Beyond the genocidal concept of tribal homelands

Published on Pambazuka News, by Mahmood Mamdani, July 14, 2011.

‘East Africa has two post-colonial traditions of citizenship’, writes Mahmood Mamdani: territorial and ethnic. If the region is to have a political federation, it will need to be based on a common citizenship, he argues: ‘Which one will it be?’

I became interested in the question of why the old community collapsed after I returned to Uganda from the University of Dar es Salaam in 1979. I spent months reading community files in government ministries in Kampala. I was struck that the debate on the Community unfolded as a debate between states only. I could not locate an independent discussion that cut across state lines. 

If we limit the discussion on the old community to external rivalries that imploded the old community from within, then we will inevitably conclude that there is little we can do about forces we do not control. But if we can expand the discussion to look at our own failure to develop a public discourse on East African issues, then we can move a step forward. The discussion needs to involve broad sectors of East African society. By not leaving the initiative to the political class, we can contribute to exploring different options and rallying new forces.



The centralised state is a European invention. Before the monopoly of arms and judicial power in the hands of the central state, power was decentralised. Even where the ruler was autarchic, most disputes were settled around the feudal manor or village communities.

Before the era of the centralised state, decentralised power was a global practice. When European anthropologists came to Africa a century ago, they divided African societies into two types – state and non-state. They were not just seeing Africa through European eyes, they were also acknowledging the fact of decentralised power as a widespread African reality. The turn to federation, to a form of decentralised power, is in this sense a return to one part of our political tradition. But that return has been problematic.

There are two types of federation: ethnic and territorial. African federations have tended to take on an ethnic rather than a territorial character. You can understand the difference between the two by asking the question: if the place where you live is different from where you or your family came from, where is your home?

The territorial notion says your home is where you live now. The ethnic notion says your home is where your family, or ancestors, came from. Where did the ethnic definition of home come from? My contention is that this is not part of the political tradition of pre-colonial Africa. It is part of colonial tradition.

Every 20th-century colonial power in Africa divided its population into two groups: races and tribes. Races were outsiders. Tribes were said to be indigenous, to be natives. Races were said to have a history – they moved. Tribes were said to have only geography. They were said to have stayed put in the tribal homeland from the beginning of time.

My question is this: how far back does this political tradition of identifying each person with a native place, and of a native place as something fixed and unchanging – how far back does it go?

Every African people I have read about have an origin story. Whether the story is of Kintu and the Baganda or Oduduwe and the Yoruba or the Bachwezi and the Luo, they all claim to come from somewhere, but always from somewhere else. The origin story of Hutu, Tutsi and Twa in Rwanda is that they fell from the sky.

All origin stories are migration stories. Pre-modern peoples did not believe that any people were indigenous to a particular place. This is not just true of Africans. The biggest origin story, one shared by Abrahamic religions, is the story of Genesis in the Old Testament. It says the earth was empty before its settlement by peoples we know – all were migrants who came to the land after the biblical flood. All humanity was native to heaven. Only after the fall did humans come to possess guardianship of the earth.

The vision of a world populated by ‘indigenous’ peoples with ‘non-indigenous’ minorities is a distinctly modern and secular notion. In this part of the world, it is a distinctly colonial notion. The idea that each tribe has a tribal homeland, that each tribe rightfully belongs to its homeland, is native to its homeland, is a settler notion. It is the basis of the claim that tribes must stay put in their homelands and that the world outside the homelands belongs to settlers.

The real point is not that colonialism invented this fiction but that we have bought it. We consider it as part of African custom, rather than colonial custom. Let me give you one example of how this notion has become central to our political lives.

Nigeria created a federation after the civil war of 1967–70. Key to the federation is a clause called ‘federal character’. It says that key federal institutions must have a ‘federal character’. What are these key institutions? They are three: the army, the civil service and federal universities. What does it mean to have federal character? It means their composition must reflect the composition of the federation. Recruitment in each institution must be on the basis of quotas for each state, where the quota reflects the relative weight of the state population in the Nigerian federation.

Now, here is the rub. To qualify for the quota of a state, you must be indigenous to the state. Who is indigenous to the state? To be indigenous, you must be born in the state of a father also born in the same state.

The ethnic federation is today a major source of Nigeria’s problems. The market economy moves products and people, both rich and poor – on the one hand rich traders, industrialists and professionals, on the other, jobless workers, landless peasants, itinerant hawkers.

Those who move beyond state boundaries – and these are usually the most enterprising, whether rich or poor – are labelled non-indigenous and disenfranchised. With each passing year, more and more Nigerians are non-indigenous in the states where they live.

