by Joakim Larsen

October 2016


Africa is a continent with immense potential. But it is also a continent in crisis, polarized and vulnerable to tribal conflicts. For many, progress is not inevitable and the romance of revolution and economic development cannot hide the harsh realities of millions of people living in poverty and deprivation.



African resilience and stoicism


Some of Africa’s problems – especially those caused by forces other than man – are so enormous, so constant, that a people of lesser spirit long since would have succumbed.” – David Lamb, American author, 1987


Africans have lived through droughts, famines, wars, poverty, hunger, disease, the exploitation of colonialism, ruthless neo-colonialist black leaders, widespread corruption, coup d’états, the overthrowing of nations and establishment of new… They have lived through tribal conflicts, and ethnic cleansing... through exuberance and despair. And still the people throughout the continent maintain resilience and stoicism; they simply carry on, accepting both good fortune and misfortune with a single thought: the Fates are powerful.



A continent little understood


Africa is much discussed but little understood. It is a continent as complex and diverse as it is huge. And trying to understand it through Western values, nothing will make sense.


On top of the several hundreds of ancient languages spoken, a number of European languages were further imposed upon the people with the arrival of Westerners. This makes it the most linguistically complex and challenging continent. Still today you find more than 80 spoken languages in Ethiopia alone, some of which are spoken by less than a couple of thousand people. Until recently Ethiopia was at the same time the only African country with a written language, something which is arguably the very tool, that equipped her to successfully withstand the forces of colonialism.





Africa is traditionally composed of tribes, not nations. Tribalism is at the core of African society. It is one of the most central concepts of African society, and at the same time one of the most misunderstood.


In its very essence tribalism implies sharing among members of the extended family. It means taking care of your own. It ensures security, continuity and authority, and it strengthens the togetherness and common understanding in the tribe. The tribe provides welfare, social security, and protection and so it makes good sense.


Previously the lack of shared language with neighbouring tribes and limited intermarriage helped strengthening the tribal fabric further. And travelling was traditionally limited to areas where people understood and could relate to their fellow tribes men. Consequently language was not only an expression of identity, it was a barrier to the World beyond.


Today almost every African politician, government official, company owner and university dean practices tribalism. It decides who gets the job, who gets promoted, who is favoured in the queue, who is admitted into university. For statesmen or military leaders to favour among their closest family members is an obligation. It is not considered nepotism.


Reduced to one word, tribalism is about power!



Nationalism vs tribalism


Whereas tribal identity has existed for centuries, nationalism is a relatively new concept in Africa, only around half a century old in Africa. Today’s African communities are realizing it’s benefits over tribalism, but when put to the test, it is often equalled or superseded by tribal identity.


Many of Africa’s armies for instance are well equipped but poorly trained. People with a tribal ethos understand well the local fight against a neighbouring tribe for freedom, revenge or grazing land. This understanding makes the fighters highly efficient. But fewer, especially in the remote countryside, choose to relate to a national conflict against an unknown and abstract enemy from afar, and for a cause which bears no direct relation to the security, welfare and power of their tribe.



The genocides in Burundi and Rwanda



In it's extreme tribalism like nationalism, can result in horrific human suffering. Looking to Burundi in 1962 and Rwanda in 1994, history shows us the darkest consequences of such affiliation. The examples of human atrocities performed in the name of tribal conflict in both countries after their release from Belgium colonialism should serve as a warning.


It resulted in the worst black on black crimes on humanity witnessed in newer time. Centuries old tension and imbalance between the Hutu and the Tutsi clans was rekindled during the Belgium occupancy. And the massive suppressed feelings of envy and hatred were suddenly released following the abandonment of the foreign supremacy, which left both countries in a state of tribal imbalance, full of ethnic tension and in a governmental vacuum.


These black on black genocides that followed have by English philosopher, Bertrand Russel, been described as “the most horrible and systematic human massacre we have had the occasion to witness, since the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis.



Black on black vs white on black


Had in comparison the white South African government conducted similar atrocities against the black Africans, the international reactions would have been swift and harsh. Protests all the way from the political consumer to presidents and the top of UN would have rained upon the Apartheid government. For as the blacks injustice to the black, is considered part of “a nations growing pains” and for some strange reason is acceptable to both Africa and the world beyond, the white man’s injustice to the black is considered racist.



A street of abandoned shops in the town of Huye

in a Southern province of Rwanda.

Had such events taken place in Europe, which indeed they did in ex-Yugoslavia, the International Community would be outraged. Collective peace-keeping forces would be jointly monitoring events and international police forces would uphold law and order. The World press would indulge while nations would impose trade sanctions and in every way possible put diplomatic and military pressure on the responsible government in the attempt to bring it to an immediate halt. Furthermore the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights would be established in the country.


But because it happened in black Africa... and because it was viewed as a war between tribes... no serious attempts from outside were made to stop what quickly evolved to be the worst genocides in newer time.



The era of post colonialism


By 1920 all of Africa, except Ethiopia, Libya and the Union of South Africa was under European rule, protection or was claimed European country. Europe was looking for new markets during its industrialisation of the nineteenth century, scrambling for domination in Africa, dividing the continent into colonies with artificial borders, ignoring traditional ethnic groupings.


