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Nation, Tribe and Ethnic Group in Africa

Nation, Tribe and Ethnic Group in Africa

Progressive, Africans argue that tribalism is one of the most disruptive influences confronting newly independent sub-Saharan African states. Tribalism, they argue, is the basis for hatred between peoples within a country as well as between countries. If African states are to take their rightful place in the world, progressive Africans believe, tribalism must be destroyed. There is little evidence, however, that tribal identity is on the wane, even among the most progressive elements within the newly created states. Furthermore, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that post-independence efforts to eliminate tribal identities may have contributed significantly to Africa’s catastrophic problems.

What accounts for the resiliancy of cultural identity in the face of the efforts to eliminate it? The answer to this question is at the heart of our understanding such topics as famines, refugee crises and the numerous coups d’etats and seccessionist movements that plague contemporary, sub-Saharn Africa. The very terms that are used to describe oneself or others in Africa – nation, nationality, tribe, ethnic group – are highly charged and skillfully manipulated by friends and foes alike.

State versus Nation

In Africa, “state” is the least politically charged, and therefore, perhaps the best term to describe countries, the largest political unit that people recognize. Even “state,” however, is not a term that all peoples of Africa would use to describe accurately the political system of which they find themselves a part. Members of numerous, culturally distinct groups in Ethiopia, for example, insist that they were conquered and never allowed to choose to join the country (many of these groups do not even officially recognize Ethiopia as a legitimate political entity). Therefore, they insist, until they have equal representation in the central government and the freedom to choose their political affiliation, Ethiopia is more accurately referred to as an “empire.”

Conquered groups in Ethiopia prefer to be called “nations” following the original meaning of the term which meant persons closely associated with each other by common descent, language or history. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, such groups “form a race or people, usually organized as a separate political state and occupying a definite territory.”

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, a term which they use 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.

The Oromo, 60% of Ethiopia’s population, with a different language, culture, religion and history, do not accept their lot within the empire. They, as well as other groups within Ethiopia, see the Amhara-dominated government as an illegitimate, colonial government similar to the government of South Africa. Africans, too, can be colonizers, they insist, and it is racism that prevents Westerners from seeing this. The official position of the Oromo Liberation Front is that the Oromo must become independent of Ethiopia in order to determine the possibility of them joining a confederation of equal nations in the Horn of Africa. Their main concerns are land rights and political and cultural autonomy.

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GoCorps Promise | GoCorps

Tribe Versus Ethnic Group

During the colonial period, “tribe” was used to identify specific cultural and political groups in much the same way as “nation” is defined above. Tribes had relatively little power outside their own group during the colonial period. Furthermore, for generations, Africans were taught the Western notion of the tribe as a primitive social and political system to be abandoned with civilization. Today, with few exceptions – notably in South Africa, “tribe” is now avoided except when describing small, isolated societies that have little involvement with the central government. In practical terms, tribe has come to imply groups that are affected by the policies and programs of central states but have little or no involvement in their design. Thus, “tribe,” unless being used to condemn a people’s self-interest, is used to describe groups that have local autonomy because they are small, isolated or have few resources of value which interest the central state. In essence, tribe now refers to the powerless. The various groups which are today collectively known as the “Bushmen” are perhaps the best example.

Bushmen do not refer to themselves as either a tribe or Bushmen. This is a term used by outsiders to describe them. Indeed, people who study different groups of Bushmen insist that they represent a wide variation of cultural and linguistic groups, perhaps even more than one could find in all of Europe. Often such groups do not have a name for themselves, only for neighboring groups; and the names given them by neighboring groups are pejorative. Yet, they are the ones that have been used by colonists throughout the world for centuries (for more on this issue, see “Letters to the Editor,” this issue). Hence, because these people lived in the bush, they were called Bushmen. The use of “tribe” for small isolated groups is a way to reinforce the notion that larger groups are “progressive,” becoming “civilized.”

“Ethnic group,” in contrast to “tribe,” refers to larger, culturally distinct groups that recognize the legitimacy of the central state and compete with other culturally distinct groups for control of a share of the benefits that accrue from manipulating or dominating central governments. Most African peoples, at the time of independence, were thought to be in the process of becoming ethnic groups and living in plural societies where cultural differences would be accepted. This has not happened.

After independence, sub-Saharan African countries were expected to develop political systems styled after Western democracies. It was assumed that ideology and class alliances would counter the potentially harmful effects of tribalism. In fact, however, it quickly became apparent that the political parties which were formed in most new states rarely represented more than one or two cultural groups. As different parties came to power, they ruled with their own group’s interests coming first. Plural societies did not develop. In an attempt to create the appearance of political unity, dominant groups began to ban, or make unconstitutional, other political parties. As a result, secessionist movements, one-party states and military governments became the norm. Today, of the more than forty sub-Saharan governments, only five allow opposition parties, the rest are divided equally between one party states and military dictatorships.

The State and Identity

The importance of the domination of most African states by one or two groups only becomes obvious as one examines the impact of government programs. Most African countries have state or district divisions that reflect cultural distinctions. All government monies are distributed to these entities and all revenues are collected from them. By examining the per capita expenditures and receipts by district one can develop a clear understanding of the relative power held by each group. Looking more closely at which districts receive development projects, credit, roads, communications networks, public health facilities, and schools completes the picture. In Africa, administrative units often are as cultural specific as political parties. Discrepancies between regions are often thought to result from “differential development” rates. It’s simpler than that; they result from institutionalized discrimination.


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Kelvin Onyango

Kelvin Onyango

leader | doctor | teacher

Co-founder youths for youths, teacher, youth activist, mentor, political analyst, aspiring member of Parliament Alego usonga.

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