Friday, July 15, 2011

The Tribalism Myth in Sudan: Why Can't Africans 'Just get Along'?

At the dawn of the newly independent South Sudan, some news reports on Sudan have explained that Sudan experienced ethnic cleansing and/or genocide resulting from 'tribal' warfare. It seems that this popular concept of 'tribal warfare' is widely understood by the viewing audience as well as widely accepted. However, it is important to remember that the word 'tribe' itself is problematic. 'Tribe' is a contested term due to its inconsistency in meaning [See definitions on or wikipedia], hegemonic affiliations, and stereotypical tendencies. As an example, the term 'tribe' presents inconsistencies in terms of location, numbers, and settlement types. Tribes are often restricted to select geographic areas like Africa (but not Eastern Europe) or amongst select nations within a geographic area like Native Americans (but not to Vikings). There is no consistency in number (aggregate) either but 'tribes' are traditionally thought of as a small group. Hence, this becomes problematic when 'tribes' can consist of millions of people or make up the majority of the nation. As an example, the Shona make up the majority of ethnic composition in Zimbabwe so do they numerically qualify as a tribe?. 'Tribes' are also often thought of as people that wander like the nomadic Khoi San or Masaai. In anthropology, social "evolution" is measured (in rank order) by how people live. The idea here is that people "evolve" from hunter-gathers, bands, tribes, Chiefdoms, Cities, to City-States (nations) [See:Franz Boaz ]. Again, the Shona live in permanent settlements in towns, cities and states so do they qualify as a tribe? Once the Khoi San or Masaai become sedentary (set up permanent settlements) are they too no longer 'tribes'? There are a plethora of other inconsistencies with the use of this term, but where it becomes most problematic is when a fictitious, human construct like 'tribe' is then used to describe another construct like 'tribalism' and 'tribal' warfare and when tribalism is used to explain conflict. 'Tribalism' is rarely unpacked when it is mentioned but the term carries meaning and implications. Notably, that these warring 'tribes' 'just-cant-get-along' due to differences inherent between those two groups. These explanation rob the audience of a critical analysis on the situation at hand and create an image of a continent whose conflicts bare no cultural or historical roots of significance - they just like to fight. Historically, Africa as a continent has bared the burden of the 'tirbalism' and 'tribal warfare' brand so once ethnic conflict or tensions arise within her borders, 'tribalism' is often given as the reason (and an acceptable one at that).

It is important that coverage that seeks to explain the birth of the new nation of South Sudan is inclusive of the former Sudan's historical roots. Some of the coverage that I have seen about the situation in Sudan dates the beginning of its troubles in the 1960's when the country gained its independence. It is vital though that we do not brand the balkanisation of Sudan as simply due to 'tribal' conflict between African ethnic groups that just cant get along. Citing 'triablism' prevents a situation from being analysed due to the real socio-economic dynamics that underlies 'tribalism'. Notably, economic policies or bread and butter issues. In most instances where ethnic conflict occurs on the continent, there is uneven access to wealth or the power institutions in the country (judicial system, private business, government, education, etc...). In the case of Sudan, the South was deprived access to the aforementioned institutions. This was also the case in Rwanda and Kenya as well where we recently saw ethnic cleansing that had its roots in economic woes dating back to colonialism. During colonialism, it was often the practice of the colonial rulers to select a single ethnic group (usually a minority group) and give them (limited) access to some of the power institutions. After the Independence movements, nation building became challenging because the suppressed ethnic group became the dominant groups and this often marginalized (socially and economically) the minority groups. Hence, economic issues often are at the center of 'tribalism'. But focusing on 'tribalism' prevents people from getting to the root of the problem - economics, privilege and discrimination in multi ethnic societies.

Bringing disparate people together through force and unification processes whose differences outweigh their similarities has always been problematic. This is particularly evident through the examples of countries like Germany, where we saw Hitler's unification process lead to the ethnic cleansing of German Jews. A proper and complete analysis leading up to the genocide would include the overwhelming economic conditions that led to antisemitism in post Wiemar Republic Germany as opposed to viewing it myopically as Aryan Germans simply hating Jewish Germans for their Jewishness or 'tribalism'. In which case, the subsequent World War is arguably the largest display of tribalism in 20th century Europe! In East Europe, the balkanisation of former Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia provides us examples of multi ethnic nations that were forced together that led to continual conflicts. Czechoslovakia was founded in October of 1918 as part of the Treaty of Versailles. It consisted of areas that were once a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that were ethnically disparate. The ethnically disparate Czechs and Slovaks had been forced together into one country and this arrangement was problematic from the onset. This resulted in the creation of the Slovak and Chech Republics in 1993. Yugoslavia was formed as a result of unifying the Serbs, Croats and Slovenias into one kingdom amongst opposition. Forced arrangements brought about underdevelopment, war, and ethnic conflict. Eventually, Yugoslavia balkanised, and became the independent countries of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia , and Slovenia.
The current balkanisation of Sudan is hence a formula that we have seen repeated in other parts of the world in recent history. In the case of Sudan, like most African countries, it had been formed at a round table of European nations at the Berlin Conference where all African countries were formed at the stroke of ink. Hence dividing countries based on external forces as opposed to internal unification processes. The problems that arose in the former Sudan are not unique to Sudan nor is the ethnic cleansing that resulted there inherent in the Sudanese people. Similarly, "tribalism" is not isolated to select groups of peoples. The notion of 'tribal' wars seems to be an explanation that is often used to describe conflicts in Africa without fully unpacking the unique situations, conditions, or historical references of that country. This is done by both reporters and journalists from the west and from the continent. All Africans have been told that they have 'tribes', (and everyone belongs to one) and hence 'tribalism' (a natural conflict between ethnic groups for no particular reason) exists therefore it makes 'sense' that since Europe does not have tribes (they have ethnic groups) they cannot have tribalism. Therefore longstanding European conflicts like the plight of the armed movement for Basque independence from Spain and France is not seen as 'tribal' warfare. Few comparisons are made between the conflicts in Africa and other conflicts in the world.

The history of the Dinka's in South Sudan has been a history of domination -largely for control of resources. They have been dominated by Egypt, England (colonization) and lastly, the South Sudan was 'dominated' by Northern Sudan whom contributed to its underdevelopment. In spite of the presence of oil and fertile soil in the area, during these occupations, South Sudan was left underdeveloped. As a new nation, it will face the challenges of nation building amongst people that historically have had little control over their own society and economy. They will need to build a national identity and establish a "South Sudan brand" and reputation as an independent country. But already, tale tale signs can be seen of domination from someone from within its borders. The new money in the country is of the new president as opposed to a neutral national symbol or an apolitical symbol.This move marks the beginning of South Sudan iconography, where its politics are bound to be centered along the lines of individuals (national political icons) as opposed to shared symbols and ideologies. There national brand or identity is likely to be centered on the current President, Salva Kiir Mayardir. One can only hope that this is not a true sign of what is to come and that the new administration will proceed on a path that is inclusive of all the peoples of the new South Sudan.

Tribalism, with all its meanings and justifications is a disputed and problematic explanation for a multi-ethnic nation's ethnic tensions. Now that the Sedans have split, one wonders if any tensions that arise will continue to be called 'tribalism' or if it will evolve to a newer term like 'cross border tribalism' or if it will be considered a battle between two opposing nations with histories and dynamics that need to be unpacked to understand its roots.

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