Rethinking Tribe and Ethnicity in Relation to Political Mobilization in Africa

One of the most polarizing issues in our politics, as is the politics of most African countries, is how we think about tribe, about ethnicity. We think of ethnicity in an entirely negative way, and when it comes to politics, we do not know how to merge the idea of tribe, which is viewed as archaic, and the idea of democracy, in which politics should be contested based on ideas meant to shape policy. Despite this ethnic-mobilization, called by other names, has remained at the heart of political mobilization and competition in Africa.

So when we say our political parties lack ideological grounding and direction, we mean that they do not espouse certain ideas that would make their policy proposals to be different from other political parties. The reason why we do this is that we have been influenced by how Americans and Europeans talk about political ideology.

So you have conservatives on one side and liberals on the other, and sets of hybrids of varying degrees and formations in the middle. The American conception of political ideology often erases the contestations between ethnic groups: White Americans, African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans etc

Political parties certain ideologies or policy orientations and then try to appeal to the demands of each of these ethnic groups.

In essence, though indirectly, these ethnic groups are understood as political constituencies that may have demands that are unique to them.

The idea of ethnicity often presupposes certain ideas of supremacy. Every ethnic group pursues some kind of supremacy against others.

In the recent elections in Britain, we have seen how what each ethnic group perceives to be the effects of Brexit has influenced how they’ve voted. The people of Scotland, basically the home of the ethnic group – Scots, voted en mass against the Boris Johnson government and Brexit. The Scottish National Party (SNP) took 48 out of the 50 Scottish seats. In short, they want a different future from the one chosen by much of the rest of the UK. I’ll not be surprised if the push for Scottish independence becomes louder in the next months.

Northern Ireland, on the other hand, lost to Boris, with the Democratic Unionist’s Party’s poor performance, but there is still a push for the Irish Border and talks reminiscent of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985.

What I’m trying to say is that even in mature democracies like the UK, ethnic groups and their different demands continue to share national politics.

One can say there is no difference between the Scottish National Party and say Luo National Party or Kikuyu National Party.

Perhaps, what our intellectuals failed to achieve, is to educate us on what ethnicity means and how it is not always a negative connotation, but most importantly, perhaps we have never taken time to imagine that maybe just maybe the different regions and ethnic groups of Kenya may have a completely different imagination of what kind of a future nation they envision.

The politics in the UK always mirrors Kenya’s politics because of the English supremacy (Great Britain) over the Scots, Welsh, and Irish.  The histories of the English conquests of Scotland and Ireland are worth reading, up to the political integration through the Acts of Union 1707 (Wales, England, & Scotland), Acts of Union (Wales, England, Scotland, & Ireland), and Anglo-Irish Treaty (Wales, England, Scotland, & Northern Ireland).

These contests are still ongoing. The stability of Great Britain is no more different than the constituting nations of Nigeria or Kenya, the only difference is that in the former case, the constituent nations actively and directly negotiated their position in the Union, while in the Kenya and Nigeria cases – desperate nations were simply bundled together.

When one reads it this way, one can say there is really no opposition politics in Africa, what you have are nations/ethnic groups that are disenfranchised and alienated because did not have a chance to sit down and say what they wanted before they were bundled into a “country” during colonialism and so over the past 50 years after “independence” they are fighting against the ethnic group that currently holds the supremacy position.

What if we viewed tribe as a political constituency (devoid of negative connotations)? Is there anything inherently wrong with politically mobilizing on the basis of tribe/ethnicity?

So what if, instead of pushing what we are calling democracy, we accepted that different ethnic groups/peoples/nations have different aspirations, capabilities, uniqueness etc and that we should create a framework where each ethnic group, recognized as sovereign, can contest for their future at the table.

I’m thinking that would kill the structure of colonial states we currently have and bring into being a more natural, organic, and cooperating ethnic groups (within what we currently call “countries”) across the continent of Africa – or basically what would have happened if colonialism didn’t happen.

These are developing thoughts, I’d like to hear what you think, especially the criticisms and the danger of this kind of imagination.

This can be read together with this Is Majimboism the Answer to Kenya’s Political Problems


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