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.



About makagutu

As Onyango Makagutu I am Kenyan, as far as I am a man, I am a citizen of the world

28 thoughts on “Tribalism or identity politics

  1. Peter says:

    Mak, you make an interesting case. I would venture to say that both you and fellow blogger GC have valid points of view on this matter. It may just be that it is a bit of both.


    • makagutu says:

      Hello Peter, always good to hear from you.
      Do you think identity is the culprit?
      Can we drop these identities?


      • Peter says:

        It seems to me Mak that humans are hard coded to stereotype others. I believe it is to do with the brain taking short cuts in coming to a quick evaluation of others. The key thing to understand about stereotyping is that it typically applied to people we don’t really know, once we get to know a person the stereotyping evaluation tends to be dropped for a more accurate evaluation.

        Identity politics is just another form of stereotyping.

        The thing about stereotyping is that whilst we tend to apply it to others no-one really agrees with it when it is applied to ourselves.

        So coming back to why our brains stereotype, it is a bot like the fear or flight reaction, at times we have to make a quick decision based on limited information so the brain does it sort of automatically without us even consciously thinking, This means it takes real conscious effort to override the automatic stereotype reaction.

        So the way to drop the identities is for us to get to the know the other people. As we get to know people of other ‘identities’ we will find it harder to adopt inaccurate identities.

        But we are battling against behaviour which is ingrained in our nature so it takes real effort. It is easier for most of us to make the lazy decision and to go with the stereotype/identity/bias.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Well said Peter

          I’m on my phone so it’s tough to type a real response so I’ll come back to this later. Thanks for the food for thought, Mak.


        • makagutu says:

          Interesting observation Peter.
          I am trying to put this in the context of the Luo in Northern Uganda who successive regimes have disenfranchised for no other reason except that they are Luos. Is it any wonder that they took up arms as a means of response to this real discrimination?
          It is likely true that most of the southerners individually have nothing against them but collectively, it is hard to say. So what to be done?


  2. Superb piece Mak. I think Peter sums up why we stereotype others quite well. You’ve given me much to ponder on here, my friend.


  3. This case provides a good example of the political difficulties associated with constructing nation-states from ethnically diverse populations. The former Yugoslavia comes to mind.

    I believe that perceived and real injustices are a natural result of identity politics. The us-versus-them mentality is most divisive. I also believe that institutional corruption in government and business (as described in this fine article) feeds the perception of injustice and therefore fertilizes identity politics.

    A true merit-based system (i.e. meritocracy), where jobs and duties are assigned according to one’s qualifications, is inherently problematic for the very reasons detailed above. We human beings are flawed creatures. We struggle to perceive the world objectively. We struggle to be altruistic. We harbor persistent jealousies and grievances. When someone else gets something we covet, we are prone to believe it happened for all the worst reasons.

    Liked by 1 person

    • makagutu says:

      Hello Bob
      Tanzania which is as multi-ethnic as Kenya managed to somewhat deal with the problem of ethnicity. Their first identity is as Tanzanians then whatever ethnicity.
      In Kenya we are first Luo then Kenyan. I see a few twitterati saying they are Kenyans first which though laudable is in many cases just talk.
      Since the discrimination, at least against the Luo, was and has been state policy for the 50 years of independence, how does the country move forward?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. tildeb says:

