The paradox of efforts over the past twenty years to reinvent democracy in Africa has been that rather than dampening the fires of ethnic conflict, they have often made them more intense and in the past decade have been accompanied by the explosion of violent conflicts of autochthony, confrontations of ‘sons of the soil’, that threaten the very bases of social order and cohesion in multi-ethnic societies. This essay explains the relationship through an argument in five parts. First, I examine the social construction of African ethnicities since the imposition of European colonial rule, with particular focus on both the role of the state and the market, as well as the internal response in African societies. Second, I discuss the particular relationship between the state, colonial and post-colonial, with effective institutionalization of ‘Big Man’ politics and patronage as the essential link between ethnic communities and the state and mode of access to the resources of modernity. Third, we will see that both nationalism and ethnicity in Africa share a common origin and focus on grasping control of the state apparatus that reinforces rather than undermines the salience of the nation-state. Fourth, I argue that neo-liberal ‘reforms’ of the state and market have led to significant political, social and economic decay that can reinforce ethnic cleavages and undermine democratization in multi-party regimes, even where there have been serious efforts at constitutional reforms to contain and limit its political expression. Finally, and fifth, I look at the conflicts of autochthony that have exploded in four very different national contexts that share a common relationship to economic crisis, growing social decay and increasing inequality in supposedly democratizing nations.