DEAR GOD: Why can’t we all just get along?


Dear God,

The other day, my Anglo-Nigerian friend described herself as, “a Benin[ethnic group] woman first, an African second and Nigerian, third”. As benign as those words may sound, they are emblematic of the malaise that continues to plague African countries – the problem of identity and division. To be clear, this is not a problem in the lower echelons of society as some would have us believe. My friend in question is of a sophisticated stock – solicitor by training, a rising star in a hedge fund in the City ofLondon, with an Ivy League MBA to boot.  In a year where 18 African countries are going to the polls, political strife along ethnic fault lines lurks uncomfortably close in the dark. To quote the immortal words of Rodney King, the Californian resident who sparked racial riots after the acquittal of white police officers who stood accused of assaulting him, “why can’t we all just get along?” After 50 years of independence, why does Africa continue to dawdle in the mire while the rest of the world leaves us behind?

Most African countries often default to the merciless partitioning of the continent which was designed for the exploitation and the administrative convenience of European powers, without any decent regard for natural boundaries. This argument held water several decades ago but after half a century of deflecting blame, it is beginning to wear thin. Why are our leaders often quick to point to the biblical speck of sawdust in the eyes of our former colonial masters while paying little attention to the plank in their own eyes – the plank of abject failure in our nation building exercises?

In the now famous, Afro-Barometer public opinion survey conducted among adult males in 12 African countries between 1999-2001, when asked the open ended question, “which specific group do you feel you belong to first and foremost,” only 3 percent of Tanzanians responded in terms of an ethnicity in contrast to Nigeria (48 percent), Namibia (46 percent), Mali (39 percent), Malawi (38 percent), and Zimbabwe (36 percent). Better yet, 76% of the people of Tanzania responded in terms of occupation. To understand this dynamic further, Berkeley Economist, Edward Miguel compared two districts, one in western Kenya (Busia) and one in western Tanzania (Meatu) which share similar ethnic compositions, geography, history, and colonial institutions. Where they differed were the ethnic policies they pursued after independence. These policies yielded different results. Miguel concluded that diverse communities were on average able to work together as well as homogenous communities in Tanzania whereas in Kenya, diverse communities had on average raised 25% less primary school funding per pupil. Post colonial nation building exercise in Tanzania has been constructive – “the promotion of Swahili as a national language, political and civic education in schools, the dismantling of tribal authorities, and the relatively equal regional distribution of resources—contributed to the growing strength of a coherent and popular national identity that binds Tanzanians together across ethnic lines”. Further to this point, there was an unwavering political will. Tanzania’s nation-building project was framed by its founding father, Julius Nyere, the unabashed Pan-African and socialist idealist whose political party had a founding principle of “fight tribalism and any other factors which would hinder the development of unity among Africans”. On the other hand, Kenya’s first two post independent presidents, Jomo Kenyatta and Arap Moi propagated identity politics and set a dangerous precedent for their nation (See chart 1).

Other notable great African leaders who put nation building at the expense of narrow tribal and other self serving interests include Kenneth Kaunda. “In the same way that one should not immediately assume that an American called Syzmanski speaks or understands Polish, neither should one necessarily expect a Zambian with the last name of Chimuka to speak or understandTonga. As with most Americans, Zambian names are increasingly becoming no more than one indicator of one’s ethnic heritage”, as observed by William Minter of AfricaFocus. (See chart 2)

Admittedly,Tanzania and Zambia do not present the most compelling success stories of socio-economic development. However, they are living proofs that ethnically diverse societies need not be “prone to corruption, political instability, poor institutional performance, and slow economic growth” as conventional research would have us believe, to borrow the words of Edward Miguel. After all,Tanzania, as a country, is more ethnically diverse thanKenya.

Democratic elections are supposed to be an affirmation of people’s hope for a better tomorrow. However, the lack of complex economic stratification lead to elections fought over group identity, borne out of insecurities, past grievances and a throw back to an idealized nostalgia of a selective past. Exploitative politicians, who ought to know better, toe this line, often falling over themselves to score cheap political points from the lowest hanging fruit of ethnic grandstanding and tribal demagoguery.

History dealt us a tricky set of cards with the most ethnically diverse continent on the planet. Our colonial masters complicated this situation by the chaotic manner in which they carved out the continent. However, it is high time we weaned ourselves off self pity, empty excuses and endless finger pointing. Good nation building exercise can correct some of the flaws of history, real or imagined.

