How Nyerere killed tribalism

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Tanzania Founding President Mwalimu Julius Nyerere.

Mwalimu Julius Nyerere


In a continent mostly portrayed as a war zone, littered with bloodthirsty tribal warlords and their cohorts slitting each other’s throats over grazing land or lost elections while turning millions into refugees in their own land – one African country discovered the power of a language to unify the nation.

From tribally inspired conflicts and civil strife in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan, Kenya, Angola, among others, few African countries have escaped this incessant melee.

For a long period, elections in Africa have not necessarily produced competent or representative regimes.

Apart from rigging claims, the voting patterns have predictably focused along tribal lines. In 2009, in Equatorial Guinea, for example, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo was elected, with 95 percent of the vote amid vote-rigging claims. His party also won 99 percent of seats in parliament.

In Kenya, a country of 42 tribes, tribalism has deeply divided the nation, as witnessed in post-election violence and incessant tribal clashes. Successive governments are dominated by two tribes Kikuyus and Kalenjins, who gang up during elections to win while arm-twisting smaller tribes.

The situation continues to compromise democracy as the big tribes bully their way using the power of their large numbers rather than a fair representation of tribes. Kenyan political scientist Mutahi Ngunyi famously describes the scenario as “tyranny of numbers”.

Tanzania has avoided much of this because of the purposeful leadership of the late founding president, the late Julius Nyerere, to develop a truly national identity through the language of Kiswahili, according to Ngunyi.

The introduction of Kiswahili as the sole national language remains his silent legacy – a language that has glued the nation of 102 tribes together, says Ngunyi, adding that because of the common language, Tanzanians have remained like one family unit despite their diverse backgrounds.

“The language unity in Tanzania is perhaps that country’s miracle, never witnessed in many African countries whose daily political and economic agendas are driven by tribe

“Ethnic allegiances run deep in Africa. From South Africa to Nigeria to the world’s newest nation, South Sudan, tribalism is used to climb the political ladder and to create wealth,” he says.

Tribalism has and continues to be used to divide and rule as the case of South Africa when the whites used it against the blacks during apartheid.

In Rwanda, the implications of tribalism have been disastrous. Around 800 000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in the 1994 genocide.

Ngunyi argues that Nyerere made a number of strategic moves that have provided Tanzania with political stability.

The most important of these was to establish a Tanzanian national identity, which he did by primarily leading the nation to adopt Swahili, a native language, as the country’s national language.

“Swahili gave Tanzanians a distinctly African identity, distancing them from the colonial powers whose rule had just recently been removed. Unlike the language of English (the administrative language under the British protectorate), Swahili was something indigenous.

“Nyerere’s policy of socialised education was the means of disseminating the language to the whole nation, but it was already widely used throughout the country before it was ever taught.

“Swahili would not be simply a regional language; it would become the national language of education and commerce, and for many, the language of daily life. Part of being Tanzanian became speaking Swahili, so the language served to unify a tribally diverse nation,” Ngunyi says.

Winnie Wanjala, a political science lecturer in Nairobi, observes that tribal politics has blocked Africa’s democratic process.

She says the challenge to Africa’s democracy has not only been the dominance of ethnic diversity but also the conceited politics that seek to promote tribal interests. Europe, she says, is to blame for the mess.

“The artificial boundaries brought about by colonialists in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s confined different communities in definite regions. The demarcation created a notion that if you are not from my tribe then you are my enemy,” she said.

According to the US State Department, the most diverse nations in Africa are the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia and Chad. But with a population of 72 million people and more than 250 ethnic groups, the Democratic Republic of Congo has perpetually been engulfed in ethnic clashes.

Today, tribalism is a new political dogma in Ethiopia. Pride is seemingly based on one’s tribal relations.

“This culture has spread out to the education system. The Amhara and Tigrain university students despise the Oromo lecturers. We have seen incompetent Tigrains given an upper hand in public sector jobs because their tribal men occupy the high office in the army and government,” says Wanjala.

South Sudan has also dipped itself into the tribal furnace. The world’s newest nation, which is dominated by the Dinka tribe of President Salva Kiir, has been accused of side-lining members of the Nuer, Murle, Bari, Acholi, Ding-Dinga, Anyuak, Taposa and Mundari in state jobs as well as resource allocation.

Leaders who took over after the exit of the colonialists have overwhelmingly been blamed for deepening divisions in Africa. Wanjala says the so-called first presidents failed to cultivate unity.

Instead, they pursued tribal interests aimed at consolidating their political backing. However, some African countries have tamed the divisive influence of tribalism.

Tanzania has guarded its unprecedented unity through the adoption of a common national language – Kiswahili – superseding other affiliations. As a result, there are no ethnic identifications in a country of more than 100 tribes.

“The Nyerere government was able to infuse a true sense of nationalism that transcended the country’s natural ethnic divisions. We may not have conquered tribalism, but we have been able to contain it effectively,” says Godfrey Mwakagile, a Tanzanian scholar.

While Africa’s democracy remains blotted, there is some optimism that the tribal culture may soon fade. Most of the Kenyans I spoke to were despondent about the continuingly negative influence of tribalism on the country and its failure to develop a genuine national sense of identity.

They also expressed considerable admiration for neighbouring Tanzania, where Julius Nyerere’s anti-tribalism and linguistic reforms were far more successful than his socialist economic policies.



Reproduced: Southern Times

East Africa Editor