Tribalism is the bane of Africa


Ethnicity has roundly been condemned as the bane of Africa, Kenya included. And it is easy to see why. In almost all African nations, so many lives have been lost in civil wars that had clear ethnic undertones. One of our politicians Koigi Wamwere has referred to negative ethnicity in a recent book as “Africa’s weapon of mass destruction, one more powerful than the atomic, hydrogen or neutron bombs.”

Today, we are here to share ideas on how we can transform ethnic diversity into a powerful positive tool for economic development. But before we get there, we need to appreciate where we are.

Ideally, tribe should not elicit such strong suspicions, controversy and even shame. We are supposed to recognize that every ethnic group has its own cultural features that enrich this country. That has not been the case though. We have spent the last 47 years cursing negative ethnicity in all sorts of ways.

Leaders have condemned and called it the cancer that threatens the very fabric of our society. Yet tribe has marched on hand in hand with the nation, condemned in public but tolerated behind closed doors. Never subdued, it has at times threatened to subdue the nation itself.

To quote Chinua Achebe, “Tribe has been accepted at one time as a friend, rejected as an enemy at another, and finally smuggled in through the backdoor as an accomplice.”

Public officials have committed crimes as individuals, but turned to their tribes for cover when called to account. Tribe has frustrated the war on corruption and denied us the economic growth we need.

Ideally, Kenyans should live and work in any part of our country and pursue legitimate goals of improving their lot without interference. That has not been the case. We know that tribe has been used to prevent our citizens from living or working anywhere in the country. It has been used to prevent our citizens from participating in the social, political and economic life of the communities in which they choose to live.
Our worst moments come at election time and when resources and opportunities are being shared out. That is when fellow citizens are suddenly labeled “outsiders” and “strangers.” Kenya has paid heavily for such divisions, assumptions and prejudices. Yet tribe or ethnicity remains a taboo subject that Kenyans never delve into.

The tendency to regard one’s mother tongue as the only magic wand which can provide citizens and leaders with access to material prosperity and security has been gradual in our nation. 
But it reached a point of crisis in early 2008 when the post election violence pushed the country close to total collapse. It may still be moving towards another crisis unless we act now together.

Our diversity was never a source of weakness. In the struggle for independence, our grandparents forged rainbow coalitions that put everyone on board.

It was a Kenya in which Jomo Kenyatta easily traveled to Kisumu and explained to the Luo that the Mau Mau cause was a national cause. And they joined him. It was a Kenya in which Elijah Masinde from Western easily joined hands with Joshua arap Chuma from the Rift Valley and Bildad Kaggia from Central Province to fan rebellion against whites by breaking away from Christian churches.

It was a Kenya in which Jaramogi Oginga Odinga easily traveled to Central Kenya and challenged leaders to rally behind detained Jomo Kenyatta or face rejection by their own people, and he was welcome.

It did not take long before tribe replaced the nation as our most powerful source of identity. In Kenya, the degeneration from nationalism to tribalism was quick but sad indeed. What began as an ideological struggle between the liberators on the direction the country should take after independence degenerated into ethnic supremacy war.

Leaders played the tribal card to deal with the challenge, and Kenya descended from the high pedestal of a beacon of hope for Africa, to an example of how not to build a nation.

While our neighbours in Tanzania looked at the residents of the other hill or valley and embraced them as brothers and sisters in building their nation, Kenyans looked at the community across the valley as an enemy to be kept at bay or even completely subdued.

National issues were viewed through an ethnic lens; the centre failed to hold. Successive governments failed to provide an alternative to tribalism because central authority became weak and often illegitimate, based on perpetuation, not sharing of power.

When colonial authorities tried hard to divide Kenyans along tribal lines, nationalist leaders defeated these attempts by rallying citizens to the call of their nation and convincing them that their enemy was not the other tribe but the colonialist. Regimes that followed independence did nothing to continue this trend.

Instead, when facing political challenges, they fell back on the fault lines the colonialists drew between tribes. They convinced their tribesmen that the other tribe, despite being Kenyan, was the enemy. Ineffective and undemocratic governments, wanting in legitimacy, did little to convince our people that nationhood offers more benefits than tribalism.

As this trend continued at the political front, another took shape in the social front. Because of years of stereotyping and profiling, our citizens became wary of each other. Little intermarriage took place between our various ethnic groups. Because of these suspicions, economic malaise, and collapse of land transport, Kenyans know little about communities other than their own.

That is where we are. But we shall overcome this menace.

Geography used to be important as it kept communities apart. But revolutions in communications and technology are slowly but steadily rendering geography useless. Today, the coming of mobile telephony and the internet are slowly eroding Geography, culture and language as divisive factors in our lives. A new tribe of young men and women that is multi-ethnic and multiracial is meeting daily on the internet, on Face book, on Twitter on Base camp and discussing their future and that of their nation.
This tribe will run out the traditional ethnic chauvinist that has held us back. There are thousands of ways to coordinate and connect groups that did not exist a generation ago.

Perhaps even more important, the Constitution we recently unveiled offers great prospects for reclaiming our nation from the clutch of the tribe. Article 10 of our Constitution states that the national values and principle of governance include, among others, patriotism, national unity, and sharing and devolution of power.  In Article 11, the Sate is mandated to promote all forms of national and cultural expression.

Article 56 requires affirmative action to ensure that “minorities and marginalized groups participate and are represented in governance and other sphere of life.”Our Republican Constitution has entrenched safeguards to buttress fundamental rights. It provides our citizens with plentiful avenues to access the necessities and amenities of contemporary life.

President Kibaki and I are totally committed to implementing these constitutional and political guarantees to the letter.  I sense that all Kenyans share this goal, and do their part. If this is done, they will work wonders in transforming and uniting our society.

This transformation will require leadership. It will require that we as a nation produce the leaders with vision and courage to build a new society. If that leadership will be forthcoming, I have no doubt that the followership will respond.  Fortunately, again, the new constitution provides clear expectations of holders of public office and institutions like political parties, through which they rise to power.

I can therefore say with confidence that I see in the horizon a transformation of Kenya from a nation ravaged by tribal tensions to a united one in which citizens enjoy plenty in harmony.  Because we are so divided today and so suspicious of one another, some may be tempted to regard my hopes as the dreams of a visionary which exist in his fertile imagination. I disagree. It is my position that other things being equal, dreams of a kind can come true. It was the dream of the founders of America that created it as a world’s model republican state. Nothing happens unless first a dream.

(Raila Odinga is the Prime Minister of the Republic of Kenya)

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