Daniel Kalinaki's weblog

A commentary on news and events in Uganda and elsewhere


Just an ordinary bloke.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The true face of tribal politics in Africa

KAMPALA - I had hoped to complete the three-part series on walking down memory lane but the rude interruptions of the "festive season" followed by the violence across the border means we cannot fiddle while Rome burns.

It might have taken a stolen election to spark off violence in Kenya but the tribal and ethnic fissures have been there for generations. The Kenyans might refer to them with the politically-correct title of 'communities' but the Kikuyu dominance, both in politics and the economy over the last several decades, have left lingering resentment and anger amongst other tribes, especially the Luo.

In Uganda this resentment was, for a long time, reserved for the Baganda for the lofty position they found themselves in the colonial Uganda -- a direct outcome of geography, a bit of scheming and generally being in the right place at the right time. This tribal friction continues today in the context of the proposed land law reforms which Buganda says, in a cloud of half truths and half lies, is a plot by the Central government to steal its land.

Other tribal sentiments continue to flow quietly but steadily. Ex-minister Mike Mukula recently raised the matter in a meeting of the ruling NRM (of which he heads the party's eatern wing) by claiming that most of the top jobs in the country are held by people from western Uganda. This claim is not new; sometime in the late 90s, The Daily Monitor ran a story in which it clearly showed how the west had a disproportionately large number of ministers in the Cabinet.

In a rather unconvincing rejoinder to Mukula, MP Frank Tumwebaze points out in today's papers that many of the institutions led by people from western Uganda, like the Uganda Revenue Authority, the Police Force, etc, have senior managers from other parts of the country.

I have always thought that people of my age and generation identify themselves more by achievement and other associations, such as schools attended and premier league clubs supported than by tribe. Evidence from Kenya suggests that while tribal sentiments might not be worn on sleeves, they remain close to the heart.

Rwanda, just next door, showed how extreme tribal (or ethnic) feelings can go when close to a million people, most of them Tutsi, were slaughtered in the 1994 Genocide. If the international community did not have residual guilt over its inaction over the Rwanda genocide, the Kenyan violence could have been worse.

On a continent of contradictions, tribes give us so much of our history, culture and tradition but they can also spark so much divisionism, death and destruction. The challenge for anyone seeking a new Afrikan body politik, therefore, is how to harness tribal/ethnic power for social and communal good.

I used to think that economic prosperity in a globalising world would rid people of much of the tribal sentiments. I always thought that as people travel more around the world, they would stop identifying themselves through tribal and local lenses and become part of this global mass of humanity.

How naive I must have been! If you look at the online discussions of tribal issues, most of the contributions are from Africans living in the Diaspora (and therefore more exposed and hopefully more affluent on average). It now appears to me that this fast globalising world, rather than give people a new and highly individualistic, capitalist and consumerist identity, is so faceless and empty of real meaning that it forces many Africans to try, as much as possible, to retain their original identify of tribe, language and culture.

It might help explain why many of the Ugandans living away from home pay silly money to buy matooke in East London markets, flock to shows featuring Ugandan musicians, and use every opportunity to speak their mother tongues. Man is a social animal and wherever we go or however wealthy we become, we seek social acceptance in one form or another, but often through tribal identity.

The notion of the nation-state imposed on Africa by colonialism cannot bind this continent together neither can 'free and fair elections held under a multiparty political system' offer a sufficient fulcrum for political-economic change within these artificial borders.

Maybe the solution is to the embrace the tribe as the unit of social, political and economic mobilisation -- as was the case in pre-colonial times. We would eliminate the sham of having 'broadbased' governments that in reality represent the interests of a small ruling elite with a sprinkling of outsiders to give beef up their political-correctedness credentials. Maybe tribe should be embraced, not abused as a primitive and backward form of social mobilisation and political organisation.

Burundi, which has had its fair share of Hutu-Tutsi ethnic violence, has sought to take the sting out of ethnic differences by drawing up a power-sharing constitution between the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority. It might still be very shaky but at least it offers an agreed-upon template of how power (and resources) should be shared.

Western-style democracy is simply a system for the articulation of varied interests, many of them mobilised along class or occupational lines. Hence farmers in Iowa will support candidates who promise to give them subsidies and protect them from foreign competition, private equity barons will support candidates who promise not to over tax the rich, and so on. In the absence of trade unions, a true middle class in formal employment, and with a large peasant population, maybe it is time to mobilise and lobby according to tribe and vote for candidates who promise to share the spoils. Smaller tribes would ally with bigger ones to play kingmaker and any one group, needing the support of others to govern, would have to build bridges and roll the pork barrels over them.

It might be backward-looking, but at least it will ensure that when angry members of disaffected tribes come running after you with a machete, you will be able to see them before they strike.