Some Thoughts on Ethnicity in Africa


By Dr. Ebrima Ceesay, UK

Although historians know very little, for certain, about much of Africa’s early history, there is however, a near unanimity among scholars, that ‘tribes’ may have been around since time immemorial. Today, there are reportedly about 3,000 tribes in Africa, believed to be speaking more than 2,000 different languages. Yet, Emeritus Professor Donald Wright in his excellent article – What Do You Mean There Were No Tribes in Africa? – has also argued that ethnicity, as we come to know of it today, did not exist in pre-colonial Africa. Wright (1999) has cautioned against the futility and the insignificance of reading ethnicity into pre-colonial African societies. The usage of the term – “tribe” – in these modern times – does not, as it were, correspond to what our identities are. Ethnicity in Africa generally, and the Gambia in particular, has always been a fluid and very loose entity for that matter. Wright (1999) has reminded us, for example, that the ruling family of Niumi in The Gambia accepted and absorbed into their (ethnic) group whoever was prepared to accept their authority and adapt to the customs and beliefs practiced by them, and not just anyone born into them. If I read Wright (1999) correctly, during the period in question, one could have, for example, become a Mandinka and embraced/espoused it as one’s identity and beliefs, by simply speaking Mandinka and giving loyalty and allegiance to the ruling family of Niumi. (See Donald R. Wright, “‘What Do You Mean There Were No Tribes in Africa?’: Thoughts on Boundaries and Related Matters in Pre-colonial Africa,” History in Africa 26 (1999):  pp. 40926)

We are still learning (and getting to know more) about the fascinating history of ancient Africa; and in fact, much of what we know about this period, including the various African cultures prevalent at the time, has mainly come from the oral tradition of storytelling. Of course, throughout the centuries, and by virtue of the tradition of oral storytelling, some of these stories have been passed down orally to humankind. Often referred to as Griots, in our own Senegambia context, these oral storytellers or traditional (oral) communicators, just like a historian, have had a sacred duty and obligations to remember, preserve and share our rich history and cultures. And from the narratives of these traditional (oral) communicators, who have had to preserve the stories of their people for generations by passing them down in the form of stories and songs, it is evident that there were several ancient ‘tribes’ or civilizations of Africa. Ancient African history teaches us that ancient African civilizations did include tribes and cultures, for example, from the Kingdoms of Ghana, Zimbabwe, Kush, Aksum, ancient Egypt. And each one of these Kingdoms had a culture that was different to others. Yet, among Africanist historians, there is a near unanimity now that African identities in the pre-colonial era, were, to a certain extent, very loose and fluid. Therefore, when it comes to the issue of ethnicity, there may be more to it than meets the eye.

This might be a bit of over-simplification on my part, given the fact that there are disagreements and differences between the primordialist, instrumentalist and constructivist perspectives on the roots, character and essence of ethnic identities. But on the whole, there are two theoretical discussions/arguments on African “ethnicity”. The first school of thought argues that ethnicity is a colonial construction, created by the interaction between the colonial anthropologists, early ethnographers, administrators, European Christian missionaries and their “colonial subjects”. However, the second school of thought maintains that ethnicity has in fact, predated colonialism in Africa and that traces of ethnicity can be found in pre-colonial African societies. Therefore, while one school argues that ethnicity was a colonialism construction, the other contends that it was a local construction and that it predated colonialism.

The term ‘tribe’ itself had its origin in ancient Rome, but it was later used to give a description or account of the various cultures experienced by the West – through European exploration. ‘Tribe’ was initially a popular word used by anthropologists in particular, but by the mid-19th Century, scholars started to disuse the expression and later replaced it as an anthropological term, with another phrase ‘ethnic groups’ towards the end of 20th century. The word ‘tribe’ was discarded by many scholars on the basis that it was difficult to define and that it was, in the context of Africa, a disparaging or derogatory term. ‘Ethnic group’, defined, among other things, as a group of people with a common ancestry and language, a shared cultural and historical tradition, is the most widely used term these days. Therefore, what we can deduce from the literature on ethnicity in Africa is that before the advent of Western colonization, Africans did not just categorise or identify themselves wholly, by way of ethnicity. In fact, there is considerable evidence that modern African ethnic identities were constructed or invented during the colonial period. Indeed, if anything, the concept of tribes was a colonial creation. As a concept, it was an integral part of how the British colonialists were going to rule colonial Africa; and it was introduced due to two main reasons.

