International Justice

CJ354 Endicott College

Tribalism vs. Democracy

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?


2 responses to “Tribalism vs. Democracy

  1. mhdeck December 5, 2012 at 4:09 pm

    Tribalism and democracy in Africa have a multifaceted relationship. In Africa the situation is further complicated because of the violence and power manipulation that is associated with with politics. Additionally, the colonial construction of social divides along tribes further the social divides between people in the same country. The social divides can still be seen today. In regards to transcending ethnic differences I am not sure that having one national language would do a lot in regards to healing the divides between tribes. Moreover, recognizing one language might only deepen the divides when deciding which language would be the national language. In South Africa has eleven official languages that are recognized in the constitution. A issue that comes along with transcending tribal divides is the role of the national government. In the case of Rwanda its appears that the state is manipulating and abusing power under the pretense the state is protecting people from genocide ideology.
    Another issue African states must deal with is that of the incredibly wealth disparities. Reconciliation and stability after periods of violence becomes very difficult when years of economic and political tools have been used against one particular social group. In regards to local justice and peace how does a community go about reconciling when issues of socioeconomic differences are striking? It is not the role or place of the ICC to step in for the state when trying to reconcile such differences. Does traditional justice need to play a larger role in being a mechanism for state justice and local justice to happen?
    The Kenya case adds another dimension to understanding tribal politics and democracy because the pact formed between Kenneth and Tuju. For their supporters the pact is a move toward issue oriented politics – not tribal oriented politics. However, after the mass violence of the last election where does the electorate get protection? Does the role of the tribe transcend the role of government for the average Kenyan? Another issue African countries must deal with is how to reconcile the role of culture, tribes, and the state. Can there be an equilibrium for all three to exist?

  2. indraswb December 5, 2012 at 11:16 pm

    The fact that national identity and ethnic identity are not closely aligned in many African countries certainly presents a problem for reconciliation. However, it should be taken into account that the inherent sense of tribalism in many ethnic communities cannot take the brunt of blame in a historical context. The strong dismissal of national identity is symptomatic of the impact colonialism has had on Africa. In a dash to claim resources, European empires sought to control lands in Africa which resulted in many arbitrary borders. It is clear then that tribalism preceded democracy. In the case of Sudan, we see that democracy has in fact facilitated the enforcement of ethnic identity. Democratically established South Sudan after all came into realisation generally along ethnic lines.

    In the case of Rwanda, though ethnicity plays a vital part in social identity, it is interesting that it is not influenced by language. The vast majority of Rwandese speaks Kinyarwanda regardless of ethnicity. Ironically, another national language there, French, is the product of colonialism, the institution responsible for formalising ethnic identity. I wonder then if there is popular opinion among Rwandese to oppose French for representing a catalyst for ethnic division.

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