Tribalism a Deterrent to African Unity?

An opinion piece by Thabiso Molapisi - Pretoria, South Africa

Over the years much has been said about African unity and the ways in which it can be achieved. Countless organisations and conferences have been created to help with the journey of achieving collectivism and unity between African countries. From the creation of SADC and ECOWAS to the formation of the African Union (AU) formerly known as the Organisation of the African Unity (OAU). However, within those conversations little has been said about tribalism and the impact it has had on African identity and how it impedes the notion of ‘’African Unity’’ and collectivism.


Africans take pride in the tradition, identity, religion and cultural tribes they hail from. There is a certain level of comfort and subtle assurance of safety that one has knowing that one share similar beliefs or tribal structures with others, regardless of where they are in the world. Places like New York, Miami, Johannesburg and London are well known for having or rather representing communities of people from the same countries or similar ethnic groups in one area. New York’s Staten Island is known for having Italian-Americans, Miami for having people from the Dominican Republic, and Sunnyside, a town in South Africa, is known as mini Lagos because of the number of Nigerian nationals in the area. Let us not forget about the countless towns across the world that have been named ‘’China Town’’ because of the number of Asians living or doing business there. Unfortunately, with the security that a tribe brings there is an underlying division that it has caused. Tribalism has caused a lot of tension and has been the subject of many civil wars on the African continent.


In his 1997 speech, at Ghana’s 40th Independence celebrations, Julius Nyerere spoke of the dim future Africans would face if there was no unity amongst them. The Former President of the then newly liberated country of Tanzania said unity would not make us rich, ‘’but it can make it difficult for Africa and the African people to be disregarded and humiliated. And it will, therefore, increase the effectiveness of the decisions we make and try to implement for our development’’ (2019). Muammar al-Gaddafi spoke of one Africa that had no Western influences. In the 2010 AU Summit Gaddafi advocated for creating the United States of Africa with its own currency and independent trading system that would help develop and lead African states to financial emancipation. Within the same summit, the conversation was overshadowed by the overlaying tribal tension and civil unrest that was happening in Somalia.


Adeyanju (2020), explains tribalism as ‘’a state of being organized and advocating for a certain tribe’’. Tribalism refers to a shared belief and a way of thinking in which people are more likely to be loyal to the people from their tribe than their friends and country. The subject of tribalism is crucial because while tribal societies have pushed collectivism, Adeyanju (2020) posits that tribalism is arguably undiminished because it is ‘’founded upon intense feelings of common identity that leads one to feel connected to the next person’’. It is a ‘’feeling’’ of mutual commonality rather than an actual commonality and that is why it is as powerful as religion in Africa and is continuously promoted by the political elites. Tribalism controls how people think and speak, it is embraced by the young and passed down from generation to generation. Although not every country in Africa has been infiltrated by tribalism, not everyone was as lucky to escape civil and tribal violence like Tanzania.


For the last 10 years, the Central African Republic has been going through a civil war, Somalia has had over 20 years of political unrest and Palestinians are still going through apartheid in Israel, due to tribalistic tension. South Africa was not immune to the tribal tension during apartheid. In their last attempt to keep black people at bay, the apartheid regime created a rivalry between the two biggest political parties that was ANC and IFP. ANC was somewhat known for having a majority of Xhosa speaking people, while IFP was seen as ‘’Zulu political party’’. The war between these two parties took the lives of over 150 people. Zimbabwe’s Shona and Ndebele war is still a topic of many stereotypes and discussions within the southern country.


With more than a 1000 people dead and over 600 000 people left homeless and displaced, Kenya’s 2007/2008 post-elections violence showed the extent to which tribal forces can effortlessly bring a country to a brink of civil war. Former President Daniel Arap Moi and his administration were accused of pitting the majority ethnic group Kikuyu, which was economically and politically favoured by colonial powers and the first president Jomo Kenyatta, against smaller ethnic groups like; Luhya, Luo, Kalenjin, Kamba and Kisii (Cooke, 2009). What was unfortunate about the post-election violence in Kenya was that similar incidents had happened before in 1992 and 1997, yet nothing was done to stop the violence in 2007/2008.


West African countries are also affected by religious indifference and tribalism. According to a survey done by the National Opinion Survey of International Foundation of Electoral Systems (IFES), ‘’48.2% of Nigerians identify by their ethnicity’’. Adeyanju, (2020) explains that some of the political groups in Nigeria were created along ethnic lines. For example, the Action Group (AG) dominated in the western region and has mainly Yoruba speaking people, the National Council of Nigerian Citizen (NCNC) formerly known as the National Council of Nigeria and Cameroons is known for having a majority of Igbo speaking supporters, while the Northern People Congress (NPC) was formed by the Hausa/Fulani ethnic group. This has had a significant impact on the growth and development of the country, as Adeyanju (2020) explains that voting for a political party according to ethnic identity filters the ability to fight corruption. In this way tribalism may impact the rate of unemployment and inequality; in addition to bringing political division and it suppresses justice.


A lot of blood has seeped through the soil of the African continent because of tribalism and unlike its neighbour Tanzania, Rwanda was not as lucky in escaping tribal tension. Rwanda has slowly dragged itself from the trenches of years of historic tribalism. The movie Hotel Rwanda gives us a preview of the disruption tribalism can cause. The Hutus and Tutsi genocide has to be one of the most unfortunate civil unrest in the history of Africa. Although Rwandans have come out on the other side, conversations of accountability still need to be had for the likes of Felicièn Kabuga and Ladislas Ntaganzwa. Felicièn Kabuga is a Rwandan businessman and one of the founding members of the hate radio-television; Libre dos Mille Collines (RTLM). This medium was used to promote hate speech towards the Tutsi, and Kabuga is currently on trial for allegedly bankrolling the ‘’ethnic Hutu military which killed close to 800 000 Tutsi in 100 days in 1994’’ (African News, 2020). Ladislas Ntaganzwa, a war criminal, was recently sentenced to life imprisonment for plotting to ‘’exterminate the Tutsi population and ordering the massacre of more than 200 000 of their civilians in one perish in April, 1994’’.


Many African countries have reverted to their tribal identities and many political and religious leaders are continuously exploiting tribal loyalty to advance personal wealth and political gain. Tribalism has become a subconscious tool to keep people within artificial borders. I am not saying unity within Africans is not possible, but the plausibility of bringing 54 states together where a majority of the countries are sitting on tribalistic mine shafts that can explode at any given minute is a recipe for disaster. Tribalism has made it difficult to mobilise unity and the sooner we realise that tribes do not build a democratic advancement the sooner the dreams and teachings of Julius Nyerere and Muammar Mohammed al-Gaddafi will be realised and implemented.


"We, in Africa, have no more need of being 'converted' to socialism than we have of being 'taught' democracy. Both are rooted in our past, in the traditional society which produced us." Julius Nyerere



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