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close this bookThe Courier N 128 July - August 1991 - Dossier : Human Rights- Democracy-Development Country Reports: Benin, Western Samoa (EC Courier, 1991, 96 p.)
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View the documentHuman rights, democracy and development
View the document‘Democracy cannot be imposed from the outside’
View the documentInterview with Dr. Erskine Simmonds, Vice-President of the ACP-EEC Joint Assembly
View the documentInterview with Henry Saby, Chairman of the Development Committee of the European Parliament
View the documentAmnesty International - The international conscience for 30 years
View the documentThe African Charter on Human and People’s Rights
View the documentBuilding democracy with tribalism
View the documentDemocracy in the English speaking Caribbean
View the documentDemocracy and development
View the documentDevelopment and the African political heritage
View the documentSome thoughts on governance and democratisation
View the documentTransition to democracy is there a model?

Building democracy with tribalism

Although’ corruption is often cited, tribalism is probably the commonest motivation of most military coups in Africa-those violent reactions of resentment by one or several groups against domination by others. Note that, invariably, no sooner are the accusers in office than they are themselves accused of the same misdeed. If they are not, in turn, overthrown a state of permanent tribal tension would reign. More tragic, of course, are the civil wars with ethnic overtones - led by warlords in search of political power - which have been and are being savagely waged with tremendous loss of lives and property, immense human -suffering and famine. The picture Africa projects is, accordingly, one of absolute chaos, of barbarism and economic decay.

Perceived inevitably as a factor of instability, an evil which would distort and ultimately destroy any political system no matter what its merits, tribalism is justifiably in the forefront of the debate on democracy in Africa as one regime after another bows to popular pressure for political pluralism. But is tribalism really evil? Is it truly inimical to democracy and party politics?

For over three decades, advocates of the one-party state or military rule have advanced the need to overcome tribalism and promote national unity to justify the monopoly of power by a restricted group of people. This has led, in some cases, to the installation of dictatorship and a reign of terror. These one-party or military-rule enthusiasts erroneously assumed that, either by persuasion or coercion, tribalism could be smothered and a nation of subservient peoples moulded. They failed miserably.

Surprisingly, proponents of a multiparty system of government appear to make a similar assumption in claiming that party ideals, freedom and justice, respect for human rights, and other principles embodied in democracy are so cherishable and attractive that tribalism can easily be traded for them. They often cite examples in Western Europe where pluralism has flourished amid ethnic tensions and nationalism. Africa, they point out, has not the monopoly of tribalism. Its leaders should create the conditions favourable for its defeat. These ‘democrats’ aspire to the creation of homogeneous African societies, without which, they claim, multi-party democracy would be in jeopardy, as if homogeneity can be achieved within a time frame of twenty or thirty or fifty years, and as if it does not require as a minimum condition a common language.

Such reasoning betrays a lack of understanding of the psychology, indeed of the true nature, of African tribalism. We are not dealing here with minorities resentful of decades or centuries of oppression seeking redress or secession (such agitations are, as already pointed out, also taking place in Africa), but with what is, in essence, the primitive impulse of the African’s heart, his being.

Defined as the sentiment of belonging to a group of clans which claim a common ancestry, tribalism is, as we know from the works of Sigmund Freud, linked to totemism, a necessary and universal phase of human development. This definition differs considerably from the popular negative understanding of it as meaning ‘hatred of, or discrimination against, people of other tribes’ - a notion reinforced by the political situation in Africa just described, which is repulsive to many people around the world. Tribalism that involves hatred and domination of others is a sentiment with which many Africans are ashamed to be associated, even if by nature they are tribalists.

