#4 – Year of the Tribe

#4 – Year of the Tribe

copyright, GADO
copyright, GADO

Stronger religious protections, more affirmative action and new constitutional protections of minorities is the #4 story of Africa for 2017. Sounds good until said simply: tribalism on the rebound.

The political catastrophe of South Africa and the election circuses in Kenya are the best examples. Democracy and tribalism bring out the worst of each other. Africa may be no different than the rest of the world, but understanding Africa is fundamental to untangling this mess.

No other country in history has so meticulous run a national election as carefully as Kenya did last year. In fact it ended up running two complete national elections hardly two months apart after the first one was ruled insufficiently democratic by the courts.

The expense, technology and social capital Kenyans put into this affair at first seemed almost divinely good – anything, was the mantra, to make the voting transparent and properly counted, and they did. Period.

It isn’t quite as altruistic as it seems.

The incumbents were Kikuyu, the largest tribe. They knew that’s how the electorate would vote. The economy, foreign policy, social policy, even corruption – none of that mattered. Kikuyus would vote for Kikuyus and there are more Kikuyus than any other tribe.

If all the other tribes bound together and voted against them, they would have lost! Because they aren’t a majority, just a plurality, and so that’s exactly what the political opposition tried to do: create a grand coalition of anti-Kikuyus. But they were foiled some time ago when the Kikuyus greatest historical rival and arch-enemy tribe, the Kalenjin, buried the tomahawk in return for getting the vice presidency.

Kikuyus voted for Kikuyus. Kalenjins voted for Kalenjins. Luos voted for Luos, and so on and so on down a list of nearly 45 different ethnicities, and the math existed long before the ballots were printed and counted.

Ten years ago if you were reading this and you were an American or European in particular, your jaw might have dropped. Particularly if you read my blog and know how educated, creative and innovative young Kenyans are. Half the population of Kenya is under 30!

But Jona the computer whiz, Lucy the psychologist, Marta the left-wing newspaper columnist, Adam the CEO of a world airlines, Misha the head of a poverty foundation – they all voted their tribe. There was no other issue.

OK, so it’s a bit more complicated. Issues broadly divided between left and right had over Kenya’s entire history been segregated between the tribes. The Kikuyu tribe that had been favored by the colonial powers and it blasted out of the starting gate at independence far ahead of the other tribes.

So from the get go the Kikuyu got richer and smarter and more powerful. So the Kikuyu became conservative. The other tribes started to adopt socialist, left-leaning less business-oriented policies, becoming progressive. There’s no altruism in tribalism.

Ditto with Northern Ireland, the Balkans and the Shia/Sunni. So yes, it’s more complicated because it’s self-serving, tangles up then ossifies. But in the end nothing matters but tribe.

So Kenya made the record books with the freest and fairest ever election. Well, South Africa made the record books, too, in 2017. If you think Trump has some difficulties, check out South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma.

There are nearly 600 federal indictments pending against him. He’s even admitted the alleged wrong-doing in quite a few.

As with Donald Trump, much of the time and energy of South Africa has been spent in dealing with Jacob Zuma, so the country has faltered economically and socially. (Beware America!) Most of the universities have been closed for nearly half of the last two years. The mines are in disarray, the soul of South Africa’s good fortune.

South Africa is a much more developed place than Kenya. There were once many tribes like in Kenya, but the mosaic of races and intermarriage has mostly blurred those distinctions. But the ANC, the organization that fought to end apartheid, achieved a tribal state. It never disarmed.

For portions of centuries non-white South Africans had only two choices: they were a part of the masses who submitted to inhumane segregation, or they were revolutionaries with the ANC.

So Jona the computer whiz, Lucy the psychologist, Marta the left-wing newspaper columnist, Adam the CEO of a world airlines, Misha the head of a poverty foundation – they all vote for the ANC election after election. There is no other issue, so Zuma – chief revolutionary – prevails.

There are many other examples. Zimbabwe, Angola, Uganda all have similar stories in 2017. So does America. America’s polarization is tribal to the ”T”. 2017 was the year of the tribe. Ideas suddenly no longer matter. All that matters is your tribe.