Tribalism or identity politics

In his book, History of the Luo, Bethwell Ogot notes that ethnic groups and boundaries only make sense in relational terms, as a result of social interaction rather than isolation. Ethnic boundaries are not sustained because of traditional cultural differences, but because of political differences. Ethnicity is therefore, according to him, a political process by which people seek to form groups and differentiate one set of people from another, by appealing to the idea of ineluctable cultural difference.

In writing about tribalism, my friend Ngare, sees it as a tumor that must be removed. But I think he is being myopic. It is unfortunate that he and many others lost their homes after the 2007 elections. To call the violence tribal is to rewrite history. It is an attempt to change narratives to prove a particular end. One would expect a journalist with a national outreach to at least be factual. The violence after that bungled election was as a result of perceived and real injustices and found, in my view, a bungled election as a way to manifest itself. It is unfortunate that 10 years later, the issues have not been addressed and it is business as usual. And while my friend has an issue with a Luhya community meeting, he fails to mention that the current government is in place because of tribal associations.

In a country where successive regimes continue to marginalize areas deemed to be pro opposition and where appointments to government jobs are on the basis of one’s names, it boggles the mind how tribal alliances can be put to an end.

His other mistake is to look at history with a very dim lens. This country is a marriage of different nationalities: Luo nation, Kikuyu nation, Kalenjin, Swahili, Luhya, Maasai and many more. All these nations had their way of governance, and leadership systems. It is a mistake to think the British found us unruly and disorganized and helped us with their system. No, they didn’t and in many occasions, they adopted a divide and rule system, a system that the successive regimes have employed with great benefit. While you almost want to applaud those Luhyas who spoke against the meeting or did not attend, I consider them fools and pawns in a struggle for dominance. If anything, they should be whipped by their people. The colonial administrators forced a marriage between us, a marriage that for all intents, has not worked. Agents of change must begin by asking how can a forced marriage be made to work amidst perceived and real marginalization, nepotism, favouritism and so on. The problem, Ngare, is not tribal chiefs. That is the least of our problems. We have bigger problems such as having criminals in government. That is where you should start.

My other friend GC, wrote,

The reason why I’ve written so much about ideologies lately on this blog is because of identity politics and how dangerous I believe it to be. I think this is another direct result of that.

And I disagree with his analysis. it is not identity politics that is the culprit, no, it is years of oppression based on perceived or real differences that finds expression in such acts of violence.

He goes on to write

We put people into racial and gender categories instead of treating them like individuals and then we teach some of those categories that other groups are oppressing them. We even teach people that some groups are incapable of being racist, when that (power + prejudice = racism) clearly isn’t true.

Does this mean that there is no history of oppression? That however, people have just been taught about it lately? Maybe the 1st Nations in Canada, Native Americans or the Australian Aborigines  have only late found a benevolent teacher who has told them they are being oppressed. That before this, they as a group had no such knowledge. Or maybe I am wrong about all this. I have heard it said that a white person has no business in telling a black about racism. I don’t know to what extent this applies or whether it really is the case.

The culprit in both these cases is not tribalism or identity politics, but perceived and real injustices that have been perpetuated on people who belong to the different groups. To address the issues, we must start by addressing past injustices, working towards equitable societies where the colour of one’s skin or one’s tribe does not decide whether they get a government job or service or even how they are treated by the government operatives. Remember that these injustices are both perceived and real. So let’s focus our energy in creating equitable polities. The problem is not with whether one identifies as Luo or male, far from it.

Or maybe I am wrong in all this, in that case, I would love to be educated.