Analysis & Opinions - BBC News

How Tribalism Stunts African Democracy

| November 27, 2012

Tune in to the BBC World Service at 1900 GMT on Friday, November 30, 2012, to listen to the BBC Africa Debate — Is tribalism undermining democracy in Africa? — broadcast from Nairobi.

Or take part in Twitter — using #bbcafricadebate — Facebook or Google+


Africa's democratic transition is back in the spotlight. The concern is no longer the stranglehold of autocrats, but the hijacking of the democratic process by tribal politics.

Kenya's 2007–08 post-election violence revealed the extent to which tribal forces could quickly bring a country to the brink of civil war.

The challenge to democracy in Africa is not the prevalence of ethnic diversity, but the use of identity politics to promote narrow tribal interests. It is tribalism.

There are those who argue that tribalism is a result of arbitrary post-colonial boundaries that force different communities to live within artificial borders.

This argument suggests that every ethnic community should have its own territory, which reinforces ethnic competition.

The last 20 years of Somalia have shown the dangers of ethnic competition and underscore the importance of building nations around ideas rather than clan identities.

Much attention over the last two decades has been devoted to removing autocrats and promoting multiparty politics.

But in the absence of efforts to build genuine political parties that compete on the basis of ideas, many African countries have reverted to tribal identities as foundations for political competition.

Leaders often exploit tribal loyalty to advance personal gain, parochial interests, patronage, and cronyism.

But tribes are not built on democratic ideas but thrive on zero-sum competition.

As a result, they are inimical to democratic advancement.

In essence, tribal practices are occupying a vacuum created by lack of strong democratic institutions.

Tribal interests have played a major role in armed conflict and civil unrest across the continent....

Continue reading:

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Juma, Calestous.“How Tribalism Stunts African Democracy.” BBC News, November 27, 2012.