Explaining the ugly face of tribalism (Part 1)


Without doubt, there are more unhelpful conversations, discussions and debates about tribalism in Namibia than at any stage since independence. The unfortunate events of 1998 of the Caprivi secessionism were not about tribalism, but geo-historical incongruencies of our national puzzle and poor management of regionalism.

Like most post-colonial Afrikan countries, Namibia took many things for granted in its efforts to build and mould a new nation. In the excitement of political independence and the trappings of power that go with this whole dance of freedom, we were not crafty enough to create a new nation in the image we wished for ourselves out of different historical communities and societies in their formations long before independence and therefore before they were considered one nation.

The background against which we ought to have laboured to recreate the new Namibia is as follows:
(a) The entities that are called tribes are anthropological communities that existed as autonomous ‘nations’ with their own patterns of authority and patterns of governance and war-and peace-making. The structures that informed who they were and how they related to other ‘nations’ evolved organically over time and generations, with their own mechanisms of conflict management and education protocols for their young.

(b) These entities or ‘nations’ were autonomous from any other and never perceived or considered themselves as extensions or sub-sets of other nations, big or small, never mind as adjuncts sets of bigger wholes.

(c) The various parts of the Namibian nation as we wish to see it today would arguably not have been the diverse parts of one nation had it not been for the colonial adventurism, whereby European potentates arrogated to themselves the right to arbitrarily draw up the borders of the modern Afrikan countries in an effort to recreate themselves in Afrika and in so doing forced communities together and split up others as part of the new logic of international economic development. In the absence of suitable terms to describe these hitherto autonomous nations, the colonial administrators invented terms, such as tribe, ethnic groups, chiefs, headmen and the like, with the main purpose of divide et impera (divide and rule).

(d) After the attainment of political independence, the new political elite never crafted a template with the same vigour and methodical planning and management deliberateness as colonialists did to redirect focus the direction of these communities towards One Namibia One nation.

The premier Afrikan psychoanalyst Frantz Fanon was on point when he alerted in his book, ‘The Wretched of the Earth’, that the mental condition of post-independence Afrikan leaders was a serious problem that shortchanged socio-economic development in Afrika after independence.

Fanon read the future of free Afrika well when he warned that the mental disposition of Afrikan liberators was bereft of forward thinking. He saw what was coming, namely that those who took over the political roles of colonial administrators would suffer constantly from the diseases of spiritual or moral bankruptcy and intellectual laziness to think beyond the goal of independence and self-glory, by which the new rulers are no different from those they replaced, except in the colour of their epidermis and their obesity for eating alone all the time.

Fanon is correct in that the political leaders that replaced colonial administrators – legitimate though they were – stopped being the planners and theorists that they were during the struggle for freedom, when vigorous debates about the future were allowed as part of the political leadership and its socialisation.

Come independence, those in decision-making roles took it for granted that the fruits of independence, and perhaps, given their benevolence and patronage, the nation would come about without much effort. The project of nation building in Namibia has been left to chance for the most part, and what we are seeing now is the consequence of failing to plan how to manage diversity in its many manifestations.

To be clear, apartheid was a diversity management proposal cum a multiplicity of acts of parliament and regional plans that went pear-shaped later, but was able to develop the most efficient modern economy on the Afrikan continent.

Whereas the colonial leaderships were based on merit and qualifications to understand and execute the socio-political plans and programmes of the regime, our post-independence leadership has gotten progressively worse. The older we get as a nation, the less capable our leaders are to simply comprehend the composition of Namibia, let alone align development plans to the historical specificities of the people in this new family, such that they are part of their own futures: good, bad or ugly.

The State has not been adequately adapted to address the perennial issues affecting the people on the ground, so that in the medium- and long-term, socio-economic development becomes organic and linked to the people’s well-being.

As a result, development planning has stayed in the mode of pre-independence Namibia, with the political leadership assuming that the permanent problem of Namibia remains white colonialism or white monopoly capital. We choose to forget that the real problems post-independence are the absence of self-definition of communities in the scheme of decision-making about education, healthcare, safety and security, human settlement and land reform.

For instance, instead of trying to understand how divide and rule exacerbated historical dissimilarities, such that we could have developed mechanisms to combat the artificial differences and to amplify what is common to all, we assumed that the mere celebration of independence would erase all memories and perceptions of the past, including the fear of the unknown that was utilised by colonial administrations to effect the new needs for separateness and safety and security.

