The Myth of Tribe in African Politics
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
No. 101, Looking Ahead (2009), pp. 16-23
by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
I am a literary humanist, and democratic ideals appeal to me. At the heart of the democratic or any political process in society is the question of power. In fact, we can define politics simply as the organization of power in society. Who or what social group holds power? For whom do they exercise that power? What are the ends toward which that power is exercised? The questions are valid for the system of laws and norms within nations, and also for the laws and norms that govern relations between nations, what goes by the name of international relations. Those same questions underlie the Lincolnian definition of democracy as the government of the people, by the people, for the people. In some ways, the most important elements in that definition are the three tiny connectives of, by, and for. For the Lincolnian definition to apply, the three connectives must be in place. Many governments and states fall short of the Lincolnian democratic ideal, because they leave out one or more of those connectives. Which connectives are emphasized, left out, or followed through, affects the ends for which power is exercised.
The values toward which power is exercised is a moral question. Laws are the instruments chosen by society for the proper control and exercise of power to ensure that they meet those ends embedded in their formulation. Law is a rule, a statement of oughtness, but, in contrast to other rules, law has a coercive component, the tools that ensure compliance. The thou shalt not kill of the biblical ten commandments is different from the you must not kill of the largely secular jurisprudence, because the latter spells out clearly the enforceable consequences of its infringement. The statement of a rule, its application, and the coercive component raise moral issues involving, for instance, the congruence of law—or lack thereof—with justice, and the moral limits of the use of the coercive component of law, such as issues of using torture to extract information from a citizen. So, no matter what angle we take, the questions of power in society, even within a democratic framework, come back to those of morality.
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Not surprisingly, the words through which a certain law is formulated are the subject of debates about the use and interpretation of words. The exercise of democratic ideals—or the statement of law and its application—within and between nations is often conditioned by both our self-perception and our perception of the other. Self-perception and the perception of the other are often conditioned by definitions of words. For instance, democracy in ancient Athens was actually direct democracy, where every citizen of the polis was able to cast his vote on matters of war and peace. Direct democracy, as opposed to representative democracy, is an excellent ideal. But, then, the same democracy was predicated on the alleged fact that women, slaves, and foreigners—barbarians, as they were called—were not citizens. The word citizen determines inclusion or exclusion. The American Declaration of Independence talked glowingly in almost Social Contract—like Rousseauian terms about the fact that people were created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, but then excluded blacks and women from the category of people. In war, certain word usages can dehumanize the other—Commies, Viet Congs, etc.—and hence remove any moral scruples in dealing with them. Words become very important in the power relations between individuals and groups, in the exercise of law and democratic ideals. They help define the other: a member of a group with other religious, racial, gender, or biological affiliations.
A good example is the use of the five-letter English word tribe. The Western media’s analysis of events in Africa reveals the word as the main obstacle in the way of a meaningful illumination of dynamics in modern Africa. Tribe—with its clearly pejorative connotation of the primitive and the premodern—is contrasted with nation, which connotes a more positive sense of arrival at the modern. Every African community is a tribe, and every African a tribesman. We can see the absurdity of the current usages, where thirty million Yorubas are referred to as a tribe, but four million Danes as a nation. A group of 250,000 Icelanders constitutes a nation, while 10 million Ibos make up a tribe. And yet, what’s commonly described as a tribe, when looked at through objective lenses, fulfills all the criteria of shared history, geography, economic life, language, and culture that are used to define a nation. These critical attributes are clearly social and historical, not biological.
Nonetheless, to the analysts, tribe is like a genetic stamp on every African character, explaining his every utterance and action, particularly vis-à-vis other African communities. Using the same template of Tribe X versus Tribe Y, print and electronic media and even progressive thinkers simply look at the ethnic origins of the leading actors in a conflict and immediately place them in the category of X or Y. So, whatever the crisis, in whatever part of Africa, in whatever time period, the analysts arrive at one explanation: it is all because of the traditional enmity between Tribe X and Tribe Y. It is like looking at John McCain, seeing that he was born in Panama; then looking at Barack Obama, seeing that he was born in Hawaii; and then concluding that their political differences are due to the places of their birth or that their differences are rooted in an assumed traditional enmity between Panamanians and Hawaiians.
This template of Tribe X versus Tribe Y dominated discussions of the 2007 political crisis in Kenya, framing it in terms of the Luo and the Gikuyu, simply because Raila Odinga, then the opposition leader, now Prime Minister, was Luo, and Mwai Kibaki, the president, was Gikuyu. What did not fit into that neat composition was often glossed over. For instance, Gikuyu and the Luo people never shared boundaries, so the claim that they could have been traditional enemies defeats reason and common sense, but analysts were undaunted in their persistent use of the formula. Even the fact that the two leaders had followers across other communities, or the fact that much of the gruesome anti-Gikuyu ethnic cleansing came largely from Eldoret North, a Kalenjin area, and Narok, an area under Maasai dominance, was ignored, in order not to muddy the waters of the familiar formula of Tribe X versus Tribe Y.
