“Nothing in Nigeria’s political history captures her problem of national integration more graphically than the chequered fortune of the word tribe in her vocabulary. The tribe has been accepted at one time as a friend, rejected as an enemy at another, and finally smuggled in through the back-door as an accomplice.”- Chinua Achebe (The Trouble with Nigeria)
Like Nigeria, a major challenge to democracy in Africa is not the prevalence of ethnic diversity, but the use of identity politics to promote narrow tribal interests, i.e. tribalism.
In Africa, a great deal of the people primarily find their identity in ethnicity in place of national identity; and this also has significance in there won’t for political power.
For example, in the early days of Ghana’s independence, the problem of tribalism plagued the body politics of the nation – with the likes of the separatist National Liberation Movement, Northern People’s Party, Ga Shifimo Kpee, Anlo Youth Organization, Muslim Association Party, etc. – coming to the fore.
As a result, the government outlawed these parties when it enacted the Avoidance of Discrimination Act, 1957, to ban political parties formed on tribal, religious or regional basis.
Now, the Ghanaian Constitution enjoins every political party to have a national character, and membership shall not be based on ethnic, religious or other sectional divisions.
Tribal Politics in Africa
Kenya’s 2007-08 post-election violence revealed the extent to which tribal forces could quickly bring a country to the brink of civil war. It took Kenyan political parties more than a decade to reconcile after a petition was brought by Mr Raila Odinga and his party (Orange Democratic Movement) to the Kenyan Supreme Court and it was declared that the 2017 presidential election was invalid.
A research carried out on Kenya by Stephen Keverenge at the US-based Atlantic International University in 2008 (subsequent to the election violence) revealed that 56% of 1,500 respondents did not know that their parties had manifestos. The manifestos are generally issued late because much of the effort goes into building tribal alliances. So the new Constitution of Kenya seeks to address the issue of ethnicity by ensuring that a president needs broad geographical support to be elected.
Besides, the objective of African development has been seriously undermined by tribalism, which provides a hunting ground for predators. Leaders often exploit tribal loyalty to advance personal gain, parochial interests, patronage, and cronyism. For instance, in 2018, the Centre for Democratic Development reported that Ghana’s President is leading the nepotism chart among his predecessors.
According to Karl Marx, politics is the concentrated expression of economics, i.e., the politics of society are brought about by the productive capacity of its economy. In that sense, political parties are the outgrowths of the class structure of a society – not the tribes. But this is mostly not the situation in Africa, unlike some other advanced democratic societies. In the absence of efforts to build genuine political parties that compete on the basis of ideas, many African countries have reverted to tribal identities as foundations for political competition and conflicts.
As a result of these conflicts, between 1967 and 1970, the Biafran War fought between the Secessionist State of Biafra and the government of Nigeria was one of the bloodiest civil war to emerge on the continent. And the ethnic tension in the country during general elections attest to the remnants of the civil war.
Nonetheless, the last twenty-five years have marked the rise of Rwanda after the country was enveloped with one of the most devastating of genocide in human history. Furthermore, it leaves a legacy of why tribal politics and ethnic conflicts must be avoided.
The way forward
In the dialogues of Plato, the founding father of Greek Philosophy – Socrates – is portrayed as hugely pessimistic about the whole business of democracy.
In Book Six of The Republic, Plato describes Socrates falling into conversation with a character called Adeimantus and trying to get him to see the flaws of democracy by comparing a society to a ship. If you were heading out on a journey by sea, asks Socrates, who would you ideally want deciding who is in charge of the vessel? Some random passenger, or a well-trained, educated, and experienced captain?
After the captain is selected as the obvious choice, Socrates then extends the comparison to the state, asking why we would let just anybody try to manage the ship of state.
Socrates’s point was that voting in an election is a rational decision, not a random intuition. And letting the citizenry vote without an education is as irresponsible as putting a random passenger in charge of a ship to sail into a storm. Thus, according to Socrates, democracy without education breeds demagoguery.
Through education, people are brought to a new paradigm. The dynamics of human development is not in doubt. Jesus said this succinctly in the Bible that you cannot put new wine in an old wineskin.
It will burst and the wine will leak. You have to put anew wine in fresh wineskins. It also means that changes in our society demand the renewal of our minds or else we impoverish. Tribalism should no longer saddle Africa’s social development. It can be dealt with through a conscientious change of attitude.