The African tribalist

Let us then undertake briefly a psychoanalysis of the African tribalist. We must start by recognising as valid the Freudian assertion that in this our twentieth century, there are societies which have retained, more than others, that sense of oneness with nature with which humanity in primitive times was imbued and that that sense exercises tremendous influence in the organization of life, manifesting more often in animism, and in the worship of the ancestors. Such are African societies, still overwhelmingly rural, which are characterized mostly by the worship of the ancestors, a traditional religion of which absolute loyalty not only to the family but also to the clan or the tribe is the basic tenet. In Western societies, that primaeval sense has been forced back deep into the subconscious, although traces can be found in certain gestures, superstitions and rituals. Although there is a certain re-awakening of the sense of the ‘tribe’ among minorities, spurred by political and economic reasons, the family as a unit in the West, generally, has given way to the individual and society has become a collection of individuals in contrast to Africa where society is made up of families and of tribes. The African attachment to his family or his adherence to the extended family system is too well-known to warrant emphasis.

Loyalty to the clan, as demanded by the traditional religion, together with fear and mistrust of other tribes acquired through ages of inter-tribal wars, raids and slavery, have created in the African psyche a sense of ‘insecurity outside the group’. Evidence of this can be found in schools, universities and cities across the continent where different tribal associations come into being for the purpose of providing their own tribes-men and -women with the support they need in unfamiliar surroundings, keep them in touch with their own culture and promote tribal interests. It is not uncommon to find such associations in places as far away as London and New York.

We should note, looking back at history, that almost all the tribes brought under one ‘nation’ for the administrative and economic convenience of the colonial master resented the unnatural union. It should therefore not come as a surprise to realise that the African, accordingly, owes greater allegiance to his tribe than to his so-called country. Indeed his order of priorities are instinctively his family, his tribe and his country, caring much less about the latter, except in the context of international relationships.

These then were the people to whom the colonial masters granted independence. Not long exposed to democratic practices, and amid poverty, is it any wonder that the democratic models bequeathed to Africa collapsed almost everywhere in the first decade of independence, as many regimes were overthrown in military coups and many others confiscated power by means of one-party states?

The case of Nigeria

It is perhaps in order at this juncture to undertake a case-study of Nigeria where the tribal problem posed to democracy is more acute and more complex than in any other African country. Nigeria, according to some estimates, has well over 70 ethnic groups. It was created in 1914 through the amalgamation of the British Protectorates of Northern and Southern Nigeria.

A glance at the records of the three-day debate on the ‘Motion for Independence’ in the Nigerian Federal House of Representatives in January 1980 reveals certain incontrovertible facts: 1) The House was a caricature of the House of Commons, Members knew very little about parliamentary ethics and procedures; 2) Debates lacked substance, being dominated by ethnic squabblings.

For example: Soon after the Prime Minister had introduced the motion and the leader of the opposition had replied, the first Member to speak expressed fears about exchanging what he called ‘white imperialism for black imperialism’. ‘I love independence’, he said, ‘I fought for it and its attainment is a credit to us, but nevertheless there are some doubts and sad experiences arising from the insincere, undemocratic, oppressive, vindictive and tribalism attitude of some of our leaders I have to mention that I come from a tribe which is deemed to be the fourth largest and the oldest in the country. Now we are attaining independence we want to be independent in that tribe, to rebuild and reopen in such an administrative way that all the Ijaw-speaking elements are united to form their own Province or State in an independent Nigeria’. He did not want his people to be under the Government of the Western Region.Another Member did not want his either to be under the Government of the Eastern Region. ‘I feel Mr Speaker Sir’ he said, ‘that we are not safe in the hands of ‘Ajingba’ Government of the Eastern Region. Certainly you know that with Dr Okpara presiding we people in the Calabar Province are in hell.’

It should be noted that the colonial administration had created three regions, based on the three main tribes, in 1947 in response to tension between the three groups. The political parties which emerged during this period, though supposedly national, were each dominated by one tribe. They were: the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC)-Hausa-dominated; the National Council of Nigeria and Cameroon(NCNC)-lbo-dominated; and the Action Group(AG)-Yoruba-dominated. Politicians from the minority tribes allied themselves with one or the other party in accordance with whichever they felt would serve their best interest. They were often disappointed, and because they usually felt uncomfortable within the formations, were more often inclined to agitate for the creation of their own region or province.

