Tribalism Makes “You” Stupid

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By David Olusi


“A Worst Kenyan Pandemic”

The deadlock surrounding the revenue allocation formula (RAF) has exposed our leaders and the systematic tribalism-regionalism as a pandemic in our nation. It is now absolutely clear, we don’t have national leaders but stupid tribal, ethnic, regional chiefs and kings. I call them stupid because tribalism makes people silly.

“Tyranny of numbers, one man-one vote-one shilling” etc, are nothing but dangerous tribal grouping ideologies. Those who think they have numbers, must not use them to terrorise others but to uplift, nature and sustain. Kenya is a one nation-one people hence tribes, ethnicities, clans, regions, villages shouldn’t be what identifies us.

Those who think they have numbers, should use them for the common good and make sure that the marginalised, the weak, the number-less have their rights secured. Equal distribution of resources and opportunities must factor in both the numbers, the diversities and plurality of our great nation. Nobody should feel excluded or left out just because he or she is a tribal outsider.

Tribalism is when one group of people from a particular ethnicity start to think people from another group are none equals, inferior and “wrong by default”. It’s the great-granddaddy of, ethnicity, nepotism, exclusionism, and tribal violence. And the most dangerous kind of tribalism is completely invisible: it has nothing to do with someone’s “birth tribe” and everything to do with their affiliations: where they work, which sports team they support, which political party they belong, which region they come from, which language they speak, or which leaders they love. Let’s be clear: tribalism makes you stupid.

For those who believe in the sovereignty of God, the creator, and the Bible, it is God Himself, in His wisdom, who gave us the ‘concept’ of tribes. He had twelve of them to represent Him on this earth. So, as far as I am concerned there is nothing wrong with the existence of tribes; but just like all other things created by God, man has the ‘ability’ to use it either for good or bad.

Africa, for reasons known only to God, is ‘blessed’ with so many different tribal groups. These have been the source of many conflicts in many parts of Africa and Kenya in particular. It is a basic human tendency to fear what one does not understand or know. Sometimes, we even tend to dislike others just for the fact that they do not look or speak like us. Tribes have turned against tribes over land, leadership and other resources. Sadly, in certain instances such atrocities against one another stem from things as mundane and benign as jealousy, hate, envy and circumcision.

In a country that boasts of many regions and tribes, the baton of state jobs, leadership positions and particularly the presidency is being passed back and forth, sometimes forcibly, amongst the same regions and tribes. The question that any person of goodwill should ask is this: where are the rest of the regions in these state jobs and presidential equation? Are they less intelligent than the rest of Kenyans? Are they less hard working? Are they less ambitious than others? Do they contribute less to nation building than the rest of Kenyans? If the answer to my questions are “NO”, as I know it is, then someone has to call the situation what it is, a political glass ceiling for other regions forgo jobs and the presidency.

The very uncool thing about being a fanboy (or fangirl) of a tribal project like the tyranny of tribal nonsensical numbers is that you’re openly declaring both a tribal affiliation and a willingness to reject the work of others just because they belong to a different tribe. One of the challenges tearing Kenya apart includes the tendency of manipulating ethnic identities for private or political interest.

Problems challenging Kenyan political life are numerous, and some of them are cultural in the sense that they are related to cherished practices inherited from indigenous cultures. Example of this is the culture of “circumcision.” In the bible some of the Pharisees wanted to use it (circumcision) as a reason to exclude others from salivation but through the council of Jerusalem it’s clear circumcision is not a condition for salivation. St. Paul is expounded, for Christians, circumcision is not about physical mutilation or initiation but spiritual, and that’s baptism.

Tribalism, which has been alive since independence, has finally degenerated into ethno-political competition, discrimination, and violence. Ethnic demarcation and regionalism, as promoted by ethnic leaders, revolve around the practice of ethnic discrimination. The competition for political power and economic resources has become intense in many ethnic communities.

Political leaders, encourage the emergence of an ethno-nationalism in order to mobilize supporters. In Kenya, ethnic groups engage themselves in a struggle for political power with other ethnic groups. In this battle, each ethnic group advocates its interests in different ways. Such phenomenon does not happen simply because of conservatism; rather, ethnic groups are also interest groups whose members share some common economic and political interests.

People do not kill one another merely because of the ethnic differences. They kill each other when these differences promote unhealthy competition. This approach takes the form of a conservative return to the grassroots of ethnic identities. It appeals to cultural symbols in order to construct a sense of allegiance, which makes it easier to mobilize people. Sometimes they use cultural slogans to arouse emotions of the people in order to make them accept what they do not even understand. That is to say, interest groups competing for scarce economic resources tend to invoke traditional sentiments to reinforce their appeal. This is totally wrong.

The success of political leaders in winning popular backing depends upon the trust which they inspire, and ultimately on their ability to obtain material benefits for their faction, in the form of government jobs or loans, a school or clinic, a road or electric supply. In this case “we are dealing with a kind of patronage politics, with economic resources used as a political tool to enable the leadership to buy support for their policies. Since political and bureaucratic leaders may also appeal to ethnic identities to fulfil their ambitions, the practice of politicizing ethnic identities becomes one cause among many causes of ethno-political violence.

By appealing to ethnic identities and loyalties political leaders urge people to keep allegiance to those who safeguard ethnic interests. A very dangerous trend.
With tribalism everywhere and anywhere in Kenya, my faith as a Christian has been affected seriously, in the sense that I cannot imagine that such evil could happen in a country where so many people are Christians and where there are so many Catholics! Over sixty five percent Kenyans are Christians, with such influence in education.

What have we been doing as Christians, bishops, priests, pastors? How can we preach the love of God, the compassion of God, in this situation? All these questions arise from an experience of the deep mystery of evil, evil that is so consistent and so strong that its power is prevailing.

Some questions for reflection:
How is ethnic identity related to the conflict of loyalties and interests? How has the dynamics of ethnic identities fashioned the existing understanding of the common good and political life? Have Christian churches and other religions managed to stand above ethnocentrism and the tension it generates? Where is my stand on tribalism?

The writer, David Olusi, is a moralist, knowledgeable in applied ethics, particularly in matters of social justice. He can be reached at

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