    Peter tells us that Identity politics is just another form of stereotyping.
    Like most half truths, this contains an element of truth. But it also contains an element of falsehood.
    Stereotyping means a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing; a person or thing that conforms to a widely held but oversimplified image of the class or type to which they belong.
    The key part of the term is that we’re dealing with stereotype as an image or idea that has been simplified.
    Image or idea.
    Is this what we’re talking about?
    Look, when we find statistical differences of significance in rates of discriminatory treatment involving all kinds of particular and pernicious effects of that treatment, then we’re not talking about imagery. We’re not talking about applied ideas. We’re talking about real world discrimination, a real difference based on group affiliation. It’s not imaginary. It’s not an imported idea. It a RESULT that is very real (for example, a href=””>this).
    Now, people who undergo unequal treatment and inequality of opportunity know these effects are more likely when one is identified as belonging to certain groups. One’s chances of being treated differently are significantly increased when identified as a member of a particular group.
    The point here is to understand the direction of of this labeling; it is derived FROM unequal treatment, FROM being treated as if different based on this group association. One has no say in the matter; one is much more likely to be carded for being black in Toronto, one is much more likely to be incarcerated for committing a property crime being indigenous. One is much less likely to be promoted into upper management being female. One is far less likely to be granted a job interview if one’s name is Arabic. And so on. This is real world treatment… in spite all kinds of laws insisting on equal treatment for all. This discrimination is not just imagery, not just an idea imported by ideologues as GC would have us believe. It’s real.
    Identity politics means a tendency for people of a particular religion, race, social background, etc., to form exclusive political alliances, moving away from traditional broad-based party politics. Given the preceding explanation about the widespread differential rates of treatment based on being placed by others into a meaningful group identities that is well known to increase the likelihood of receiving active discrimination, might it possible to understand why some people of particular groups who have been subject to active discrimination band together to gain political influence? In other words, is it possible to appreciate why some people might take that group affiliation into which they have been placed by others as make it into an exclusive political unit allied with other such groups?
    I think one has to be an ideologue to claim such groups are the racists, are the sexists, are the (whatever) ‘phobes. I think it’s a neat trick to vilify people who have been vilified for their non-chosen attribute that others use to discriminate against them (sometimes unknowingly), who have been discriminated against, who have taken up that unfairness and formed effective political alliances to address their grievances. I think it’s remarkable that intelligent and caring people can go along with this vilification of victims and pretend the real world rates that reveal embedded discrimination of people based on their group attributes are the problem, are the ones fostering different treatment based on group affiliation. This is just a way to blame the victims and avoid the thorny problem of rectifying embedded inequality, embedded discrimination, embedded unequal opportunity
    The way people like GC get around recognizing these remarkable differences of unfair and unequal treatment by all kinds of social and economic and public institutions is to claim that those who recognize this real world problem are ideologues who themselves further embed the problem. The criminal, so to speak, is the person reporting the crime. Shut up. Go away. Just treat people the same, insists GC, and the problems of embedded discrimination will evaporate. POOF! All better now.
    The problem with this line of reasoning is that it’s magical thinking because the rates don’t decrease even when people swear up and down that they do. So far, only by directed policy changes and enforcement of treatment for identified groups do we find improvement of treatment back to towards the average. That’s identity politics in action. And, unfortunately, it’s necessary to rectify these social, economic, and political imbalances.

    Liked by 3 people

    • “Just treat people the same…”

      Doesn’t work when the problems are systemic – and by that one can assume that the base level of expectations norms is, for example, racist or sexist.

      Need to change the structures and norms perpetuating the problem in question before any sort of just ‘same treatment’ can be dispensed.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. nannus says:

    Just one remark. The statement “a white person has no business in telling a black about racism.” would be a racist one in itself. If somebody makes such a statement, he or she is dividing people into different groups according to colour of skin (“whites” and “blacks”) and then assigning them different rights. That is racism.

    Living in a family with members from Europe, from West Africa and from East Africa, and from other parts of the world, I have stopped thinking in terms of “black” and “white”. It just does not make sense.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Peter says:

    In recent times the tragedy of South Sudan has provided a poignant example for us to ponder. After years of struggle the black african, non Muslim, south through the oppressive yoke of the Arab Muslim North. But what did independence bring, unfortunately the world’s newest country has descended into a tribal based civil war.

    A very depressing outcome, it is like a common enemy brings unity when that unifying threat is removed then the disparate groups start squabbling among themselves.

    I would argue that humans are by nature tribal. The tribe can take various forms, but it represents the groups of people one identifies with.

    In my native Australia I struggled for years to understand why a person with one aboriginal great grandparent and seven non aboriginal great grandparents would identify as aboriginal. But in more recent times I have come to see that we sort of pick the tribe we feel we belong to. Likewise in Australia many people celebrate having a convict relative and search their family history hoping to locate one.

    More and more I conclude that emotional factors are the driving force of so much on our life. Once again it takes a real conscious effort for to overcome our emotion with critical thinking.

