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
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
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