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  • Theophilus Wellington

Tribalism - The enduring legacy of Colonialism.

Africa today conjures negative images of strife, economic backwardness, low life expectancy, illiteracy etc. More recently, the wave of ethnic conflicts across the continent, but mostly within states has been brought under increased scrutiny. The large number of ethnic groups living on the continent, as well as within states whose boundaries were drawn by colonialists, has created conditions ripe for ethnic competition. One of the most profound and harmful effects of colonialism is the creation of ethnicity and ethnic conflict.

This essay asserts that ethnic identities as we know them today in most of Africa, especially Nigeria, did not have a prior existence as stable categories. The creation of identities of different ethnic groups were firstly made and remade largely in the context of colonialism. These groupings were then consolidated largely by political elites. Much of the conflicts that ensue between different ethnic groups are often a product of colonial policy of homogenizing ethnic groups, and encouraging them to flourish as mutually exclusive identities within the larger amalgamated colony. In summary, colonialism bred ethnic nationalism and competition between diverse groups in multi ethnic states.

Creation of the modern tribe

Mahmood Mamdani defines a tribe as a “creation of laws drawn up by a colonial state which imposes group identities on individual subjects and thereby institutionalizes group life”. Tribe has no definition that matches reality. It describes nothing that exists or has ever existed. It is important to note before we delve into the creation of tribalism, that African tribes were the conscious and unconscious creations of colonial administrators and professionals, the motivations behind this numerous. No ethnic group has ever had impermeable boundaries, as people can and do change their ethnic identities. In pre-colonial societies, ethnicity was a permeable artifact, one that was not “encoded into one’s genes”. Even the ideas of kinship and shared ancestry were “notoriously malleable to serve contemporary social or ideological purposes”.

Colonial states acted to define the culture and custom of demarcated ‘tribes’ with a greater degree of clarity, consistency, and rigidity than had ever existed before. They did this whilst believing and insisting they were respecting age old “African custom”. This part of the essay examines the emergence of the Yoruba and Igbo identity, to show how British colonialism impacted their evolution.

The Yorubas

The Yoruba people are one of the major ethnic groups in Nigeria, occupying the southwestern states of Nigeria. Outside Nigeria, the Yoruba people can be found in appreciable numbers in Togo, the republic of Benin and Ghana. There are also flourishing Yoruba cultural practices in South America and the Caribbean. Conflicting accounts regarding the origin of the Yoruba people exhibit how identities are entangled but thriving in myths and inventions.

Between the 18th and 20th centuries, relationships between distinct Yoruba settlements and kingdoms were characterized by numerous wars. The Yorubas, after a series of some of the longest civil wars in history, were too badly divided to be regarded as a cohesive whole. Obafemi Awolowo, emerging as one of the first leaders of the Yoruba people in modern times had a view of the group as a highly progressive but disunited one.

Upon their arrival, the British colonialists quickly realized they could not explore and exploit a region of many-sided conflicts. Not only did they stop the wars, they quickly embarked on a mission to unify these disparate people to the extent that they created the myth of the powerful Alaafin of Oyo as the supreme leader of the Yoruba people. This was very important to the success of the British indirect rule system, which required a single, cultural symbol of authority that they could use to accept their rule. They had invented the myth of Alaafin when the powers of the Alaafin had drastically reduced, with Ibadan on the ascendancy. However, Ibadan had to be bypassed, because it was a more recent settlement with little ‘ancestry’ and ‘history’. The key to the success of the unification process lay in successfully communicating the lie of a romantic, idyllic and united past.

The Igbos

Despite the shared language and customs, accounts hold that the idea of “Igbo land” with a common ethnic consciousness is a creation of the

twentieth century. Previously, they were a collection of segmented settlements functioning as distinct societies made up of more than 200 patrilineal clans occupying a few dozen villages, with shared language as well as common customs and beliefs. According to Chinua Achebe, even though the people spoke the same Igbo language, historically, they did not see themselves as Igbos, but as people from this village or that village. In order for their system of indirect rule to be applied, the British colonists struggled to bring these clusters of villages under a more unified leadership system.

