Join Friends of Pambazuka

Subscribe for Free!

Fahamu Bulletin Archive

About our Programmes

Donate to Pambazuka News!

Follow Us

delicious bookmarks facebook twitter

Pambazuka News

Latest titles from Pambazuka Press

African Sexualities

Earth Grab A Reader
Sylvia Tamale
A groundbreaking book, accessible but scholarly, by African activists. It uses research, life stories and artistic expression to examine dominant and deviant sexualities, and investigate the intersections between sex, power, masculinities and femininities
Buy now

Global NATO and the Catastrophic Failure in Libya

From Citizen to Refugee Horace Campbell
In this elegantly written and incisive account, scholar Horace Campbell investigates the political and economic crises of the early twenty-first century through the prism of NATO's intervention in Libya.
Buy now

Queer African Reader

Demystifying Aid Edited by Sokari Ekine, Hakima Abbas
A diverse collection of writing from across the continent exploring African LGBTI liberation: identity, tactics for activism, international solidarity, homophobia and global politics, religion and culture, and intersections with social justice movements. A richness of voices, a multiplicity of discourses, a quiverful of arguments. African queers writing for each other, theorising ourselves, making our ...more
Buy now

China and Angola

African Awakening A Marriage of Convenience?
Edited by Marcus Power, Ana Alves
This book focuses on the increased co-operation between Angola and China and shows that although relations with China might have bolstered regime stability and boosted the international standing of the Angolan government, China is not regarded as a long term strategic partner.
Buy now

How Europe Underdeveloped Africa

To Cook a ContinentWalter Rodney
Rodney shows how the imperial countries of Europe, and subsequently the US, bear major responsibility for impoverishing Africa. They have been joined in this exploitation by agents or unwitting accomplices both in the North and in Africa.
Buy now

Pambazuka News Broadcasts

Pambazuka broadcasts feature audio and video content with cutting edge commentary and debate from social justice movements across the continent.

See the list of episodes.


This site has been established by Fahamu to provide regular feedback to African civil society organisations on what is happening with the African Union.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.


Neo-liberal thinking and the problem of politicised ethnicity in Africa

Killian Ngala

2013-01-09, Issue 612

Bookmark and Share

Printer friendly version

cc MX
In insisting on referring to Africa's ethnic groups as 'tribes' and publishing the idea that the continent's woes have their origins in the tribalism of its leadership and its peoples, we collaborate in a degrading and demeaning description of Africans, argues Killian Ngala

It is difficult to ignore the prejudicial origins and consequences of sentiments underpinning neo-liberal thought on Africa’s persistent ethnicity -and it’s usually supplied consensus that African politics is especially troubled by tribalism and needs a formalised think-tanked politics for its redemption. This article, in general, is a reaction towards this often unchallenged neo-liberal conception of Africa’s ‘trouble’ with a Western notion of democracy, and in particular, to an article published on the BBC’s website by Prof. Calestous Juma titled, ‘How Tribalism stunts African Democracy.’
Particularly I am opposed to the insistence on the word tribe and its corollary, tribalism. It comes to us from ancient references to communities external to dominating civilisations like Rome. It carries demeaning references to backwardness, atavism and barbarism. Describing small groups bound by a common bloodline and eking out a living at very low levels of social and economic organisation, it is a conception that misunderstands the social organisation of African people, and subsequently wrongly analyses the impact of ethnicity in African politics.


The idea that an outdated organisation of society restrains Africa's potential is a vestige of the lens through which a rampant Europe, colonising, dominating and exploiting what we presently describe as the developing world, saw the peoples it encountered. It carried with it the spirit of Social Darwinism and led to the treatment of non-Europeans as savages; primitive and barbaric beings. Newfangled categories like native and indigene came into the official language of colonial administrations and were used to much the same purposes as tribe, to define and dominate subjugated societies, and to much the same disastrous consequences.

The less offensive and more generally employed concept of 'ethnicity' is preferred to terms like 'tribalism' which are reserved almost exclusively for African and other marginalised peoples across the world. The constant association of the African with tribalism is an example of what Sara Ahmed has called 'problematic proximities'. Unceasingly reproduced in media and culture, this pairing promotes a crude prejudice, portraying tribalism as intrinsic to Africans and their societies, even as similar practices in other communities elsewhere are understood to be extrinsic, individual and fringe.