Many newspapers talked of a continuous Gikuyu dominance in economics and politics throughout the entire forty-five years of Independence, and even before. The British ruled Kenya as a white settler state for sixty years, from about 1895 to 1963. Kenyatta, a Gikuyu, ruled for fifteen years, from 1963 to 1978. Moi, a Kalenjin, not a Gikuyu, ruled for the next twenty-four, from 1978 to 2002. Yet the discussions on events unfolding in Kenya rarely mentioned the sixty years of British settler rule or the twenty-four years of Moi dictatorship. The media and experts on Kenya developed a strange amnesia, yanking twenty-four years of Moi dictatorship off the pages of Kenyan postcolonial history, the better to have a narrative of Luo versus Gikuyu, or one of an uninterrupted Gikuyu dominance and privilege.
This does not mean that different African communities—whether now or earlier—have not harbored animosity toward each other. In fact, it is true that in precolonial Africa various communities fought over disputed property and territory and engaged in wars of conquest and domination. The vaunted empires of Ghana, Mali, Zulu, and Ashanti were built on conquest and maintained through systems of subjugation and tutelage. But there were also long periods when those same groups?relationships with others were characterized by peace and commerce. In this, there is nothing peculiarly African. All relationships between communities in history have alternated between hostility and hospitality. Whatever else may have been the case, these communities did not see themselves as living for the sole purpose of waging war.
Anaheet Gazder, Native Roots. 2008.
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It is fair to say that tribe, tribalism, and tribal wars, the terms so often used to explain conflict in Africa, were colonial inventions. Most African languages do not have the equivalent of the English word tribe, with its pejorative connotations that sprung up in the evolution of the anthropological vocabulary of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European adventurism in Africa. The words have companionship with other colonial conceptions, such as primitive, the Dark Continent, backward races, and warrior communities.
In slave and colonial conquests, Europeans would ally with one African community to subjugate another, not in the interest of the African ally, but in their own imperial interests. Where before there were rules governing warfare between communities—protection of women and children, for instance—now massacres of those who resisted were encouraged. There is no colonial story anywhere which does not contain grim episodes of wanton massacres of men, women, and children. Historian David Stannard certainly documents incidents of genocidal practices against native peoples in his 1992 book American Holocaust. Such genocidal practices are preceded by demonization and dehumanization through words. Sometimes, the ally who helped to subjugate the neighboring communities was later turned into a conquered subject, made to live in the same territory with the communities they had helped to conquer. Colonial states deliberately kept the colonized peoples in perpetual tension through the well-known imperial tradition of divide and rule.
Often, the colonial state would use one community as the source of the army, another as the source of the police, and yet another as the source of labor, while others were kept as “Tribal” specimens of the primitive, a living museum of the true “Cultural” African, with his spear and animal skin. From all the communities would also come a small pool of intellectual labor: Africans educated in the colonial government and missionary schools became junior cadres of the colonial administration and Christian enterprise. Over time, the cumulative effects of these policies and practices stoked and deepened bitterness not toward the colonial state but often toward one another, with the colonizer presenting himself as the arbiter between the “eternally” hostile communities. A rationale often used to defend colonialism was that the imperial conquerors had stopped “Tribal” wars.
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The clash between Africa and Europe in the colonizing process was essentially one between the advanced capitalism of the time and precapitalist peasant economies. A hallmark of capitalism in general, but especially in colonial capitalism, is uneven regional development. With extraction of minerals and the development of monocrop economies—thus turning arable land from food production to the cultivation of coffee, tea, sisal, and cocoa as raw materials for export—the colonial economy served and complemented that of the mother country. While the colony as a whole served the mother country with raw materials, the rural areas within it served the towns with labor and food supply. Towns and cities were, of course, the hubs of capitalist activity. The regions around them gained from improved infrastructures and access to market and other facilities, however limited the access and the returns.
But capitalist enterprise also deepened uneven social development, especially in those regions that were the sources of labor. An underpaid working class, often divorced from the soil, emerged from those communities. Also emerging was a middle-class that gained from the fallouts of capitalist enterprise and colonial administration. So, to the problem of uneven regional development was added that of uneven social development within each region.
Since regions coincided with linguistic communities, uneven regional and social development affected the communities differently. Naturally, this deepened divisions within and between communities. Anticolonial resistance movements always tried to bridge the gaps within and between these communities. A social vision of a different future of freedom, democracy, and economic welfare helped to forge a national consciousness.
