How tribalism stunts African democracy

Africa’s democratic transition is back in the spotlight. The concern is no longer the stranglehold of autocrats, but the hijacking of the democratic process by tribal politics.Kenya’s 2007-08 post-election violence revealed the extent to which tribal forces could quickly bring a country to the brink of civil war. The challenge to democracy in Africa is not the prevalence of ethnic diversity, but the use of identity politics to promote narrow tribal interests. It is tribalism.

There are those who argue that tribalism is a result of arbitrary post-colonial boundaries that force different communities to live within artificial borders. This argument suggests that every ethnic community should have its own territory, which reinforces ethnic competition.

The last 20 years of Somalia have shown the dangers of ethnic competition and underscore the importance of building nations around ideas rather than clan identities.Much attention over the last two decades has been devoted to removing autocrats and promoting multiparty politics. But in the absence of efforts to build genuine political parties that compete on the basis of ideas, many African countries have reverted to tribal identities as foundations for political competition.

Leaders often exploit tribal loyalty to advance personal gain, parochial interests, patronage, and cronyism.But tribes are not built on democratic ideas but thrive on zero-sum competition. As a result, they are inimical to democratic advancement. In essence, tribal practices are occupying a vacuum created by lack of strong democratic institutions.

Tribal interests have played a major role in armed conflict and civil unrest across the continent. But the extent to which it blunts efforts to deepen democracy has received little attention. This is mainly because much of the attention has focused on elections.

According to US-based pro-democracy group Freedom House, 19 African countries were considered electoral democracies in 2012, down from 24 over the 2005-08 period. These trends conceal the influence that tribal politics exerts on the democratic process.

It took Kenyan political parties nearly a decade to unite and defeat Daniel arap Moi’s regime. Leaders of the different opposition parties were primarily focused on pursuing their tribal interests rather than uniting around a common political programme. They in effect played into the hands of the government in power that could divide them along tribal lines. The opposition parties were unable to find common ground through coherent party manifestos. The manifestos are generally issued late because much of the effort goes into building tribal alliances.

The way forward for African democracy lies in concerted efforts to build modern political parties founded on development ideas and not tribal bonds. Such political parties must base their competition for power on development platforms. Defining party platforms will need to be supported by the search for ideas—not the appeal to tribal coalitions.

Political parties that create genuine development platforms will launch initiatives that reflect popular needs. Those that rely on manipulating ethnic alliances will bring sectarian animosity into government business.

Those who oppose using the word “tribe” desire that African ethnic groups are understood as similar to those elsewhere.They want the complexity of these groups paid attention to, and are attentive of the word “tribe’s” associations with notions of backwardness, atavism and superstition - its roots in colonial policies aimed at defining African societies and making them legible for control.

They are attentive to the fact that the term is only used to describe their cultural formations, of the fact that Western societies’ cleavages would never be defined as tribes.Conversely, this, along with constant media use, may explain why many African people continue to use the term “tribe”.

Even with their fictive kinships, many Africans may prefer to establish the bonds between them as based on common descent, as biological, than to acknowledge the complex ways in which their present-day ethnic groups were formed.Calestous Juma is International development professor at Harvard University

Last modified on Wednesday, 31 July 2013 14:20

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