HomeEditorialDon't Call Us Tribes: Neo-Liberal Thinking and the Problem of Politicised Ethnicity

Don’t Call Us Tribes: Neo-Liberal Thinking and the Problem of Politicised Ethnicity


Don't Call Us Tribes: Neo-Liberal Thinking and the Problem of Politicised EthnicityAFRICANGLOBE –  In insisting on referring to Africa’s ethnic groups as ‘tribes’ and publishing the idea that the continent’s woes have their origins in the tribalism of its leadership and its peoples, we collaborate in a degrading and demeaning description of Africans, argues Killian Ngala.

It is difficult to ignore the prejudicial origins and consequences of sentiments underpinning neo-liberal thought on Africa’s persistent ethnicity -and it’s usually supplied consensus that African politics is especially troubled by tribalism and needs a formalised think-tanked politics for its redemption.

This article, in general, is a reaction towards this often unchallenged neo-liberal conception of Africa’s ‘trouble’ with a Western notion of democracy, and in particular, to an article published on the BBC’s website by Prof. Calestous Juma titled, ‘How Tribalism stunts African Democracy.’

Particularly I am opposed to the insistence on the word tribe and its corollary, tribalism. It comes to us from ancient references to communities external to dominating civilisations like Rome. It carries demeaning references to backwardness, atavism and barbarism.

Describing small groups bound by a common bloodline and eking out a living at very low levels of social and economic organisation, it is a conception that misunderstands the social organisation of African people, and subsequently wrongly analyses the impact of ethnicity in African politics.

The Racism in the Concept of “Tribalism”

The idea that an outdated organisation of society restrains Africa’s potential is a vestige of the lens through which a rampant Europe, colonising, dominating and exploiting what we presently describe as the developing world, saw the peoples it encountered. It carried with it the spirit of Social Darwinism and led to the treatment of non-Europeans as savages; primitive and barbaric beings. Newfangled categories like native and indigene came into the official language of colonial administrations and were used to much the same purposes as tribe, to define and dominate subjugated societies, and to much the same disastrous consequences.

The less offensive and more generally employed concept of ‘ethnicity’ is preferred to terms like ‘tribalism’ which are reserved almost exclusively for African and other marginalised peoples across the world. The constant association of the African with tribalism is an example of what Sara Ahmed has called ‘problematic proximities’. Unceasingly reproduced in media and culture, this pairing promotes a crude prejudice, portraying tribalism as intrinsic to Africans and their societies, even as similar practices in other communities elsewhere are understood to be extrinsic, individual and fringe.

In insisting on referring to Africa’s ethnic groups as ‘tribes’ and publishing the idea that the continent’s woes have their origins in the tribalism of its leadership and its peoples, we collaborate in a degrading and demeaning description of Africans. Worse, analyses proceeding from this description misrecognise the problem of African governance, situating it in outdated misconceptions of African society and precluding more sophisticated and meaningful investigation.

African political leaders and intellectuals, as well as Western social scientists, have routinely denounced ethnicity as retrogressive and shameful, an unwelcome interruption of the pursuit of progress, of modernity. In Leroy Vail’s vivid phrase, ethnicity has been treated as ‘a cultural ghost, an atavistic residue deriving from the distant past of rural Africa…[that] should have evaporated with the passage of time [but] continues to refuse to obey laws of social and political change’.

In contrast, John Lonsdale links ethnicity to modernity, to the colonial innovation that is the African state. He states that African ethnic inventions emerged through internal struggles over moral economy and political legitimacy tied to the definition of ethnic communities; and external conflicts over differential access to the resources of modernity and economic accumulation.

So it is that as the colonial powers were once preoccupied with demarcating, classifying, and counting subject populations, a process Mahmood Mamdani has described as ‘define and rule;’ the orthodoxies of neo-liberalism are now preoccupied with the management of the descendants of those societies through the reproduction of uncritical and idealized models of liberal democracy, the market and civil society and the sedate, bureaucratic and professionalised politics of development that they propose.

The Voter is Not Exceptional 

Like citizens across the world, few Africans would agonise over the absence of think-tanks or political party manifestos. Like their counterparts across the world, few would be intimate with the production of these think-tanks, or believe in the manifestos produced by political parties. What motivates this tacit rejection, as is evident around the world, isn’t ignorance or a misplaced belief in ethnic overlords. It is instead a popular illiteracy in the cold, calculated jargonised vision of the future they present, and an awareness of the insincerity and insensitivity of those mechanisms to citizen needs and demands.

A broad campaign for politics around issues and political parties is right and proper, but we ought not to assume that ethnic politics are inherently incompatible with issue-based politics. Cursory analyses may misunderstand my country’s (Kenya) discussions over devolution for example, thinking them driven by ethnic prejudice when they are in fact of the same motivation as would propel minorities in any majoritarian systems fearful of domination by more numerous groups.

Religious and conservative constituencies in Kenya are motivated against socially liberal policies like the permission of abortion or same sex unions, just as are similar constituencies in the UK. Also, wealthier regions may resent redistributive mechanisms as they would in Germany or Spain.

On other issues like public services or infrastructure, the same sorts of jealousies that motivate American voters, may manifest themselves as ethnic resentments, even as there exists a broad consensus that expects state involvement in the provision of services. Voters are as susceptible to manipulation by charismatic leaders, media and capital as are American constituencies.

Empirical work makes clear that the African voter, again like her counterpart across the planet, is a many-thing. The importance of ethnicity varies widely across countries, time periods and socio-economic circumstances. The crude generalisation about Africans and ethnicity is upset by data that shows citizens across several African countries expressing sophisticated approaches to self-identification and often foregrounding other non-ethnic affiliations.

Persistent Ethnicity 

Where and when they persist, ethnically derived mobilisations and sentiments persist because they are grounded in culturally embedded customs and practices. Armed with symbolisms that retain their recruiting power in contrast with those of states that have failed to deliver for the vast majority of their citizens, ethnic groups and the security they propose stake a place in the imaginary during periods of austerity that governments across the planet have to contend with.

Our task then, in directing this power to fruitful, welfare uplifting ends, is to think about how notions of political accountability may arise of ethnic imaginations. We should think about a democratization of ethnicity.


Killian Ngala is a student of African politics based at the British Institute in Eastern Africa, Nairobi, Kenya.

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