The most popular song in Kenya soon after Barack Obama won the United States presidential election in 2009 had this line: “It is easier for a Luo to be the President of the United States than to be the Kenyan President”.
This was in obvious reference to the fact that no one from the Luo, the second largest tribe in Kenya, has ascended to the presidency of that country since independence from British colonial rule in 1963, but the only one who has risen that high is Obama but in faraway America.
Of course, it did not matter to them that it took over 200 years from the founding of the US to have its first black President.
Over there in the US, some influential blacks are saying that Obama cannot be classified as African-American because he is not a descendant of freed slaves, but the offspring of a white American mother and black Kenyan father.
That is how categorisation plumbs depth. So people will always try to reduce race or tribe to the next or highest level of “purity”. It is based on mostly inaccurate generalisations that lead to discrimination and, at the very worst, conflict.
My mind raced back to Obama when I read MDC-M deputy secretary-general Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga’s opinion piece titled “Secret fear of white capital, Shona supremacists” (NewsDay, December 11, 2010). She virtually blames everyone — from MDC-T, the West, white capital, non-governmental organisations to “Shona supremacists” — for treating her party unfairly.
She has beef with what she terms “so-called civil society . . . so-called progressive groups” for apparently abusing “democratic space to do exactly what they complained and marched against”; that they have “become worse enemies than those who supposedly (was it supposedly or it’s a fact?)
The rancour was apparently roused by the “same people waxing hysterical on the illegitimacy of our being (MDC-M) at the negotiation table, to the extent they now claim that the GPA (Global Political Agreement) would have been more successful if the negotiations had been two-way, i.e, between Zanu PF and MDC-T”.
“As I struggled with this paradox, I had a damascan revelation (like Saul on the road to Damascus), which explained this hatred towards us. The revelation is that this is nothing but tribalism” because her party “is a thorn in the flesh for Shona supremacists” as “it challenges the basic notion that the only group of people with the legitimate right to decide on the fate of Zimbabwe are Shonas”, citing that both Zanu PF and MDC had all-Shona negotiators after MDC-T’s Lovemore Moyo, a Ndebele, was “unceremoniously replaced by a Shona”.
She further asserts that Shona supremacists routinely demonise MDC-M secretary-general Welshman Ncube because “a mere Ndebele has challenged the supremacy of the Shona tribe in the legal field” because they believe “only their tribe can hold a place of fame in their intellectual world”.
She then links this with “collusion with white external capital”, and makes a further link with MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai, saying “his arrests have earned him a confetti of awards and yet my Google search shows not a single award to Joshua Nkomo” and that “white capital . . . seek(s) to facilitate a transition that fits within the framework where power can only be handed over to a Shona leader”.
She concludes: “We, born of a Ndebele’s womb, can stand up and say, we saw, we heard, and we spoke.”
There are indeed differences of opinion and policy but there are indisputable matters of fact.
It’s a fact, not an opinion, that there has been so much intermarriage among ethnic groups that the differences have become to a considerable extent merely cultural.
Misihairabwi-Mushonga is herself the offspring of such a union. It is a fact, not an opinion, that the Matabeleland region has been marginalised to a great extent. Poverty and disempowerment feed tribalism.
This has been accentuated by linguistic differences as most of those in senior posts in both the public and private sector do not speak Ndebele.
So this cultural insensitivity has to be rectified through some form of affirmative action.
Views and concerns of a minority, especially a large one, should be taken into consideration and addressed.
These words from Kenyan commentator would serve us well: “While building bridges, roads, schools and hospitals (which he terms hardware), more important than these physical structures is creating an idea of Kenya — a collective identity (which he calls software).”
But it’s a fact, not an opinion, that tribalists are found in both MDC-T and MDC-M and across the ethnic groups. Zanu PF politburo member and former Bulawayo mayor Joshua Malinga was last year charged with undermining the authority of the police.
The background to that was that a police constable on patrol in the city found his car dangerously parked. He took offence after the constable pointed out this to him not because of the gist of his words, but because of the language used.
“You are a stupid idiot, officer, speaking Shona in Matabeleland,” Malinga allegedly shot back but if a senior person like him can have an issue with that, it means it’s a serious issue that cannot be written off as mere tribalism.
