The danger of ethnic consciousness and tribal division for democracy in Africa Featured

By Noah Felix Rugira

Democratic transition in Africa has always been under the spotlight. However, the vision of ensuring democratic transition in the continent has been challenged by dictators and lately by the growing tribal politics. Today, ethnic consciousness and tribal division makes a huge wound of many African societies, some more than others. Tribalism comprises divisions, mount conflicts, atrophies economies and fuel instability.

On one hand, some argue that tribalism which resulted from arbitrary colonial boundaries is the bottleneck of democracy in Africa. On the other, however, uncolonized countries like Ethiopia and countries with homogeneous ethnic group like Somalia are also suffering from lack of democracy.

In Kenya, when Kenyans cast their ballots to pick the president, ethnicity and tribal division played a divisive role. Kenyan politics have been characterized by ethnic tensions since independence in 1963. But it was not until 2007 that the demons of tribalism really flared up after the hotly disputed national elections which left more than 1,000 people dead and thousands others internally displaced.

In Cameroon, Paul Biya tribal governance has amplified the community divide. With the English crisis and the prospect of the presidential election. The country is teetering. While Anglophone protests against the Cameroonian government have only gained momentum in recent months, the roots of their struggle date back to the days of colonialism. The current dispute is between the part of the country that was once run by the British, and the larger part where French is spoken, and which was once run by the French. In 1972 the original federal structure that post-colonial unification was based on was abrogated. The English-speaking, or Anglophone, West Cameroon was annexed in a united republic, and in 1984 the word “united” was scrapped. The country became Cameroon and the English-speaking region was assimilated into the French-speaking area.

The dignity and statehood of Anglophones was silently destroyed – not by the French-speaking (Francophone) community at large, but by the government led and dominated by Francophones.

Being Anglophone or Francophone in Cameroon is not just the ability to speak, read and use English or French as a working language. It is about being exposed to the Anglophone or Francophone ways including things like outlook, culture and how local governments are run.

Anglophones have long complained that their language and culture are marginalized. They feel their judicial, educational and local government systems should be protected. They want an end to annexation and assimilation and more respect from the government for their language and political philosophies. And if that doesn’t happen, they want a total separation and their own independent state.

In Ethiopia, with its over 80 different ethnic groups and ethnic federalism the tension is growing from time to time. There is an argument that ethnic division in Ethiopia is influenced by Italian occupation between 1936-1941. However, ethnic continuousness was suppressed after the Italians were kicked out. Over the last two decades, the government in power has used ethnic division for its divide and rule policy and that has escalated the tension in the country. And this tension has recently led to the resignation of the Prime Minister Hailemarian Desalegn.

Angry residents take to the streets over recent violence, including deadly shelling hours earlier, in Goma, DRC, on Aug. 24, 2013. Congolese soldiers supported by U.N. forces fought rebels in the country’s deteriorating east, officials said, while a rocket landed inside the town of Goma. Congo immediately blamed the attacks on neighboring Rwanda. Alain Wandimoyi/AP

Some countries have gone far in ethnic tension, for instance in Rwanda There have always been disagreements between the majority Hutus and the minority Tutsis, but the animosity between them has grown substantially since the colonial period.

The two ethnic groups are actually very similar – they speak the same language, inhabit the same areas and follow the same traditions. However, Tutsis are often taller and thinner than Hutus, with some saying their origins lie in Ethiopia. During the genocide, the bodies of Tutsis were thrown into rivers, with their killers saying they were being sent back to Ethiopia.

When the Belgian colonists arrived in 1916, they produced identity cards classifying people according to their ethnicity.

However, there is a consensus around the inevitability of tribalism in our societies, specialists are unanimous on the matter: the notion of tribe is largely a historical building. In the book entitled what is a tribe?’, the Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani says that it is “largely a corpus of laws created by a colonial state that imposes identities of group on individuals and therefore institutionalized life of group, certainly, the reality of human communities sharing, including, the same language before colonial. But the ethnic group was a cultural fact. Ethnic identities were convertible – individuals could shift from one to the other. Mamdani, say that it is the colonial power that has “arbitrarily designed” the tribe to the modern sense of the term. The British historian Eric Hobsbawm even talk “of invention’: the tribe as ‘administrative unit which distinguishes the Aboriginal people of the alien was certainly not before colonization, he explains. It is with the colonial rule that the tribe has become a unique, exclusive identity. Above all, the tribal identity has acquired a monolithic political dimension.

In a study book entitled “not my worst day” anthropologist Alex Ntung Mvuka recalls the Tutsi and the Bantu, two antagonist ethnic groups in DRC, “did not have a significant collective consciousness during the pre-colonial period.” In other words, they did not exist as tribes. Mvuka argued: When the colonial powers divided the Great Lakes Region of Africa in the nineteenth century, new states were created based on nothing more than lines drawn on a map. Despite having their homelands in the Congo, the Tutsi tribe have always been perceived as foreigners in their own country due to colonial rule’s divisive strategies. But contrary to the fundamentalists of the tribes, we are multiple identities: ethnic, through different reasons, such as, religious (for believers), family, political, class, gender, etc. These identities are intertwined. They are sometimes in contest, in the past they coexist harmoniously. But none of them defines us as such. Our daily choices and our actions are more significant in this regard. Above all, to some extent, we are free to choose what we are. This freedom is our humanity.

The challenge to democracy in Africa is not necessarily the prevalence of ethnic diversity, but the use of identity politics to promote narrow tribal interests. Despite, the difference in ethnic diversity (from Nigeria with 250 different ethnic groups to Somali with 85% Somali group) there is huge challenge to democracy across the continent. There is an argument that tribalism has occupied the gap created by lack of genuine democratic values and idea-based politics. Meanwhile, greedy politicians have exploited their ethnic affiliation to advance their personal gain and parochial interests. This is inimical to democratic values and will never contribute to democracy in Africa but civil unrest.

African democracy needs intellectual input. Intellectuals must create a sense of belonging to a community of destiny because the main danger of tribalism is the essentialization. We must all recognize that ethnicity constituent our identity. This identity is also fixed, and it is associated with a series of characters that define us basically. As soon as I was born Tutsi, I’m Tutsi, I’m that Tutsi, and I wear necessarily qualities and flaws of the Tutsi. I have no free will. My experiences, my life, my actions, my ideas, do not count. Only my ethnicity would testify to what I am, and especially that I am not and will never be. In this sense, tribalism is as dangerous as other totalitarianism. It freezes people in a corset identity, erect insurmountable barriers between them, thus sowing the seeds of violence.

The persistence of tribal reflexes in most of our societies and the constant manipulation of tribal solidarity by African political elites show that our countries remain strongly impregnated by colonial experience. The detribalization of our societies should be among the priorities of reformist Governments in Africa. As the idea of race begets racism, the idea of ‘tribe begets tribalism. Therefore, we will have to deemphasize ethnic consciousness and tribal divisions to end tribalism in Africa and cultivate democratic values. And because, in most cases ethnic consciousness and tribal divisions are colonial legacy, its removal will necessarily go through the dismantling of colonial states, the redefinition of our political systems, and renovation of the social contract. Without an effort of this nature, Africa remains the continent of great chaos and live a colonial legacy.

Note: this article was first published on EAPRI website