The leaders of the Lozi people, an ethnic group in western Zambia, are demanding independence, reports the BBC. Claiming that the central government is ignoring promises of autonomy dating back to the 1960s, the Lozi say they are beginning a process of “peaceful disengagement” from Zambia’s central government. This may or may not stay peaceful; two people were shot last summer by police breaking up a meeting in favor of secession.The Lozi people, whose traditional homeland is known as Barotseland, have a long tradition of autonomy; since Zambia became independent, many inhabitants of the region believe they have been neglected by the central government.Via Meadia has no idea how things will go for the Lozi; while they are the largest group in Zambia’s Western Province, there are other groups in the province who don’t want to live under Lozi control and would likely prefer to remain part of Zambia.But Lozi resistance to Zambia and the eruption of old grievances along ethnic lines in one of Africa’s more successful states (contrast Zambia with neighbors like Zimbabwe and Congo) serve as troubling reminders that the conventional view of Africa overlooks or deliberately understates the enormous potential of ethnic differences to blow up the fragile, often not very successful states that have attempted to govern the continent since the European colonial powers withdrew.The development and democracy lobby, whose viewpoints mostly shape western press coverage of Africa, is morally certain that democratic governance will promote economic development across Africa, and that these two forces working together will stabilize and strengthen African states.Perhaps, and Via Meadia would be very happy with this result. But European history points to something different. In Europe, the rise of democracy combined with economic development led to decades of violent national conflicts in the 19th and 20th centuries. Waves of warfare, ethnic cleansing and genocidal violence swept eastern and central Europe and much of the Middle East. Millions of people were killed and millions more uprooted from homes where their ancestors had lived, more or less peacefully, for hundreds of years.Via Meadia does not know whether something similar will happen as Africa develops, but more than a few signs point in that direction. Fifty years after independence, ethnic conflicts are if anything playing a growing role in many parts of Africa. Advances in education and development often create deeper senses of loyalty and identification among people who belong to the same ethnic group. The advance of democratic politics often increases ethnic polarization as political affiliations are shaped by language and cultural ties.Ask the Hapsburgs how this works out.The mainstream press devotes a lot of ink to what it hopes and believes are the big stories in Africa today: the advance of democracy and development. Via Meadia is keeping a weather eye out for the possibility that history may have something nastier and more complicated in mind; in the past it so frequently has.