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Is African unity possible when Africans are divided on tribal grounds?

Africans, once politically educated, can begin to carry themselves as diverse nations with different languages and cultures, not tribes that cannot co-exist under one flag and sing one national anthem
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Hundreds of Wazalendo militias sit at Goma International Airport before boarding a plane that will take them to a training center after responding to Democratic Republic of Congo's President Felix Tshisekedi's call to join the army (Photo by GUERCHOM NDEBO/AFP via Getty Images)

Every Pan-Africanist grapples with this intellectual dilemma: how can African countries possibly be united when Africans are so divided on tribal grounds in their individual countries? It’s a known fact that tribalism has caused an existential dilemma for Africa, where millions have died in genocides and many thousands, if not millions, displaced and dispossessed in politically and/or electorally motivated tribal violence. As the world, now punctuated with many wars, teeters towards a new world disorder that is being vigorously marketed by superpowers as a New World Order, Africa is, once again, economically and politically disadvantaged as a result of the multiple falsehoods and various forms of (feigned) ignorance promoted by the West. These lies must be challenged if Africa is willing to fulfil its potential and assert its relevance in the emerging new world.

The falsehoods and ignorance underpinning (neo)colonialism

As an epical power structure that was imposed on the African continent, colonialism was founded on the two pillars of falsehoods and feigned ignorance. Chief amongst the falsehoods is the belief that colonialists helped stop African tribes from finishing off each other with spears and machetes. This saviourist attitude held by colonisers promotes the falsehood that they are bringing salvation, progress, or improvement to the colonised peoples of Africa, based on which they justify the evils of colonialism on the grounds of civilising or modernising the indigenous populations. The grandest irony of this saviourist mentality is that while Europe was in Africa claiming to save us from killing ourselves, so many European countries were in full-blown tribal wars – even until now.

One common form of feigned ignorance relates to how colonialists intentionally decided to ignore the glaring fact that Africans lived in organised human societies with a beautiful diversity of languages and cultures. To dehumanise Africans and reduce them from nations of people to tribes of barbarians was a colonial stratagem of conquest and domination.

In this colonial false narrative, precolonial Africa was presented to the rest of the world as a vast land of trees, animals, and tribes of barbarians that were perpetually at war. As the Polish-British novelist Joseph Conrad painted it in his novel, Africa was the ‘heart of darkness.’ The decolonial truth is that the colonialists found a continent of different ethnic groups that conducted their lives in diverse languages, cultures, religions, and political systems. To conquer the continent, the colonialists weaponised the ethnicities of the continent against the people. They imposed political and economic systems in which some ethnic groups were preferred over others, creating social and class inequalities that cultivated ethnic jealousies and conflicts that last to today.

What some scholars have described as the ‘divide and rule’ colonial political strategy tore the African continent asunder and left nations divided almost beyond repair. It is a falsehood that colonialists separated and pacified feuding tribes. If anything, they divided and conflicted previously co-existing ethnic groups that did not know or understand themselves as anything called tribes; they were people with different languages and varying cultures. They were nations.

For the colonialists to live and sleep in peace with their crimes and lies, they had to promote ignorance about Africa and Africans. They had to generate such comforting myths that Africans were sub-humans; they were barbarians who had no use for the minerals, plants, and other natural resources in their lands. In that evil logic, oppressing Africans, exploiting their labour, and siphoning their resources was an inevitable part of the ‘white man’s burden’ of civilising and modernising Africa.  This intentional and convenient ignorance of Africa and Africans by colonialists and neocolonialists continues in many guises today, where the African is the deliberately unknown and intentionally misunderstood member of the exalted human race. It is one of the paradoxes of being African to be blamed for crimes (racism, xenophobia, Afrophobia, and tribalism) of which one is a victim. This paradox extends to the fact that in world affairs today, Africans are presented as a problem rather than people who have problems.

The colonial invention of the xenophobe in South Africa

When black Africans come under violent attack in South Africa, which happens frequently, the media call it xenophobia, Afrophobia, or black-on-black violence. But very few discerning political analysts in Africa have managed to trace the violence against black Africans in South Africa to the history of apartheid that formally began in 1948 and juridically ended in 1994.

Apartheid separated black South Africans from white South Africans and, along ethnic lines, bundled them into homelands where they existed as separate tribes that were hostile to each other and were only united by their fear of the white man who was made the next to God. Most African analysts rarely care to examine how black South Africans are still divided along ethnic and homeland lines, and how they are bound to see Africans from other countries as foreigners and candidates for hatred, violence, and killings.

