August 20, 2017

Ethnocracy: the lesson from Africa

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This article sets out the roots of Africa’s continuing wars, strife and poverty as the outcome of the colonial powers’ creation of artificial borders that defy ethnic and religious boundaries.

Now frozen in the modern nations of Africa, these boundaries combined with the tribalisation of politics have created a situation seemingly impossible for Africa to emerge.

But hope for a more peaceful and secure future may lie in a model provided by the the federal system of Germany and the Cantons of Switzerland.

Published in The Ecologist Vol. 10 No. 4, April–May 1980.


The general election in Zimbabwe has now taken place. Lord Soames has accomplished his very delicate mission with great courage and considerable skill. Mrs Thatcher’s government has succeeded in finding a solution to a problem that has defied many previous governments. It is undoubtedly a political triumph but will it bring to power a stable government and a lasting peace? The answer is almost certainly no. It is not because of any ideological differences between the various political groupings in Zimbabwe. It is because Zimbabwe is not a nation, but at least two nations:

  • Mashonaland in the North East, which was settled in antiquity by a Bantu speaking people known as the Shonas, and
  • Matabeleland, which was settled by the Ndebele, an offshoot of the Zulus who fled there from the armies of the great conqueror, King Chaka.

The two nations were independent until we occupied Matabeleland in 1888 having obtained a concession from its king, Lobengula, to exploit the country’s mineral potential.

Already at that time, the Ndebele and the Shona were bitter enemies, indeed it was on the pretext of protecting the Shona from constant Ndebele raids that, in 1890 we first occupied Mashonaland. These two nations are still very different from each other, as different as France is from Germany and it is difficult to see how they can be merged with impunity, into a centralised nation state on the western model.

That these tribal groups have remained separate is clear from the nature of the movements that have sprung up to combat white domination and though we like to explain the rivalry between these movements in purely political and ideological terms, it is, in reality, based on ethnic differences.

The Zimbabwe Peoples Union (ZAPU) being largely composed of Shona tribesmen while the membership of the Zimbabwe National Union (ZANU) is largely Ndebele. These two nations moreover are divided into distinct sub-groups, which also have their political arms. Thus Mr Chickerema’s Zimbabwe Democratic Party is based on the Zezura tribe, while Bishop Muzorewa’s UANC is largely based on the Manyika tribe – both of which are sections of the Shona.

Originally, the two main tribes tried to join forces in their opposition to the colonial regime. Both were represented in the National Democratic Party (NDP) founded in 1960 with Joshua Nkomo as president but it only lasted two years and efforts to get the two tribal groups to form a joint political movement have since all failed.

Joshua Nkomo, though undoubtedly a very powerful figure and father of nationalism in Zimbabwe Rhodesia, was unlikely to win the election because he is a Karanga, i.e. a member of the tribe that originally inhabited Mashonaland before the Ndebele invasion. They are now inter-married with the Ndebele, (in fact, Joshua Nkomo’s wife is a member of the Ndebele royal family) and have become closely associated with this tribe. Together the Ndebele and Karanga make up only 19 percent of the population of Zimbabwe. It must follow that if Zimbabwe is considered to be a single political unit then in the long run, in any case it can only be governed by the Shona people who make up 77 percent of the population.

Successive Shona prime ministers are likely to assure everybody, that in the democratic state of Zimbabwe everybody is equal, regardless of race, culture or creed. But in reality things will be different. The Ndebele, together with their Karanga allies, will be reduced to the status of a subject people. Rather than having freed themselves of colonial domination they will simply have acquired new masters, masters too, that are likely to be tougher in dealing with their new subjects – their old enemies the Ndebele – than were their European predecessors.

Nor will it be long before the Ndebele try to break away to form their own nation, just as did the Ibos in Nigeria and the South Sudanese in the Sudan but they will do so in the face of world public opinion. Everywhere politicians will vie with each other in providing the ‘legitimate’ government with money and arms to fight the ‘rebels’ or ‘terrorists’ as the Ndebele will undoubtedly be referred to. The latter will, thereby, be forced to seek aid from Cuba, Russia and the other enemies of the West, in this way internationalising the conflict as, in similar situations, has invariably happened in the past.

African tribalism is rarely discussed in European circles; almost never in political circles. Since it is unquestionably the determinant factor in African politics, it seems reasonable to ask why it is ignored in this way. One reason is that it is seen as a relic of barbarity. To suggest that tribal groupings still exist is to brand a country as backward and under-developed. It is often regarded as insulting to question an African politician on tribal matters.

And there are other reasons. One is that it is difficult for us to have political and economic dealings with tribal societies who tend to live outside the orbit of the industrial system – who have neither formal or economic or political institutions. If such societies are to take part in the political and economic life of the world community, then they must be organised like us, into nation states with politicians, bureaucrats, large cities and a formal economy.

We are not the only ones to turn a blind eye to tribal realities. The African elite is even more hostile to it – for it is composed of people who have little status within traditional tribal hierarchies. Most of them are not chiefs but commoners and if they are in power it is because they were educated in our western universities and have thereby become capable of competing successfully in the totally new conditions created in Africa as a result of western type development.

