Political tribalism and the way forward in Africa

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There is not a standard working definition of ‘political tribalism’ as it is an emerging term; however, we can disintegrate the two terms involved to understand the phenomenon. As Aristotle puts it, all humans are political animals because either we govern or we are part of a system governed, and we all belong (ed) to a tribe which is a prominent unit of societal organization. The term tribalism has two meanings: “the state of living in a tribe”; and “the situation where people are overly loyal to their own group”. The negative connotation associated with tribalism developed along with the advent of building nation-states out of small tribes; and now in many parts of the world, tribal identities have been successfully subdued and replaced by affiliation to political ideologies. Therefore, political (also called partisan) tribalism is a situation where people are overly loyal to political ideologies and identities. The strong cling to political party ideologies results in a tendency that biases our assessment and judgement of actions of our political party. Reversibly, whatever the opposition party does or says is regarded wrong or irrelevant. In the case of Ghana, ethnic tribalism has not been subdued because we appreciate our differences and pride in our tribal inheritance (language and culture). Unfortunately, our tribal differences often result in contrary vices such as favouratism, nepotism and cronyism. We call this tribalism in politics. However, political tribalism is drawing a new and more pronounce division line that transcends ethnic tribalism. The nature of political tribalism in Ghana stretches beyond governance and chews into every aspect of our society. It dichotomizes the country, polarizes and poisons discourse on vital national issues that ought to be discussed philosophically and squarely.

Political/partisan tribalism had eaten into the whole Ghanaian ecosystem and it is breaking the very social fabric apart. We all do belong in one or the other and that is not a bad thing. We belong to families, culture, religious bodies, football teams, political parties, among others. The problem comes in when our sense of belonging clouds our rational behaviour and sense of judgement. The problem comes in when the love for political tribes supersedes that of the national interest. In Africa, political tribalism had disintegrated societies into halves, who pay allegiance to their political tribes than the love they have for their nations.

Classical cases of political tribalism exist in our Ghanaian politics. At the tertiary institutions in Ghana, student politics had been underpinned by political tribalism. Students had grouped themselves into especially NPP groups and NDC groups. They do so not because they want to serve the society and turn things around for the greater good of the Ghanaian people but for their own benefits and what they will gain at the national level politics. They bear party cards and fight their ways all through defending their political tribes at the expense of their love for the state. They believe that such party cards will aid them to secure many benefits in future should their party win the national elections. Likewise, in many communities in Ghana, people align themselves to political groups and they fight for positions in the party. Their parties win elections and they take over almost everything in their towns and cities because they coded their DNAs with political affiliations.

The other classical case of political tribalism is vigilante groups. These groups cause mayhem in the country, disrupt court proceedings, seize tollbooths, national parks, toilets, block roads, sack DCEs and MCEs from their offices because their political tribes win elections. These folks disrupt the peace and tranquillity of the society, cause chaos, seize ballot boxes, storm election centres and polling stations and they go scot-free without being charged and arrested because their party is in power.

In Kenya, political tribalism between two factions had resulted in chaotic elections, bloodshed and killing of innocent citizens. The evidence of these were obvious in the post 2007 and post 2017 general elections where the country was plunged into chaos, burning, vandalism of public properties and killing of citizens including women and children.

Additionally, classical example of political tribalism is a situation whereby as a developing economy we all need all hands on board to be able to make progress. We also need all the resources: human, financial, technical and managerial to resources to be able to push forward the country and its development agenda. But because I do not belong to party “A” but I have all the necessary qualification, experience and expertise I am denied a role in governance and in government. This kind of attitude undermines the country’s development, its progress and is responsible for Ghana’s underdevelopment.  

Political tribalism significantly and negatively excludes a sizeable part of a country’s intellectual assets from getting involved in running the country. This tends to affect the nation’s development. This is particularly so in developing countries like Ghana because such countries tend to have limited number of experts to manage the country. In Ghana, under the First Republic for instance, more than £200 million of the nation’s financial reserves inherited from Britain during independence went wasted because the members of UGCC (1947-1951), Ghana Congress Party (1952-1954) and Union Party (1957-1966) were excluded from taking part in the management of the country even though they constituted the most important intellectual bloc in the country. The CPP policies, which led to development without growth, were defended by CPP loyalists even though the policies had mixed results. Indeed, Ghana in the First Republic would have been different had the knowledge, expertise and experience of the opposition been harnessed for the country’s development. This same incident happened under the Second Republic where members of CPP and National Alliance of Liberals led by Gbedemah with huge experience in government were excluded from contributing their knowledge and expertise. This system has continued under every government except that of President Kuffuor who brought in Papa Kwesi Nduom and others from the other sides.

To help Ghana avoid the negative impact of political tribalism, Ghanaian governments should operate from a single national agenda position rather than manifestos of political parties. For years, Ghana has been governed based on the manifestos of the two leading political parties whose ideologies are conflicting and contradictory. These political parties often appoint their own members to implement the policies and run government businesses despite the fact that those appointed may not have the requisite expertise, experience, and qualification to do so. A case in point is Tema Oil Refinery which has been mismanaged due to political tribalism. Party loyalists are always appointed to manage it and they have all succeeded not only in running it underground but led the country to incur huge financial debt

Meritocracy should be the adopted norms and practices. People should be appointed into positions not because of their party affiliations or party positions but based on merit. That is, they must be appointed because they qualify, they have the capacity, capabilities, inside knowledge, expertise, and extraordinary experience to manage government businesses.

Another to deal with political tribalism is that we must train people to be objective in their support for and criticism of government. Governments in Ghana should be praised objectively, and criticised constructively. However, this can only be possible by incessantly educating the people on the need to be objective and not to be influenced by party loyalty in their assessment of government.

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