17 February 2009

Personality cult as an antidote to tribalism?

One thing I had not expected to be reminded of in Kenya was the ubiquitous official portraits of ‘THE LEADER’ that used to adorn shops and public places in communist countries like the former Yugoslavia, where you could hardly move without a picture of Tito (left) bearing down on you.

Thirty years on, I felt a similar sense of unease on seeing Kenya’s dubiously ‘elected’ President Kibaki (right) beaming benevolently down on me from above the reception desks in hotels, and various other public places.

Did this mean, I wondered, that the personality cult was being revived and imposed from on high by a ‘leader’ keen to bolster the shakiness of his position?

Apparently not, according to the locals I raised the question with. The framed pictures of Kibaki are put there by smart business people (at their own expense) to insure themselves against anyone jumping to the conclusion that they might be actively opposed to the new power-sharing settlement between Kikuyu and Luo politicians.

Most of the Kenyans I spoke to were despondent about the continuingly negative influence of tribalism on the country and its failure to develop a genuine national sense of identity (a criticism that had got Barack Obama Snr. into a a great deal of trouble after independence). They also expressed considerable admiration for neighbouring Tanzania, where Julius Nyrere’s anti-tribalism and linguistic reforms were far more successful than his socialist economic policies.

More about how Nyrere’s approach to independence differed from that of other post-colonial leaders can be seen here, but the following excerpt from it provides a neat explanation of his achievement:

‘Tanzania distinguishes itself from its regional neighbors in many ways, one of which is its political and civil peace. Uganda lacks unity and has been characterized for years by internal strife and civil war. The current situation in Kenya demonstrates that Tanzania's neighbor to the north deals with its share of unrest. The repeated story in most all of independent Africa is one of civil conflict and tribalism. Tanzania should be no different. With its nearly 130 different tribes, the country of Tanzania could be riddled by the same kind of tribalism, but it is not. This is in large part to the work of Julius Nyerere.

‘Nyerere made a number of strategic moves that have provided Tanzania with political stability. The most important of these was to establish a Tanzanian national identity. Nyerere did this primarily by leading the nation to adopt Swahili, a native Tanzanian language, as the country's national language. Swahili gave Tanzanians a distinctly African identity, distancing them from the colonial powers whose rule had just recently been removed. Unlike the language of English (the administrative language under the British protectorate), Swahili was something indigenous.

‘Nyerere's policy of socialized education was the means of disseminating the language to the whole nation, but it was already widely used throughout the country before it was ever taught. Swahili would not be simply a regional language; it would become the national language of education and commerce, and for many, the language of daily life.... Part of being Tanzanian became speaking Swahili, so the language served to unify a tribally diverse nation.

‘Since the decade of independence (1960's), Africa has become known for civil strife rooted in tribalism. One tribe wrestles for political power over another, and a country's democratic system becomes the stage for inter-tribal warfare. Tanzania has avoided much of this because of the purposeful leadership of Nyerere to develop a truly national identity.’

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