African Continent Tormented by Tribal Conflicts : Problem Has Triggered Wars, Toppled Governments and Wrecked Courtships

Associated Press

From Sudan to South Africa, on shantytown streets and desert battlefields, tribal conflicts are fragmenting Africa’s nations and tormenting its peoples.

Even the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa often is beset by tribal rivalry that in recent months has seen black groups fighting each other, sometimes shattering black unity in the battle against the white government.

African tribalism has triggered wars and toppled governments, just as it has wrecked courtships and thwarted job seekers.

Shopper Turned Away


In Kenya, a woman of the Luhya tribe trying to buy cornmeal during a drought-induced food shortage is turned away by a shop-owner selling only to his fellow Kikuyus.

In Uganda, where the guerrillas who took power in January are preaching national unity, tribal affiliation has cost more than half a million lives during two decades of chaos.

“It is common knowledge that tribalism is a killer,” said Willie Masururwa, a political commentator in Zimbabwe, where the Ndebele and Shona tribes have been sparring for 150 years. “Anybody who has been hanging around since Africa began to rule itself has seen tribalism butchering many people on our continent.”

Before colonialism, the tribes functioned as distinct nationalities. They sometimes warred with one another but were rarely locked in the day-to-day friction that began when they were lumped together by Europeans who drew the borders of their possessions without regard for the peoples, languages and cultures within them.


Divide and Rule

The Kenyan sociologist Katama Mkangi wrote in a recent article that colonial powers encouraged tribal jealousies as part of a divide-and-rule strategy. He said the divisions have been maintained since independence by Africans with a stake in preserving the status quo on a continent with not enough to go around.

“It is very safe to say that the producers, sustainers and purveyors of tribalism in Africa are the rich, the powerful and the educated,” Mkangi wrote.

In South Africa, most anti-apartheid activists accuse the government of exacerbating tribal differences through the establishment of 10 black homelands.


Recent fighting in Natal between Zulus and Pondos is considered tribal conflict by the South African government, but critics say that the homeland system aggravated the problem. Zulus living in the Kwazulu homeland felt threatened by Pondo squatters, who came illegally to the fringes of Durban to compete for scarce jobs since there are far fewer opportunities in their homeland of Transkei.

Factor in Civil Wars

Tribal divisions are a factor also in current civil wars in Chad, Angola and Sudan, as they were in the devastating Biafran war in Nigeria in the 1960s.

Tens of thousands of people were slaughtered during power struggles between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes of Burundi and Rwanda in the 1960s and early 1970s, and the toll continues to climb across the continent.


Despite the awkwardness of the colonial boundaries, today’s African leaders have repeatedly endorsed their validity in the quarter-century since much of the continent became independent.

The late Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, among others, argued that redrawing borders along ethnic lines would produce a continent composed of hundreds of small tribal states.

One-Party System

Many African countries have adopted one-party political systems in an effort to blunt the influence of ethnic factions, and many leaders denounce tribalism as an obstacle to national development. But their words often go unheeded.


In Kenya, where the largest of roughly 40 tribes comprises less than 20% of the population, President Daniel Arap Moi describes tribalism as a cancer and “the foundation of all evil.” He has ordered employers to stop hiring on a tribal basis and urged teachers to counter ethnic prejudices among their pupils.

But in spite of Moi’s appeals, the lonely hearts ads in Kenya’s Express magazine carry such strictures as “partner should not be a Luo” or “Kikuyu--prefers same.”

Uganda’s new president, guerrilla commander Yoweri Museveni, says his National Resistance Army is committed to ending tribal conflicts.

Tranquility in Tanzania


Julius Nyerere, who recently retired as president of Tanzania, was relatively successful in creating a sense of national identity in his country, which has more than 100 tribes. One of his tactics was to encourage the use of Swahili as the national language.

Burundi’s President Jean-Baptiste Bagaza has sought to heal the rift between his minority Tutsi tribe and the majority Hutus who were slaughtered by the tens of thousands in 1972. He now says there are no Tutsis or Hutus, only Burundians, and he has brought Hutus into the government for the first time.

But some aspects of tribalism are beneficial. Tribal links often create an informal welfare system, helping people in the big, polyglot cities obtain food and financial support through tribal connections. In an alien metropolis, contact with a fellow tribesman is a powerful antidote to homesickness.

Africans cling to their tribes for the same reasons other people adhere to their own ethnic groups--a sense of belonging to an extended family, shared traditions and language, resentment toward groups perceived as economic or political rivals.


Patriotism a New Concept

Africa’s main distinctions are the high number of tribes and the relative newness of its nations. National identity and patriotism are relatively unfamiliar to many Africans, although in most cases they are becoming steadily stronger.

Many Africans resent the contentions of others that tribalism is exclusively an African problem. They contend that their ethnic conflicts are not essentially different from those that have sparked wars and violence in Europe and elsewhere for centuries.

The European drive for formal political control of Africa did not start in earnest until the 1880s, even though commercial contacts and slave trading began almost four centuries earlier.


An international conference in Berlin in 1884-85--often described as the forum where Africa was carved up--did not in itself partition Africa but set guidelines for the Europeans to do so without major squabbling among themselves. The participants were the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Belgium, Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey and the United States.

The conference secured free trade in the Congo Basin, free navigation on the Congo and Niger rivers, and bound the 14 signatories to respect any annexation of coastal Africa if accompanied by effective occupation.