There is a widely held view that tribe and ethnicity is a problem in Africa. The actual term proponents of this belief use is “tribal” or “ethnic politics.”
Today, this tribal politics is sold as the main culprit by many analysts on Kenya to explain the country’s present predicament following a widely boycotted presidential election re-run won by President-elect Uhuru Kenyatta with a turn up of 38.8 per cent.
The same tribal angle is used to explain the South Sudan conflict between President Salva Kiir who comes from the Dinka tribe and his former vice president Riek Machar who is from the Nuer tribe.
Similarly, in Rwanda and Burundi, ethnicity was for long advanced as the explanation behind cycles of violence. The same explanation is provided in many other African countries; including Nigeria, the most populace on the continent.
Often, little effort is made to explain exactly what makes tribe or ethnicity politically explosive. As a result, in some cases, even solutions provided in such violent conflicts tend to reinforce rather than solve the problem.
For example, in an attempt to end cycles of violence in Burundi, mediators in the Arusha peace process — which ended that country’s 12-year civil war in 2005 — proposed that power-sharing between Hutus and Tutsi be codified.
Ten years later, in 2015, violence erupted again in Burundi following President Pierre Nkurunziza’s controversial third term. The country is yet to recover from the conflict.
In Kenya, despite the August 8, presidential election and repeat polls attracting six other candidates besides Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila, why didn’t the tribesmen and women of the other six candidates vote for them?
Clearly, neither tribe nor ethnicity is intrinsically the problem nor the solution.
What this tells us is that for tribe to be explosive, just like ethnicity or religion, it has to be weaponised with denial or access to certain rights, and opportunities.
In other words, if your tribe or ethnicity can give you access to a job, education, status, privileges while denying the same to others who are different, then these identities become armed, ready to explode.
According to Mahmood Mamdani, Ugandan academic and political commentator, this weaponisation can take place through the law, for example in the Burundi case where ethnic groups are allocated positions in government or the military.
In the Kenyan case, tribe was weaponised not through law but through practice and experience. That’s why Kenyans tend to line behind politicians from their tribe.
Broadly speaking then, in Kenya’s case, we could say that the problem is one of citizenship and the kind of social contract that has evolved since independence rather than tribe. And by citizenship, I mean both legal and especially practical or political citizenship.
That is why, while most Kenyans gain legal citizenship at birth, which is the right to be called and to call themselves citizens, it seems many didn’t gain political citizenship, which is the right to access opportunities.
That partly explains why since independence in 1964, three of the four presidents who have ruled the country have come from one tribe (Kikuyu) and the status quo is likely to remain unless the structure of power changes.
In part, it’s the monopolisation of this office and the privileges it gives some tribes that is contested and detested.
So, while presidential elections are held under the assumption that citizens will vote for the aspirant with the best ideas and a social contract on these ideas developed; in Kenya, it seems, this exercise has over time produced a tribal social contract reproducing a tribal rather than national identity.
In other words, during election, some tribesmen and women turn up to vote to maintain their privileges while others vote attempting to overturn their historical exclusion from opportunities.
To disarm this form of tribe will require killing or disarming the regime of entitlement and replace it with the regime of impersonal access to opportunities.
Christopher Kayumba, PhD. Senior Lecturer, School of Journalism and Communication, UR; Lead consultant, MGC Consult International Ltd. E-mail: [email protected]; twitter account: @Ckayumba Website:www.mgcconsult.com