21 February 2013

Africa: How to Solve Africa's Tribe Problem


In less than two weeks, Kenya will go to the polls. From the outlook, the March 4 elections are once again down to tribal calculations.

The front-runner and "president-in-waiting" Raila Amolo Odinga is in a dead heat with "heir-to-the-throne" Uhuru Kenyatta. Odinga is running on the ticket of the CORD coalition -wider and more cross-cutting in a tribally fractured political setting - while Kenyatta is with the Jubilee alliance of the two most populous tribes not shy to flaunt their numerical hegemony.

Kenyans and the rest of the region are waiting with bated breath, as it may not be over on March 4 in case none of the candidates gets 50+1 in addition to at least 25% of votes in at least five provinces. Will one group accept the narrow win of the other or will the contest draw blood like it was in 2007?

Whichever way it goes, it will simply be a case of turning the other side of the coin; that is, dismantling a two-tribe (Kalenjin and Kikuyu) hegemony and replacing it with a hegemony of more tribes (the rest of Kenya's tribes) or a continuation of the Kikuyu-Kalenjin dominance.

The Kenya political scenario begs the same question many have asked: what is Africa's problem? Is it tribes or tribal leaders? President Museveni during his days of political sobriety opined that the problem was leaders who stayed too long. Yet in Kenya, there have been some movement towards routine change of leaders but the tribe thing remains the underlying current.

It seems part of Africa's problem is this sense of entitlement that engulfs communities that have tasted power, mostly because power in Africa comes with privilege for the leader's community and deprivation for the others. So, the community whose own holds power will find all explanations - real and imagined - to justify why their own must be the only leader of our tribalised countries.

I am reminded of arguments I used to have with a friend, as O-level students at St Peter's College Tororo, in the early 1980s, regarding Uganda's leaders. Robert, who was an Acholi, always argued that in Africa, leaders of any country came from the north and he had several examples to cite at the time: Uganda (Milton Obote, Idi Amin, Okello Lutwa), Tanzania (Julius Nyerere), Sudan (Jaffer Nimeiri, Sadiq El Mahdi), Rwanda (Juvenal Habyarimana), Zaire (Mobutu Sese Seko), Nigeria (Shehu Shagari, Mohammed Buhari), etc.

He usually used this to show that the southerners (Museveni and Kayiira) who were then fighting in the bushes of Luweero were engaged in a futile exercise because geography had already predetermined who would lead Uganda - northerners. Others would argue that Catholics cannot make good leaders and they would reel off a list of names until they reached Nyerere and found themselves stuck.

If geography or religion cannot explain their psychological ring-fencing of the topmost job for their own, then it would come down to tribe and attendant biases: Baganda, Basoga, Banyoro - and until Museveni became president - Banyakore, etc, cannot be leaders. That is what is obtaining in Kenya, much of Africa and, sadly, in Uganda.

Many Kikuyu believe only they can lead Kenya, and in the remotest sense, a Kalenjin (because Daniel arap Moi was tested, having become leader by the help of a detribalized Kikuyu, Charles Njonjo - in his mind he was British - who as attorney general refused to help the Kikuyu stop Moi from succeeding Kenyatta). So, Jaluo, Luhya, et al, cannot be leaders in Kenya!

Thus even though openly everyone will talk about merit, ideas, democracy, fairness, national cohesion and all, when time to vote comes, it will be - to borrow a Kinyankore saying - "buri mbuzi aha nkondo yaayo", meaning every goat returns to the peg to which it is always tethered, in this case tribe!

Africa cannot run away from its tribes; it can only work around them. So rather than seek tribal dominance, we must seek tribal harmony and tribal, regional and religious sharing, if we are to achieve political stability without which development will continue to elude us.

Tanzania already realized this and in a span of 25 years, leadership has rotated from Nyerere (north) to Ali Hassan Mwinyi (Zanzibar) to Benjamin Mkapa (south) to Jakaya Kikwete (central coast) and no catastrophe has befallen the community of the former presidents!

Nigeria too, after years of fracture, realized that the Hausa-Fulani were not ordained to rule Nigeria and now a rotational presidency has become tradition in the past few years allowing the Yoruba (Obasanjo) and Ijaw (Goodluck Jonathan), both from the south, to lead the country. This has brought about some political stability and allowed development.

The rest of Africa, whose nation-states are tribes lumped together by colonialists, must, therefore, look to this rotation formula constitutionally, or by political agreement, because this will demystify the presidency and curtail impunity and tribal hegemony.

The rhetoric of merit in skewed political environments does not produce political equity and national cohesion, it only furthers hegemony and breeds counter manoeuvres and bloodshed. Besides, no one tribe or region has a monopoly of "merit."

The author is a political and social critic. He is a former editor of Sunday Monitor and The Independent.

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