Tribalism vs. Democracy
December 5, 2012
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Tribalism and traditional tensions between various ethnic communities seems to be a common theme throughout Africa. These deep-rooted tensions create divisions in all parts of life, and contemporarily in political life. In light of the present situation in Kenya where violence has been (and is sure to continue to be) based upon ethnic discrimination, it is interesting to question the relationship between tribalism and democracy. Kenya is not the first African nation to host these ethnic or tribal frictions among various communities: Sierra Leone, Rwanda, and South Sudan (to present a few examples) have also been permeated by ethnic considerations in the political realm. What this really boils down to is that the majority of people in these countries identify more closely with their tribes than their country. Historically, the effect on an unconnected nation on democracy proves to be corruption, discrimination, and violence: elected leaders will play favorites, thus causing discrimination and lack of attention to parts of the population, followed by dissatisfaction, resentment, and often brutal clashes between the victims and perpetrators of this prejudice. In Kenya, the tensions are so high among tribes that people are talking about temporarily moving during the election period due to fear of their neighbors: “Many of my neighbours are not from [my] tribe, and I know whatever the outcome of the coming election, they might attack me. I don’t want to wait for that to happen. I am looking for a house to rent in a place where my people are many. It is the only way I can feel safe.”
Thus far, I have portrayed tribalism in a negative light. However, it is also important to mention that not all African nations are afflicted by deep tribal divisions and it is possible to transcend ethnic differences in order that a national loyalty and identity trump tribal divisions. There are various ways to resolve ethnic divisions, such as creating one national language that supersedes local or ethnic loyalites as the independence leader Julius Nyerere did for Tanzania. (The picture above shows the various languages and dialects of Kenya by region.) “Stengthening democratic institutions is another approach – election results people can trust and independent law courts which deliver honest verdicts would give people less need to rely on the protection and provision of tribe.”
In the end, the question I’d like to put up for discussion is: Is tribalism undermining democracy in Africa?