by Meshack Owino

Whenever an African agitates for self-determination in Africa , he is quickly jumped on by critics and dismissed as a tribalist. He is ridiculed as a backward ethnic chauvinist, whose sole-purpose in agitating for a new state is a desire for a fiefdom where he can lord it over others whose only crime is belonging to a different ethnic group.

He is reviled as a throw-back to a backward African past, an aberration, an intellectual dwarf who is incapable of grasping and living by higher ideals that other more educated, progressive African people live by. He becomes an object of pity. He is perceived as having failed to conform to modernity, and has decided to cover up his failures by romanticizing about a distant, backward past. If only he were a little bit more modern looking, ideological, and a little bit more intellectually refined, he would see how backward it is to agitate for separation, especially something as backward as an ethnic-based state in Africa .

Colonial authorities dismissed members of the Mau Mau movement in Kenya as backward and atavistic; critics routinely dismiss supporters of separatist movements in Africa as atavistic tribal chauvinists. No attempt is ever made to define tribalism, and certainly, no effort is ever expended to explain why African self-determination processes can only be equivalent to tribalism and not reflective of deeply-felt sense of identity. Instead, the indictments are simply asserted and are religiously repeated as facts.

No meaningful investigations are ever carried out into the legitimacy of separatist movements or even into the possibilities and opportunities separatists movements can offer to people seeking to create their own states. Simply put, an African agitating for a new state in Africa is caricatured and lampooned as a backward ethnic chauvinist who belongs to a by-gone era. The tendency of dismissing and ridiculing movements for new states in modern Africa has a long history going all the way back to the colonial era. Colonial authorities routinely mocked Africans who resisted their hegemonic colonial project in Africa . When the British invaded Africa, they regularly ridiculed resisters like the Benin Empire in the southern Nigeria, Koitalel arap Samoei of the Nandi; Lobengula of Ndebele Kingdom; Kabarega of Bunyoro kingdom; the Asantehenes of Ashante; etc; while the French often laughed off resisters like Samori Toure of Mandinka Empire, and Wabogo, the Moro Naba of Mossi.

They dismissed African resisters as blood-thirsty despots; tyrants terrorizing their people;  backward chiefs intent on preventing their people from enjoying fruits of modernity. Conversely, they lauded those who cooperated with them, singling out people like Lenana of the Maasai; Nabongo Mumia of Wanga, and Lewanika of the Lozi, praising them as modern-looking progressive; forward-looking; democratic. African leaders at independence adopted this tradition o f dismissing resisters and deifying allies. Intent on maintaining their newly independent states, and, conveniently, their newly acquired imperial powers, African leaders started clamping down on any secessionist movements that they deemed a threat to the territorial integrity of their states. They brutally put down secessionist movements in places such as Edo Nation,  Biafra, Cabinda , Katanga , North-Eastern Province , Eritrea , Ogaden, and so on. They went on a campaign of nation-building. They preached against ethnicity, regionalism, and religious separatism. They sought to convert Africans into citizens of the new postcolonial states. As Ali Mazrui writes, African leaders at independence embarked on a project of converting Africans sense of nationalism into a state of nationhood. African leaders started cajoling their people to be loyal and obedient to the state. The people of the colonially-created Nigeria were exhorted not to think as Yorubas, Ibos, Hausas, or Twis, etc, but as Nigerians.
In Mozambique , Samora Machel asserted that for Mozambique to be a modern state, ethnicity must die. He embarked on a project of killing ethnicity in Mozambique . In Tanzania , Julius Nyerere embarked on a project of transforming Tanzania into one nation-state. Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia promulgated a new slogan, One Zambia, One Nation.

Mobutu Sese Seko pronounced, not just a new philosophy, “authenticity,” but also a new name for his country “ Zaire . He ordered Zaireans to drop European names and adopt new African names. Jomo Kenyatta, in response to a secessionist movement in Northeastern Province of Kenya, vowed that Kenya would never relinquish even one inch of its territory to the secessionist.
All over Africa , national unity was promoted. Anything else was an enemy to be destroyed. Africa  territorial integrity was affirmed. In 1963, the OAU declared African state boundaries inviolable. In schools, churches, public barazas, on radios, or even at impromptu roadside meetings, Daniel arap Moi never tired of beseeching Kenyans to shun tribalism, urging people to help build a united country by imitating him, for he was not a tribalist; he was a nationalist building the nation of Kenya. Mimi siyo mkabila; I am a nationalist, Moi would harangue his listeners.

As they waged their campaigns of nation building, African political and intellectual elite conveniently peppered over the problematic nature of the African state. Although many of them were very much aware of the fact that the African state was colonially-created and imposed on Africans at the point of the Maxim gun, trampling on the will and rights of African people in the process, they went about promoting the state as if it was rooted in the distant African past and natural and represented the will of the people.

