Tribalism lives, for better and for worse

By Jonathan Power

There was a time, not that long ago, when African leaders insisted that it was politically incorrect to discuss tribalism. Tribalism was the face of old Africa that the modernizers, inheriting their domains from the departing colonialists, refused to accept.

Today’s African leaders have learned to be not so glib. Southern Sudan is the latest turn of the screw that started with Katanga and Biafra and went on to Angola, Rwanda and Burundi with passing stops in Zimbabwe, Uganda and Senegal.

One hundred years of colonialism (less in many countries) and the subsequent creation of four dozen new states, each insisting on the sanctity of colonial boundaries as a sensible way of avoiding future conflicts, could not blot out over 1000 tribal boundaries.

On Africa’s left it has been a common jibe that the Europeans “divided” Africa. In fact they brought Africa together. Indeed, as in Nigeria, where Lord Lugard forced more than 250 ethnic groups involving today’s 170 million people into one political unit, you could argue that the colonialists went overboard in the quest for unity.

In Uganda, the young Winston Churchill’s “pearl of Africa,” the British fashioned a country out of the mixture of Nilotic and Bantu peoples, despite the fact they’d been antagonists for centuries. Once the British left it was not long before the country fell apart. Idi Amin’s murderous regime was the product of tribal enmity, not the cause. In Sudan, the British tried to push together not just diverse African tribes but Arab peoples too. War erupted 50 years ago, long before oil or China came on the scene.

Southern Sudan’s civil war today is the result of African tribalism in its extreme form. But elsewhere on the continent a positive form of tribalism lives and breathes in everyday life. It is the glue that holds ordinary society together. But it is also the gunpowder that can tear it part when politics, economics or the pressures of a degraded, overcrowded, environment combine to ignite the charge.

In day-to-day village life tribalism operates like the old school tie: helping each other with jobs, introductions and sweethearts, sharing the burden of harvest or building a new house, resolving disputes (whether marital or material) and, not least, fashioning art and music. It is only when conflict erupts that these virtues mutate into a virulent, spare-no-quarter contagion and the wrong tribal scar becomes a death warrant.

This is not to argue that Africa should be broken up again into 1000+ parts. African leaders, given the choice, have opted to keep old colonial boundaries intact, (with the exception of the divorce of Eritrea from Ethiopia), deciding that the virtues outweighed the negatives.

Traditional leaders, even if “closer” to the people, are not necessarily models of virtue. If the northern Muslim states were not part of secular Nigeria, life under the emirs would be even less receptive to the necessity for education and health services than it already is.

Who, after all, would want to be ruled these days by the late paramount chief of the Lunda, Mwatayamvo, who wore a necklace of human testicles passed down by his ancestors? His writ ran from Zambia to Zaire and his power was such as to give pause to Zaire’s late dictator, Mobuto Sese Seko.

Still, some redrawing of the map of Africa could be a good thing, if quietly negotiated. President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria took his dispute with neighbouring Cameroon over ownership of the Bakassi Peninsula to the World Court and accepted a ruling that gave this oil-rich land to Cameroon.

Nigeria, in fact, despite its many simmering but small scale tribal disputes, shows that most of them can be contained and the enmity softened as long as the political leadership works continuously on the problems and doesn’t turn its head to other business.

Despite Nigeria’s diversity the number of deaths in recent tribal disputes remains modest. The arrival on the scene the last three years of the extremist Muslim group, Boko Haram, is worrying for Nigeria. But it is a quasi-religious movement, not a tribal one.

Southern Sudanese leaders should take a look at Nigeria. People today forget how terrible the 1960s war in Biafra was, yet despite losing one quarter of their population Igbos are today well integrated into Nigeria and most of the scars have healed. Africans are better at forgiveness than most other people.

Even in Southern Sudan, peace may be possible. The decision by the UN Security Council some time ago to double the already substantial number of peacekeepers is a good one. The UN must add to that, appointing an experienced mediator. Obasanjo, now retired, who led Nigeria back to democracy after years of military dictatorship, would be a good choice.

Jonathan Power writes on foreign affairs. (Background on me can be found on Wickipedia under “Jonathan Power, journalist”.)

Copyright: Jonathan Power 2014.

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