Looking Beyond the Tribalism Taboo

A few days before Easter, people in Ghana, a heavily Christian country, were shocked by violence between members of the Dagomb, an Islamic tribe. Members of one extended family within the Dagomb organized the murder of the tribe's own chief. The killing caused Ghana's government to declare a national emergency, and triggered an outcry over the curse of tribalism.

Africa has long suffered under the belief that passionate tribal attachments are inefficient, irresponsible, and inhumane. Ever since they colonized Africa, Europeans have railed against tribalism, whilst simultaneously pitting one tribe against another whenever this suited their purposes. In drawing Africa's internal borders, imperialists ignored tribal differences, leaving some densely populated countries, such as Nigeria, without a dominant tribe or splitting famously cohesive tribes, such as the Ewe, between two countries (Ghana and Togo).

By ignoring tribal affinities, Europeans hoped to create an Africa whose allegiance was to nation first and tribe second (or not at all). Africa's independence leaders of the late 1950s and early 1960s essentially opposed tribal power. They sought to limit the authority of tribal chiefs and to use their powers over schools, land, and jobs to weaken, if not altogether eradicate, tribal consciousness.

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