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Published On: Fri, Feb 24th, 2017

Africa’s Deep Tribal Roots Vs Democracy

When ethnic-based violence flared in the wake of the close-fought Kenyan presidential elections of December 2007, Daniel Kalinaki of Uganda’s Daily Monitor Newspaper offered a sobering historical perspective. “It might have taken a stolen election to spark off violence in Kenya,” he wrote, “but the tribal ethnic fissures have been there for generations.”

This violence, which lasted months and claimed nearly 1300 lives; exposed to the world the explosive potential of multiparty democracy in countries where tribalism remains a significant organizing force.

One-party rule dominated Africa’s post-independence era until the 1990s, when a breeze of democratisation swept sub-Saharan Africa. During this period many countries, including Guinea, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, moved towards multiparty politics. The continent’s support for democracy has increased steadily since 2000. In a survey conducted in 12 sub-Saharan countries last year by Afrobarometer, a public opinion researcher, 79% of respondents said they believed democracy to be “preferable to any other form of government”.

But the Kenyan example, like many others, shows how democratic competition in the region is often played out – sometimes with tragic consequences – along tribal lines.

The centrality of ethnicity in politics in sub-Saharan Africa is well documented. In 2010, Guinea descended into election violence, largely pitting the country’s two biggest ethnic groups, the Fula and the Malinke. Hundreds were killed. In Kenya, disputed elections in 1997 and 2007 triggered ethnic violence largely between the Kikuyu and the Luo but also other tribes.

Politicians are not shy to play the tribal card for politically opportunistic reasons. Throughout the region, those campaigning for office regularly appeal to their own tribes and communities for votes, often in exchange for promises of jobs and other perks.  The International Criminal Court has already indicted top Kenyan politicians (including the current president and his deputy) for alleged crimes against humanity in relation to the 2007 post election violence and the former Ivory Coast president, Laurent Gbagbo, currently on trial in the Hague, for similar crimes in relation to bloody post election violence of 2010/2011 that killed more than 3000 people. These are telling examples.

Tribal identification runs deep in sub-Saharan Africa. In another Afrobarometer survey in nine African countries in 2004, about 31% of respondents identified themselves first and foremost with tribe, coming second to the 40% who identify themselves with class and occupational status. These figures vary from country to country. For example 92% of respondents in Botswana identified themselves first and foremost with tribe while only 3% in Tanzania did likewise. The survey indicated that Urbanisation, industrialisation, education, political mobilisation and competition for jobs “deepen rather than weaken ethnic identities, as individuals exploit their ethnic group membership as a tool for political, economic and social advancement.”

European colonists upset the continent’s already delicate ethnic balance. Their crude borders, “the product of an imperial carve-up that … deliberately jumbled together a diversity of ethnic communities inside unitary administrative structures”, said Prof. David Welsh, co-author of the book Ending Apartheid. The 20th century colonial withdrawals, unsurprisingly, left a legacy of simmering tribal and regional fissures. In its wake, multiparty democracy has proved fatally divisive as politicians have exploited these divisions for political advantage.

Examples of election-related ethnic violence are easy to find: In Kenya, the Kikuyu, the largest tribe that dominated the Kenya African National Union (KANU), the ruling party for much of post-independence Kenya, also dominated economic and political life. Many tribes resented this control and unleashed their resentment in a tribal war following the 2007 election.

In Uganda, the Buganda enjoyed similar advantage dating back to colonial days, equally generating much indignation amongst other tribes. In Guinea, the majority Fula dominated commerce and trade while the second largest tribe, Malinke dominated politics and the military. In Rwanda the Hutu/Tutsi genocidal violence of 1994 is a stark reminder of the lethal nature of tribal passion.

Each of these examples illustrates that multiparty democracy can sometimes prove counterproductive to the goals of regional security and prosperity, despite popular support. In contrast, several sub-Saharan states have turned to non- or less democratic regimes – that effectively removed tribalism from political discourse.

Kenya, for example, under its first president, Jomo Kenyatta, was a de facto one-party state from independence in 1963 to the early ‘90s when multiparty democracy was introduced.  Mr Kenyatta’s opponents accused him of widespread rights abuses and of appealing to tribal loyalties to retain power. His supporters argued that the system proved a check on the divisive tribal politics that had plagued Kenya, and allowed the president to direct the nation’s collective energies towards national development.

In any case, neither multiparty democracy nor one party system performed any economic miracle. In Kenya life expectancy at birth in 1980 (two years after Kenyatta died), was 57.7 years. Tellingly, by 2011, this figure had dropped to 57.1 in more than three decades, just a little above sub-Saharan Average of 54years. The country ranked 131 out of 185 countries on the UN Human Development Index and the proportion of people living in poverty remains high at 45.9% of the population, according World Bank figures for 2011.

GDP growth rates only averaged 5% for much of the post independence era.  Given reforms already underway since 2000, the World Bank is optimistic that Kenya could attain middle level country status by 2020 if it accelerates GDP growth to 6% per annum.

