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Can Democracy Exist With Tribalism?

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It would be naive in the extreme to discount ethnicity in any African election. And while the world looks on and people struggle as to what to make of the Kenyan presidential elections and the ensuing violence that has claimed more than 600 lives and internally displaced thousands of people, the solutions or answers are neither simple nor straightforward. It is indeed deeply perplexing, to say the least, to try and wrap one’s head around this practice of people’s power, called democracy, whose touted nobility is now deeply intertwined with and sullied by the dipsomaniac expressions of political violence, tribal murder, and mob killings all in its hallowed name.

Kenya is no different from the rest of Africa where tribal loyalties run deep. When it comes to the exercise of democracy it is only normal that voters would like to see their tribesmen and women in positions of power since they believe that this would translate into a better quality of life for them. So that when these usually highly charged political affairs do not turn out as expected for one group or the other violence, deadly violence, is usually the next logical step.

So nobody who has studied African politics should have been surprised by the blood-letting and mayhem in Kenya that followed an election that the opposition parties were saying long before a vote was cast was going to be rigged. And likewise nobody should feign righteous indignation over the idea that President Kibaki was above vote-rigging. That is as African as corruption.

So the big question is this: can democracy flourish in Africa alongside tribal loyalties?

Let us start from what is the reality in Africa today. And that is the fact that the vast majority of the continent’s people live a marginal economic existence and struggle each and every day to overcome a backbreaking and stultifying poverty that is both systemic and endemic. In this scenario groups of people rely on those nearest to them in their struggle to survive. This paradox of a struggle, on the one hand, to make democracy and democratic institutionalization a way of life for all Africans regardless of tribal origins is, on the other hand, locked in a daily battle with the reality of a need for closer tribal kinship that only helps to deepen these tribal roots and loyalties. Oftentimes these same loyalties work against attempts at democracy and democratic reforms.

For example, in rural villages crude collectivist systems allow for crops to be harvested, shared and sold to provide what meager services that can be bought. Urban dwellers often organize themselves to provide common services like schools because their governments are either too poor or too incompetent to deliver.  So in cases like these people rely on those nearest to them - whom they can trust - first, family, and second, tribe.

And since politics wherever practiced is based on a fair degree of exploitation and opportunism African politicians routinely launch their political campaigns by pandering to tribal biases, fears, and expectations as opposed to broad-based genuine democratic, ethnically inclusive and equitable platforms. "Vote for me," they say, "because I'm from your tribe and you can trust me” with the implied meaning that “you can’t trust those not of your tribe.” But there is a well- documented history of how this kind of narrow, divisive sectarian and tribal politics can spawn deadly, even genocidal, results.

Before Kenya there was Rwanda in 1994 where Hutus were agitated, goaded, egged on and encouraged by political extremists with a naked power grab agenda who persuaded their kinsmen and women that the Tutsis were their enemies and was planning to kill them. Of course, after riling up the Hutus to a murderous pitch the end-result was that over 500,000 Tutsis were killed in one of the worst outbreaks of modern genocide that was based on the unadulterated lies of a political cabal lusting for absolute power and control. Politics in Nigeria today is a festering complex chessboard of a dangerous and volatile brew of ethnicity and religion the outcome is normally violent and deadly.  The presidential elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2006 divided the country along ethnic and linguistic lines.

But this is only part of the explanation. Kenya, like the rest of Africa, faces some very serious socio-economic problems among them high unemployment especially among working age young males. They are the ones who are the most disillusioned by local politics, are normally left out of the political process, and have been in contact with the criminal justice system. For example, South Africa is today a boiling cauldron of youth anger that is played out daily in car-jackings, murders, rapes and other crimes and violence that continue unabated at a serious level. Ninety-nine percent of these young men, like those in Kenya, are uneducated, lack job skills, and make their living in the criminal underground.

African politicians woo this element around election time by promising jobs and a way out of their oppressive poverty. As happened in Kenya when hopes are dashed and politicians use angry rhetoric to accuse each other of vote-rigging; when verbal charity goes out the door, and when both sides dig in their heels barking accusations and insults at each other; is there any doubt that violence will erupt on the streets? Is there any doubt that the bulk of the violence will be carried out by unemployed angry young men with nothing to lose?

These protests and tribal violence in Kenya has led to some 600 deaths nationwide and 250,000 people have fled their homes. International and domestic observers have also raised their concerns about the conduct of the elections and the United States International Republican Institute has stated that President Kibaki has lost the elections even though it is not releasing its report. However, there are several reasons to be suspicious about the official results:

  • The results were delayed for more than a day, at a time when the opposition ODM (Orange Democratic Movement) candidate Raila Odinga was leading
  • Many thousands of people seem to have only voted in the presidential election but not the parliamentary or local polls held at the same time
  • Some of these results came from areas known to be pro-Kibaki
  • In the parliamentary race, Mr. Odinga's ODM won twice as many seats as Mr. Kibaki's Party of National Unity (PNU)
  • Results in some constituencies were different when announced nationally, to when they had previously been announced locally
  • The head of the election commission has admitted that turnout in one constituency was 115% - a clear and unmistakable sign of vote-rigging and padding.

The picture becomes clearer when you add to these well-documented areas of concern the fact that in some incumbency strongholds there were reports of as many of 50,000 “phantom” votes for president being cast when compared for that of local parliamentary elections for the same region using the same roster. Then there have been allegations that the incumbency deliberately delayed the vote count to stuff more bogus pro-Kibaki ballots at sites when elections officials went to sleep in the night. This alleged rigging was clearly long tribal lines and no matter what the outcome the Kenyan elections stink to high heaven.

Still, I am an eternal optimist and I believe that Africa and Africans can overcome the negative aspects of tribalism and ethnic rivalry in favor of tolerance and understanding and if that does not work some form of peaceful coexistence must ensue. But for that to happen African politicians must stop exploiting and manipulating tribal differences in their quest for political power. The results have not been pretty for Africa and Kenya is only the latest embarrassment.

There have been many bold strides towards finding a truly egalitarian version of African democracy. That will take time and remember that just over 50 years ago Africa was ruled by European colonial powers whose scramble for Africa and the subsequent partitioning, cutting up, redrawing of boundaries, and other geographic shenanigans aimed at satisfying their monumental greed led to many of today’s tribal and ethnic problems. Land grabs at the point of many guns and legal thievery helped to impoverish Africa and Africans and to marginalize them in their own countries where mineral wealth and riches was (and is up to now) controlled by the colonial master who got rich on the backs of poor Africans - a condition still in place today.

And just about 20 years ago Africa was run by a series of home-grown strutting, pompous generalissimos and military juntas that continued to deform and warp the African landscape and to turn it into a violent bazaar. They retained tribal customs when it suited their purposes and killed off thousands of innocent people simply because they were from a different tribe.

I believe that one of the solutions must come from the African economy. A robust economy will create jobs and usher in a decent standard of improved living for all Africans that will make tribal and political manipulation by cunning politicians a thing of the past. And then there must be some mechanism for improving the education of poor Africans and providing access to information. These three things will help in developing Africa for Africans.

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MICHAEL DERK ROBERTS Small Business Consultant, Editor, and Social Media & Communications Expert, New York Over the past 20 years I've been a top SMALL BUSINESS CONSULTANT and POLITICAL CAMPAIGN STRATEGIST in Brooklyn, New York, running (more...)

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