Tribalism and Democracy in Africa

One of the enduring obstacles to the consolidation of democracy in many African nations is the persistent issue of tribalism, raising problems that date back to the artificial imposition of nation states resulting from the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885.  The idea that people demand that leaders be appointed not out of merit and achievement but rather for being “one of our own” is certainly not unique to Africa (any examination of clans and political power in Russia is a start), but it is an area of the world where these sort of fault lines are most visible.

Calestous Juma, a professor of international development at Harvard University, recent wrote a fascinating piece on this subject for the BBC, arguing that the predominant political parties of the region must work harder to advance multiethnic platforms based on ideas rather than tribal bonds, otherwise “Africa’s road to doom will continue to be paved by tribal intentions.”  Excerpt below:

The challenge to democracy in Africa is not the prevalence of ethnic diversity, but the use of identity politics to promote narrow tribal interests. It is tribalism.

There are those who argue that tribalism is a result of arbitrary post-colonial boundaries that force different communities to live within artificial borders.

This argument suggests that every ethnic community should have its own territory, which reinforces ethnic competition. (…)

The way forward for African democracy lies in concerted efforts to build modern political parties founded on development ideas and not tribal bonds.

Such political parties must base their competition for power on development platforms.

Defining party platforms will need to be supported by the search for ideas—not the appeal to tribal coalitions.

Political parties that create genuine development platforms will launch initiatives that reflect popular needs.

Those that rely on manipulating ethnic alliances will bring sectarian animosity into government business.

Whoever is elected as president will spend most of his or her time on tribal balancing rather than on economic management.