In the House of the Representatives we referred to, the NPC and NCNC were in coalition. They were opposed by the AG. It was thought that the alliance between the Hausas and Ibos augured well for peace and democracy in the country in terms of promoting tribal understanding and harmony. It increased, on the contrary, the suspicion of the Yorubas of an Hausa/Ibo conspiracy to dominate. Equally it was thought that the realignment of the political landscape which occurred in 1963 was a step in the right direction: a split had occurred in the AG with a faction forming the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP) and going into an alliance with the NPC. The NCNC and AG, on the other hand, came together. Unfortunately, the bitterness caused among the Yorubas by the split in the AG was to precipitate serious political disturbances in the Western Region and lead to a chain of catastrophic events: the first military coup in 1966, the massacre of the Ibos in the Northern Region, the secession of the Eastern Region (‘Biafra’) and the Nigerian civil war.

Mindful of these experiences, the 1979 Constitution of the Second Republic, which saw the return to democratic government that year, required political parties to be truly national, ie present on the ground in the then 19 States of the Federation, and the President of the Republic to win election in at least two thirds of the number of states. That Constitution failed. The political formations which emerged were a virtual resurrection of the three post-indepen dence parties, still as ethnically dominated as ever, and with the same personalities. With another return to democratic rule planned for 1992, a number of measures have already been taken aimed at avoiding a repetition. Will they succeed? It should be noted that, in order to reduce tribal tension, the tradition of devolution of power begun in 1947 by the colonial regime has been maintained with exercises in the creation of states. Each exercise has always succeeded in reducing ethnic tension in the country.

Admittedly not all the African countries have had the same experience as Nigeria, but we can draw a number of general conclusions, valid for all, from our psychoanalysis of the African tribalist and our case-study of Nigeria: the first is that tribalism is a natural sentiment that cannot be stifled. It relates to the personality, indeed to the true identity of the African, the second is that African countries had at independence little or no experience in the operation of democracy based on western models, and still have considerable difficulties grappling with their mechanics; and the third is that politics in Africa cannot avoid being affected by tribal sentiments. Consider the results of the March 1991 election in Benin Republic where, despite the general feeling of a widespread desire for change after more than two decades of government by Mr Kerekou, the latter’s share of the votes was almost exclusively based on the support of his northern tribesmen. The winner, President Soglo, failed to win substantial votes among them. This, on the threshold of what is supposed to be a new era for democracy in Africa.

Let it be said outright that democracy has, since the days of the Greek city states, proved its superiority over all other political systems. It is a system that has triumphed over totalitarianism in Eastern Europe and which is increasingly being adopted in the Third World in general. Poverty is not a constraint. After all, the biggest democracy in the world, India, is a poor country. The future peace and prosperity of Africa, no doubt, depends on democracy taking root on the continent.

The trouble is that Africans have never realistically attempted to build democracy with the institutions available to them. They have indulged and are continuing to indulge in mimicry. None of the great democracies of today copied wholesale the political system of the other. Whatever system they have is both a reflection of their national character and of their history: the United Kingdom, a constitutional monarchy since William and Mary in 1689; France, a unitary presidential system since 1958 after a long period of government instability and search for a more durable system - since the 1789 revolution in fact!; the United States, a federal presidential system since 1789 when the Constitution of the United States came into effect. The founding fathers of that Constitution had examined all the political systems known to mankind - monarchy, oligarchy and democracy and rejected each as dangerous, preferring instead to infuse all three into a system of checks and balances, refined it is true by various Amendments. A great document which suits the American temperament and which has stood the test of time.

Condemned to living together in modern states, Africans ought to find a formula for peace. Tribalism, as defined in this article, should not be seen as a factor of division but as a natural institution (in-built pluralism or natural constituencies if you will) with which democracy ought to be constructed. Language, they say, is a vision of life. Tribes which speak different languages see the world in different manners, and such visions should find expression in democracy, much more so in societies where ideology plays little or no part in the formation of political parties.

