African societies of the pre-colonial era – a mosaic of lineage groups, clans, villages, chiefdoms, kingdoms and empires – were formed often with shifting and indeterminate frontiers and loose allegiances. Identities and languages shaded into one another. At the outset of colonial rule, administrators and ethnographers endeavoured to classify the peoples of Africa, sorting them out into what they called tribes, producing a whole new ethnic map to show the frontiers of each one. Colonial administrators wanted recognisable units they could control. ‘Each tribe must be considered as a distinct unit,’ a provincial commissioner in Tanganyika told his staff in 1926. ‘Each tribe must be under a chief.’ In many cases, tribal labels were imposed on hitherto undifferentiated groups. The chief of a little-known group in Zambia once ventured to remark: ‘My people were not Soli until 1937 when the Bwana D.C. [District Commissioner] told us we were.’ When local government was established under colonial rule, it was frequently aligned with existing ‘tribal areas’. Entirely new ethnic groups emerged, like the Abaluyia or Kalenjin of western Kenya, formed from two congeries of adjacent peoples. Some colonial rulers used tribal identities to divide their subjects, notably the British in southern Sudan and the French in Morocco. Chiefs, appointed by colonial authorities as their agents, became the symbol of ethnicity.
Missionary endeavour added to the trend. In the process of transcribing hitherto unwritten languages into written forms, missionaries reduced Africa’s innumerable dialects to fewer written languages, each helping to define a tribe. The effect was to establish new frontiers of linguistic groups and to strengthen the sense of solidarity within them. Yoruba, Igbo, Ewe, Shona and many others were formed in this way.
Missionaries were also active in documenting local customs and traditions and in compiling ‘tribal’ histories, all of which were incorporated into the curricula of their mission schools, spreading the notion of ethnic identity. African teachers followed suit. In southern Nigeria, young men from Ilesha and Ijebu who attended school in Ibadan or Oyo were taught to write a standard form of the Yoruba language and to identify themselves as Yoruba – a term previously reserved for subjects of the Oyo empire. As mission stations were largely responsible for providing education, educational achievement tended to depend on their locality and thus to follow ethnic lines.
Migration from rural areas to towns reinforced the process. Migrants gravitated to districts where fellow tribesmen lived, hoping through tribal connections to find housing, employment or a niche in trading markets. A host of welfare associations sprang up – ‘home-boy’ groups, burial and lending societies, cultural associations, all tending to enhance tribal identity. Certain occupations – railwaymen, soldiers, petty traders – became identified with specific groups which tried to monopolise them.
It was in towns that ethnic consciousness and tribal rivalry grew apace. The notion of a single Igbo people was formed in Lagos among the local ‘Descendants’ Union’. The Yoruba, for their part, founded the Egbe Omo Oduduwa – a ‘Society of Descendants of Oduduwa’, the mythical ancestor of the Yoruba people; its aim was ‘to unite the various clans and tribes in Yorubaland and generally create and actively foster the idea of a single nationalism throughout Yorubaland’. Ethnic groups became the basis of protest movements against colonial rule.
In the first elections in the postwar era in Africa, nationalist politicians started out proclaiming nationalist objectives, selecting party candidates regardless of ethnic origin. But as the number of elections grew, as the number of voters expanded, as the stakes grew higher with the approach of independence, the basis for campaigning changed. Ambitious politicians found they could win votes by appealing for ethnic support and by promising to improve government services and to organise development projects in their home area. The political arena became a contest for scarce resources. In a continent where class formation had hardly begun to alter loyalties, ethnicity provided the strongest political base. Politicians and voters alike came to rely on ethnic solidarity. For politicians it was the route to power. They became, in effect, ethnic entrepreneurs. For voters it was their main hope of getting a slice of government bounty. What they wanted was a local representative at the centre of power – an ethnic patron who could capture a share of the spoils and bring it back to their community. Primary loyalty remained rooted in tribal identity. Kinship, clan and ethnic considerations largely determined the way people voted. The main component of African politics became, in essence, kinship corporations.
The formation of one ethnic political party tended to cause the formation of others. In Nigeria the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons, the first modern political organisation in West Africa launched in 1944, started out with the aim of establishing a broad-based national movement, but after tribal dissension it became an Eastern regional party, dominated by Igbo politicians. Yoruba politicians left to form the Action Group, building it around the nucleus of Egbe Omo Oduduwa. In Northern Nigeria, the Hausa-Fulani, while disdaining the nationalist cause which Southerners espoused, nevertheless formed in 1949 the Northern People’s Congress as a political offshoot of a predominantly Hausa cultural organisation, Jam’yyar Mutanen Arewa – Association of the Peoples of the North. In a more extreme example, in the Belgian Congo rival tribal parties were launched by the score. In most countries, political leaders spent much time on ‘ethnic arithmetic’, working out alliances that would win them power and keep them there.
Few states escaped such divisions. In Tanganyika, Julius Nyerere was helped, as he himself acknowledged, by the fact that the population was divided among 120 tribal groupings, none of which was large enough or central enough to acquire a dominant position. He benefited too from the common use of the Swahili language, spread initially by Arab traders, then taken up by the Germans and the British as part of their education system. Other states had to contend with a variety of languages, sometimes numbering more than a hundred. In all, more than 2,000 languages were in use in Africa.
There was a widespread view at the time of independence that once the new states focused on nation-building and economic development, ethnic loyalties would wither away under the pressure of modernisation. ‘I am confident’, declared Nigeria’s first prime minister, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, during a 1959 debate over the motion to ask for independence, ‘that when we have our own citizenship, our own national flag, our own national anthem, we shall find the flame of national unity will burn bright and strong.’ Ahmed Sékou Touré of Guinea spoke in similar terms in 1959. ‘In three or four years, no one will remember the tribal, ethnic or religious rivalries which, in the recent past, caused so much damage to our country and its population.’ Yet African governments were dealing not with an anachronism from the past, but a new contemporary phenomenon capable of erupting with destructive force.
It doesn’t seem all that different in kind, only in degree, from what happened in Europe with the spread of vernacular literacy, Protestantism, historical and comparative linguistics, and the scientific subclassification of everything and everyone on earth—and what continues apace in modern universities, prisons, and other political/protective patronage networks that privilege race/ethnicity over social class, religion, or other more mutable cross-cutting categories.