They were building the African state on a lie. They were in denial about the contested nature of the African state, and in the process, they only ended up in perpetuating the existence of states that denied the African people their right to true self-determination. Brought up under an over-arching propaganda around the sanctity of the African state, and educated in liberal western traditions, African political and intellectual elite saw the post-colonial African state as sacrosanct. They fetishized the African state. They made it sacred.

They could withstand movements for new states in other parts of the world, but in Africa . Europeans could agitate for new states in Europe without generating intellectual introspection in Africa; only in Africa did such movements raise eyebrows. For African leaders promoting the African state, it did not matter how genuine, legitimate or rational a movement for a different political dispensation in Africa was. It did not matter whether secessionist movements could actually succeed in replacing moribund post-colonial African states with more viable alternative states. It did not matter that secessionist movements could actually lead to the creation of stronger, more coherent and more viable states that could do a better job in terms of maintaining, protecting and safe-guarding the interests of the African people, making the African people happier.

It just did not matter. What mattered was that the post-colonial African state had to be protected and maintained, and anybody standing in the way was an enemy seeking to take Africa back to a by-gone era. When the Soviet Union collapsed, very few people in Africa doubted the right of the emerging states in the former Soviet Union to self-determination. Nobody accused them of backwardness and acting nostalgically for a backward past. The failure by African intellectuals to lampoon the newly emergent states in the former Soviet Union seemed to suggest that they recognized the inherent right of the citizens of the former Soviet republics to self-determination.
Their silences seemed to suggest that they recognized that movements for self-determination in the former Soviet Union were inspired by deeply-felt sense of nationalism, and new states emerging in the region were legitimate outcomes of such nationalist movements; something they could never tolerate for Africa because African movements for self-determination could not be inspired by the same level of nationalism. The clamor for new states in the Soviet Union could be accommodated because it was based on genuinely-felt love by people for each other; a clamor for the same in Africa could not even be tolerated because there was no way an African could be inspired by anything other than tribal hatred.

When a European seeks to secede, he is generally perceived to be tapping into higher, deeper national energy, an African doing essentially the same thing is an irrational juvenile tapping into primordial tribal tendencies. A European angling for a new state is usually accorded a hearing and his grievances listened to; an African doing the same must be warned not to give in to his tribal urges. An African agitating for a new state must be exhorted [to quote one Kenyan critic] to learn to love one another. Doesn't he know that his actions are likely to plunge our beloved country into chaos?
When Yugoslavia was collapsing, nobody urged its people to learn to co-exist and maintain Yugoslavia as one entity. Indeed, Yugoslavia was allowed to collapse into new states and it has continued to splinter into even smaller entities. Nobody questioned the right of the people of former Yugoslavia to self-determination when Yugoslavia was collapsing; it was a right that was assumed to exist intrinsically, an inalienable right. This right to self-determination by the people of the former Yugoslavia has recently seen Bosnia-Herzegovina emerging as an independent state, a country of 750,000 people. The UN has also recently declared that Albanians of Kosovo have a right to self-determination. Nobody has ridiculed the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina or mocked them for giving into their “tribal urges” by creating a separate state. Nobody has put them down. To the contrary, Bosnia-Herzegovina has been treated with the same level of respect that any other state in the world is entitled to. Throughout the period that the people of Slovakia were agitating for independence from Czechoslovakia a few years ago, not a single page of African newspaper, not a single column, not a single blog condemned the Slovaks for giving into their tribal urges, the way they usually do when an African agitates for a new state in Africa . Not a single commentary captured the irony of how the Europeans, who imposed states on us, are usually busily crafting new states in their own continent even as their liberal-educated African disciples insist on the perpetuation of often-unwieldy states in Africa . Apparently, the right to self-determination is a right that only the Europeans can enjoy; an African must just learn to co-exist in post-colonial states that are artificial, unwieldy, and unworkable whether they like it or not. Europeans are nationalistic when they agitate for self-determination, but Africans are only tribalistic when they call for the same. A Slovak can enjoy the right to self-determination, but an Ibo cannot because, where a Slovak acts out of higher nationalistic ideals, an Ibo only acts out of tribalistic tendencies.
It never matters how rational an Ibo, a Luo or a Luhya movement for self-determination is. It never matters that the right to self-determination is a God-given right. It never matters whether Africans living in a state like or hate each other to death. What matters is that African states exist and Africans must just learn to co-exist with each other.