First of all, Europe had both a social hierarchy structure and a social class system, and because of these classifications found in Western societies and the colonialists’ perception of cultural purity or superiority, the European colonialists, from their vantage point, wanted to transplant some of these divisions and classifications within European nations onto the African landscape and map.  As European colonialists and explorers began to explore and discover Africa, they started to learn about, as well as comprehend, the various forms of societies and cultures they were coming into contact with. Thus, the colonialists later categorised Africans into discernible groups and promoted among these divided groups, a renewed feeling of social and economic, as well as political rivalries based along ethnic lines.

Now, instead of trying to understand and also accept the diversity, fluidity and multifaceted nature of the prevailing circumstances at the time, the colonial masters felt it was trouble-free and more straightforward just to put our people or Africans into categories or groups purely based on perceived differences and divisions of ethnicity. Second of all, colonial authorities also decided that by putting the ‘native population’, deemed to have dissimilarities, into “tribes” and be then supervised or administered by local and traditional rulers such as indigenous “chiefs”, this would, as a consequence, result in a more effective way of maintaining law and (political) order in the colonies. This became inextricably intertwined with British policy of indirect rule, a system of colonial administration by which British colonialists would rule their colonies through local traditional rulers – chiefs.

The partitioning of Africa, particularly the improper delimitation of our porous borders, were arbitrary acts which European colonialists imposed with no regard to our local conditions and realities, thus creating, naturally, a post-colonial separatist problem in some parts of Africa today. The secessionist conflict in Casamance, Senegal, comes to mind right away. Sadly, Europe’s arbitrary post-colonial borders left some Africans packed or sardined together into countries that do not even reflect or represent their cultural heritage and religious beliefs, a paradox that has left many intractable problems in today’s Africa. For example, Christian South Sudan, now an independent nation, was given to Muslim North Sudan. The demarcation of the Cameroon-Nigeria border also created disputes between the two countries. Prior to independence, Western Cameroon, under the protectorate of the British, was partly administered by Nigeria until 1961 when it obtained independence by joining the Francophone Republic of Cameroon, which had already attained independence. Today, Anglophone radical political groups in the North West and South West Regions of Cameroon, particularly those from the city of Bamenda, are calling for secession from the rest of Francophone Cameroon. In short, the colonialists saw colonial Africa as a fountainhead of wealth and natural resources and therefore, manipulated and exploited the demarcation of Africa’s (arbitrary) borders at the Berlin Conference of 1884 – 85, to serve their interests.

Coming closer to home, and in the context of colonial Gambia, British colonialism fostered and advanced both parochial attitudes and tribalism and therefore, set, for instance, residents of the colonial territory in conflict or competition with the protectorate, leading to, for instance, antagonism between United Party (UP) and Sir Dawda Jawara’s PPP; urban-rural animosity; resentment between educated folks and the unlettered; and some envy and rancour between Muslims and Christians. You see, until independence, colonial Gambia, for administrative purposes, was divided into the “Colony” and “Protectorate”. The colony was composed of the Capital (Bathurst) and its surroundings (Kombo St Mary), while the “protectorate” was made up of the remainder of the Gambian territory – the rural areas to be precise.  The name of the capital was changed from Bathurst to Banjul in 1973. The residents of the “colony” were referred to as “British Subjects and those of the “Protectorate” or rural areas were called “British Protectorate Persons”. And this meant that people from the colony enjoyed political, educational and legal privileges, while rural folks were denied these rights and privileges. Thus, the creation (and perpetuation) of Colony-Protectorate or Urban-Rural antagonism in both Colonial and Post-Colonial Gambia can be attributable, to a very large extent, to British imperial policy of divide and rule. The colonial policy of divide and conquer, as mentioned above, not only created differences between urban and rural folks, but it also fomented animosities between them.

