From Mon Aug 6 13:55:11 2001
From: Art McGee <>
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] The Roots of Tribalism
Precedence: bulk
Date: Mon, 6 Aug 2001 07:12:11 -0400 (EDT)

The Roots of Tribalism

By John Rapley <>, Jamaica Gleaner, 12 July 2001

I once heard Wilmot Perkins say that while Africa inherited tribes from her history, Jamaica created them anew. He was only half-right.

>From what I can tell, tribalism has everywhere been constructed by politicians. The first thing to be said of tribalism is that it is not peculiar to Africa. If anything, it is a universal phenomenon that appears to arise from the social character of the human species.

Dependent on communities for their existence, humans cleave to groups. This need for belonging then leads them to foster in- and out-group mentalities. Sometimes we call this tribalism, sometimes amoral familism, sometimes nationalism, but the root appears to be the same. Thus, the tribal instinct may well be primordial.

However, what we today know as tribalism appears not to be so. Specifically, certain forms of ethnic identity which prevail in many but not all African societies may not be as deep-rooted as we often believe. Were that the case, historians would find evidence of tribalism running deep into the historical sources. Moreover, manifestations of tribalism would be most likely to surface in the most tradition-bound areas of the continent, namely in rural areas. Seldom is that the case. In fact, the earliest evidence in the historical record of what we call tribalism appears to surface in urban areas in the colonial period. And, peering more closely into the operations of tribal politics, one finds that it is anything but traditional. It is, in fact, thoroughly modern. This is why anthropologists typically avoid using the term ‘tribalism’ in the way journalists are so wont to do.

Tribes do exist in some places, but they tend to be relatively small groups. Most of what we call tribes in Africa are more properly described as ethnic groups or nations. And nations, the version of tribalism which became widespread in Europe, are themselves modern identities which grew alongside industry and the move of rural populations to the cities.

As was the case with nationalism, traditional elites whose power bases lay in the villages typically resisted the rise of ethnic identities, since these threatened their position. The spread of European styles of administration created the demand for modern petty bourgeoisies—junior civil servants, teachers, lawyers—to help staff the colonial states of Africa. Sometimes this class was formed by mission schools, as in the British colonies, and sometimes by state schools, as in the French ones.

Significantly, though, many of the young men who emerged to occupy these positions came from relatively humble backgrounds, as the chiefly class resisted being co-opted by the state. Alongside the growth of this class was the urban working class made up of poor rural migrants. Deprived of the protection of their traditional leaders, whose authority weakened over the great distances, these men and women tended to cluster among people with whom they shared obvious similarities. Usually they linked up with people who spoke similar dialects.

Just as Jamaicans from different backgrounds might resist associating with one another at home but group together once they are abroad, united by their common differences with the wider society, new linguistic communities formed in Africa's growing cities.

These new groups formed a potential power base for ambitious young men with political agendas. Their actual or potential positions within the state gave them control over resources, what we have come to call scarce benefits, which they could use to solidify their positions of leadership.

In conditions of abundance, the conflict over resources remained peaceful, even co-operative. In conditions of scarcity, however, the risk of violent conflict rose. Where ethnic leaders have been able to smooth over their differences, thereby enabling economic growth to take place, conflict has attenuated. In time, ethnic identity even came to be supplanted by loyalty to the state, giving rise to a new form of nationalism.

But where ethnic leaders sought above all to guard their power bases, thereby guaranteeing that conflict would endure, the economy suffered and the conflict spiralled downwards.

Whether in Rwanda or Yugoslavia, self-interested leaders have always been able to smash social harmony, leaving their people to suffer. My hunch is that there is a lesson in this for us. There is nothing in our history that has consigned us to our present lot. Our fate has resulted from the choices we have made.