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To tribe or not to tribe in Africa



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991
Comments to

May 25, 2006

LONDON - 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.

Forty years later, the independence movement has more than come of age and today's African leaders have learnt to be not so glib. 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 creation later of four dozen new national states, each insisting on the sanctity of colonial boundaries as a sensible way of avoiding future inter state conflicts, could not blot out 800 natural 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 into one political unit over 250 ethnic groups involving today's 130 million people, 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 hostile 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 the 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.

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

In day to day village life (and in much urban) tribalism operates like free-masonry or 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 now be broken up again into 800 parts. This theoretically might work in parts of Nigeria where a tribe like the Igbo, who unsuccessfully fought for their own state of Biafra nearly 40 years ago, is as large as such European nations as Sweden and Holland, but African leaders, and indeed the voters, given the choice, have tried to keep old colonial boundaries intact, deciding that the virtues outweighed the negatives.

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If the northern Muslim states were not part of Nigeria it is clear that life under the emirs would be even more old fashioned and less receptive to modern ideas on the necessity for education and health services than it already is. Traditional leaders, even if "closer" to the people, are not necessarily models of virtue. 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 Angola 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 peninsular to the World Court and has accepted a ruling that will give this oil rich land to Cameroon in July.

Nigeria, in fact, despite its many simmering tribal disputes, shows that most of them can be contained and the enmity softened, as long as the political leadership works on the problems, using as it does the negotiating skills of its ranks of experienced politicians and clergymen combined with the financial patronage of the centre. People today forget how terrible the war in Biafra was, yet, despite losing one quarter of their population, Igbos are today well integrated into Nigeria and many of the scars have healed. Moroever, given Nigeria's large and diverse population, the number of deaths in recent inter-tribal disputes remains modest. Africans are better at forgiveness than most other people.

Even in Sudan peace may be possible. All of us, inside and outside Africa, must persist in trying to achieve it.


Copyright © 2006 By JONATHAN POWER


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


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