Reconciling democracy with tribalism: a possibility

The question inevitably is: how can tribalism, in practice, be reconciled with democracy? This must, of course, start with a Constitution which emphasises the basic, entrenched principles of democracy; ie respect of human rights, respect for the rights of minorities, freedom of speech and of the press, an independent legislature, an independent judiciary, fair distribution of the nation’s wealth, social services and amenities, education for all and an obligation for government to govern constitutionally.

Although situations vary from country to country (some have a greater number of tribes than others and thus have greater ethnic problems as already pointed out), the Constitution should organise political life with a guaranteed role for every tribe. For those with numerous ethnic groups, political life could, for example, be organised thus: Each component part of society, ie tribe’ should have at least a guaranteed representation in the Legislature, the number of representations, of course, reflecting its numerical strength. Each tribe should elect its representative on the basis of a contest, initially at least, exclusively between tribally-based political parties. The virtue of such a system is that it would reduce thuggery, ballot rigging, resentment often felt by many at the sight of a member of one tribe campaigning in another or the thought of being represented by him, increase popular participation in political life, and give a double mandate to the elected person: ie representative not only of his local party’s interests but also those of his tribe.

Let us not forget that in the Athenian city-state where democracy was first practiced in the ancient world, the Council of the Five Hundred, which constituted the steering committee of the Assembly, was composed of 50 members drawn from each of the 10 tribes and that the board of magistrates comprising 10 members was also chosen on a tribal basis. Although women, slaves and foreign residents were excluded from participation in politics, the city-state system functioned for its citizens very well, ensuring peace and stability from 508 BC to 338 BC when Athens was conquered by the Macedonians.

Readers may well ask how under such a system a national government can be formed with the multiplicity of triballybased political parties. The answer is simple. The system will induce the emergence at national level of political parties formed through the coalition of the tribally-based parties. This inevitably implies not only a process of negotiation but also a bottom-up approach to the establishment of national parties rather than what currently obtains which is of parties formed at the national level (but dominated in most cases by a single tribe as has been the case in Nigeria) and imposed on the rest of the country. It will be the local parties willingly going into alliances whose structure, policies and constitutions they will help shape rather than individuals without voice and without influence joining parties whose policies and structures had been determined elsewhere. It will give the tribe, however minor, a sense of importance and of participation in national affairs, especially if the Constitution demands a high level of support in the Legislature for the formation of a government and the enactment of certain kinds of legislation, support high enough to preclude domination by one or a small group of tribes however populous.

Let us note here that, in contrast to most European parties which are based on mass membership of branches, the two main parties in the United States, the Democratic and Republican parties, had their roots in a variety of militant groups across the country supporting one or the other of the two strands of political opinions which emerged between 1789 and 1801. The Democrats were mainly adherents of the federalist principles enunciated by Alexander Hamilton while the Republicans were mainly followers of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, opponents of federalism and supporters of greater powers to the states. The American party system thus came into existence as a bottom-up movement, the national parties serving as umbrella organisations for different interest groups which happened to have common interests at the national level.

A system as suggested in this article necessarily means reduced powers for whoever is chosen by whatever means as Head of State. It means greater powers for the Government and the Legislature. It will induce the establishment of local government more on the tribal level (which, in any case, will be a return to one akin to what Africa had before colonialism), than on the level of district or province, the boundary of which was often arbitrarily drawn. The establishment of local government on the tribal level will not only contribute towards the channelling of those energies presently expended at the national level on dispute back into tribal cultural and social welfare; it will also facilitate rural development.

This system can only function effectively if there is a commitment to respect those entrenched democratic principles which we have already outlined here, particularly those regarding the respect of the rights of minorities and the obligation to govern constitutionally. To ignore, deplore or attempt to smoulder tribalism in order to build a strong democracy is, in the opinion of this writer, day-dreaming.

Augustine OYOWE