In fact, in the immediate aftermath of independence in 1965, the British strategy of divide and rule tested the Gambia’s social cohesiveness and community relations, but Sir Dawda Jawara was a pragmatist who nursed all ethnic groups. The social cohesion that the Gambia witnessed during the Jawara years was, to a large extent, due to the low level of inter-ethnic rivalry in The Gambia and Jawara’s own pragmatism. There were traditionally high levels of inter-ethnic contact and tolerance, stemming from the country’s small size, a shared religion of Islam and Christianity (which for many supersedes ethnicity), common cultural values and economic interdependence. This ethnic heterogeneity meant that any political appeal to ethnic identity would tend to lack clout.  In the Gambia after 1962, the PPP was at pains to stress that it was a party representing all Gambians and not just the Mandinka group of its leader, Dawda Jawara.  Jawara became adept at broadening his PPP support base, whilst at the same time maintaining his appeal to the rural Mandinka majority.  A political pragmatist, Jawara recognised that the country’s ethnic heterogeneity meant that a narrow appeal to ethnic identity, and a distribution of resources on that basis, would fail to produce the levels of support he was seeking. Jawara was skilful in his cultivation of effective ties and shrewd balancing of factions within the PPP to back his political ambitions. The fact that ethnic conflict was largely absent is attributable to Jawara’s willingness to share power and needless to say, Sir Dawda’s efforts in this direction were greatly assisted by Gambians’ high degree of inter-ethnic tolerance.

Again, as I highlighted previously, some of the social divisions prevalent in African societies were largely created by the British colonialists, and regrettably, they have continued to prevent Africans from seeing beyond their surnames. Therefore, going forward, Gambians ought to shy away or refrain from the use of this derogatory term “tribe”, which, sadly, fills our online or social media discourse, especially in the so-called new Gambia. In my view, the issue of identity still remains, by and large, a complex matter in the Senegambia area. Ethnicity can shift and has been shifting. In other words, it is open to change. For instance, marriages can change ethnic definitions and as such, members of ethnic groups can define and redefine their identity by virtue of personal, economic and cultural changes. Having said that it should be pointed out that although ethnic identity can be complicated, Gambians, generally, have tended to identity their “ethnicity” with their mother tongue or the arterial language that they have been exposed to from birth. In the Gambia, quite often, there is a strong correlation and connection between “ethnicity” and one’s mother tongue. In fact, in African Studies, there is a large body of literature describing the interconnections between ethnicity and one’s mother tongue.

Gambians represent a rich array of ethnic backgrounds and as such, the diversity of our “language groups or groupings” should be celebrated. President Barrow is a good example of this Gambian heterogeneity/diversity. Three heterogeneous cultures have identified Barrow’s identity. Linguistically, President Barrow is Fula/Peul/Pulaar; culturally, he is largely, Soninke/Sarahulay; and ethnically, he is a Mandinka. President Barrow is in fact, a native speaker of Mandinka, Pulaar and Soninke. This is why I have argued elsewhere, that the politics of divisions/polarization has got no place in the post-Jammeh Gambia. The Gambia has had a long and rich history of cultural integration, heterogeneity, acculturation and generations of intermarriage between different “language groups”.  Therefore, as far as I am concerned, we have no tribes – other than “language groups or groupings” – in our country and in fact, in this post-Jammeh Gambia, Gambians should now begin to openly question the morality and usefulness of the term – tribe – its full meanings and its origins. 

Again, to conclude, ‘tribe’ is a colonial cliché, utilized by anthropologists of the colonial period to “label” our forefathers. The term should therefore be dropped from our daily lexicon, as it has often created violence, cycle of hate, distrust and divisions in post-colonial Africa.  In reality, what is often referred to as “tribalism” in African Politics is, in actual fact, the politics of favouritism, nepotism, corruption, cronyism, partisanship and political patronage. Political patronage is defined as the practice of using of state resources and assets to reward individuals for their loyalty and electoral support. Appointments to public office are not made on the basis of merit and ability, but rather through political patronage. Meritocracy therefore takes a back seat to mediocrity and as often is the case, government officials would display remarkable ineptitude. The renowned African philosopher from Ghana, Professor Kwasi Wiredu, known for his lifelong academic work on “conceptual decolonization in contemporary African systems of thought” has repeatedly called for the removal of the unmerited and dispensable Western epistemologies that are found in African philosophical practices.

Picture credit (Google images)


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