Tribalism, colonialism and capitalism

The festering of tribalist, nationalist and racist sentiment are nurtured and sustained by the capitalist system

Within the context of neo-colonial statehood, tribalism is a colonial derivative based on matriarchal or patriarchal relations forged in the distant past and used by an ethnic group as a defensive and an offensive weapon against other groups. The position of some of those who see tribalism as the main cause of Africa’s present social and economic predicament follows a familiar pattern of thinking. The colonialists, according to them, tried to make a nation-state out of a hotch-potch of antagonistic and uncivilised African peoples but failed in their pious mission. The various tribes had age-long hatred for one another and as soon as the colonial power went the natives descended into barbarism maiming and killing each other.

Nationalists in Africa see the matter differently, painting idyllic pictures of the African past and blaming all the tribal conflicts that have erupted after independence solely on colonialism. This viewpoint is as historically incorrect as it is undialectical. Facts abound on how the internal evolution of some African communities before colonialism and mercantile capitalism had provided groups of people the opportunity to appropriate the labour of others, accumulate economic surplus and consequently subjugate other communities. This is a scenario that must have generated a certain level of tribal animosity and discrimination based on economic exploitation and wealth, even if this was on a minor scale compared with the situation in colonial times and the post-independence era. It was these differences that were deliberately and carefully nurtured by the colonialists, and later exploited by the neo-colonial bourgeoisie after independence to keep the people manacled to the capitalist system.

In colonial times
Colonialism whether it was of the British, Belgian, French or German variety was not meant to be a benign enterprise. The motive behind its establishment was one: the exploitation of labour and the accumulation of economic surplus. Consequently, the driving force behind it, capitalism, did not spare the exploitation of labour in both the metropolis and other lands even if it meant spilling blood to fulfil this sordid agenda.

This mercenary impulse had implied increased production, technological expansion, the growth of the external and domestic market and ultimately the annexation and political control of other territories. Tribal groups which stood in the way were, in colonial parlance, pacified. But if, as suggested in some quarters, the colonial enterprise had meant to pacify and carve out viable nation-states capable of competing with metropolitan capitalism, the monopolistic tendency and vampire essence of the profit system would have been still-born. Far from creating problems for itself, its policy towards the people of the colonies was guided by the trinitarian doctrine—atomisation, exploitation and domination. This unfolded in its pattern of social and economic investment in what came to be known as Ghana and before that as the Gold Coast.

British colonial policy encouraged investments in only those areas of the colony which were endowed with mineral and forest resources. This pattern of investment engendered considerable regional variations in terms of the provision of roads, railway lines and social services. Thus the Southern Sector which by virtue of its location abounded in timber, gold and fertile soil benefited far more in terms of infrastructural development than the Northern territories which did not have any known mineral resources. But even in the Southern part of the colony there was discrimination in the provision of amenities on the basis of the contribution to the exportable surplus. The pattern of investment that characterised British economic policy was not born out of any preference for the Asante over the Dagarti, but based on cold capitalist reasoning. After all, some minimum maintenance of workers’ health and education was a reasonable investment since it ensured the maximisation of the extraction of surplus from the worker; and the greedy capitalists by their calculations knew this too well.

How did this promote tribalism? By annexing the Gold Coast and putting the people in a subordinate status, the British colonial power froze any further evolution and consolidation of a national identity. For example, it destroyed the principal catalyst for achieving the unity of fragmented loyalties. Not only did colonialism deprive states like Benin, Oyo and Asante of all their principal vassals and tributary states, but it followed up the process of fragmentation by smashing the basis of the hegemonic power of these states thus giving full rein to all manner of divisive tendencies.

While pretending to be carrying out a mission of uniting the incorrigibly warring tribes British colonial policy consciously and systematically separated the various people, creating conflict and ill-will among them. The colonial government sometimes saw the value of stimulating tribal jealousies so as to keep the colonised from dealing with their principal opposition—the colonial and the emergent African bourgeoisie who together were milking the people.

By categorising the various linguistic subgroups in the Gold Coast—Frafra, Dagarti, Ninkarsi Kusaasi, Dagomba, Akyim, Asante and Fanti—as tribes the colonial regime began to nurture parochial and exclusivist consciousness among people who previously had regarded themselves as one. All official documents in colonial times, for example, required information on the place of origin and ethnic background of the individual. Names were thus suffixed with one’s tribal background and area of origin. Feeling regarded as a member of an ethnic group by others and that they would behave towards you accordingly, individuals began to feel the need to identify more closely with their “kith and kin” and to promote its interest relative to others.

Racist colonial ideology ignored the fact that the people of the Gold Coast shared a common heritage of colonial oppression and colonially-induced capitalist exploitation with its concomitant ills: poverty, ignorance, disease and malnutrition. As a result, its philosophy of determining the inferiority or superiority of a people in terms of the extent to which they had culturally imbibed all what the colonial establishment represented came to dominate the worldview of some Africans.

Colonial ideology and culture operated on the basis of a hierarchy of cultures in which that of the metropolitan bourgeoisie was supposed to be supreme. The culture of the country of origin of the metropolitan bourgeoisie therefore became the standard by which a people’s level of primitiveness or barbarism was determined. The more your thinking, values and mannerisms were close to the colonialists’ the more human you were; and by implication the further your behaviour and outlook were from the masters’ the less human you were. This explained why the rich and educated elite who were products of the colonial educational system did not answer questions in their African dialect but in English. They talked about the opera which they had never seen except from a distance, referred to winter and Buckingham Palace and, above all, adopted a critical attitude towards other Africans who they derogatively referred to as “bush people”.

