Imagine how an Associated Press account of Soviet conflicts might read if the dateline were Africa:
A state of emergency was declared in eastern Uzbekistan Friday because of tribal warfare over the distribution of plots of land, and the president of the republic asked the Kremlin to help stem the wave of white-on-white violence.
If the story is about the Soviets or the Irish or the Afghans, or about Greek and Turkish Cypriots or Hungarians and Rumanians, the word used is ethnic. Similar conflicts in Africa are almost invariably labeled tribal.
In his widely-quoted book The Africans, David Lamb, former Africa correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, calls tribalism perhaps the most potent force in day-to-day African life and says it is one of the most essential concepts to understand about Africa.
But many students of African affairs firmly reject the term tribe and would like to see the concept of ethnic divisions applied more cautiously. While ethnic violence is commonplace in many parts of the world today, says the London-based magazine West Africa, ethnicity in Africa is treated differently and frequently dismissed as the atavistic barbarity of tribalism. The term tribe is an essentially derogatory and unhelpful label, the magazine says.
Scholars say that usage of the word tribe, in sociological and anthropological literature as well as in the popular press, is ambiguous and imprecise. Tribe can refer to groups with a range of social realities a common language, a common culture, shared ancestral lineages or a recognition of the same authority or ruler. But the word is ubiquitous. News accounts about Western Sahara call the heads of Saharan clans tribal chiefs, though the Saharans share a common language, religion and culture. Even the fighting in South Africa's Natal province is often called tribal, although all the participants and victims are Zulu.
Seldom, the experts say, does the actual situation match the public conception of a coherent and separate group of people acting in concert.
More importantly, says David Wiley, director of the African Studies Center at Michigan State University, the word tribe reinforces the images of African primitivism. Other peoples have ethnic or nationality-group loyalties; Africans have tribes.
It is no accident, Wiley says, that the contemporary uses of the term Ôtribe were developed during the nineteenth century rise of evolutionary and racist theories to designate alien non-white peoples as inferior or less civilized.
Increasingly, Africanists are promoting the view that the rifts commonly attributed to tribalism are as much an outgrowth of modern phenomena colonization, urbanization and economic hardship as they are a continuation of age-old traditional ties.
In a recent letter to the New York Times, Christopher Love, a PhD candidate in African history at Yale, argued that the term tribe is more likely to reinforce stereotypes than provide insight.
Ethnic identity and conflict in African cities has much in common with urban ethnicity here or on other continents, Love wrote. Even rural ethnic conflicts are likely to have roots in social changes shaped by states and markets.
In 1978, during an outbreak of heavy fighting in Zaires Shaba province, scholars took the U.S. media to task for assigning tribal motivation to a conflict whose causes lay elsewhere. Johannes Fabian, an anthropologist who had lived in Shaba for four years, complained to the New York Times about its characterization of the insurgency as tribal or secessionist. It was a popular rebellion against an unpopular government, Fabian said. Boston University political scientist Edouard Bustin noted in a column for the Christian Science Monitor that the Zaire rebels were so ethnically diverse that they had to use a mixture of French, Portuguese and Swahili to communicate among themselves.
The heavy use of the word tribe may stem in part from a view that African cultures have remained largely static frozen at some pre-twentieth century stage of development. Lamb writes of tribal regions that have existed for generations. West Africa counters that ethnicity is not an immutable phenomenon but a changing feature of society.
In many countries, colonial authorities exploited and exacerbated ethnic differences for their own ends, says David Wiley, and the white regimes of southern Africa pursued an aggressive policy of re-tribalization. Some independent African governments have manipulated ethnic differences for similar reasons to make their divided populace easier to control. It is generally acknowledged that the ethnic animosities that surfaced during the 1990 rebellion against Samuel Doe in Liberia were a product of the Liberian socio-political climate of the 1980s.
It would be incorrect, though, to suggest that ethnic hostilities are not a serious problem in much of the continent. Events throughout Africa have shown it is hypocritical and potentially dangerous to ignore the fact of ethnicity with its inherent divisiveness, Adebayo Adedeji, former executive secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa, warns.
Adedeji says that the uneven distribution of socio-economic advantage within countries has alienated and marginalized some ethnic groups, contributing to deepening tensions. With Africas economic crisis worsening, these divisions threaten to grow deeper.
Adedeji, along with several other outspoken African thinkers, sees the answer in democratization. He argues that a democratic experience in a plural society can provide the opportunities for full participation that will reduce ethnic rivalries and produce affiliation to the national bond among the numerous groups who find themselves within artificially-drawn national boundaries.
This article was published originally in "Capturing the Continent: U.S. Media Coverage of Africa," a special 1990 edition of Africa News.