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On Tribes and Nations: Biology and Ideology in the Study of African Nationalism

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This paper, which is a first chapter in a much broader work on the impact of state policies on the Chagga Community in northern Tanzania, is an overview of the various theories that inform thinking on African nationalism. In greater detail, it
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   21 CHAPTER I On Tribes and Nations: Biology and Ideology in the Study of African Nationalism HOSE, like myself, who grew up in cultures where elders told stories will be familiar with the ‘things are no longer what they used to be’ cliché. Scouring the literature for some understanding of contemporary nations, one is likely to arrive at a similar conclusion, that nations are not what they used to be. At a time in human history when every mortal is presumed to belong to some nation, no one would  believe you if you showed up before an immigration officer and confessed you bore no nationality. Yet, most writing is on just how few of the ‘internationally recognized sovereign entities’ 1  on the socio- and geo-political map of the world meet the criteria for nationhood. The literature reads like history of a word that has gone through layers of meaning, and scholars cannot agree on which layer bears the most authentic sense.  Needless to say, one’s position tends to be determined by the definition of ‘nation’ one accepts, 2  or by the weight one assigns to one or another of the factors thought to have contributed to its emergence. If there is disagreement on the details of when, where and how the authentic nation first appeared, a broader scholarly consensus emerges regarding the artificiality of ‘post-colonial’ nations, especially their African version. The very term ‘African nation’ is thought to be a misnomer when the entity in question is not the Zulu, the 1  Hobsbawm,  Nations,  p.163. 2  Zimmer,  Nationalism in Europe,  pp. 17-18. T   22 Amhara or the Hausa, but South Africa, Ethiopia, or Nigeria. ‘Can we, honestly, speak about Tanzania as a nation?’ is the question I was confronted with the first time I mentioned my research topic to a learned audience. This question determined what had to constitute this first chapter—an inquiry into the way ‘the nation form’—to  borrow E. Balibar’s expression 3  —came to be seen as the only internationally recognized way of organizing society and, therefore, the only socio- and geo-political sub-division of the world worth working for in Africa as elsewhere. Since the sense in which the term ‘nation’ is used has not been constant, 4  the meaning of this pervasive ‘nation form’ will best be described in stages along the  process of tracing its way to post-independence sub-Saharan Africa. I shall restrict myself to views from the late 19 th  century to the present. Within this timeframe, scholarly opinions on nations and nationalism can be clustered into two periods. The first begins at the turn of the 20 th  century and continues to include the self-determination discourse after World War I and the establishment of the League of  Nations. Representative views of this period, such as those of J. Stalin, E. Jenks and W. Wilson, tend to speak less about the srcin of nations and more about their nature at the time. Emphasising the role of ideas and institutions in the formation of nations, this earlier school marks what I will call the civic-ideological trajectory . The second is the 1980s and 1990s, which saw greater interest in the srcins of nations than in their contemporary nature. The works of A. Smith, E. Gellner, B. Anderson, E. Hobsbawm, and J. Breuilly, among others, represent the main debates in this period. Here, the contested, disproved and sometimes endorsed view is that of the nation as a  product of a quasi-natural process of cultural evolution which is closely linked to ethnicity. I will call this the ethno-biological trajectory . 3  E. Balibar, ‘The Nation Form’, in G. Eley and R. G. Suny (eds.),  Becoming National (Oxford, 1996); also M. Goswami, ‘Rethinking the Modular Nation Form’, CSSH,  vol.   45, no. 1(2002). 4  T. H. Eriksen,  Ethnicity and Nationalism (London, 1993), p. 6.   23 Tracing these two views, I will be arguing that African nationalism was informed more by the earlier civic-ideological thinking than by the later ethnic- biological views. If most culturally distinct communities have surprisingly remained under single, often weak, states within the boundaries marked at the time of colonial occupation, the explanation is likely to come from this way of imagining the nation in Africa. A better grasp of this specific imagination will save the African nation from what J. F. Williams called ‘pedantic etymological criticism,’ 5  establish it unapologetically in the contemporary study of nations and nationalism, and give meaning to its desirable multiculturalism. The Ethno-biological Trajectory and African Nationalism David Miles’ 2005 title The Tribes of Britain is thought provoking. 