After all, didn't the Europeans who created African states know what they were doing? Who are Africans to question the Europeans? Who are Africans to question the states that the Europeans created in Africa ? The Europeans, in their eternal wisdom, knew why they created the abattoir known as the Congo/Zaire. Who are Africans to question its existence and come up with a better alternative? The Europeans knew why they created the ridiculously- looking Gambia . They knew why they created the miserable desert-countries of Chad and Niger . And why they created the artificial Burkina Faso , the Uganda , the Zambia , the Malawi , the Kenya , the Tanganyika , and the Djibouti !The Congo has claimed millions of lives of African people since King Leopold II created it, but Africans must just learn to love it. To dream of an alternative to the Congo , however viable and better, is tantamount to giving in to primordial tendencies, to tribalism. The Sudan has claimed many lives, but the miserable Africans there, must not imagine a better world, a world of new states however viable, for to do so, would be tribalistic. Anybody with the most cursory knowledge of Kenyan history knows that Luos are routinely treated by Kenyans as a different people and their culture is perceived as essentially different. The Luo eat fish; they practice wife inheritance; they don’t practice circumcision; they are supposed to be loud, boisterous and narcissistic, practices that most other Kenyans claim not to identify with. Luo leaders are usually subjected to more vicious scrutiny than leaders from other communities. A pronouncement by a Luo politician is usually excavated and probed more deeply and extensively than those of politicians from other regions. More Luo leaders have been detained, placed under house arrest, and assassinated than those from other parts of Kenya .

A presidential candidate from Luoland is usually expected to demonstrate qualifications that are far higher than those of candidates from other parts of Kenya to qualify for office. Usually, even the manhood of a presidential candidate from Luoland is probed; whether he is circumcised and manly enough to be become president. According to the most recent UNDP report, Luoland is also a different country from the rest of Kenya economically. Although Nyanza Province pays the second highest amount of taxes to the exchequer, it is the poorest in the whole country. Poverty levels in Luoland stand at between 67-80%. A recent newspaper report revealed that some parts of Luoland have never seen a car.

A report by the Society for International Development (SID), entitled, Pulling Apart: Facts and Figures on Inequality in Kenya, reveals that HIV/AIDS infection rates in Luoland stand at 15%; the highest in the country. Mortality rate in Luoland is the highest in Kenya . According to UNDP projections, from a report mentioned above, a Luo man cannot expect to live beyond 41 years, a Luo woman beyond 39 years! This, again, is the highest mortality rate in Kenya . Malaria kills two children every day at Siaya District Hospital ! There are twice as many infants dying before their first birthday in Nyanza province compared to Rift Valley! Yet, the same people who treat Luos as different and who have reduced Luoland into a death trap are usually the first to cry foul when Luos broach the subject of self-determination. They are usually the first to invoke Kenya as an indivisible state.

They are usually the first to claim that everybody is poor and suffering; that it is not just Luos who are poor and suffering. Even the Turkana are suffering, and the Maasai are suffering, as if that should be a comforting thought to a Luo mother whose child languishes on the throes of death at Siaya District Hospital . The same country that has nearly driven Luoland to the brink of extinction demands that it must be embraced by the Luo. A Luo must never allow himself to imagine another country, even if he stands a better chance of survival in a separate and different country from the one that is destroying his community. He must just hang in there. He must learn to co-exist with those who trash him. He must learn to love a country that was created and imposed on him by the Europeans. Doing otherwise would be very tribalistic, and that cannot be allowed to happen. The United States invaded Iraq four years ago, opening up a conundrum of ethnic and religious conflagration that had been held in check by force by the draconian rule of Saddam Hussein. Five years into the US invasion, Iraq is so divided it has become obvious that it was actually three states in one: Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish north.

Many western scholars have started coming to terms with this reality. A number of them have even started agitating for the partitioning of Iraq into three separate countries for the Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. It has taken these elites only four years to realize that artificial countries such as Iraq are unwieldy colonial creations that more often than not do more harm than good to their inhabitants. They have realized that for democracy, the rule of law, and a better way of life to take root in Iraq , a new political system must be envisioned, including, if need be, partitioning the country. That is what pragmatism is about. Yet, apparently, what is good for the Iraqis, let alone the Europeans, can never be good for us. What is good for the Sunnis and the Shiites and the Kurds can never have any relevance for us. What may be good for the people of the former Yugoslavia cannot be good for us. A new state might be good for the people of the former Czechoslovakia , but us.
We are Africans. We must just toil in there. We must just learn to co-exist with one another even if our unwieldy and inchoate states have become death-traps, holding us back from staking out a better future for us and our children. We cannot move on the way the people of the former Soviet Union moved on. We cannot partition our states and move on, the way Indians and Pakistanis partitioned India and moved on.

We can never dream about new, better, viable alternative states in Africa. Only the Europeans, and to some extent, Asians, are allowed to imagine new states, for they are nationalistic when they do so. An African doing the same is a just a mere ethnic chauvinist, a backward tribalist, a throw-back to the past.

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