From tribe to nation?

African tribesmen. Source: Smithsonian Library
African tribesmen. Source: Smithsonian Library

(This post was first published on Africa on the Blog in May 2013.)

In her recent postVera Magero addresses issues related to tribalism and tribal identities.

For me, this gave rise to several thoughts, that I would like to examine more in-depth in this post.

Firstly, I would like to look at the notion of tribe and tribal identity for a moment. For me, the word ‘tribe’ denotes a band of primitives, living at the outskirts of civilization. So, I decided to look at what my friend Google had to say about the topic. Indeed, there is controversy there because the word tribe is problematic, to say the least. After all, it was introduced in colonial times not always with the best interests of the so-called tribesmen in mind.

This article in Pambazuka, and especially the comments to it, nicely highlight both sides of the coin.

On the one hand, Anengiyefa Alagoa comments: “I totally agree that the use of the word ‘tribe’ has a definite connotation of primitive savagery, and I have for a long time refused to use it. The Basques and the Catalans are minority ethnic groups in Spain, but they are never referred to as tribes. Neither are the Bretons of France or the Welsh of Great Britain. Tribes seem to exist only in Africa, in the Amazon jungle, or in Papua New Guinea. Native Americans and aboriginal Australians were also referred to as tribal people because they were perceived by the white settlers to be savage and primitive.”

On the other hand, though, Gerlad Businge points out that: “its use in Africa is not as negative as it is in the US. In Africa, everyone belongs to a social grouping with a common heritage, practices etc and such kind of grouping, whatever word is used should not result in a bad description of any one or a group of people. I think, just like we have taken on English as our national language (it does present a lot of benefits), let us accept the word tribe without going along with the tribal connotation it alludes to in the west. I have no problem being referred to as of a particular tribe, so long as that description is not made a standard basis of judging me – my abilities, my situation, the opportunities I should get etc.”

So – this may be a cultural thing. For Africans, the word ‘tribe’ may have a different connotation than for Europeans or Americans. Being European myself, I am clearly emotionally closer to the point of view of Alagoa. For Africans, it makes things more complicated – because they cannot use the word ‘tribe’ when writing for a European audience in the same way they would if they were writing for an African audience.

In her post, Magero points out that she was first taught her ‘local dialect (mother tongue)’ and only then Swahili and English. She feels this is one of the reasons why Kenyans ‘instinctively self-identify by our tribes rather than the country’.

Ok – when I grew up in Amsterdam, I was first taught my mother tongue (Dutch), and only later started to learn English. But what is wrong with that? And if it is not wrong for me – why would it be wrong for Vera? Call me eurocentric if you will, but I believe that cultural identity and language are very closely related. Being securely rooted in a specific cultural and linguistic identity is, in my perspective, important for anybody’s sense of being grounded in society. I am not alone in saying this. That giant of African literature, Kikuyu author professor Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, has argued long before me and much better than I can that a renaissance of African languages is a necessary step in the restoration of African wholeness.

It goes beyond Africa: different languages represent subtly different ways of looking at the world and its problems. In order to retain and expand the ability of humanity to deal with the problems facing it, preserving linguistic diversity is just as important as preserving species diversity.

But of course, there is a difference between Vera and myself. Vera grew up in a country where her mother tongue was not the national language. I grew up in a country where my mother tongue was also the national language. In Vera’s country, five years ago people killed each other partly based on tribal stereotypes (and let’s hope it won’t start again after the elections of the 4th of March).

Is that because of Vera and the way she was raised? Or should we look for an explanation in an entirely different direction?

I believe that for any modern country to succeed, a certain amount of internal cohesion is necessary. This cohesion must be based on a shared (dominant) cultural identity. Language is an important element of such a shared identity. In Africa, due to the colonial history, most countries lack this shared cultural and linguistic common identity.

What that means, is that loyalties in African countries are not to the state, not also to the tribe or people but, much more narrowly, to the extended family, to the clan, or to another instrument of sharing favours and patronage, such as the political party. In such countries, national wealth is not governed and redistributed by a democratic process. The system of checks and balances that exists in other countries depends on people feeling loyal and committed to the state. That feeling is lacking in many African countries. That means that any system of checks and balances fails. The result is that small élites, based on clans, on tribes, or on narrow economic interests, take over. It leads to corruption and to dysfunctional states (which in turn leads to a loss of any feeling of loyalty to the state).

Under the best of circumstances, the different power élites in these societies reach some sort of understanding or accommodation, so that there is a certain amount of peace and stability in the country. That does not mean there is no corruption, or that there is any real development – it simply means that people do not kill each other on any large scale. But when there is a power struggle between the élites, they mobilize their followers, they stir up ethnic sentiments – and there is fighting. And then people like Vera Magero start to do soul-searching to find out what it is, in their own attitude and upbringing, that may have caused this. To Vera and people like her I would say: there is nothing wrong with you! These mechanisms can and will work anywhere.

This, in my view, is the tragedy of so many African countries and this is also, I think, what is holding Africa back in its development.

So – where to look for a solution? Forgive me for looking at Europe for this. In the part of  Europe that is now the European Union, there were 15 independent countries in 1880. Today, there are 27. Large multi-ethnic states, like the Austro-Hungarian empire have disappeared and many much more homogeneous nation states with one dominant national language and culture have appeared. Some of these countries, such as Malta, are quite small, with less than a million inhabitants.

For Africa, I think that there is only one way forward. New forms need to be found to manage a transition away from the national boundaries that were dictated by the colonial powers over a century ago, in complete disregard of ethnic realities.In Europe, this process took seventy years. A huge price was paid in terms of human lives and suffering. That is partly why Europeans have never dared to propose such a development path to Africans and why Africans themselves are shy of thinking in this direction. But in some parts of Africa, the colonial borders are losing their meaning. Some Africans are starting to see that a radical re-thinking of the current states is necessary. Starting a debate along these lines is, I think inescapable: the taboo on a rational discussion on this topic has to be broken.


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