Namibia is an Afrikan country, with problems and challenges that are Afrikan in nature, shape and character. The majority of Namibians are Afrikan people and suffer from Afrikan diseases and syndromes – they are possessed by the same demons of lack of vision, greed and power hunger, corruption, abuse of official power to fix opponents, lack oppositional alternatives and fear of new ideas and taboos.
Like all of Afrika, Namibia possesses the potential to grow into ripeness and become a better place for all who live in it. Differently put, there is very little evidence to celebrate that Namibia is different, any more than Zimbabwe was different in the 1980s. If Afrika is doomed, Namibia doomed, and if Africa can get out of the rut of underdevelopment through the prowess of her people, so can and will Namibia.
Throughout post-colonial Afrika there have been the good, the bad and the ugly about what is considered as tribalism. Very often we hear of or see how tribalism rears its ugly head to frustrate the efforts made in the interests of nations specifically, and the Afrikan family generally.
It is thus historically and ontologically reasonable to say Namibia has and will have its fair share of the anxieties and bruises that come with the remnants of tribal realities, as it is shaping itself into one nation. History instructs that no nation can really learn sufficiently from other nations’ experiences.
If nations would borrow experiences from others, we would not have had the troubles and skirmishes Afrika has seen since the dawn of self-rule. Much of what seems to be mindless bloodletting across the continent has its roots in history, for better or for worse.
No one could have foretold that Afrika’s youngest nation, South Sudan, would see the level of carnage we are seeing right now, in spite of and alongside signed agreements and ceasefires and indeed in the full glare of international observers and reporters.
Much as we accept that not all this painful violence is not tribally motivated, the narratives are tribalist, notwithstanding. Something is not right with the way we understand ourselves and treat one another as Afrikans. And we must deal with it, instead of hiding behind what other people have done to us.
Consider the following tapestry to appreciate the challenges Afrika faces. Afrika’s most diverse countries include Nigeria with 170 million people and more than 250 distinct groups; Congo (Kinshasa) has a population 72 million with more than 250 ethnic groups; Tanzania has 47 million people and 130 groups; Chad has 11 million people and more than 100 language groups; Ethiopia has 91 million people and 77 tribal groups, while Kenya has 42 million people and more than 70 groups.
The most homogenous countries include Lesotho with 2 million people of whom 99.7% are Sotho; Somalia with 10 million of whom 85% are Somali (divided into clans); Burundi with 11 million people, 85% Hutu and 14% Tutsi; Rwanda with 12 million people of which 84% are Hutu and 15% Tutsi; Swaziland with 1 million people of whom 84% are Swazi, and Botswana with 2 million people of whom 79% identify as Tswana.
Before we write one another off, or accuse one another of having ulterior motives, it behooves us to gain a better understanding and appreciation of what happens when people in power use familiarity, language, ethnicity, birth places, church membership and political party affiliations as markers of knowing one another. And if they use these for purposes of trust-building and opportunity creation at the expense of those who are as Namibian as they come, but who do not sound like us in one way or another.
To be clear, political parties have become the new tribes that divide the Namibian nation dangerously, and their memberships have replaced and at times reinforced the old cleavages of tribe and ethnicity. Yet, there is no leadership to denounce this danger as they pooh-pooh tribalism.
These are all markers of similarity on the one hand and difference on the other, and when not addressed properly they diminish the peace, stability and national cohesion we all cherish and want more of.
First, the historical communities that were rounded up as one nation by the infamous Berlin Conference of 1884-5, existed independently in their own rights with their self-sustaining economies and jurisprudence.
The entities that are called tribes today were nations, as attested to by the words they use to refer to themselves as: nasie, omuhoko, oshigwana, sichaba, rudi, sechaba, diko,
//Aes, !Haos, and the like. These self-descriptions were not in relation and/or in anticipation of mergers with other communities, nor as acceptance of junior status to other or foreign rulers.
They were complete communities with deities and practices that bespoke their earthly being and described their relationships with God, as the supreme authority over their affairs – not extensions of some central and benevolent state that grew out of the colonial system of a superstructure government that cannibalised the political space and dispensed unfettered largesse over the oriole with State apparatuses that spread fear and manufacture consent just to stay in power.