But the colonial state was always on the lookout against any positive rapprochements between communities. In Kenya, for instance, the British settler state would not allow the formation of a nationwide social or political organization among Africans. European settlers, and even Asian immigrants, could organize nationally, but Africans were allowed to organize labor, social, and political unions only within ethnic boundaries. The divisive tactics of the colonial regime reached their peak during the Mau Mau-armed struggle from 1952 to 1960, when Africans could form parties only along district lines. It was not until 1960, barely three years before independence, that the colonial state permitted countrywide political parties.
Taken as a whole, these measures and practices encouraged ethnic consciousness; the “biological system” they came to call “tribalism” derived, of course, from the conception of the tribe as a monolithic genetic entity. The history and usage of this one English word, tribe, have had negative effects on the evaluation and self-evaluation of Africa, for African intellectuals have internalized this divisive inheritance of colonialism. They have come to see each other through the colonial invention of the tribe, tribalism, and tribal wars, elevating cultural marks of difference such as distinct rituals, and even languages, as the real basis of divisions and communal identity. The subtext is clear: leave all reason at the door before you enter the chamber of African conflicts.
To explain problems in terms of the biological makeup of the characters is to express social despair, for if a problem has biological roots, its solution can only be biological. All of this has coalesced into indifference to African lives by the international and national middle classes. This attitude may explain, in part, why people—including Africans—can watch genocide in Rwanda and Darfur and not feel the urgency to act, as if they were waiting for biology to sort itself out. Political dictatorships—some even sponsored by the West—emerge, and people shrug their shoulders, eliciting the unspoken or spoken view: Tribal mentality, so difficult to penetrate. As for the African middle class, self-hatred from years of internalizing the colonial gaze makes some among them gleeful at the humiliation of another African. Political mismanagement as a negation of democratic and social rights is altogether ignored, and ethnic cleansing, the negation of the basic human right to life, is tolerated. But African problems, like those of any other peoples in history, have economic, political, and social roots. They arise historically, not biologically.
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Many years ago, I wrote that there are only two tribes in Africa, the Haves and the Have-nots, and these are to be found in all communities in varying degrees of intensity. But the Haves of one community tend to point to the Haves of another community as the only Haves, or else label an entire community as the Have-it-Alls. Political warlords, often millionaires themselves, then emerge as the defenders of the community against the enemy community of Haves. This allows political warlords to talk about ethnic purity as the key to economic and political liberation. These warlords often make sweetheart deals with Western companies—or are promised such deals, should they ever come to power. The Congo provides the best example: even in the so-called “tribal” wars—meaning among the political warlords—there is always the outsider who wants to see what he can pick from the ruins. So I should note the real existence of a third “tribe”: the corporate tribe of the West.
In the case of Kenya, a look at the underlying problems, colonial legacies, uneven development, the deepening and widening gap between the rich and the poor, weak democratic institutions, the devastation of the national psyche by twenty years of a Western-backed Moi dictatorship, and the continuous dominance of Western interests would have ruined the neat narrative of Tribe X against Tribe Y. But it might have made us see that there were lessons the world could learn from the Kenyan crisis, for example, that a fair economic playground within and between nations is important for the exercise of democratic ideals. Seeing Africa in terms of nonrational mystical terms such as tribe and tribalism prevents people from seeing Africa’s problems as a part of global concerns. And yet, the basic roots of instability in Africa are clearly the same as those that underlie a much broader instability today, in the era of globalization.
The world today is characterized by two rifts that deepen and widen daily. One is between the wealth of a group of largely Western nations and a majority of poor nations, primarily in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. As it is characterized by one of my characters in Wizard of the Crow (2006), this is the rift between the givers and recipients of charity, between credit/donor nations and beggar/debt-burdened nations. And yet, the natural resources of the debtor nations feed the creditor nations. The other rift is found within each and every nation in the world where a small social stratum stands on mass poverty below. Within these nations, the beggars and the homeless multiply; prisons harbor millions who could easily constitute a nation, were they living in a territory all their own. My contention is that these rifts between and within nations constitute the roots of great instability in the world today. Democratic ideals must come to terms with economic ideals for the empowerment of the least among us. What is needed is less mysticism and more rational analysis of social situations—whether in Africa or elsewhere. Progress and development need to be measured from the standpoint of those at the bottom of the mountain and not those at the top. Only then will reason, law, and democratic ideals be in accord with social justice.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is a novelist, essayist, playwright, journalist, editor, academic, and social activist from Kenya. He is currently Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature and Director of the International Center for Writing and Translation at the University of California, Irvine.
This essay has been adapted from a lecture given by him on April 28, 2008, as the holder of the 2008 Dan and Maggie Inouye Distinguished Chair in Democratic Ideals at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.