Point Blank: Tribalism, a simmering Volcano in Zambia

Patrick Sikana 1By Patrick Sikana

Last week I was in Ndola, putting to rest one of my relations. One evening as the women inside the house sang one tuneless funeral dirge, the male conversation under the tent outside drifted from several weather forecasts for the following morning to the end of the world and everything in between.

Just when I was beginning to doze off then suddenly from a dark corner a young emphatic voice declared in a conclusive tone that “a Tonga will never rule Zambia!” I nearly jumped out of my skin! I asked him why he said so and his answer was damning: “Because we, the Bembas, won’t let it happen,” he retorted. My adrenaline surged to ballistic proportions! Where, in the name of God, did a mortal so palpably low in the food chain, get the courage to consign one whole tribe to perpetual subjugation?  In that split moment, half my mind began contemplating which part of the mushili forest to go and hang him right away and as that was happening, the other half ricocheted to the horrific events of the Barlonyo massacre in northern Uganda, then to Rwanda’s brutal genocide, then to Somalia’s 20 years of senseless tribal killings, to Kenya’s 2007 post-election butchery. Guess what brought me back from that trance? The nauseating stench of decomposing bodies I saw recently from a political feud gone tribal in Bor, South Sudan.

We like to deny it. Yes, we like to ignore it. But tribalism in Zambia is pervasive, and it controls a lot of our behavior, readily overriding reason. We see it in voting, employment, and other social patterns. We are tinkering at the edges of a time bomb. By burying our heads in the sand we are aiding its cancerous spread. The sentiments are everywhere evident. You read tribalism on social media, you hear it in church, the children grow with from school – virtually every fibre of political consciousness in Zambia is a simmering volcano of tribal dissention today.

Dear reader stop for one moment and think of the inhuman things people do in the name of tribal unity. Wars are essentially, and often quite specifically, tribalism. Genocides are tribalism taken to madness. Tribalism makes us feel that our tribe is better than theirs. Some parents sever contact with their own children when they dare marry someone of a different tribe. Think about how tribalism often leads to a cycle of revenge-related violence. You hurt me or my tribal-member and my tribe will hurt you back. That is where we are headed as a nation unless we change course – and fast!

As Zambians we all belong to a tribe, or have one parent from one and another from another. In fact tribes are a basic fact of life in Africa. I remember trying to explain the concept of a tribe to a Danish friend. Apart from wearing different regalia he saw no difference between a Igbo and a Dinka. I said a tribe is a distinct group with a common lineage and language. Then it occurred to me, these concepts have existed for thousands of years and yet we have just accepted them – there must be a deeper reason tribalism exists.
Even in chimpanzees, scientists have seen that chimps from West Africa don’t like chimps from East Africa, the cultures are different and body language varies. We as humans know we are all one species. We have only four blood groups. My own mother’s Tonga blood can cause illness if transfused to me while the blood of my Bemba wife may turn out to be the perfect match. I have come to the conclusion that that deeper reason why tribalism exists has to do with the distribution of RESOURCES, ASSETS and OPPORTUNITIES by those in power. Don’t be duped, it is not about cultural pride, and that is what makes tribalism dangerous.
Tribalism is fuelled by the reality or perception that the national cake is being shared on the basis of our surnames. The idea that resources, assets and opportunities are distributed according to who comes from where and not who is in need or who has the right of access. It is exacerbated by the idea that you are not valuable as a tribe when the man or woman at the helm hails from the other corner of the country. That is what drives tribalism, not the idea or reality that PF is a party for Bembas and UPND for Tongas is not necessarily the evil thing. Political parties have strongholds everywhere in the world. The real elephant in the room is the feeling that some people have it good and are being apportioned the top-soup from the national kitchen at the expense of the others. These sentiments are the gun-powder that will shred our communities to pieces.

The solution is not far-fetched: We must de-politicise and therefore de-tribalise the distribution of national resources, assets and opportunities. A presidential candidate who loses an election can thus concede knowing his political base will not be starved to death. We must not seek to eliminate tribalism by eliminating tribes or political party strongholds. It will not work. In fact it will even just reinforce more tribal thinking. If the distribution of national resources, assets and opportunities by those in power is made equitable, tribes will revert to being symbols of cultural pride and not political vehicles for primitive accumulation of wealth. If we distribute according to right and need, not according to want, where resources, assets and opportunities are equitably distributed, then the tribe will cease to have a political function, and revert to a benign state. We cannot dismiss tribal culture that kept us alive for thousands of years, helped us understand the crazy world around us, and gave us music, science, oral literature, dance, and an identity. However, we can re-appropriate it and make it work for us. Losing our identity will not help us in this century. Let us keep the baby of cultural pride in our various tribes but throw away the ugly afterbirth – the demon of tribalism.

Call me old-fashioned, but I still firmly believe in the inviolable ideal behind “one Zambia, One Nation”. My hope is this — that my children as well as yours, will wear lenses that see beyond tribe – that they will recognise that in our families, our tribes, our  countries and our world there is more we have in common than apart.