Feature Article of Saturday, 24 December 2005

Columnist: Wittman, George H.

Tribalism cripples Africa

Africa remains as much a mystery to Europeans and Americans today as it did when Henry Morton Stanley tracked down Dr. David Livingstone for the purpose of creating a story that would sell newspapers.

Africa was viewed as the "dark continent," an unknowable exotic land of possible hidden treasure. Since then its mineral wealth has been well explored and developed - with very little benefit for the general population - and the problems that plagued the region remain today much as they were in 1871.

Tribalism south of the Sahara remains the dominant political force, and with it poverty, exploitation and genocide, still holds back the region's development.

The sophisticated Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana's first president and one of Africa's leaders in its battle for independence from colonial rule, spoke out against the African tribal system as one of the principal reasons for the slow pace of independence and industrialization continent-wide. It was his view that the colonial nations had manipulated the continent through tribal rivalries.

From Senegal and Sierra Leone in the west to Sudan and Somalia in the east, the tribal structures of Africa continue to manipulate politics and control the lives of its citizens. The discipline and culture of tribalism as a defining element in the everyday lives of the people supersedes anything that other civilizations may believe they have introduced - including Christianity and Islam.

Brutal dictatorships

These tribal blocs now have come to be co-opted into what passes for a democratic process. Thus an African leader as brutal a dictator as Robert Mugabe can point to the process in place in Zimbabwe as simply an African version of the political groups that ally to win elections anywhere in Europe of the United States.

Tribalism is argued by African elites to be no more an impediment to democracy than other elements such as religion, ethnicity or economic status that influence political choice in the Western nations.

Edinburgh University-educated Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanganyika, later Tanzania, stated that he saw no problem with a one-party democratic nation in Africa.

"Each major tribe, " he said, " acts as a form of political party. As long as the alliances of these tribes are loyal to a nation's political future (meaning the nation's party), the result is rigorous democracy."

Nyerere's rather utopian concept of melding tribal society and contemporary politics was influenced by his exposure to socialist theory, as were so many African leaders of his time.

In some countries this has led to various forms of dictatorship; in others, as in the case today of Uganda and Kenya, tribal groupings have coalesced into political parties which then evolved into what might be termed an African form of democracy.

Forty years ago the chief of the Luo tribe in Kenya, Oginga Odinga, who was also the deputy prime minister of that newly-independent nation, kept a small black book to track the gifts he had received.

Corruption seen as a reward

He wasn't shy about showing it to friends, and he would offer a lesson to westerners he trusted. "What is seen in Washington and London as corruption is in Africa a system of reward. I do not keep this money for myself. I distribute it to worthy members of my tribe and friends of my tribe. That is our political system; it's very democratic. It is very old and honored. I assure you that Jomo (Jomo Kenyattta, then prime minister and a leader of the rival Kikuyu tribe) does the same thing."

The rationale might have been self-serving, but it nonetheless was true. Basic tribal sociology holds that gifts that a headman receives should be shared with those below. Sharing is a basic element of tribal life. It is part of their form of democracy.

African democracies are not an outgrowth of western experience, though similar artificial trappings in the form of parliamentary structure were gained from the colonial period.

Born primarily of historical tribal alliances and antipathies, the African political party is defined by its own interests and so is its indigenous democracy. It has yet to be proven whether such a formula really can produce a type of representative government that does not simply metamorphose conveniently into yet another form of totalitarianism.

One thing is sure, however: Tribalism and the bond of ethnic/clan identity that it encompasses will long be a principal element in the African political scene. Its workings will remain as much a mystery to most westerners as it did during the days of Stanley and Livingstone.