6  It goes against the conventional way of thinking about human societies as organisms in a process of evolution towards a common destiny, with some ahead of others. In this teleological thinking, the label with which a particular society is described—whether kinship, tribe, ethnic group or nation—tells of its current location in the perceived evolutionary line. To attribute a ‘tribal’ identity to British ‘nationals’ is to think in the reverse, for the term ‘tribe’ retains association with primary aggregates of people held together through kinship, living under headmen or chiefs, with compact cultures and largely self-sufficient economies, and often bereft of a national character. If such  people ever inhabited the British Isles, it must have been well before Britain ever was. For years, and especially in connection with Africa, tribal identity was a mark of barbarity, primitiveness, or inertia in regard to social evolution. It was the label for 5  J. F. Williams, ‘Nationality in Relation to the British Commonwealth of Nations’,  JBIIA,  vol. 1, no. 3(1922), p. 91. 6  D. Miles, The Tribes of Britain  (London, 2005).   24  presumably a thousand or so years separating the civilized from the savage. 7  As Parker and Rathbone have recently said, ‘[d]uring the era of European imperialism, the idea of “tribe” encapsulated the otherness of the African.’ 8  Tribespeople were often portrayed as incapable of questioning the customs and authority under which they lived, believing these to be the natural or divine order. 9  Traditional culture, the  preservation of which is thought to have been the preoccupation of traditional intellectuals, was portrayed as having ‘little political content other than to recommend leaving authority to those who already had it.’ 10  Post-World War II critical authors significantly reversed the perception of tribes, at least among scholars of Africa. Arguing that the tribal description never matched reality, they posed a problem of remaining with an analytical category that had no actual members. 11  In response, the period saw a shift from the moralistic overtones implicit in the term ‘tribe’ to the seemingly harmless ‘ethnic group’. To some, this shift has meant little more than the nuisance of verbal adjustment. For example, the term ‘ethnicity’ in Welsh’s discussion of the complexities of national unity in Africa could be replaced by the term ‘tribalism’ without changing the substance of his arguments. 12  Lonsdale, for another example, does not explain his choice to clothe ‘ethnicity’ with ‘morality’ and ‘tribalism’ with ‘politics’ and its attendant mischief. Since what is said without argument can be rejected without argument, there is absolutely no reason why one could not reverse his title to read ‘Moral Tribalism and Political Ethnicity.’ Inadvertently, Lonsdale’s 7  I. M. Lewis, ‘Tribal Society’, in  IESS  . 8  J. Parker and R. Rathbone,  African History: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2007), p. 47. 9  E. Kedourie,  Nationalism (Oxford, 1993 [1960]), p. 69. 10  E. Shils, ‘The Intellectuals in the Political Development of the New States’, WP, vol. 12, no. 3(1960), p. 331. 11  See C. Levi-Strauss, ‘Anthropology’, Current Anthropology, vol. 7, no. 2(1966); P. C. W. Gutkind (ed.), The Passing of Tribal Man in Africa (Leiden, 1970); P. P. Ekeh, ‘Social Anthropology and Two Contrasting Uses of Tribalism in Africa’, CSSH, vol. 32, no. 4(1990). 12  D. Welsh, ‘Ethnicity in Sub-Saharan Africa’,  IA, vol. 72, no. 3(1996).   25 article entrenches a negative view of ‘the tribe’ wherever it is found, even as it extends acceptable ethnicity to Africa. 13  To others, the shift has facilitated a better understanding of a complex African social reality. This implies a change within African society. Smith insists on the difference between tribe and ethnic group, seeing the former as essentially rural, small, and based on actual kinship ties and the latter as essentially urban, big and  based on largely mythical ancestral ties. For Smith, the shift reflects a transition from ‘tribal affiliation’ to ‘ethnicism,’ the latter which is also found in Europe and America where it coexists with socio-economic class as another identity contender. 14  More recently, Posner has argued that ethnicity is a multi-dimensional identity category, and that tribal identity is just one among several of its possible dimensions. In this classification, the tribe becomes a smaller identity group which could make a part of another larger ethnolinguistic group identity. Posner sorts out the tribes by simply finding out under which chief a person or a person’s parents lived, making shared chieftaincy the defining quality of a tribe. But, using a language as criterion, a person identified as Lunda by tribe could share a Bemba ethnolinguistic identity together with the Bisa, the Aushi and—to make it even more complicated—the people who are simply Bemba. The decision to invoke a tribal, linguistic, or provincial dimension of ethnicity is highly situational, attesting to overlapping rather than clearly circumscribed identities. 15  To a third opinion group, the shift from ‘tribe’ to ‘ethnic group’ reveals a real change of attitude towards the people described, blurring the degree of otherness 13  J. Lonsdale, ‘Moral Ethnicity and Political Tribalism’, in P. Kaarsholm and J. Hultin (eds.),  Inventions and Boundaries  (Roskilde, 1994). 14  A. D. Smith, State and Nation in the Third World   (Brighton, 1983), pp. 60-69, 74, 77-78; also J. D. Y. Peel, ‘Social and Cultural Change’, in Cambridge History of Africa  (8 vols., Cambridge, 1984), viii,  p. 154. 15  D. N. Posner,  Institutions and Ethnic Politics in Africa (Cambridge, 2005), pp. 1 (fn. 1) and 119-128.
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