In insisting on referring to Africa's ethnic groups as 'tribes' and publishing the idea that the continent's woes have their origins in the tribalism of its leadership and its peoples, we collaborate in a degrading and demeaning description of Africans. Worse, analyses proceeding from this description misrecognise the problem of African governance, situating it in outdated misconceptions of African society and precluding more sophisticated and meaningful investigation.

African political leaders and intellectuals, as well as Western social scientists, have routinely denounced ethnicity as retrogressive and shameful, an unwelcome interruption of the pursuit of progress, of modernity. In Leroy Vail's vivid phrase, ethnicity has been treated as 'a cultural ghost, an atavistic residue deriving from the distant past of rural Africa…[that] should have evaporated with the passage of time [but] continues to refuse to obey laws of social and political change'. In contrast, John Lonsdale links ethnicity to modernity, to the colonial innovation that is the African state. He states that African ethnic inventions emerged through internal struggles over moral economy and political legitimacy tied to the definition of ethnic communities; and external conflicts over differential access to the resources of modernity and economic accumulation.

So it is that as the colonial powers were once preoccupied with demarcating, classifying, and counting subject populations, a process Mahmood Mamdani has described as 'define and rule;' the orthodoxies of neo-liberalism are now preoccupied with the management of the descendants of those societies through the reproduction of uncritical and idealized models of liberal democracy, the market and civil society and the sedate, bureaucratic and professionalised politics of development that they propose.


Like citizens across the world, few Africans would agonise over the absence of think-tanks or political party manifestoes. Like their counterparts across the world, few would be intimate with the production of these think-tanks, or believe in the manifestoes produced by political parties. What motivates this tacit rejection, as is evident around the world, isn't ignorance or a misplaced belief in ethnic overlords. It is instead a popular illiteracy in the cold, calculated jargonised vision of the future they present, and an awareness of the insincerity and insensitivity of those mechanisms to citizen needs and demands.

A broad campaign for politics around issues and political parties is right and proper, but we ought not to assume that ethnic politics are inherently incompatible with issue-based politics. Cursory analyses may misunderstand my country’s (Kenya) discussions over devolution for example, thinking them driven by ethnic prejudice when they are in fact of the same motivation as would propel minorities in any majoritarian systems fearful of domination by more numerous groups. Religious and conservative constituencies in Kenya are motivated against socially liberal policies like the permission of abortion or same sex unions, just as are similar constituencies in the UK. Also, wealthier regions may resent redistributive mechanisms as they would in Germany or Spain.
On other issues like public services or infrastructure, the same sorts of jealousies that motivate American voters, may manifest themselves as ethnic resentments, even as there exists a broad consensus that expects state involvement in the provision of services. Voters are as susceptible to manipulation by charismatic leaders, media and capital as are American constituencies.

Empirical work makes clear that the African voter, again like her counterpart across the planet, is a many-thing. The importance of ethnicity varies widely across countries, time periods and socio-economic circumstances. The crude generalisation about Africans and ethnicity is upset by data that shows citizens across several African countries expressing sophisticated approaches to self-identification and often foregrounding other non-ethnic affiliations.


Where and when they persist, ethnically derived mobilisations and sentiments persist because they are grounded in culturally embedded customs and practices. Armed with symbolisms that retain their recruiting power in contrast with those of states that have failed to deliver for the vast majority of their citizens, ethnic groups and the security they propose stake a place in the imaginary during periods of austerity that governments across the planet have to contend with.

Our task then, in directing this power to fruitful, welfare uplifting ends, is to think about how notions of political accountability may arise of ethnic imaginations. We should think about a democratization of ethnicity.


* Please do not take Pambazuka for granted! Become a Friend of Pambazuka and make a donation NOW to help keep Pambazuka FREE and INDEPENDENT!
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.

*Killian Ngala is a student of African politics based at the British Institute in Eastern Africa, Nairobi, Kenya

Readers' Comments

Let your voice be heard. Comment on this article.

↑ back to top

ISSN 1753-6839 Pambazuka News English Edition

ISSN 1753-6847 Pambazuka News en Français

ISSN 1757-6504 Pambazuka News em Português

© 2009 Fahamu -