Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Monday, December 10, 2012

Identity politics

The author of this op-ed piece is Calestous Juma, professor of international development at Harvard Kennedy School. His examples are primarily from Kenya, but it's easy to apply his ideas to Nigeria.

The comments that follow this BBC piece (on the web site) reflect controversies over his use of the term "tribe." Those controversies are a reason that many comparative political scientists prefer to talk about identity politics. I've attached Basil Ibrahim's sidebar comments after the main article.

It would be a good exercise to apply Juma's main theses to political systems outside of Africa. Are there tribes in the UK (Scots, Welsh)? Are British politics successful in diminishing those cleavages? If so, how is that done? What about Russia or China or Mexico or Iran?

How tribalism stunts African democracy
Africa's democratic transition is back in the spotlight. The concern is no longer the stranglehold of autocrats, but the hijacking of the democratic process by tribal politics…

Some of the Nigerian region's 250+ tribes or ethnic groups
The challenge to democracy in Africa is not the prevalence of ethnic diversity, but the use of identity politics to promote narrow tribal interests. It is tribalism…

Much attention over the last two decades has been devoted to removing autocrats and promoting multiparty politics.

But in the absence of efforts to build genuine political parties that compete on the basis of ideas, many African countries have reverted to tribal identities as foundations for political competition.

Leaders often exploit tribal loyalty to advance personal gain, parochial interests, patronage, and cronyism.

But tribes are not built on democratic ideas but thrive on zero-sum competition.

As a result, they are inimical to democratic advancement.

In essence, tribal practices are occupying a vacuum created by lack of strong democratic institutions.

Tribal interests have played a major role in armed conflict and civil unrest across the continent…

The way forward for African democracy lies in concerted efforts to build modern political parties founded on development ideas and not tribal bonds.

Such political parties must base their competition for power on development platforms.

Defining party platforms will need to be supported by the search for ideas—not the appeal to tribal coalitions.

Political parties that create genuine development platforms will launch initiatives that reflect popular needs.

Party manifestos are fundamentally documents in which parties outline their principles and goals in a manner that goes beyond popular rhetoric.

They arise from careful discussion, compromise, and efforts to express the core values and commitments of the party.

Building clear party platforms requires effective intellectual input, usually provided through think-tanks and other research institutions.

Most African political parties lack such support and are generally manifestos cobbled together with little consultation.

Tribal groupings see themselves as infallible but parties have to be accountable to the people.

By stating a vision for the future, political parties provide voters with a ways to measure their performance.

Forging platforms fosters debate within parties that transcends tribal and religious differences…

Indeed, it is becoming clear that issues such as infrastructure - energy, transportation, irrigation, and telecommunication - and youth employment are emerging as common themes in African politics irrespective of ideological differences.

The predominance of such issues will select for pragmatic leadership over ideology…

Tribe or ethnic group?
Those who oppose using the word "tribe" desire that African ethnic groups are understood as similar to those elsewhere.

They want the complexity of these groups paid attention to, and are attentive of the word "tribe's" associations with notions of backwardness, atavism and superstition - its roots in colonial policies aimed at defining African societies and making them legible for control.

They are attentive to the fact that the term is only used to describe their cultural formations, of the fact that Western societies' cleavages would never be defined as tribes.

They also reject the notions of fixity, of common ancestry that come with the term "tribe", preferring the looseness of the term ethnic group, and how this acknowledges internal differences of language, culture and descent, and permits accretion…

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