Consolidation of New tribes by Political Elites.

From the accounts above, we can gather that pre-colonial political and socio-cultural boundaries were marked by flexibility and that Africans existed within a reality of multiple, overlapping and alternative collective identities. The crystallization of these new ethnic identities was largely done by political elites who used the discontent of colonial rule to rally their people around their own personal ambitions, cloaked in ethnic aspirations.

The most important political relationship in the colonial state was the alliance between European administrators and the chiefs of administrative subdivisions. Chiefs and headsmen were the essential linkage between the colonial state and African societies. By collaborating with European district administrators over a demarcated, and supposedly homogenous administrative unit composed of a single tribe, political elites were actively engaged in the invention of ethnicities that often bore little resemblance to pre-colonial identities and communities.

Colonial states defined culture and custom with a greater degree of clarity, consistency and rigidity than had ever existed before. Nowhere was this more evident than in the definition of customary law, where critical issues of marriage, access to land and property were discussed and administered. Relying on local allies as sources of information on what was expected to be a fixed and consistent body of rules, the colonial state allowed chiefs, headsmen and elders to define a customary law that asserted their power and control over the allocation of resources.

The colonial states' invention of African custom was firstly reinforced by the activities of missionaries who were eager to understand and communicate with the present and future converts. They compiled grammars and dictionaries from a variety of local dialects spoken around their mission stations, transforming them into authoritative versions of the language for the whole tribe. These new languages were then reinforced in the educational system. Secondly, ethnicity was constructed through the interaction of multiple and selective imaginings of tradition. An array of self-interested interpretations of the past was used for furthering colonial purposes. This is seen in the duplicitous dual character of the modern customary laws. They are traditional and modern, reactionary and progressive, combining elements of African tradition and European modernity. Whilst there are continuities in the pre-colonial and colonial processes of ethnic construction, colonial constructions were distinctive for the crucial role played by colonial chiefs and an educated, literate intelligentsia.

Modern Tribes, Modern conflicts

In Rwanda, the name Tutsi was originally given to people rich in cattle,ultimately it became the name given to a community of people who believed themselves to be elite. The rest of the population was known as the Hutus, referred to those who followed powerful people. The people of the groups intermarried and in time this created two tribes with very divergent appearances. Whilst the Tutsis became a tall, skinny and narrow featured people, the Hutus developed into a shorter, more muscular people with broader features.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, many hierarchies were installed in Rwanda by Rwandans, causing the country to be controlled by many rulers, who controlled a small population of people. This form of governing created problems for colonial powers that could not find a way to control the numerous rulers and their people. Therefore, after the First World War, the Belgians eradicated hierarchies and installed “chiefdoms” and “sub-chiefdoms” to control the population. The Tutsis, because of their skinny, narrow, Eurocentric features, were empowered, given education and good jobs, whilst the Hutus with broader, muscular, afrocentric features were oppressed. The Belgians used the differences in appearances to divide the power between the tribes.

In the 1930s the government registered Rwandan citizens as Tutsi, Hutu or Twa at the time of their births, with each person carrying cards, which showed their official tribes. The Tutsis, supported by the Belgians, ruled Rwanda from 1931 until about 1959. By the late 1950s the United Nations sought to force Belgians out of Africa and rid Rwanda of colonialism. As the Belgians were eradicated from the country, the Tutsi and Hutu were fighting to seize governmental power. With increasing pressure from the UN, Rwanda began to see Hutu gain political power. In 1962, Belgium granted Rwanda its independence but now the Hutu possessed nearly all power. Many extreme Hutus in order to ensure the Tutsi never gained power began planning genocide. The Hutus believed by killing Tutsis and modern Hutus they would protect their country against their enemies. This idea was called “Hutu power”, a movement that organized the genocide of 1994.

