We're polite and progressive by day, more tribalist than even the Kenyans by night

Sunday October 17 2010

Further to my take on the creeping religious bigotry that is entering the Tanzanian body politic, I wish to interrogate the myth that Tanzanians are above “tribalism” in their politics, something we’ve left for our neighbours to the north. It’s a lie.

The politicisation of ethnicity has become a byword for Kenya and we are all very clever when it comes to “analysing” which tribe is in cahoots with which other one over the next big election or the next big contract that will deliver barrels of pork to this and that area under the patronage of big men in Nairobi.

Already, we can hear the tribal war drums heralding 2012, and we are already making surmises about the new alliances being cobbled together to prepare for the big fight.

What happened a couple of years ago in Kenya made us all well informed about Kenyan ethnic politics and we got into the habit of predicting things after they had happened.

It’s all part of the perception that we all have of Kenya, and Michela Wrong (It’s our turn to eat) did nothing to disabuse us of that notion.

Now, please understand that I’m not trying to suggest — perish the thought — that there is no ethnicity in Kenyan politics, or that Michela was wrong.


Kenyan politics is as tribal as tribal can be, and ethnic identity is exploited by politicians and their henchmen who know what they are doing.

I’m only saying that we are wrong in singling out Kenya because we are all in the same boat when it comes to this problem, only the Kenyan side of the boat has longer oars.

The Kenyan ethnic bigots organise openly, they meet in broad daylight and say ethnic things with panache and go away feeling, and looking, good about it.

They cut ethnic deals openly, scratch each other’s backs on high podiums and declare their intentions for the next polls transparently.

They have no qualms about this and don’t care tuppence who knows, because that is the way the cookie crumbles.

In Tanzania, on the other hand, we are rather more opaque about it. We will declare we are not “tribal” and avoid any mention of our own ethnic identity at public meetings.

We have even banned ourselves from ever uttering a phrase in our mother tongues during the campaigns, and even throwing in a nice little kikabila expression is considered bad manners.

Yet, when it comes to the real politics played out in dark meeting rooms where enemies are identified and strategies drawn, we can lick the Kenyans any day.

Try, if you are a Msukuma, to stand for parliament in Mbeya, or if you are a Mmakonde, in Bukoba — no matter how long you have lived in the area; you could even have been born there.

What the Kenyans are doing openly we do surreptitiously because it’s supposed to be part of a national ethos bequeathed to us by Kambarage.

The Kenyans seem to know, and we do not seem to want to know, that what are called “tribes” — a derogatory term — are in reality our nations as they existed before the advent of colonialism.

The colonial project had nothing to do with making a nation of us, only bundling us together for its own purposes.

At Independence, the tacit understanding was that we would try to make a super-nation of all our national groups whose natural development was disrupted by colonial conquest.

The task has been arduous, but at least these national groups inside Kenya have given themselves a constitutional tool that they hope will guide them in the formation of that super nation in which all the groups can eat according to certain agreed formulae.

As for us, we continue to err on the side of denial, denouncing “tribalism” in the daytime and practising it vigorously at night.

And, when we are not doing even that, we are arrested in a pre-ethnic, pre-political-party mode of operation in which household members and drinking pals are the basis on which we organise, a very primitive place to be.

Maybe in another 20 years we will be where the Kenyans are today, tribal.
Jenerali Ulimwengu, chairman of the board of Raia Mwema newspaper, is a political commentator and civil society activist based in Dar es Salaam. E-mail: [email protected]