Colonial powers established a system of disaster, and the Africans themselves have yet to replace it with a system of peace and prosperity. The way Western colonial powers governed the African territories - divide and rule and favouring some tribes while excluding others – served only to pull Africa further in the directions to which she had already been pulled for centuries: Tribal tension was increased.


Before Africa’s independence the colonialists were the common enemy. But after colonialism the major tribes had to confront each other and define leadership roles. Consequently, in the continent where tribal loyalty often surpasses allegiance to the nation, the African’s new antagonist became the African. Furthermore, after the sudden end of the European colonial era, the Africans woke up only to find that the white colonial masters have been replaced by black neo-colonial leaders that often were more concerned with his personal Swizz account and personal ambition than with the prosperity of the nation and it’s people, over which he had claimed legitimate rulership.



New generations, new challenges


“Do you realize what wealth Africa has? People are cutting each others throats for it, and its only the tip of the iceberg. What Africans are doing to Africans is unbelievable...” - Joe Khadi, Kenyan journalist, 1976


Africa with its vast natural and human resources, may well become the battle ground of super-powers in the 21st century. Whether the relationship will be mutually beneficial or have the exploiting character seen earlier in history… will depend largely on the bargaining power and capabilities and the hidden agendas of national governments and international conglomerates.


But despite unparalleled natural resources and a gigantic human potential, African socio-economic development should more than ever be a cause for concern. On the one hand millions of people are improving their living standards. This includes housing, access to clean water, hygienic conditions, and health care. Along with a gradual levelling out of the 20th century’s out-of-control population growth, the promising signs of a brighter future include access to education and the emergence of middle classes consisting of modern people in numerous countries.


On the other hand, however, the gap between the growing number of people looking for opportunities in life, and the comparatively slow economic growth, especially in certain areas, is indeed presenting Sub-Saharan countries with what seems to be a range of unsurmountable challenges. The continuous reluctance of efficient Western long-term investments and the lack of commitment to grow markets, along with the devaluation of economic expectations for several African countries in 2016 and 2017, are to many inevitably and inescapably related to fewer opportunities in life.


Furthermore, in several African countries the generation of youth under the age of 25 make out as much as 50% of of the entire population. These youth will in the years to come enter the competition in the job market. They will add to the already large pool of job applicants. And they too will be looking for affordable housing.


Because the economic growth in several countries fails to satisfy the increasing demand for jobs, the social and economic challenges that Africa is facing may well be expected to increase in the years to come.



Polarization of opportunities


The majority of the World’s poor people have shifted from South East Asia in the 1980’s. Today the majority of the World’s poor live in Sub-Saharan Africa. The future will present us with further polarization between the privileged and the destitute in Africa - within communities, and the same of communities within nations, and of nations within regions. And as problems grow in scale and scope, a natural consequence in African context will be an increase in tribalism, helping your kind…


All over the World, cities are as magnets to displaced people with nowhere to go, to rural people looking to provide for their families and to graduated youth: Local conflicts and draught force ever more people to leave their homes. In 2016 the number of displaced people and refugees due to conflict and war amounts to 21.000.000 worldwide.


Consequently in relation to polarization it is no longer relevant to speak of national or regional trends. Without a contextualized approach it will not be possible to understand the consequences of todays society. For differences in distribution of wealth manifest themselves locally as well as regionally and nationally; variation in income, standard of living, life expectancy, child mortality rate... these socio-economic variables vary greatly within both neighbourhoods, cities, municipalities and nations.


American Hummers are passing through streets with LG and SONY brand stores close to where destitute old women are begging for pennies and homeless people reside in what could be named the most inhuman standard of temporary shelters. Young sharp looking business men with shiny Turkish leather shoes, large designer sun glasses and the newest smartphone in their hand are seen next to poor female construction workers subject to both financial and sexual exploitation...


Opportunities are often unequally distributed from birth. Contrasts are striking and the signs of social and economic injustice are devastating. So to fully understand the consequences of todays economy, a more contextualized approach is needed.


Furthermore the World needs to grow and strengthen its middle classes - especially in the emerging markets. For the middle classes help lift up the poor people. The money spent by the rich and super-rich circulate mainly in the spheres of the upper classes; the goods they buy, the things they consume, and the services they purchase, are produced and supplied by people from up the social ladder. Consequently the money spent here rarely touches the bottom of society. An increased number of middle class consumers, who purchase "normal" goods, produced by "normal" people… this will benefit and help raise up the poor.



Bright futures or graveyard of hopes


Existing as nonpersons, the African refugees in huge numbers are forced away from the safety of their tribal territory. Many look to the cities for opportunities. Likewise small-scale farmers whose plots of land cannot sustain them, are leaving their families behind in the hope of getting paid work in the cities. But the competition is hard and many find themselves not sufficiently equipped with the necessary skills to get a job - or worse, they belong to the wrong tribe. And capable youth in the tens of thousands graduate from universities each year. They too are drawn to the cities, only to find that the available jobs are far outnumbered by the ever increasing pool of applicants.


So what to some presents itself as promises of a bright future, is turning into a graveyard of hopes for others. One thing has proved itself certain: progress is not inevitable for all, and prosperity doesn’t necessarily affect all. Rather, as social and economic polarization increases many people will witness the just distribution of opportunities evaporating like dew to the burning African mid-day sun.

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