Wed, 03 Aug 1994

Tribalism -- Africa's explosive, but also the continent's glue

By Jonathan Power

LONDON (JP): There was a time not very long ago when African leaders insisted that it was politically incorrect to dare to discuss tribalism. Tribalism was the old face of Africa that the modernizers, inheriting their domains from the departing colonialists, refused to accept.

Thirty years later the independence movement has come of age and African leaders have been forced to come to terms with realty. Rwanda is only the final turn of a screw that started with Katanga and Biafra. One hundred years of colonialism (in many countries less) and the creation later of four dozen new sovereign states each insisting on the colonial boundaries as sacrosanct could not blot out 800 natural tribal groupings.

Rwanda is African tribalism in its extreme form, but everywhere on the continent it lives and breathes in everyday life. If it is the glum that holds ordinary society together it is also the gunpowder that can tear it apart when politics, economics or the increasing pressures of a degraded, overcrowded environment combine to ignite the charge.

In ordinary village and much urban life tribalism operates like free-masonry or the old-school tie -- helping each other along with jobs and introductions, sharing the burdens of harvest, resolving disputes whether marital or material in the traditional fashion and, not least, fashioning art and music of a distinctive form. It is only when conflict erupts that these virtues mutate into a virulent, spare-no-quarter, contagion and the wrong tribal scar becomes a death warrant.

For all that |tribe'' should never have taken on its pejorative connotations. Its virtues outweigh its disabilities. The only thing seriously wrong was the colonial attempt, aped by the early generation of African nationalists, to ignore it, or at least downplay it in the creation of the nation state. Thus in Uganda, the |pearl of Africa'' as a young Winston Churchill described it, the British fashioned a country out of the curdling mixture of Nilotic and Bantu peoples, despite the fact they'd been hostile for centuries. Once the British left it was not long before the country started to fall apart. Idi Amin's terrible regime was the product of tribal enmity, not the cause.

This is not to argue that Africa should be preferably broken up into 800 parts, each boundary neatly drawn around the individual tribe, however inconsequential. This might work in Nigeria where the tribal groupings are large enough to rival many European nations but elsewhere it models of virtue. Who, after all, would want to be ruled these days by the Lunda Paramount chief, Mwatayamvo, who reputedly wears a necklace of human testicles passed down by his ancestors. His writ runs from Zambia to Angola to Zaire. Even such a dictator as Zaire's Mobuto Sese Seko is careful where he treads when Mwatayamvo is exerting his traditional powers.

Neither would war miraculously disappear from Africa if tribal rule were reintroduced. In Somalia, the scene of one Africa's worst modern disasters, there are no ethnic divisions. Nor religious divisions come to that. But, armed with the feast of weapons left over from the country's Cold War Patrons (first the Soviet Union and then America), clan leader has fought clan leader in an unmitigated personal quest for power.

Still, some redrawing of the map of Africa is inevitable. It is possible for the Hutus and Tutsis to ever live cheek by jowl again, even though they speak the same language? The latest is their fourth pogrom since independence, each one more murderous than the last. This is no way to live. Hutus also people parts of Zaire and tribes closely related to the Tutsis inhabit Uganda. Maybe Rwanda as such, a totally artificial creation of the Belgians, should be negotiated away.

Ethiopia shows that it is possible to have an amicable divorce of peoples. After the overthrow of dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam the Eritreans of the north went their own way, with the most civilized of transitions. There was a referendum, there was a pause for reflection and then both sides agreed on a timetable for separation.

On the other hand Julius Nyerere's relatively benign one man rule in Tanzania shows that it is possible to bind various tribes together into one nation if the leadership is both impartial and inspired, as his was. Tanzania, to my knowledge, has never even experienced a Saturday night tribal punch up, much less a pogrom.

To tribe or not to tribe. It is a most difficult question. After Rwanda, Africa has to start answering it.