Political and Cultural Salience in Malawi and Zambia

Political and Cultural Salience in Malawi and Zambia

Theories of ethnic conflicts and mobilization have emphasized that politicians are the main actors in ethnic conflicts. The article “The political salience of cultural difference: Why Chewas andTumbukasare allies in Zambia and adversaries in Malawi” by Posner (2004) explores circumstances under which the cultural and ethnic differences become salient in politics.Posner (2004) carries out an experimental study in Malawi and Zambia. The subjects of his research are Chewas and Tumbukas, who are the majority of cultural groups in Malawi and minority cultural groups in Zambia. I agree with Posner’s argument and findings from the research study that cultural cleavage in politics is only significant where the size of ethnic groups is large enough for political exploitation and competition.

Article Summary

            Posner (2004) carried out a qualitative study to determine the impact of cultural difference on political salience. In this context, salience implies “political relevance.” The study was based on two countries in Africa: Malawi and Zambia. The population of Chewas and Tumbukas varies in the two countries. The population of Tumbukas and Chewas in Malawi is large compared to the size of the country. On the other hand, their population in Zambia is smaller compared to the size of the country.Posner’s research question is “Why does some cultural differences matter for politics and others not?”Posner sets out to respond to this research question by carrying out two independent studies in Malawi and Zambia. Posner (2004) proves the political salience of cultural difference thrives on existing cultural cleavage. He writes, “…If cultural cleavage defines groups as too small to serve as viable bases for political support…they will go immobilized…”(Posner, 2004, p. 530). Posner’s study hypothesizes that political salience lies in the size of the cultural cleavage of a group.Politicians capitalize on cultural rifts to gain political momentum for winning political seats.


Why I Agree With Posner’s Argument

Cultural differences polarize groups along ethnic differences. In the case of Tumbukas and Chewas, cultural differences are created by geographical borders and tribal differences.According to Posner (2004), the population of Tumbukas and Chewas in Malawi is significant enough to give them political value. Since African politics thrives on ethnic and cultural differences, politicians in Malawi find it easy to mobilize people along cultural and tribal differences.I find that Posner’s qualitative study elucidates why the Chewa-Tumbuka relations in Malawi and Zambia.

African politics thrive on ethnicity or cultural differences.In many African countries, both politicians and electorates think that the only way to access national resources is through political power. Unfortunately, this political power cannot be obtained except through the support of the political majority.In Olayode’s article (2016), the author explains how African politics provide a sense of identity and belonging. Many politicians seek to divide electorates along ethnic and cultural lines.Posner (2004) magnifies this statement by saying that Malawian politicians often try to create a political block of “Tumbukanes” or “Chewaness.” This is in contrast to politicians in Zambia who do not find the political significance of the two ethnic groups due to their size.Instead, they seek to unite them for political advantages.

In many African countries, politics revolves around the control of national resources and power.After gaining independence from former colonial masters, many African countries are still wallowing in the politics of ethnicity as they compete for available resources and wealth.Posner (2004) explains that because the national government controls economic resources, politicians have to build a political base to rise to power. Another reason for creating political support along cultural and ethnic difference is to exert pressure on people in power.People in political seek to use corrupt means to control tariffs and taxes, schools, health institutions, and licenses for economic advantages.

I support Posner’s argument because of the examples he uses to reinforce his argument on political salience in Malawi and Zambia.According to Posner (2004), politicians have alternative exploitable cleavages that in both Malawi and Zambia. These cleavages apply to minority ethnic groups and the majority, but politicians often focus on majority tribes and cultures. Posner (2004, p. 539) writes that “…In Zambia, neither Chewa community norTumbuka alone is large enough to form a political base.” Politicians are sensitive to political when it comes to creating political bases from ethnic groups. In Zambia, political figures campaign by promising the two groups accommodation in the national government. Since the two groups are located in the northern region, their ethnic identity is silent. Instead, politicians categorize them as northerners.This magnifies the political salience of cultural differences.

Even though I support Posner’s argument and pieces of evidence presented in his qualitative study, I find some weaknesses an opponent of this view may exploit. One of the assumptions that Posner (2004) makes is that politicians are the primary drivers of ethnic differences. He fails to recognize the fact that many cultural and ethnic groups have political affiliations.An opponent of this study could argue that Posner is biased against politicians. I can, therefore, defend Posner’s stand by explaining how African cultures have a history of political affiliations. Even though my position may not be supported by qualitative research, it is nearly impossible for one to ignore the existence of politics in different cultures. Thus, the political affiliation of Tumbukas or Chewas may have been shaped by politicians, but historically, African groups had civic organizations. These political organizations may have been rendered ineffective by colonialists, but they thrive at the heart of each community.

African political parties are formed along ethnic and cultural differences.When seeking to unite groups for political advantages, politicians will form political parties with names such as “Alliance for Democracy” or “Democratic Party.” Their manifestos also reflect inclusion. This is, however, only theoretical. Once they have obtained political mileage, they forget their promises to their electorates. When electorates realize that they were exploited for political reasons, they form another group that magnifies cultural cleavage for future exploitation. The cycle continues, creating political salience similar to the argument raised by Posner.

Ethnic and cultural cleavages shape political salience in Malawi and Zambia.Cleavages are cultural weaknesses or differences within a community that politicians can exploit for political advantages. In countries where one ethnic group is significant enough to cause a political base, politicians campaign using cultural and ethnic cards. This is exemplified in Malawi where the population of Tumbukas and Chewas is large compared to the country’s population. In Zambia where the population of the two tribes is not significant enough to form political blocks,politicians tend to suppress cultural cleavages.Even though politicians shape cultural and ethnic divisions, some of them developed from historical civic organizations. Thus, even though politicians magnify these weaknesses by campaigning along ethnic differences, electorates also shape the differences by supporting their politicians.


Olayode, K. (2016). Beyond intractability: Ethnic identity and political conflicts in Africa.International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, 6 (6), 242-248. Retrieved from http://www.ijhssnet.com/journals/Vol_6_No_6_June_2016/24.pdf

Posner, N., D. (2004).The political salience of cultural difference: Why Chewas and
Tumbukasare allies in Zambia and adversaries in Malawi.American Political Science Review, 98(4), 529-547

Do you need high quality Custom Essay Writing Services?

Custom Essay writing Service