The single largest challenge that we face in Africa is tribalism. As a rural born, urban-schooled African, I regarded tribalism as an evil that we have to overcome if any meaningful development is to take place. However, lately I have come to regard tribalism both as a cancer and also a tool that can be used to propel Africa to a new dimension of development.

The majority of Africans are not able or willing to forsake their tribal allegiances so what do we do with this mindset. How can we channel this tribal energy into a national mainstream? We need to understand the tribes before we impose nationalism on them. Tribes are a contradiction in today’s Africa they are an evil if your tribe is not in power and a benefit if your tribe is in power. This is due to the nature of our political and government systems whereby there are no checks and balances; fostering a climate of absolute power resting on the Executive and by extension to the Executive’s tribe. So what should be done?

The first step to getting rid of an ailment is an accurate diagnosis and an admission by the patient that he has something that ails him. Once the diagnosis and admission have been made then a course of treatment is initiated that allows healing to begin. We need to admit that Africans are by nature tribalistic and this in itself is not inherently evil. Fact: tribes had institutions and systems that catered for the welfare of all the tribal members. Could it be that African States by totally disregarding tribal institutions and systems have weakened themselves? Africans traditionally belonged to extended families, which in turn belonged to a clan, and which in turn belonged to a tribe. In our haste to make the absurd partitioned Africa (Berlin Conference and the partition of Africa) into nations we chose to totally disregard this established socio-political order to our own peril. So we have tried and failed at making the great leap from individual tribal members to national citizens. For one to have allegiance to a nation the benefits must outweigh those of belonging to a tribe. In most African nations you are defined as a citizen only on paper. Your primary designation is that of an ethnic group. For example on paper you might be Gambian but your benefits or ill fate is determined by whether you are Mandinka, wollof, Fula, Jola etc. This schizophrenic national mindset permeates Africa and its denial only compounds the problem.

African States need to form governments and institutions that have their power base in the tribal institutions because this is where the real power emanates from. i.e. Most Africans respect and have primary allegiance to the tribal structure. The central government is viewed as an outside force that is often hostile and not relevant. I submit that the national government would have more legitimacy if all tribes were represented. All issues in government would be examined using dual standards; a tribal and a national standard. Balance both interests. In most parliaments an upper house should be formed consisting of statesmen who command the most respect and support from each tribe. All tribes would be designated two members very much like the US Senate. This group will balance the State interests versus the tribal interests. An equal representation will ensure that the rights and interests of minority tribes are not trampled upon by majority tribes.

Africa has tribes for better or for worse. If given lemons make lemon juice. It is the hand we have been dealt let us play it to our advantage; turn our cancer into HEALTH.


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