The ethnic federation is a major source of Nigeria’s contemporary political problems. Most internal conflicts in Nigeria are fights over who is indigenous and who is not. In the Middle Belt, fights over definition of indigenous revolve around two notions of indigenous. One group says you are indigenous if your family arrived before colonialism. The other says you are indigenous if your family was there before the Sokoto Caliphate. But both agree that if you came to the Middle Belt recently, meaning over the past 100 years, you did not belong there.

Here is the positive side of the picture: not everyone in the independence leadership of East Africa accepted the colonial story of tribal homelands as African tradition. The shining example is that of Mwalimu Nyerere and mainland Tanzania.

Consider the following sobering proposition: East Africa is a region of genocide and ethnic cleansing. We associate Rwanda and Burundi with genocide; Zanzibar with the violence of the revolution; Uganda with that of expulsions, from that of Catholics from Mengo in 1900 to that of Muslims from West Nile after the fall of Idi Amin; and Kenya with the violence in the Rift Valley.

The one exception is mainland Tanzania. It is the only part of the region where a group has not been persecuted collectively – as a racial or an ethnic group. Tanzania is the East African antidote to Nigeria. Mwalimu Nyerere’s contribution is identified with Ujamaa. But Mwalimu should really be remembered as a statesman who built a nation-state. He took a colonial tribal federation and built a centralised state out of it.

Politically, colonial Tanganyika was no different from other colonies. It was a patchwork of tribal administrations. The colonial administration divided the population into so many tribes and races. Races were governed under civil law and each tribe under a separate customary law.

Nyerere’s great achievement was to create a single law and a single machinery of enforcement – both legal and administrative – so that every Tanzanian came to be governed by the same law, regardless of race or tribe.

Mwalimu created a rule of law. He created a national citizenship based on residence in a country where colonialism had left the legacy of defining every individual on the basis of a racial or tribal political identity based on origin.

There is another instructive example in the region, that of Uganda from the bush war of 1980–86. The early NRA learnt much from the legacy of Nyerere. When the NRA liberated a village in the Luwero Triangle, it created village councils and committees. The question arose: who can vote in these councils and committees and who can run for office?

The colonial tradition was that only those indigenous should have local rights. But this would have disenfranchised half the population, for roughly half were immigrants, either from Rwanda or from the north.

The NRA’s response was: whoever lives in the village has a right to participate in the decision-making of the village, no matter where they come from. Rights were based on residence, not ethnicity.

Once in power, the principle was subverted. Today, the NRM has elevated the concept of tribal homelands into a key principle of governance. It is now said that every tribe, in some parts of the country even every clan, must have its own administrative homeland. Thus the multiplication of districts in Uganda over the past decade, giving rise to the demand that the population of every district be divided between those indigenous and those not, the former with rights and the rest without rights. If this practice of statecraft continues, with or without oil, Uganda will be another Nigeria.

Today, the political landscape in Uganda resembles that in Kenya more than it does the landscape in Tanzania. The distinctive political feature of independent Kenya is that the intellectual foundation of colonial statecraft has never been challenged there. Its effect is best exemplified by the violence in the Rift Valley. There are two explanations of this violence. One blames the violence on the Ocampo Six. Whatever their responsibility, they have been demonised in a discourse that hides the fundamental cause of the violence. The violence was driven by two questions: who is indigenous, and who has the right to land?

When it comes to land, there are two claims in Kenya. One says that land belongs to the native tribe; it is part of the tribal homeland. The other says the land belongs to the nation, the community of citizens; from this point of view, the homeland is a nation-state.

The same contention was at the root of the conflict in Darfur where the conflict began as a civil war between pastoral and peasant tribes following the drought of the 1980s. When pastoralists ran south from the effects of the drought, the southern tribes said: get out of the land, it is our tribal homeland. The northern tribes said: we are citizens of Sudan, the land is part of Sudan. A similar demonisation of Bashir has hidden from us the root causes of the violence in Darfur.

How do we choose between these two notions of rights – one based on tribe and the other based on nation?

If you want to use the language of right and wrong, both are right. Each is rooted in a different imagination, a different history. The tribal claim is rooted in the colonial imagination, and the national claim in the nationalist post-colonial imagination.

To choose between the two, we have to move from the language of individual rights to that of democracy – from the language of rights to that of justice. That means thinking of consequences for the majority. Let us not be so mesmerised by the language of rights, the language of the marketplace, that we lose sight of justice.

The community will not survive if it exalts the principle of rights – and thus of market fundamentalism – in the common market. To survive and prosper, it will have to balance the question of rights with that of justice, freedom of the market with the claims of citizenship.

East Africa has two post-colonial traditions of citizenship: territorial and ethnic. If we are to have a political federation, it will have to be based on a common citizenship. Which one will it be?

If we leave the question of citizenship to member states – as we have done with the question of land – then East Africa will not be a political federation, but a confederation where individual member states will retain their sovereignty. (full long text).

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