Tribalism is not a conspiracy by evil colonialists, it has always been with us

Tuesday June 20 2017

A recent gathering held in Nairobi served to once again demonstrate the disconnect between the Kenyan, and, by extension, African intellectual class and the practical reality of Kenya and Africa.

The meeting brought together state and non-state actors and was aimed at getting a range of views on ethnic conflict.

Panellists at the meeting included Kenya's Interior Security Cabinet Secretary Joseph Nkaissery, officials from the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC), civil society, academicians and the clergy.

So this was not the usual academic forum where intellectuals come to indulge in esoteric obfuscations or, more fashionably, offer a new twist to the good old colonial theory.

The meeting actually sought practical solutions to an urgent problem that if not solved poses an existential threat to the Kenya nation-state.

So the panellists and others attending the meeting were expected to propose policies, laws, systemic reviews, educational programmes, community mobilisation techniques that would help us understand and tackle the existential menace posed by ethnic violence.


Be overstated

The urgency of the meeting could not be overstated given the heightening ethnic tensions in the lead-up to Kenya's election in August.

And yet a professor, with the usual self-righteous histrionics that we have become used to at academic conferences organised to discuss the condition of Africa, blamed ethnic divisions on colonialism.

While it is true that colonial governments emphasised ethnicity in their policy of “divide and rule,” they can hardly be said to have created ethnic divisions.

Pre-colonial ethnic groups operated as independent mini-nations and were quite often hostile to one another. There is nothing uniquely African about this situation. Before unification in Germany and Italy, for instance, the different principalities and regions saw themselves as independent nations that were often hostile to one another.

Over the past couple of decades, Afrocentric and nationalist scholarship has propagated the myth of brotherly relations between different ethnic groups in pre-colonial Africa. According to this falsehood, therefore, ethnic consciousness and ethnic hostility were a creation of colonialism.

Practical solutions

The danger with this falsification of reality is that it denied us opportunities to interrogate tribalism and offer practical solutions. And so over the years, we sang the nationalist lie, even as millions of Africans lost their lives in ferocious ethnic conflicts.

The 1994 genocide in Rwanda should have jolted us out of this idyllic stupor.

That African intellectual expression, as shown by the professor at the meeting, has persisted in propagating such falsehoods even after millions of deaths due to ethnic violence, goes to show the crippling and potentially fatal effects of nationalist orthodoxy.

But paradoxically, one leading exponent of cultural nationalism, Julius Nyerere, understood the dangers of ethnic consciousness and more importantly the urgency of finding practical ways of addressing the problem.

Crucially, he understood that a national identity was not an automatic result of a successful anti-colonial struggle but had to be consciously developed by various means: Equitable distribution of resources, promotion of a unifying language, a leadership style that de-emphasised cultural differences among ethnic groups, political mobilisation around class, propagation through radio, education and political rallies, of the idea that society is not cast in the stone of some mythical ideal but that it continually recreates itself to fit new historical conditions.

Crucial success

As a result, Nyerere, who failed in other important ways, achieved crucial success in crafting a Tanzanian national consciousness out of the country’s more than 200 ethnic groups.

In Kenya, we did the opposite. The leadership styles of Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Moi emphasised ethnic differences. Resources and opportunities were used to consolidate ethnic solidarity.

At rallies and other forums, the rhetoric of pre-colonial brotherhood was used to cover festering state-sanctioned tribalism. Thus today in Kenya, we continue to speak of the brotherhood that was disrupted by colonialism and then go on to vote tribal demagogues into parliament.

Both President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto speak out against tribalism and yet before the election in 2013, they invoked the tribal formations of Kamatusa (Kalenjin, Maasai, Turkana, Samburu) and Gema (Gikuyu, Embu, Meru Association) formed under the Moi and Jomo Kenyatta regimes respectively.

The professor

Today in Kenya, everyone knows that below the campaign rhetoric of development by the various political players is a vicious and potentially genocidal ethnic rivalry. This is the tragic result of decades of nationalist intellectual orthodoxy working unwittingly with a political class ready and willing to incite ethnic hatred in order to control and retain power.

At the meeting referred to above, Mr Nkaissery disagreed with the professor and went on to give some practical ways of dealing with the problem. The irony of that was profound!

The writer is a Nairobi-based political and social commentator.