The biggest curse over the people of Africa is the fact that the state, which was brought to Africa as a means of oppression, subjugation and reification of the African people as subjects and economic instruments to service the European state and its financial markets, remained intact after the attainment of political independence.
The new political elite which took political power inherited this state in toot, and transformed it as a means of amassing wealth for the few who had access to political power and became the new oppressors of their own people.
The new political elite became the apologists of the continuous suffering of the masses of the people, who in turn are often forced to revert to their primordial tribal understandings of politics and challenge the state to respond to them as communities. This explains the obsession with security that African leaders suffer from chronically.
They fear not the colonialist, whom they claim to have defeated, but their own people whom they know they are keeping down along tribal and other lines. For instance, when American and European presidents address their people, there is no funny man in uniform standing behind the leader to protect him or her.
That funny man in uniform is not protecting the Head of State against colonialism, but against his own people. The vexing question is why our leaders are so afraid, even when they are in secure environments that have been checked by men with plastic pieces in their ears and dogs? The answer is that they know there are people who are feeling left out. One of the logics for feeling left out is tribe.
As Professor Calistous Juma points out, the growing concern with Africa’s democratic transition is no longer colonialism, or the stranglehold of autocrats, but the potential that tribal politics can hijack the democratic process.
And there appears to be no leadership in the likes of Julius Nyerere, Kwame Nkrumah, Leipold Sedar Senghor, Samora Machel, Thomas Sankara and Nelson Mandela, with the foresight magnanimity to unite the nation around national interests instead of political party interests.
Namibia is in this serious quagmire right now that it lacks strong leadership with eyes on the wider horizons beyond the parochial self-interests and interests of their parties. For a nation to live, the tribe must die, Nelson Mandela poignantly cried out at one point in his committed struggle to unite South Africa. These leaders reasoned this way because they realised and appreciated the following challenges which they had to factor in in their efforts to turn the tide of history in the best interest of the ‘whole people’:
Africa has the prevalence of ethnic diversity;
Leaders, when insecure, use identity politics by turning to tribal interests;
When secure leaders argue that tribalism is a result of arbitrary post-colonial boundaries that force different communities to live within artificial borders, forgetting that in so doing they suggest that every ethnic community should have their own territories, which subsequently reinforces ethnic competition for resources and power;
In the absence of genuine political parties that compete for the governmental function on the basis of ideas, many communities revert to tribal identities as foundations for political competition;
More often than not, political leaders bereft of visionary ideology exploit tribal familiarity-cum-primitive loyalty and fear to advance personal their self-interests, patronage, and cronyism to attain or stay in power;
Leaders forget that so-called tribes are not built on democratic ideas or processes, but thrive on zero-sum competition of the winner-takes-all, thus rendering the whole nation-building exercise inimical to democratic advancement based upon strong institutions;
Leaders, who have not thought through the difficult and deliberate task of nation-building, are oblivious to the reality that tribal strife for relevance and power is generated by lack of strong democratic champions and institutions; and that
Post-independence leaders forget that tribal interests did play a major role in armed conflict and in the narratives of civil unrest before independence.
The existence of tribes is a permanent fixture of any nation and it is a matter of degree and the maturity and readiness of the leadership to manage national resources, human and material, to obviate the troubles of instability.
The way forward for a nation, like Namibia, lies in concerted efforts to transform the political party culture from “us versus them” into sustainable national institutions that serve the people, not because of their loyalty to the party but to the national well-being of the country.
In other words, political parties must base their competition for power on ideas to serve the people and not on their struggle credentials and bogeyman politics of intimidation and manipulation, which in turn frustrate real and sustainable development.
If political parties are to serve the interests of the nation, rather than the tribes, then political party platforms must be compatible with a deliberate search for ideas – not the appeal to tribal coalitions or business interests.
Their manifestos ought to be documents in which parties outline their principles and goals beyond popular rhetoric and fear-mongering. This requires effective intellectual input, usually provided through serious and fearless intellectuals, think-tanks and other research institutions. Policy debate is a causa sine qua non of a working democracy.
Through debate and open-mindedness, political parties provide voters with mechanisms to measure their performance and integrity, and only through that process and time will we overcome tribal tendencies in the life of the nation. Again, for the nation to live, the tribe or the race must die!