Daniel Arap Moi, another Kenyan president was worried that multiparty democracy could inflame the country’s latent tribal division. In 1992 he warned that tribal roots in Africa go much deeper than what he called “the shallow flower of democracy”. The 1997 and 2007 election-related violence underlined the fragility of the democratic institutions and confirmed Mr Moi’s fears.

In Uganda, the rise to power in 1986 of Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) dealt a fatal blow to multiparty politics. Mr Museveni argued that political parties are the source of sectarian divisions and conflict. As a result, he outlawed party politics with the purported goal to unite all forces, regardless of past political leanings or ethnic identities.

Mr Museveni’s opponents accuse him of curtailing political space and stifling individual freedoms. His NRM supporters, however, insist that this system has given Uganda more peace, security, development and international recognition than all the other political systems Uganda has enjoyed since independence in 1962. Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright while visiting Africa in December 1997, called Mr.  Museveni  a “beacon of hope who runs a ”uni-party” democracy.” This amounted to a public endorsement of a one-party system – perhaps, more out of respect for the personality than the system.

Uganda’s stability, however, has not translated into an economic miracle, but Mr. Museveni‘s  development and security credentials have been acclaimed. According to the World Bank, Gross Domestic Product increased from an average of 6.5% from early 1990s to 7% by 2000. Gross National Income per capita grew from $750 in 2002 to 1310 in 2011. Overall GDP grew from $6.1 billion to $16.8 billion over the same period. Levels of Poverty dropped from 56% in 1992/1993 to 24.5% in 2009/2010. Uganda has surpassed the UN’s target of reducing by half, the proportion of people living in poverty by 2015. However, at current rates and indicators, Uganda, like many others in the sub-region still remains a very poor country and is far from reaching the middle level income status it aspires to achieve in one generation, even though it has surpassed the UN target of reducing poverty by half, according to the World Bank 2011 report

Another powerful tragic, example is that of Uganda’s southern neighbour, Rwanda. Following Rwanda’s independence in 1962 a Hutu dominated party consolidated a one-party system. Gregoire Kayibanda, Rwanda’s first president, kept the lingering Hutu-Tutsi tension in check, which French colonial rule had stoked. When multiparty democracy was re-introduced in 1991, these tensions quickly degenerated into the genocidal violence that exploded three years later.

When the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) seized power in 1994, its leader Paul Kagame re-introduced a de facto single-party system. The 2003 constitution outlawed political parties on the basis of race, tribe, region, sex or other divisions. Human rights observers accuse the regime of transforming the country into a repressive one-party state. Mr. Kagame insists, however, that these laws are necessary considering the country’s unique recent history.

According to World Bank, Rwanda recorded impressive levels of sustained economic growth averaging 7% to 8% over the last ten years. GNI   per capita income nearly doubled, from$690 in 2002 to $1270 in 2011. GDP grew more than five times, from just above $1.5 billion to more than $6.3 billion and life expectancy, from 49.4 years to 55.4 over the same period. Between 1980 and 2012 mean years of schooling increased by 6.2 years  and GNI per capita increased by nearly 40% .

Rwanda’s Human Development Value increased by 57% from 0.227 in 1980 to 0.535 in 2012 and ranked 166 out of 187 on the UN Human Development Index. President Kagame’s democratic and human rights credentials have been criticised by rights observers and political opponents. But despite these regime’s authoritarian trappings, the role of one-party rule in curbing tribal conflict has been significant. Single party states have remained in power, providing a measure of stability, largely because they have been able to keep this monster in the body politic at bay.

Despotism as an antidote to tribal conflict is clearly not an option. A dictatorial government can easily abuse absolute power and bury tribal tensions. But these tensions are probably simmering underground.

The Afrobarometer survey of popular attitudes, show a clear trend rejecting one-party and military rule.

Clearly, what is needed is a system that would embrace and nurture tribal identification so that it helps the “shallow flower’ of democracy take root in African soil. Governments need to factor in all the tribes when making policy decisions, particularly when distributing jobs and other resources.

A possible alternative is a power-sharing scheme, which provides a rotating leadership amongst the tribes. Such an arrangement might prove impractical and cumbersome, particularly in countries with many tribes. But options, even those that seem unwieldy, need to be tried and tested.

Or why not just be upfront about the ethnic issue and organise parties purely along tribal lines? Dominant party tribes would have to reach out to smaller tribes to forge alliances and build bridges. In this scenario, minority tribes could win respect as potential kingmakers. This may look fragile, but is not unlike power-sharing arrangements in many European countries.

Proportional representation, where the number of seats a party wins is proportionate to the number of votes received, is yet another system that could safeguard the interests of minorities.

Sub-Saharan Africa’s history has shown that tribes cannot be ignored, crushed or exploited without dangerous consequences.  African governments must embrace and incorporate tribes in their political organisation. Neither of the alternatives – freedom-limiting despotism, nor the exploitation of the tribe by opportunistic politicians – is a viable option.

VOD Admin

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  1. Dweezil says:

    The voice of railnoaitty! Good to hear from you.

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