There were 12 homeland administrations in Namibia prior to independence, and fears and perceptions were anchored during these years of potential abuse of power by one group over the others. This was never addressed – just like the abuses in exile were never addressed. This led to the dependency on the ruler to be the enforcer of law and order and the harbinger of peace and all facets of national wellbeing.

For instance, the traditional rulers of pre-colonial nations in Namibia were the providers of peace and security and the custodians of the nations’ collective wealth. Without a careful and deliberate plan to transform a divided society into One Namibia One Nation, we see throwbacks to identities that we assumed had died, but were hibernating in search of new self-definition, self-affirmation and self-direction – all of which are permanent traits of being human in a rational society as a zoon politikon, a political animal.

The first explanation of the rise of tribalism in the post-Nujoma era in Namibia is the question of legitimacy of the top political leadership. The question is: why was tribalism not as rife during Tatekulu Nujoma’s time as it is now. We are Afrikans in the main. Tatekulu Nujoma was seen as the most legitimate father of all, with the appropriate credentials to lead, from the family and tribe that met the qualifications to lead, and he was never boastful as a ruler.

At the heart of the rise of tribalism in the country is the absence of the centre that can hold all the parts together. Let us recall the efforts of the First and Second Republics, as they went out of the way to accommodate minority groups and entities that history did not automatically dispose to be part of the political elite.

The second explanation of the rise of tribalism in Namibia is the absence of a national(ist) ideology. It would appear that instead of developing a national character out of the current and future generations of Namibians, we have reverted to political party ideologies that are inherently and patently divisive and sectarian in nature and by design.

Political parties are not nations, and to raise the life of a political party above the nation is a license for disaster, as we are witnessing now. Political parties are about winning, whereas nationalism is about survival as a nation in the face of internal and external threats.

It must be said with modesty, considerateness and respect (met beskeidenheid, mit Bescheidenheit) that the governing party has either abandoned or unlearned the importance of building a nation. All efforts seem to be to strengthen the party and very much at the expense of the Greater Namibia.

There are more party scarfs, shirts, trousers and caps than ten years ago. There is more intolerance in the party than three years ago. The fighting for the heart of Swapo is part of what is pushing tribalism to the fore.

At the moment there is no leadership that champions the nation above all the sectarian edifices that, unless they are replaced with something more wholesome, can only take people to their tribes to feel more secure. Political party membership in Namibia is inseparable from tribal or ethnic identity, not because people do not wish to be Namibian, but because there is nothing coherent and moral to replace the primordial permanent and comforting home relations of Omukwashike? Omukwasinke? Ghomukanye? Ejanda roje orae? Uwa mushiku maῆi? O moeng? Satsa a ma !hao?

The point is that tribes have their kings, who are the custodians of the tribes’ values and interests. The Namibian nation is without a king, who represents only the interests of the nation. Therefore, Namibia is without a singular moral voice who is above party politics, as was Julius Nyerere, Kwame Nkrumah and Nelson Mandela.

The one who came close to it was Tatekulu Nujoma whom we in our small-mindedness as a nation sold short to the world by cheapening him as a Swapo activist and not a unifier of the nation. That is why Tatekulu Nujoma is never invited to mediate in international conflicts when leaders, such as Chissano of Mozambique, Mbeki of South Africa and the recently departed Masire of Botswana could.

Nujoma is head and shoulders above these men, but is seen in the world as an unrefined restless political party leader who never rose above the ‘us versus them’ politics of yesterday and yesteryear! Our party politics failed the founding president by confining him in party uniform, whereas he as the father of the nation ought to be above party and tribal interests and have the standing to address any political party rally in the country.

At the moment we have political party leaders who are doing everything to punish and are dangerously oblivious to the fact that they have taken an oath to defend the Namibian Constitution and protect all Namibian inhabitants. National symbols are second to party symbols 27 years after independence.

The language of politics remains that of victims and war against some enemy, with renewed vigour against new and invented enemies, such as the intellectuals and the youth. We are now our own worst enemy. In the absence of nationalist leadership, tribalism escorts political party chauvinism.

The return of community celebrations, such as Olufuko, totem and cultural festivals, all over the show are all expressions of the search for identities that were once lost due to colonial marginalisation. Yet we forget that the primacy of these identities and the claims that they shall make on our republican life are incompatible with the noble ideals of One Namibia One Nation.
– To be continued.


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