatment based on economic status, is relatively widespread. But at the same time, there is clear evidence of popular appreciation for diversity, as well as powerful adherence to overarching national identities.