In their quest for penultimate control over their new subjects, European colonialists created a system that effectively embedded divisive tribal politics in the DNA of African politics.
The history of politics in countries such as Zimbabwe, Kenya, Rwanda and South Africa still show that the electorate is still very much divided along tribal lines. Kenya is a prime example, where the main political parties are divided along tribal lines and the vote is split the same way.
In Zimbabwe, many political parties have designated one of their deputy presidential posts for a person of Southern descent in the name of being “inclusive.” This rather an embracement of the tribal politics of the colonialists as the Southerners are reduced to the inferior post rather than being giving a chance to fight it out on equal ground without affirmative action.
Many have tried to argue that the tribe has always existed within the African context. This argument enforces that even wars within Africa were fought along tribal lines as one tribe tried to ascertain dominance over a large territory.
Studies of history reveal that before the colonial era boundaries were not as defined as they are today. Ethnicities were highly fluid and were not as restricted. It was easy for one to switch back and forth between different groups. Africans never really identified with one tribal group.
The eminent scholar Mahamood Mamdani says in Define and Rule:
“Did tribe exist before colonialism? If we understand by tribe an ethnic group with common language, it did. But tribe as an administrative entity that distinguishes between natives and non-natives and systematically discriminates in favour of the former against the latter – defining access to land and participation in local governance and rules for settling disputes according to tribal identity – certainly did not exist before colonialism.”
The fluidity of Africans was perceived as messy and was not going to serve European interests. What followed then was the process of legally defining and enforcing tribes, identities and customary laws. The right people for the job were anthropologists who replicated what biologists achieved through race in the US.
In Southern Africa where Britain had control, the project could not have been more successful and effective. Disparate communities were collapsed into new creations of Shona, Yoruba, Luhya, Igbo. Even multiethnic states such as Ndebele in southern Africa were defined as a tribe. Even to this day, Karanga elements of the Ndebele society are still defined under the umbrella term.
The backwards thinking of the colonials led to the belief that all politics in Africa had to be primitive. Therefore because the tribal system fit in with the colonial approach, it was an absolute necessity for the British to assign tribes.
Far from “going overboard in their quest for unity”, Europe was very deliberate in its cultivation of divisive tribal nationalisms in Africa. Cross-group interaction and freedom of movement across “homelands” was heavily controlled. Any attempt to build cross-ethnic political movements or socioeconomic organisations was met with swift repression. In most instances, it was imposed under the pass laws that were effected through ID and passbooks.
British colonialists segregated the multitude of languages and cultures in their irresponsible approach to orthography. For example, two languages Zulu and Xhosa shared close relation with each other. However, after the process of British orthography, it led them to separate and lose familiarity. This highlights the fact that languages and cultures that were once similar to one another were distinguished by colonialism creating tribal lines between cultures.
As time passed, nationalists movements began to grow around these lines. Most movements were formed by elites from one group with little representation of other groups.
Upon independence, the victorious group moved to form a government that represented their views and culture more than the other groups. The cultures of the other groups are stereotyped, seen as backward or uncivilised in nature.
The Ethiopian government, which is overwhelmingly dominated by Amhara, a minority group accounting for less than 15% of the country's population, refers to other groups in the country as nationalities. The term is used derogatorally to imply that such groups have narrow, cultural interest which must, one day, give way to allegiance to the central state.
The Amhara, like many other distinct cultural groups that dominate African countries, have attempted to create a "nation" in their own image. Ethiopia is a "nation," Amhara is the "national" language, and Amharic values are the basis of the legal, political and educational systems; other "national" values and languages must be eliminated.
In other parts of Africa, the colonialists took a different path towards unifying African tribes.
In mainland Tanzania, for instance, German authorities utilised the literate Swahili community along the coast to administer the colony. This led to a more unified Swahili culture across the territory and, after independence, a truly non-ethnic political movement in TANU found space to flourish. To this day, ethnic politics has never predominated in Tanzania. However, this meant that the diversity of culture and ethnicity within the colony was extinguished.
In conclusion, it is wrong to think that tribal politics can be solved through greater literacy with African communities. The weapon was as effective as racial politics have been in the United States.
The same influence is deep as you will find educated Africans swayed in the same manner that you find a college-educated white man being racially charged. It is culture that was mastered through generations.
It requires the reimagining of the political system within Africa.
Header Image Credits: Asilia Africa