News 2008


Tribe And Tribalism - Identity Battle Rages On

The Citizen (Dar es Salaam)


7 March 2008

The recent violent events in Kenya have prompted attempts to analyse and postulate whether the same thing could have happened in Uganda.

While this conversation is positive, I find it has been constrained by the concepts being used to analyse it. The whole subject has unfortunately been treated as tribalism.

'Tribalism' is derived from 'tribe.' What, however, is a 'tribe'? I raise this question because what most people call tribes are strictly not tribes. They may be ethnic groups or nationalities, depending on one's ideological disposition. In the case of the dialogue, which has been occasioned by the sad events in Kenya, I would rather use the concept identity.

French tribu and English 'tribe' originate from Latin tribus or the Greek equivalent phule. All these are linguistic terms designating Indo-European institutions of antiquity. They designate particular kinds of social and political organisation, which existed in these societies at the time.

According to Henry Morgan, the great 19th century anthropologist, a tribe "illustrates humanity's condition in barbarian state." That is to say, humanity is no longer at the primitive and savage, but not yet civilised, not yet a political state.

Notwithstanding the common usage of the word "tribe," tribes almost don't exist anywhere in the world today. To use the term, is a daunting misnomer. Beyond this it shows the limited knowledge of whoever is using the concept for the sake of analysis.

Concepts like tribe are supposed not just to represent phenomena, but also help us understand. They are tools of analysis. Whenever we use the wrong concept, there is a disconnect between our view and the reality we are trying to handle. It is like using the wrong tool. You cannot, for instance, go to observe the stars with a microscope; you need a telescope.

It is in this regard that I find the concept, 'Identity', more appropriate. Social identity has been defined as "...that part of an individual's self-concept which derives from his knowledge of his membership of a social group (or groups) together with the value and emotional significance attached to the membership."

We should hasten to point out that at a definite time one or some of these memberships are more salient than others. When the Daily Monitor columnist, Dr Munini Mulera, is talking about tribe, he actually means identity.

Listen to him: "I praise tribalism as a positive force for self-affirmation and self identity; for cultural celebration and continuity; for channelling collective efforts at community development. Being in the social company of Banyakigezi is a unique family experience that brings me immeasurable joy."

Here, he actually means to talk of identity. As we have already argued, tribes don't exist any more. However, the need for identities does exist. This need can be met by various forms of identities. They may be based on ethnicity, gender, religion, or profession.

Dr Munini totally misses the point when he writes: "I reject a culture that allows ethnic and racial identities to govern decisions and actions that otherwise demand justice, fairness and a broader view."

It should be remembered that identities also deserve to be treated fairly. They also demand justice.

A few examples will illustrate our point. The anti-colonial struggles were for the recognition of the identity of the colonised nations. In the early 1960s, the Blacks in the United States waged serious struggles to achieve equality for their identity. Further, this argument is delusional. The reality is that there are times when identity becomes a political factor. The current situation in Kenya clearly demonstrates that. It should be clear to us that it is the identity question, which is driving events over there. As I write, women are waging spirited struggles to get them recognised as equals with the menfolk

Identity has also been the major driving force of our politics in Uganda. This has been so despite President Yoweri Museveni's attempt to obscure issues. He has only attempted to dismiss identity politics as something belonging to a pre-capitalist era. On page 187 of his book Sowing The Mustard Seed, he writes: "...... pre-capitalist polarisation based on identity rather than rationality can be extremely injurious to a country."

It seems the President is not aware of Quebec in Canada and the Irish. There is also the case of Belgium. These are all capitalist countries. In Canada, the French-Canadians who populate the Province of Quebec have several times tried to break away as a way of getting their identity recognised. Everybody knows that it was the identity issue, which erupted into a long war in Ireland. Mr Museveni has also tried to ban identity politics, calling it sectarianism. This is akin to behaving like the proverbial ostrich. You bury your head in the sand and assume that nobody has seen you. Founding Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere put it even better when he said that if you have a sick person in the house and you keep it secret, the neighbours will eventually know when the person has died and you are wailing.

This is what has happened in Kenya. For years, some Kenyans and non-Kenyans refused to recognise the existence of the identity issue in Kenya. That did not eliminate the issue. Eventually, the elections brought about the occasion for it to burst out.

Back to Uganda: What was Kabaka Yekka, apart from the articulation of an identity, which was declining relative to the other identities? The Catholics as an identity felt marginalised and organised themselves into the Democratic Party. The Uganda People's Congress, on the other hand, was the embodiment of the feeling of minority nationalities.

Despite President Museveni's attempts to ban identity politics, the question is still driving our politics. Instead of living in the delusion that it is only the so-called kipingamizi (loosely translated Kiswahili for saboteur) who engage in identity politics, we should come out and admit that the principal political problem facing us today is how to negotiate our way among identities. It is only that way that we shall institute programmes to learn about identities. To learn to realise that, just as we feel proud of our respective identities, others also deserve their identities to be recognised and respected. That identity can be a political factor of serious magnitude.

The writer is an anti-Idi Amin war veteran based in the United States