So Dear God, as we approach this watershed election season, my prayer is a simple one. Rather than hope for eye-popping economic growth figures, grant us a new breed of Julius Nyereres and Kenneth Kaundas. Surely, that is not alot to ask for.

Its me again, your humble but troublesome son.

Copyright 2011 (April) Neo-African Consensus

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6 Responses to DEAR GOD: Why can’t we all just get along?

  1. Bala Liman says:

    I agree that ethnicity is strong in Africa but it is not just an African phenomenon. Belgium has the same divisions, the only difference is that so far these have not resulted in violent conflict as is seen on the African continent. However it is wrong to attribute these ethnic divisions to colonialism, as these divisions existed prior to colonialism and explain the internal slave trade of the period. We have and remain ethnically divided and this will not change. While Tanzania is a success story, it will remain the only one in Africa for a long time. As struggles for fewer intangibles grow, identities become more important and in Africa with a plethora of identities to choose from, the risk of violent conflict increases. We may ask the question ‘why cant we just get along’ but the real question is; can we really get along? We may like to believe that we can but the truth is our identities are much more important than we let on and even though the survey you refer to shows many Africans identifying along ethnic groups, I think the number is probably higher. In Africa, many still find it important to identify with a social group, as this is their safety net due to the failure of our leaders to build nations where the relationship between the state and the individual is positive.

    • Dr. Liman, I agree with you for the most part but may I beg to differ on a number of points
      – You mentioned that “we are and remain ethnically divided and this would not change”. While ethnic differences remain, I refuse to accept the notion of using this difference to hack each other with machetes at the slightest hint of differences in opinion.
      – Why do you think Tanzania will be the only success story. That is a tad too pessimistic, no? Tanzania is living proof that ethnic differences can be overcome for the collective welfare of the group. There must be considerable effort. The problem is we have not prioritized nation building exercise. It is fundamental. A house (eg. Ivory Coast former socio-economic success) built on a shaky foundation) is an accident waiting to happen.
      -“Can we really get along”. Yes we can. Identity is no doubt important but it is what you make of it. Tanzanians made a bigger deal of national identity (rather than the other) and lo and behold they are reaped the benefits. Herein lies the magic of social engineering. YES WE CAN!

  2. Funky Justice says:

    What a terrific read!
    But how could you? I am not ‘Anglo’ Nigerian :-p …
    More seriously, it is indeed a rather interesting point. The issue of identity within Africa is quite complicated especially in geographic regions with multitudinous ethnicities as you highlighted. A fundamental factor being the marginalisation of minority groups in representation within government etc. In Nigeria, the concept of ‘zoning’ continues to perpetrate the notion of division and perhaps rightly so given the nepotism and tribalism tainted governments experienced since independence. In my case, I am fortunate to have a strong sense of identity thanks to the historic significance of the Benin Kingdom and parenting which led me to memorise my family tree from Ogiso Owodo, the last ruler of the Ogiso dynasty (1049 AD) which then led to the current Oba dynasty. It is harder then for me to embrace a federal identity which means much less to me. I am ever so proud of my heritage and if it were not for Lord Lugard’s fiancee Ms Shaw who coined the name Nigeria, the region could have been known as Shaw’s butt or whatever she fancied.

    So, in a nutshell, I am certainly Edo (Benin ) first , African second as that was not a choice of man and lastly Nigerian which is a creation of Man and continues to be held together by seeping glue! 🙂

    • Kudos, my dear to your strong sense of ethnic identity. I am supportive. The question I have is, need it be mutually exclusive to national identity? I’d rather not. Ethnic pride is good in as much as it is a source of identity (label), pride, enhance a sense of collective well being and a force for good. Unfortunately, on our battered continent, it often has been used as a poor excuse to air out our insecurities, inflict untold pain on “imagined” enemies (most of whom we have more in common with than differences) and act on past grievances. The consequences have been unbearable. Is emphasising less on ethnic identity (a social construct for all intents and purposes) to build a united, strong and prosperous nation that will enhance the collective welfare of its constituent tribes (I dislike that word) not a price worth paying for? I think it is. Besides being Nigerian should make you no less of an Edo woman. Call me naive but me thinks its a win-win situation.

  3. This has been a really interesting read; it will certainly help me with developing my thesis, i loved reading your take on the matter!

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