Rethinking Africa’s Unsteady Statehoods

The seemingly intractable tribal mayhem in Kenya, which has so far claimed over 1500 people’s lives, is not an isolated one in Africa.

It reflects the failure of the state machinery to blend numerous identities that were grouped together to serve colonial interests into a functional form of nationhood that is based on shared values.

In 1884, the then-Chancellor Otto von Bismarck of Germany called for a meeting in Berlin to partition Africa. At the conference, European powers agreed to “rules of the game” in dividing Africa and defined their respective interests with regard to the African continent.

Without consulting any indigenous Africans, European powers proceeded to partition the continent regardless of the ethnic, social and economic composition of its peoples.

Today, across the African continent, states are comprised of heterogeneous ethnic groups.

If anything, what is taking place in Kenya is as much a product of the country’s pre-colonial and colonial past as it is a product of the corrupt faultiness of the post-independence governments and can potentially happen, or has already happened, in other parts of Africa.

A poor fit between pre-colonial societies and states created during the colonial period to serve European powers remains a long-standing blot that has resulted in political, economic and social instability in the continent.

What we are seeing in Kenya is undoubtedly the expression of long pent up tribal emotions and inequalities among tribal groups that date back to the colonial era.

The immediate and apparent effect is obviously the botched electoral process.

But underlying this is a failure in the concept of statehood and democratic institutionalism that addresses the outstanding questions of past inequalities.

The whole of Africa needs a unique transformative democracy that addresses economic disparities propagated by the colonial regimes. That transformative democratic process must engage in a sustained process of national healing, and build institutions that are not only transparent but foster trust and respect among the various groups of people.

In many parts of Africa, political and economic processes are organized along tribal and ethnic lines – a factor that does not augur well for the building of nations. While it may be easy to point fingers at the Africans themselves, much of the present dysfunction of African countries is a direct result of divide and rule policies that were propagated by colonialists – chiefly the British.

The disparities propelled by the colonialists have lasted for generations, and what Kenya shows today is that statehood, identity and nationhood are very much far apart.Tribal affinity defines identity, which does not necessarily translate into an overarching Kenyan identity required to define the nation.

In fact, it is not far from the truth to say that there is nothing like a Kenyan identity. Belongingness to the state through access to political, economic and other resources is mainly predicated by tribal affiliation. In my opinion, many of the symbols of statehood in Africa are merely tokenistic.

Until the festered resent between groups of people that has lasted for so long is addressed, more experiences like Kenya’s will be in store in other parts of Africa.

What the founding fathers of Africa failed to do was to take the continent through a process of shedding the schisms, pain and tears collected over centuries of white brutality and domination.

That process cannot be achieved through mere lip service but through the design of programs that ensure the equal access of all to national resources in spite of tribal identity.

African statehood is highly unsteady and riddled with age-old grudges between various groups that were forced into polities in 1885, when the continent was partitioned among European powers at the Vienna Conference.

Healing Africa will require that the Africans themselves face up to the ugly questions of the past and put in place appropriate strategies to address age-old problems.

Building Africa’s future will require innovative thinking on social, economic and political issues, which can be achieved by allowing voices of previously marginalized groups to help in determining the shape of state institutions, equal distribution of wealth, and ultimately nationhood