The origin of this violence is heavily connected to how the Hutu and Tutus were constructed as political identities by Belgium. The Hutu as indigenous, and Tutsi as alien descendants of Ham, the son of Noah cursed and banished to Africa. The Tutsi group with a privileged relationship to power before and during colonialism was construed as a privileged alien settler presence, first by the colonialists, then by the Hutu revolution of 1959 and Hutu power propaganda from 1990 to 1994. Hence the Rwandan genocide must be understood as a native’s genocide, genocide by which the Hutu saw themselves as sons and daughters of the soil, and their mission, one of cleansing the alien presence of the Tutsi. For the Hutu who killed, the Tutsi was a colonial settler and not a neighbor.

In the Biafra war in Nigeria, colonial engineering also played a significant role. Much of the conflicts that ensued between the different groups were products of the British policy of homogenizing ethnic groups on one hand, whilst encouraging them to flourish as mutually exclusive identities within the larger amalgamated colony. This was done, as the primary objective of indirect rule by the British was to prevent the mobilization of African peasants in any trans ethnic anti colonial struggle. This laid the bedrock for the deep distrust many of the Nigerian major tribes have for each other today.

The emergence of the Northern peoples congress (NPC), was among others, fueled by a perceived attempt at domination by the Igbos. Nnamdi Azikiwe did little to dispel these fears; “It would appear that the God of Africa has created the Igbo nation to lead the children of Africa from the bondage of ages”. A report commissioned by the North also noted that the Igbos constituted 45% of the employees in public services, with a possibility of 60% by 1968 at the rate observed. Thus, to other groups, fighting for recognition also meant cutting to size what they regarded as a dangerously ambitious ethnic group. The massacre of many Igbos who resided in the North was a big trigger for the secession of the east from Nigeria in 1967, leading to the republic of Biafra. This led to the civil war where many Igbos were killed either by federal forces, hunger or lack of medical attention. When the war was over many Igbos had been seriously displaced and dispersed.


Moving forward there are two options to be considered. The first is autonomous rule through self-determination. In the case of extreme incompatibility, it is reasonable for different groups to assert their independence from one another. Colonial boundaries inherited from colonialists cannot be upheld and considered binding in the face of extreme conflicts. However, whilst the right to secede should be guaranteed as a last resort, it is not necessarily the only cause of action.

In the discussion of self-determination however, serious note must be taken of the second scramble for Africa that is currently ravaging the continent. We must understand why a United Africa rather than seceded states are more important now than ever before. We are currently in the second phase of the second scramble for Africa, globalization. Globalization is imperialism, manifesting under the neo liberal packages through the IMF, World Bank, and World Trade organization triad, and donor policies and conditionality on aid, debt and trade. In Africa the second phase began with structural adjustment programs (SAPs) in the early 1980s. SAPS went beyond imposing neo liberal economic conditionality but also resulted in the loss of political self-determination. The effects of SAPS and other neo-colonialist tactics are discussed more in length at Decolonial Thoughts. To summarize however, imperialist prescriptions like SAPs have severely undermined the welfare of our people. We have been exploited, humiliated and disregarded a great deal, in order to combat imperialism there must be a Pan–Africanist revolution.

The other option is to explore possibilities that allow for the management of cultural and group differences within the state. This approach will need to recognize historical injustices like the Rwandan genocide and Biafra war and the current discrimination and discontent these different groups face. This will require dialogue, understanding and empathy.

In Nigeria for example, the excessive concentration of power and resources in the central government has created a situation where capturing the whole state is seen as the surest way to promote group interest to the exclusion of others. Nigerians need to seriously examine and rethink its conception of national cohesion. Leadership in Nigeria has assumed cohesion of the state lies in strong, centralized institutions with the often-repeated line of the “unity of Nigeria is not negotiable”. This view however legitimizes the status quo as the best possible answer; notwithstanding the present structure is a result of a succession of authoritarian rule made possible by a series of coups, countercoups and a civil war. The excessive concentration of power at the federal level has not translated to greater integration and harmony between the diverse groups within the state. Reasonable autonomy that allows for a measure of self assertion culturally and politically will serve to demotivate secessionist inclinations that arise when certain groups feel dominated in the contest for centralized power



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