    Liked by 3 people

    • makagutu says:

      The South did get independence, that is true, but the north still holds control over much of the oil reserves and other natural resources. You are aware the north saw the south as a place to be exploited and not developed. Tribal differences is not sufficient to explain the conflict in SS


  7. […] I was going to write a longer response to Mak’s post, which offers some food for thought about Tribalism and identity […]


  8. “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.”

    I agree that tribalism or identity politics are a consequence and not a cause of these injustices (both real and imagined). But I think that there’s an additional hurdle to your proposed solution because it’s becoming harder to separate the real from the imagined. It’s easier now to claim an injustice, and there is a certain inertia to claims of all stripes that spreads inflammation faster than reason. You can see that in conversations relating to many different political and social groupings.

    While I think the solution you propose ought to work in principle, I see no means of application that can overcome humanity’s mental and social failings. Someone who doesn’t suffer from actual injustice and is unaffected by imagined slights ought to be the bedrock of any civilized society, but I don’t know if anyone can meet that criteria.


    • makagutu says:

      How do you think we can move forward?
      Do we bury the past and hope it doesn’t resurrect or use force to suppress dissent?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I really don’t know, Mak. In my country, we’re having some serious issues with this kind of stuff. Our media outlets spread misinformation, loud voices can say whatever they want unchecked, and none of it is purely limited to one viewpoint. It would be easy to say education is a cure for this, but even education can be a debatable thing.


    • basenjibrian says:

      I think it’s more of a self-reinforcing cycle? The identity politics certainly justified the initial oppression (the underlying cause is The Owners of capital are always looking for cheap labor and greater returns Hence, the planter class, who want labor to earn more money and power, justifies the slave trade by defining the slaves as inferior). So, tribalism is not only a consequence but also a cause.

      Your “real versus imagined” paradigm is more complicated. For one thing, we divide ourselves ever more finely into sub-tribes, interest groups, etc. “The LGBTQXYZ123 Community” Pretty soon, everyone can find a group they can identify with that is oppressed in some way or other. And, the ever finer parsing leads to counter-reactions which rear their ugly heads in things like the Trump campaign. (Which is also a case of one tribe defending its own sense of privilege, and that is the other side of the same coin! For every oppressed group, there is an oppressor group very happy with the status quo).

      Liked by 1 person

      • makagutu says:

        The White settlers argued that African agriculture or commerce should not be supported by the colonial administration. They wanted cheap labour and if they couldn’t get it, they forced the administration to imposes taxes, such as hut tax, which had to be paid in cash. This was real oppression. The elites who took over, unfortunately, just maintained it.
        Indeed, for every oppressed group, there is a group happy with the status.


  9. tildeb says:

    It is this point – that systemic problems like gender bias and racism are revealed in aggregate rates that demonstrate unfairness and inequality of treatment – that people like GC simply fail to take into account (except by either dismissing or excusing these numbers with hand waving) and so they participate in perpetuating the blame-the-victim-who-complains-or-tries-to-do-something-about-it mentality. In addition, these are the same folk who then go out of their way to vilify (with negative terms like ‘ideologues’) anyone who dares to point out why failure to act systemically is such a problem itself and who dismisses the legitimate charge that this vilification is complicity in maintaining systemic unfairness and inequality.

    The transparent tactic (to those who suffer systemic unfairness and equality) disparages this compelling evidence as promoting ‘sexism’ and ‘racism’ (this reversal of meaning is always powerful evidence that one is dealing with the warped thinking of the Regressive Left in action) and so acts to thwart necessary change and undermine the support to produce and implement meaningful and systemic redress and correction.

    Liked by 1 person

    • @Tildeb

      Well said. You are on fire today tildeb. 🙂

      “so acts to thwart necessary change and undermine the support to produce and implement meaningful and systemic redress and correction.”

      Essentially, the individualist ‘feel good’ neo-liberal program that is explicitly designed to maintain the status-quo.

      It’s doing a bang-up job, btw. :/

      Liked by 1 person

  10. basenjibrian says:

    At the same time, too much emphasis on tribalism and group identity and victimization produces stuff like this:


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