“Sir, my name is Paul Okoo and I need information about the current activities of the Ministry of Education targeted at girl-child education in Kenya.”
“ I am afraid, Mr. Okoo, we are too busy at the moment preparing proposals and other second quarter policy reports. I will be unable to assist. Have a nice day.” With that the civil servant in Nairobi turned his back on a colleague of mine, a Kenyan who had gone home on a research visit.
One disappointment followed another as Paul sought fruitlessly to obtain information that would be to the benefit of his birth country. Frustrated, he moved to Ethiopia where he was very well received; appointments were kept, calls were returned, policy makers were cooperative and he was able to gather all the information he needed for his project.
What was the problem in Kenya? My learned, hardworking and usually productive colleague is Luo. The Kikuyu would not release information to him once they heard his last name. Okoo, just like Obama is a typical Luo surname.
Another Kenyan colleague who happened to be Kikuyu would return with a much different result; high degree of cooperation, pats on the back, lunch, questions and conversations surrounding his job, family, village and ancestry. There were obviously more Kikuyus in the offices in Kenya than the minority Luo – judging from what I gathered.
On April 7, 2011, Rwanda marked the 17th anniversary of the genocide. No doubt the worst case of what ethnic tensions could cause in Africa since the end of the Biafran war in 1970. The Biafran war lasted three years and there was an estimated casualty of as high as three million – mostly from disease and malnutrition. The Rwandan genocide was swift; estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered in three months by their friends and neighbors.
All across Africa, ethnic tensions are rife; my Ghanaian Akan friend accuses the Ewe of being too clannish, wanting to bring in only his ethnic folks to occupy all positions whenever he is given the opportunity to become a leader in any organization. “The Akan is very open-minded, everybody is his brother” he told me, spreading both hands in pious demonstration, cutting the image of a divine being calling on all men to come and rest their weary souls in his embrace. The Yoruba of Nigeria is highly suspicious of the Igbo, The Hausa would rather deal only with his brothers etc.
It is a well beaten path that the root of Africa’s ethnic division is founded in the colonial heritage. The colonial authorities carved out different nations and boxed them together to exist as one. Rather than allowing these forcefully integrated nations to gradually blend and unite around a common national culture and/or shared consciousness, the colonial authorities perfected the policy of divide and rule, which enabled them to stay for as long as they did in Africa. The hurried exit of the imperial powers in the 1960s caused more social problems for Africa than one can easily recount. The Biafran war did not start in 1967, it started decades earlier, with the secretive utterances of the Governor-general and his cohorts to the Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa representatives that worked in the government. The war started after the caustic private conversations the colonial administrators held with each of these groups or their representatives, urging them to be wary of the other ethnic group. The war was consolidated on the eve of Independence in the allocation of resources that favored one region and intentionally left out the other perceived “headstrong” groups.
In Rwanda, the genocide only manifested physically in 1994, decades earlier, thousands of Hutus had committed murder in their hearts against the Tutsis, with the proclamations of first the Germans and then the Belgian colonial authorities, and the paternalistic interference of France in the internal affairs of the country. Over Fifty years after independence, Africans must learn to move on from the colonially entrenched cycle of hatred and mistrust.
There are arguments in certain quarters that Africa must do away with the artificial boundaries imposed by colonialism in the form of state creation, and revert back to the pre-Berlin conference order, in an attempt to chart a new course. The submission, not illogical in its entirety, bears much doubt as to its applicability in the twenty first century. History should not be analyzed outside of historical standards. While kingdoms and acephalous societies such as the Borno empire, the Zulu kingdom, the Igbo and Luo did exist and function most efficiently up until the 19th centuries, contemporary events in global political economy does not seem to support a complete reversal back to those structures. The trend is for “size to matter” in the building of strong and economically competitive and independent societies; China, India, and the EU are good examples to note.
Rather than further division, Africans ought to transcend the myopia of their statehood and see themselves as Africans. We are all the same, at the end of the day. We need to work more together rather than escape into our tiny little ethnic cocoons, and believing that the world starts and ends with our kinsmen.
Ethnicism in Africa can be equaled to the racism that is rampant in the Western world, only that the whites in the United States are no longer brazenly lifting arms against the blacks as they did few years back through the Ku Klux Klan or in their support of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Ethnicism, just as racism, is mostly transmitted at the dinner tables, from parent to child at first, and then from child to child in schools and well into adulthood.
Fundamentally, therefore, all Africans must unite in their hearts to regard another African as a human being first and foremost, before inquiring into his ethnicity. We must watch the words we speak to ourselves about other human beings, regardless of their ethnic origin. Watch what you speak to your child or your friend or acquaintance. Do not stereotype because you will not like to be stereotyped according to pre-conceived notions of what Whites think of Black people. We must choose our words carefully, for words were used to divide Africa and words would be used to unite the continent.