It is therefore in their interest to perpetuate these conditions, indeed to accelerate the process of development and social transformation, for the faster it occurs, the faster must be the transfer of power from the heads of the traditional social groupings, to those of the new economic and bureaucratic structures which they control. The colonial regimes, as Nigerian Ecologist Jimoh Omo Fadaka notes, were,

“on the whole hostile to tribalism, if only for the very good reason that it represented a potentially rival structure of power to their own.”

This is truer still of the new political regimes in Africa to whose precarious authority the tribes present a very much greater threat. Almost every politician’s undivided following is still derived from the membership of the tribe to which he belongs and whose identity he has not yet succeeded in destroying.

South West Africa-Namibia

In the meantime, Lord Carrington, intoxicated with success, now seeks other worlds to conquer. If he can solve the apparently insoluble problems of Zimbabwe Rhodesia, then surely he will be able to do likewise with those of South West Africa-Namibia. But his efforts are likely to be equally fruitless, for if Zimbabwe Rhodesia is an artificial creation, South West Africa Namibia is even more so.

This vast territory is inhabited by many different nations who only have in common with each other a long tradition of mutual hostility. Among these is that of the Ovambos who make up 44 percent of the population. They live in the Northern area (Ovamboland) and are separated from their brothers in South Angola by a purely arbitrary frontier that once marked the border between Portuguese and South African influence.

The next most populous nation is that of the Hereros, a Bantu people who migrated to that part of the world some 500 years ago. The third is that of the Namas, a branch of the Hottentot, who are the Hereros’ traditional enemies. A fourth nation is that of the Berg Damaras, who for centuries were the slaves of the Nama, while other small ethnic groups include the almost self-governing Rehebothers who are of mixed Boer and Nama blood and the Bushmen of the Kalahari.

The gulf that separates these nations, is reflected in the tribal basis of the political movements set up to oppose the colonial regime. Thus the South West Africa Peoples’ Organisation (SWAPO), traces its origin to the Ovamboland Peoples Organisation and needless to say was set up by Ovambos.

The South West Africa National Union (SWANU) was set up by the Hereros. These are the two main political groups, the only ones we tend to hear about in the Western press: but there are others. Indeed the Nama have also set up their political movement: the South West Africa United National Independent Organisation (SWANIO). The Berg Damaras have set up theirs: the South West Africa Democratic Union (SWADU), so have the Coloured who call theirs the South West Africa Coloured Organisation (SWACO), and the Rehebothers – which is known as the Rehoboth Burgers Association.

Just as in Zimbabwe Rhodesia, all attempts to unite these groups into a single anti-colonialist movement have failed. Thus in 1963, an attempt was made to merge SWAPO and SWANU into a single organisation to be called the South West African National Liberation Front (SWANLIF). It came to nothing, nor were Kerina’s National Unity Democratic Organisation (NUDO) and the South West Africa National United Front (SWANUF) any more successful.

As in Zimbabwe Rhodesia, political leaders in South West Africa-Namibia refuse to admit that their ‘parties’ are tribally based. They are unanimous in regarding tribalism as an evil that must be stamped out at all costs. Attempts to accommodate tribal differences in South West Africa-Namibia are seen by Kerina and other Ovambo politicians as part of a South African backed conspiracy to ‘balkanise’ this ‘country’, so as to weaken it and prevent it from developing into a modern industrial state.

The reason for this is, partly at least, that ‘separate development’ has been official policy for a long time in South West Africa and since December 1978 the country has been partly run by a National Assembly that is organised on a federal basis and in which the different ethnic groups are represented. But the land allocated to the African groups is totally insufficient, most of it, and in particular that which is most suitable for agriculture, has been reserved for the European settlers, mainly Boers and Germans, even though they only make up 10 percent of the population.

As a result, rural whites have 40 times more land per head than rural blacks and far better land at that. Quite obviously this is not a satisfactory basis for a stable federation and, at the same time, it has helped to discredit the essential principles of ethnic autonomy and federalism, as well as strengthened the hand of politicians who wish to establish in South West Africa-Namibia, a monolithic state on the western model.

Also, as in Zimbabwe Rhodesia, the rivalry between the different groups has been exploited by international powers, seeking to expand their respective zones of influence. Thus SWAPO is being backed by Moscow, while SWANU has strong Chinese leanings.

In these conditions it is not difficult to imagine what would be the consequences of Lord Carrington’s suggested intervention.

A general election in South West Africa-Namibia would simply be a formality; a ritual for legitimising the power of the most populous of the many nations that make up this arbitrarily defined area; a licence for the setting up of an Ovambo empire. In such conditions it would be but a question of time before the various subject peoples rose against their new colonial masters, who, represented, as they would be by the legitimate government of the land, would obtain the support of Western Democratic countries to maintain the status quo.

If this can be predicted with such confidence, it is that it has already happened so many times before, always with the same tragic consequences. If we take for instance the four most murderous wars that have rent Africa in the last 20 years – those that occurred in Nigeria, the Sudan, Ethiopia and Angola – it can be shown that each could have been avoided if the political boundaries inherited from the departing European colonial powers had corresponded more faithfully with those that separate the nations that inhabit these territories. Let us see why this was so.

