Status Quo Bias As A Cause of Ethnic Violence In Africa

Mr Praharsh Mehrotra, Curriculum Director of SMU Economics Intelligence Club, explores the causes of ethnic violence in Africa.

*Article by Mr Praharsh Mehrotra from Singapore Management University.

How does the process of political decision-making impact nations in the long run? This article explores this question in the setting of colonial Africa. This article establishes a link between the Status Quo Bias Model and the creation of borders in Africa and shows how a simple status quo bias has been the main cause behind ethnic violence in the continent.


Africa has been the subject of a large number of economic debates on development. There is a growing set of research that evaluates the causes of the development of institutions in Africa. This paper links ethnic violence in Africa to a process of political decision making impacted by status quo bias towards a certain policy.

Ethnic Violence in Africa

In the paper titled “The Long-Run Effects of the Scramble for Africa” by Michalopoulos and Papaioannou (2016), the authors explore the relationship between ethnic partitioning and political violence. The authors use econometric evidence to show that the incidence of ethnic partitioning has been directly correlated with higher civil conflict, discrimination and state-driven violence.

The authors also show that neighbouring countries use the homelands of partitioned groups to stage military interventions. This showed that ethnic partitioning is associated with a lower opportunity cost of fighting, as neighbouring countries often offer military, political, and economic support to their co-ethnics on the other side of the border. Furthermore, the authors trace ethnic partitioning back to the arbitrary process of border creation by the European colonizers.

The arbitrariness of Colonial Borders

Ethnic partitioning in Africa happened in 1884 when the European colonizers met at the Berlin conference. According to the authors, this happened because of the arbitrary border design and thus, became a direct cause of ethnic violence today. The authors show that ethnic partitioning that happened as a consequence of colonial border design, cannot be explained by any geological, economic, ecological or precolonial factors.

Causes of Arbitrary Colonial Borders

The paper gives several reasons to justify why Europeans chose a policy of arbitrary borders

  1. Europeans had little information on the local geography and the continent was unexplored.
  2. Europeans were drawing borders of prospective colonies and not independent states.
  3. Europeans were unwilling to change the colonial borders despite new information arriving from
  4. The local chiefs in Africa did not oppose the colonial border design since it did not hamper
    movement. Moreover, no African was invited to the Berlin conference.

Irrationality on African Border Design

At the start of the Berlin conference, Bismarck in his opening remarks said that that delegates had not met to discuss matters of the sovereignty of the African states but to advance their commercial interests.

Assuming that the European leaders at the conference were rational, we still find an apparent contradiction in their behaviour. The Europeans aiming to expand commercial interests in Africa did not choose to have strategic borders based on local conditions and instead created the borders arbitrarily. Establishing African borders based on more information about local conditions would have been more rational due to the following reasons:

  1. Having information on the local conditions would have made it easier for the Europeans to govern Africa and thus, make it more commercially profitable with minimal costs of governance.
  2. Knowing more about the local geography would also have made it optimal for the European colonies to extract more resources from Africa.

An interesting thing to also note here is that the Europeans refused to redesign the colonial borders even when they received new information. This apparent irrationality can be explained by the Status Quo Bias model.

The Status Quo Bias Model

The Status Quo Bias model with individual uncertainty was published by Fernandez and Rodrick (1991) to explain why policymakers often fail to adopt efficiency-enhancing policies. This paper tries to explain how good policies are often rejected due to uncertainty over the distribution of gains and losses. The model tries to show that since the majority of the population does not have information about their gains/losses from a given policy, they tend to stick to the status quo. Thus, they end up rejecting the policy even if it has overall positive gains.

In this paper, the model is evaluated from the point of a voting mechanism where a population votes for a given policy based on how it affects them. However, one of the major strengths of this model is that it can be applied under any kind of political system. The same problem can exist in autocracy as long as the decision-maker exhibits this kind of behaviour under uncertainty over the distribution of gains and losses. This model according to the authors can be applied to any kind of policies including welfare reforms, macroeconomic stabilization etc.

In this article, I propose a simplified and modified version of the Status Quo Bias Model to provide a tentative explanation as to why the policy of arbitrary border creation in Africa was chosen by the European colonizers despite its apparent irrationality.

