Democratic demise in Africa seems to be on the increase. This week’s news that the democratic leader of Gabon has just been ousted by the country’s military, follows the same occurrence in Niger a few weeks ago. Zimbabwe seems to be headed in the same direction and the chances of any sort of democracy in Sudan is a distant pipe dream. All this made me reflect a little on why Africa is apparently headed down the same old rat hole – dictatorship and corruption. South America isn’t too far behind but Africa seems particularly prone to such regression.
I’m sure there are many reasons, but two are not often mentioned, and I would like to explore their particular significance; they are tribalism, and the predilection of colonial powers to draw lines in the wrong places.
Tribalism exists in all forms of human activity everywhere. It is a basic human instinct that everyone has, even though many people would like to deny it and have convinced themselves it doesn’t exist. It is a fundamental part of human nature that has been with us for thousands of years, and won’t be going away anytime soon. The syndrome of “I don’t like or trust you because you are different from me” is the daily sentiment, suppressed or otherwise, in all of us. It doesn’t matter whether “different” means you live on the next street and not mine, or the more obvious differences of race and country. I
In Europe, and to a lesser extent in the U.S., national identity has been around for long enough to have become a tribal feeling. I haven’t lived in England for over fifty years but I still feel I am English.
In Africa, national identities, defined by current country borders, have only existed since colonial powers drew the lines in the wrong places, and that’s a very short time ago. The fact that traditional tribal boundaries in Africa bear almost no relation to the current national borders creates an internal conflict that is the cause of much of the current political turmoil.
I remember living through a coup in Sierra Leone when the incumbent prime minister only issued bullets to the members of the army that were from his tribe. Almost by definition, if someone is appointed/elected president of your country, and you are not from his tribe, you will feel obligated to remove him because he different and you don’t trust him. AND, he will feel obligated to persecute you for the same reason. He also knows that he has a limited time to “make hay while the sun shines” because his, and his tribe’s, grip on power is tentative. It is a bad scenario for the survival of democracy.
A study of colonial development in Africa, no matter whether British, French, Portuguese, or German, is remarkably similar in terms of where they drew national boundaries. They crossed tribal boundaries with no thought as to the consequences: They didn’t know, they didn’t care and, in those times, there was no reason to even consider the concept that tribal boundaries might mean something. It is only recently that those decisions are coming back to haunt Africa, and the international community.
To be fair, it’s no-one’s fault. It is an unfortunate historical fact that needs understanding rather than criticism. It may well be unsolvable but, at least, it might be understood. Western nations tend to be sanctimonious and critical of this situation, but they should look closer at themselves, particularly in the U.S. No self-respecting Texan, for example, ever calls himself/herself American except as an afterthought. The same is true of all Puerto Ricans and, to some extent, that same concept applies to all other states – the political fights over states’ rights is a manifestation of these tribal sentiments. If we knew more about the internal affairs of China, I would say the same probably applies there, despite the communist party’s attempt to make everyone equal. India is wracked by the same problem.
We can fight this concept of tribalism, but we will lose. Frustration, anger and conflict will inevitably follow.
Is it possible that accepting the inevitability of tribalism in dealing with our fellow man/woman, and somehow accommodating it, might make our world a better/safer place? Possible, but the chances of us finding out are almost certainly nil. It is too deeply ingrained.