Walking into South Africa without a homeland that they were born in, black Africans from other African countries walk into an apartheid political space where being attacked is a norm and not an exception. As such, it is another colonial falsehood that the everyday South African is inherently a xenophobe who hates other black Africans, and this is as much as it is colonial ignorance to ignore the fact that the xenophobe in South Africa is a creature of the political system of apartheid. It is also colonial ignorance to ignore the fact that the tribalists of the Biafran War of 1967 to 1970 in Nigeria, the genocidists of Rwanda in 1994, and the xenophobes of South Africa today are all legacies of the colonial “divide-and-rule” system that politicised, ideologised, and weaponised ethnicity in Africa. How Africans became strangers and enemies to each other in Africa is a colonial story of untold proportions.

The tribalists of the African postcolony

In his pungently captioned collection of short essays, The Trouble with Nigeria, of 1983, Chinua Achebe equates tribalism in postcolonial Africa to corruption and political evil. He recounts how popular African postcolonial leaders condemn tribalism by day and smuggle it back to their corners by night as a tool of political mobilisation. In political opportunism, politicians from majority ethnic groups of Africa do not care to base their campaigns on the strength of their political manifestoes and ideas; instead, they appeal to ancestry, bloodlines, and tribal kinships. In the process, they elevate the tribalism that they learned from colonialists to a political ideology and organising idea that is based on the hatred and segregation of people from other ethnic groups. While Achebe decried tribalism in Nigeria in his book, his concerns hold relevance when applied to any other African country where tribalism has been embedded into the political culture and promoted during electoral campaigns.

Some African scholars have observed how, because of tribalism, elections in Africa have been reduced to ethnic censuses where politicians from majority ethnic groups print votes by asking voters to vote on tribal and not any ideological or policy grounds. In that way, political leaders from minority ethnic groups are elbowed out of the mainstream politics of their countries where elites from ethnic majorities hold political monopoly with the many-fingered grip of the Octopus, making nonsense of the Western-imposed democracy and undermining national unity. Politicians and masses of minority ethnic groups are not only elbowed out of mainstream politics of their countries but are also physically clobbered, as happened in Kenya from 2007 to 2008.

The Gukurahundi Genocide of Zimbabwe, 1982 to 1983, became the bloody way in which ZANU-PF, taking political advantage of the majority Shona ethnic group and the Fifth Brigade, created specifically for the purpose, sought to erase Joshua Nkomo and ZAPU from the Zimbabwean political landscape.  Like Ian Smith of Rhodesia who vowed that black people would never see the corridors of political power, Robert Mugabe vowed that Ndebele ethnic people would never come near political leadership in Zimbabwe.

What Achille Mbembe called the ‘postcolony’ in Africa is that time and place in African countries where colonial political habits of leadership and followership refuse to disappear as democratic habits and practices refuse to be established. The tribalism that colonialists irrigated and cultivated in Africa is still being deployed for political profits by leaders and their followers, creating a tragic democratic retreat on the continent. Tribalism in the African postcolony is not only a problem of political leadership but also political followership. For every tribalist politician, there are tribalist crowds, sycophants, and enterprising flatterers who applaud him and make heroism out of their bigotry and political evil. Frantz Fanon wrote of how ‘intellectually lazy’ and politically weak postcolonial African leaders reduced their nations to tribes and compressed the state itself in Africa to a tribal political party selling their countries, at the lowest price, to political ‘stupidity.’

As a result, precious natural resources and life opportunities on the continent have been unfairly and unjustly distributed along tribal lines, leaving millions of Africans economically and politically marginalised. It is tragic that in some African countries, job opportunities, including the chance to represent the nation in various sports at the national level or the chance to get a place to study in the university, have all been resources that are sold in the tribal currency.

Political education as a cure

Fortunately, through political education, tribalism can be uprooted in Africa. Political parties can be built and produced based on the excellence of political ideas and not based on tribal identities. Africans, once politically educated, can begin to carry themselves as diverse nations with different languages and cultures, not tribes that cannot co-exist under one flag and sing one national anthem. Politically educated Africans will also have the capacity to internally handle and resolve African conflicts without giving individuals and organisations from other continents the false comfort of thinking that they have the power to protect warring African tribes from each other the way colonialists claimed to have done. Just as it is with racism in many countries, it may be just to make tribalism a criminal offence in African countries. African unity is dear to Africa’s development and democratisation, so any ideology that erodes Pan-Africanism, such as tribalism, should be a punishable crime on the continent. In recognition of the pivotality of the problem of tribalism in Africa and for Africans, Samora Machel declared that ‘tribalism is the commander in chief of African problems,’ while the sage Julius Nyerere admonished that for ‘the nation to live’ in Africa, ‘the tribe must die.’

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