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Nigeria

Nigeria, as Omo Fadaka points out, was once heralded as “the bastion of Parliamentary democracy in Africa” and “Africa’s showpiece”. This was sheer wishful thinking. Nigeria is as artificial a country as Zimbabwe Rhodesia and South West Africa-Namibia.

The northern area is lived in by the Moslem Hausa Fulani people, who are organised into a large number of small feudal states and by tribal peoples such as the Tivs, the Igalas and the Idomas, who practice their own tribal religions. The Eastern region is largely inhabited by the Christian Ibos who are organised into semi-autonomous village groups. In the west are the Yorubas who are also Christians, and in the Mid West live the Edo speaking people; the Ishawas, the Agos and the Binis, the latter being organised into a highly centralised kingdom run by the semi-divine Oba of Benin.

These different peoples have little in common with each other. Indeed as Chief Awalowo put it, Nigeria, is but

“a mere geographical expression, at best an agglomeration of tribal nations. There is as much difference between them as there is between Germans, Russians and Turks.”

Some of these nations are very populous. There are at least 20 million Hausa Fulani, 8 million Ibos, 10 million Yorubas; more than there are Swedes, Danes, Norwegians or Finns. As elsewhere in Africa, ethnic differences in Nigeria are reflected in the political parties that were set up to combat the colonial powers. The Northern Peoples Congress, for instance, was predominantly Hausa Fulani while the National Council of Nigerian Citizens was largely Ibo. Under these conditions the course of events after independence was fairly predictable.

As Jimoh Omo Fadaka points out, parliamentary government is only possible if the party that looses an election is willing to accept the result and thereby accept the legitimacy of the government that has been returned to power. This it will only do, if it regards the survival of the State as being more important than the achievement of its own political goals; a condition that is unlikely to be satisfied when the political parties represent little more than rival tribal groupings – as was the case in Nigeria. Thus, after the elections, the northerners, as Omo Fadaka writes,

“were willing to abide by the laws of the parliamentary system so long as it appeared that they would win the election, but when they found their position threatened, they resorted to intimidation and denied their opponents the right to hold meetings”.

The result was an Ibo military coup followed by a counter coup that brought General Gowan to power and led to the massacre of about 30,000 Ibos in the North.

This was the prelude to a particularly murderous war which caused the death of well over a million people and which was rapidly internationalised; the Russians, British and Egyptians providing arms to the government forces and the French, Czechs and Chinese equipping the Ibos.

Up to a point, the Nigerians seem belatedly to have learned their lesson. The territory has now been divided into 19 states corresponding reasonably well to the main ethnic divisions. They all have equal representation in the Senate regardless of their size. It remains to be seen whether this arrangement is sufficient to accommodate the vast cultural differences that separate the different nations that make up the Nigerian Nation state.

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The Sudan

In 1953, the Egyptian government, in conjunction with North Sudanese political parties and the British Government, set up a new independent country to be called The Sudan. Like the other artificial countries we have already considered, its chances of success were, from the start, negligible. It is divided up into two very different regions, the North and the South.

The North is largely desert, the South, until recently, was largely forests and marshes. The North is inhabited by light brown skinned Hamito-Semitic peoples, who regard themselves as Arabs; the South by various black skinned tribal peoples; Nilotics, such as the Dinka, the Shilluk and the Anuak, Nilo-Hamitics, such as the Murle, the Didinga and the Boya and Sudanic people such as the Azande, the Kreish and the Bongo.

In addition, the North has been in contact with the Mediterranean for thousands of years and is Mediterranean in culture and aspirations; whereas the South has had, until recently, but few contacts with the outside world and is African through and through. What is more, all these differences are compounded by the fact that the Northerners have embraced the Moslem faith while the Southern tribes either practice their own tribal religions or have been converted to Christianity.

In other words, climatically, ecologically, historically, racially, culturally and religiously, North and South are poles apart. In such conditions it was totally irresponsible to create a centralised Sudanese state. Once it was created, events were fairly predictable. In the Parliament set up in 1953, the Southerners obtained but a quarter of the seats. They were, thereby, condemned to be governed by the Northern Arabs who had been made their legitimate masters.

Of course the Government did everything it could to mask inconvenient ethnic realities. Major Sahal Salim, the famous “dancing major”, an Egyptian Government Minster at the time, assured the world that, whatever their racial and religious differences, the peoples of the Sudan were one – which of course, was, and is, arrant nonsense.

Britain had in effect helped to create precisely those conditions that most favoured oppression, revolution and war. Nor has it taken long for this war to break out. In 1955 there were riots at Nwara, leading to the death of about twenty people. In 1963, war broke out in earnest.

It was mainly a guerrilla war but it was a particularly nasty one. Like the war in Nigeria and elsewhere it was quickly internationalised with the Russians arming the North Sudanese and providing them with an estimated 700 military advisers, while other countries, Israel in particular, armed the South. Peace appears to have returned once more to this area, but only the most starry-eyed optimist can suppose that it can be maintained for long.

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