The Model

Let us assume that the Berlin conference as one entity(i) tries to evaluate whether it should make the borders random or obtain information about the local conditions. We also assume that the colonial country (j) has no or little information about African local conditions. In order to evaluate this, we assume that whether to choose random borders or obtain more information is a binary decision and each country needs to consider the potential gains and the losses from this decision. If more information is obtained then,

  • Total gain due to better governance of this territory= pXg1
  • Potential gain in resources from changed territory for a particular country= qXg2
  • Potential loss in resources from changed territory for a particular country = -rXg3
  • Net Loss/Gain from this policy for a particular country = (pXg1)+ (qXg2)- (rXg3)

where p,q,r are the probabilities of realizing these respective gains and losses.

Here let us assume that the gains from better governance are much smaller than actual gains and losses from changed territory since the colonial powers’ main motive was to capture more wealth and resources. There is uncertainty over the values of q,r,g2 and g3. This is because no European government had certainty about how the gains and the losses from the territory will be distributed, once they acquired more information. For example, a country (j) could lose/gain territory/resources if more information was obtained by another country leading to claims on resources based on some local aspect (example, ethnicity).

This status quo of thus, not obtaining more information and choosing random borders, is caused by uncertainty over the distribution of gains and losses among each individual country, even when there is an overall gain from the policy. This shows that there is uncertainty on the impact of obtaining more information on border design and individual country gains/losses and thus, the status quo of random borders are maintained.

Persistence of Status Quo Bias During African Independence

Another interesting aspect of the ‘Scramble for Africa’ is that even when the African states attained independence, the colonial borders were not redesigned. According to Michalopoulos and Papaioannou (2016), the reason behind this was that African leaders feared that border realignment would threaten their position and territory. This persistence of arbitrary borders even after independence can also be explained by the Status Quo Bias model.

Even though redesigning the borders according to ethnicity would have been the most rational policy to reduce ethnic violence, the African leaders were uncertain over how it would affect their position and impact the gains/losses from higher/lower territory for their respective country. Since there was uncertainty over who the winners and losers from the border redesign would be, the African leaders decided to stick to the status quo of maintaining the colonial borders.

Ethnic Violence as a Cause of A Status Quo Bias

This article extends the argument given in the paper to explain how the political process behind the creation of arbitrary borders was affected by individual uncertainty which led to the preference of the status quo. This illustrates how a simple status quo bias caused the creation of arbitrary borders which led to ethnic violence. Moreover, we also note that this persisted even 100 years later during African independence, and thus, has had a big role in shaping African institutions.

It is plausible, therefore, that status quo bias caused by individual uncertainty is the main cause behind ethnic violence in Africa today.


In this article, I discuss a simplified version of the Status quo bias model to show that the uncertainty the colonizers faced while dividing Africa led to them establish random borders rather than obtain more information.

The article extends this point to show how this status quo bias even persisted when Africa became independent and why the colonial borders remained unchanged due to uncertainty. Furthermore, the article uses the Status Quo Bias model to explain a preference for the status quo as the main cause behind ethnic violence in Africa. This article thus, illustrates, how a simple decision-making process, affected by a status quo bias due to lack of information can have a long-term impact on institutions.

However, more research needs to be done in order to establish a causal link between status quo bias and border creation in Africa. Further avenues for research could also mean exploring the link between political decision making and its long-run impact on institutions in Africa.


Michalopoulos, S., & Papaioannou, E. (2016). The Long-Run Effects of the Scramble for Africa. The American Economic Review, 106(7), 1802-1848. Retrieved April 12, 2020, from

Fernandez, R., & Rodrik, D. (1991). Resistance to Reform: Status Quo Bias in the Presence of Individual- Specific Uncertainty. The American Economic Review, 81(5), 1146-1155. Retrieved April 12, 2020, from

Gathara, P. (2019, November 15). Berlin 1884: Remembering the conference that divided Africa. Breaking News, World News and Video from Al Jazeera.

Article contributed by Mr Praharsh Mehrotra, an undergraduate student at Singapore Management University and the Curriculum Director of the SMU Economics Intelligence Club.

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