“Everywhere on the continent, tribalism lives and breathes in everyday life. It is the glue that holds ordinary society together. In day-to-day village life, tribalism operates like the old school tie: helping each other get jobs, introductions and sweethearts, sharing the burden of the harvests, or building a new house, resolving disputes and, not least, fashioning art and music.
It is only when conflict erupts that these virtues mutate into a virulent, spare-no-quarter contagion and the wrong tribal scar (nyora/ ukucaba) becomes a death warrant. It is also the gunpowder that can tear it apart when politics, economics and the pressures of a degraded, overcrowded environment combine to ignite the charge,” observes Jonathan Power, a writer on foreign affairs.
Many simmering tribal disputes can be contained and the intense rivalry softened as long as the political leadership works on the problems. Ibos, despite losing 25% of their population during civil war (1967-70) caused by their declaration of breaking away from Nigeria, are today well integrated into Nigeria and many of the scars have healed. “Africans are better at forgiveness than most people,” added Power.
But nearly 30 years after the Gukurahundi massacres, the ruling class has not acknowledged the event and the wounds are still very fresh and the Ndebele are bitter like it occurred yesterday.
It is a fact, not an opinion, that MDC-T’s Thokozani Khupe beat Welshman Ncube and three others by a wide margin in the Makokoba constituency in the 2008 general election. Makokoba, the oldest township in Bulawayo, can’t be accused of tribalism for voting for a Shona-led party.
As for “white capital” and Misihairabwi-Mushonga’s linkage of it to tribalism, it is a fact, not an opinion, that Western imperialism devastated Africa through its divide-and-rule tactics and neo-colonialism is a factor, but not the only one. The frank truth remains: Africans must take ownership of their problems — and the sooner the better. Tribal warfare had been waged across Africa way before the colonialists arrived, and it still continues today.
That is how the Rozvi Empire was deposed by Mzilikazi. That is why Mzilikazi fled Zululand in the 19th Century to settle in the south-west part of the now Matabeleland region of Zimbabwe.
It’s not politically correct to say so, but it’s the utter truth. So to view the crises in Kenya and even Zimbabwe as solely rooted in colonialism is tantamount to a state of permanent denial.
Lop-sided government policies, political greed and corruption are the main causes of conflict on the continent today.
The West, like China, is basically after what is in their best interests politically and economically. But this turning a blind eye to injustice in Africa by the West — and China — is being exploited by Africa’s ruling class who now act with impunity knowing that the West — and China — will make mere noises.
So this cannot be equated to promoting tribalism per se.
But the fact that Robert Mugabe has been in power for 30 years cannot be reduced to tribalism.
Racist diehards of Rhodesia made this possible by refusing to compromise.
He was the man of the moment. Moderate leaders like Ndabaningi Sithole and Abel Muzorewa were rejected by the people — were they Ndebeles?
No. The same happened in Zambia where Kenneth Kaunda eclipsed the moderate Harry Nkumbula.
Politicians who were more hardline led their countries to independence all over Africa. It had nothing to do with tribalism.
And the fact that Tsvangirai remains popular across the tribal and racial divide is not due to the “Shona supremacists’” collusion with white capital; it is due to the fact that he is perceived as an individual capable of taking the ruling class head-on without fear and compromise.
If I may paraphrase, democracy is about the people, not about ethnic parties or political parties; it’s the people that bear the weight of democracy. And until our leaders — across the political divide — acknowledge and respect this, it becomes too easy and convenient to reduce everything to tribalism and see the hand of the West everywhere.
The fault lies not in the stars, but in ourselves. Generalisation is the refuge of bigots. Let’s not be tribal warriors. Let’s move to a post-tribal society.
Let’s not oversimplify complex, involved issues by reducing them to mere tribalism by merely scratching at the surface. The cause is not tribalism, but the effect is.
So I, Conway Nkumbuzo Tutani, a second generation Zimbabwean of Zulu lineage but whose ancestors were acculturated and integrated into the Xhosa tribe after taking refuge among the Xhosas from the tribal wars in Zululand, South Africa, but born of a Shona’s womb, find Misihairabwi-Mushonga’s views disconcerting — to say the least.