But the idea of trying to approximate to the coloniser was not only to be found in the relations between the African and the European coloniser. Sometimes Africans tried to approximate their status to other Africans if they thought those individuals enjoyed a higher status. African ethnic groups which had a high number of educated and rich people within them as a result of their long contact with the coloniser tended to feel superior to others. Even if they were poor and illiterate they identified psychologically with those in their tribal group who were rich and educated. It did not matter to the poor Asante, Frafra or Ewe person if all of them were victims of crude exploitation by colonialism and the African bourgeoisie. In their minds, the identification with the tribal big boss and the fact that they came from the same ethnic background was enough, even if it did not ensure the enjoyment of a spoon of marmalade from the master’s table. These exclusivist and warped thinking explained why a poor Asante for example could feel deeply offended if he was mistaken for a Busanga or any other tribe. This not only lead to more barriers between the ethnic groups but effectively undermined their capacity to confront capitalist exploitation. The inter-ethnic struggle for superiority or at least to avoid the stigma of inferiority dissipated the energies of the people.

Tribalism today
The African bourgeoisie which assumed the mantle of power after colonial rule also did not fail to realise the usefulness of tribalism in the struggle against the African masses. Like racial violence in Europe, tribalism was a means to an end: deflecting the anger of the masses from the neo-colonial bourgeoisie and directing it at other members of the working class. In another sense it was the most convenient cover for the capitalist robbers who stole economic surplus from the working class and poor peasants. The attitude of the African bourgeoisie towards the colonial state that it inherited, therefore, was not that of dismantling and radically transforming the exploitative relations of production. It was guided by the desire to inherit the colonial state-machine and seek accommodation with international capital in the extraction of economic surplus from the working people. Consequently, post-independence politics in Africa has witnessed the arousal and manipulation of tribal passions and petty differences among ethnic groups, for the same sordid reasons that the bourgeoisie in Europe sometimes find convenient it to use racism.

The predatory character of capitalism coupled with the hollowness and hypocrisy of the African bourgeoisie created fertile conditions for the festering of this cancerous disposition. Slogans, values and the moral high ground postured by the bourgeoisie as events unfolded long after independence have been blatantly self-serving. As for their masters abroad, the state machinery has now become an important instrument in their quest for capital accumulation at the expense of the masses, whom they claim in political party campaigns to be liberating from poverty, disease, etc. However, given the peculiar historical and economic circumstances in which it has had to evolve it is not an exact carbon copy of its masters abroad.

The African bourgeoisie is more desirous of imbibing the lifestyles and privileges of its overlords in Europe and America than showing the creative and strong interest in production that marked the genesis of the bourgeoisie in Europe. Its extravagance and neo-colonial conditions have been at the core of the steep declines of production levels in recent times, leading to shocking levels of destitution and poverty. But it is precisely these conditions of want that the bourgeoisie has shamelessly manipulated to scuttle the unity of the dispossessed in the towns using tribalism as a tool.

Cruel economic conditions have forced many residents in poverty-stricken suburbs to seek help and protection by means of a network of social obligations, transferring some of their traditional feudal loyalties and institutions to the urban environment. Most ethnic groups in Accra, Kumasi and Sekondi-Takordi have installed chiefs to whom they pay allegiance and seek protection. Tribal associations have also been formed to advance the cause of particular ethnic groups and used as sources of benefit: help in finding a job, accommodation, money and credit. People also stick together to make common cause against other tribal groups in the struggle for economic survival in the dog-eat-dog environment that has been created by capitalism.

It is these tribal associations that provide arenas for the various factions of the bourgeoisie to launch offensives and counter-offensives against each other in their struggle for political and economic power. Events in the run-up to this month’s presidential election in Ghana provide ample testimony of this, as many of such groups with the backing of the bourgeoisie have sprung up, all seeking to advance the interest of the bourgeoisie in the various ethnic groups. They have organised and whipped up the sentiments of the lower strata of their tribespeople against rivals belonging to different ethnic groups. They have created the impression that it is only when one of your tribesmen is at the helm of affairs that you can have a fair share of national development and individual personal advancement. Consequently, where a presidential or vice-presidential candidate comes from has become extremely important.

But as it has always been the case after every election, and will surely be the case after this month’s elections, that those factions that win the election will easily forget about the ethnic support base they so subtly manipulated to propel themselves to power. They will shun the company of their poor tribespeople who supported them and will fraternise closely with their allies in other ethnic groups. The rancour and bitterness that characterised their relations will soon be forgotten, except on political party platforms. They will play tennis, billiards and golf together and discuss lucrative business contracts in posh hotels. As for their indigent brethren who had worked tirelessly to put them in power, they will have to start thinking seriously about how to pay school fees, feed the family, and get good accommodation.

The festering of tribalist, nationalist and racist sentiment are nurtured and sustained by the capitalist system of production which produces only for profits and not for needs. The abolition of the profit system and its replacement with socialism based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for production and distribution would put an end to discrimination and bigotry. But this cannot happen unless people understand and see the need for this kind of change. More than ever before, the formation of socialist parties in Africa to take up the task of spreading the socialist message has become urgent.


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