SWAPO United, SWAPO Victorious, Now hard work...

Get Involved

Sign Up Donate Networking Have Your Say

Join my SWAPO online community, to share your vision of a better Namibia, participate in discussion forums, and receive regular updates by e-mail.Make your voice heard: Tell the world about your views and suggestions. Write to newspapers, call in to talk shows, share your experiences of the first fifteen years of freedom, and how working together we can do more.


Defining the African national project (Identity,Tribal and Ethnic Power-Based Conflicts in Postcolonial African States)

By Paul T. Shipale
An article that appeared in the Namibian sun newspaper on 10-11-2013 under the title; "Tribal card in politics indefensible" authored by Mulife Muchali, said "for any political or traditional leader to claim that "Wambos have been leading the country for too long..." is not acceptable, as such loose talk infringes on the rights of fellow Namibians from other ethnic groups".

Muchali said this responding to the United Democratic Front (UDF) President, Chief Justus //Garoeb who called on his party members "to vote SWAPO candidate and Prime Minister HageGeingob in next year's presidential election, because he's a Damara". Muchali then asked if all traditional leaders would appeal to their own subjects to support only people from their ethnic group, what will happen to Namibia's nationhood?On this subject, the Prime Minister and the SWAPO Secretary General NangoloMbumba said people should not vote for Prime Minister Geingob because he is a Damara but rather because of his ability to deliver.

In another article that appeared in the Namibian Sun newspaper on 22-10-2013, an anonymous writer Responded to Mubita's opinion piece on 'Political tribalism and ethnicity' saying'Tribalism in Namibia is a subject that calls for a national dialogue forthwith. The author alleged what he termed the dangers posed by a single dominant tribe and therefore asked the nation to broaden the debate and interrogate tribalism in all its dimensions. In addition, Swanu president and Member of Parliament UsutuaijeMaamberua was reported as asking former Prime Minister NahasAngula why about 80 per cent or more of most heads of Government offices, ministries and agencies are from the same ethnic group. "How and when does Government intend to correct this imbalance situation before the perception is created that in Namibia ethnicity and/or regionalism is practised?" asked Maamberua.

Furthermore, an organisation called the Emancipation for the Development of the Marginalised Minorities in Namibia (EMADEMA) has accused the Government and the Swapo Party of neglecting minorities and only serving the interests of one tribal group in the country, allegedly channelling all resources to the northern part of Namibia. Information and Communication Technology, Minister Joel Kaapanda, warned that the allegations were tribally inciting and could result in fullblown civil strife. According to Kaapanda, after many years of independence, Namibia is at a cross road as far as unity is concerned. "We are at a very critical juncture where things can go either way, hence the importance of the campaign of national pride in addressing tribalism. We need to embrace the campaign to bring understanding that unity is needed to maintain peace and stability," explained the Minister, adding that the campaign aims to promote being a Namibian first before anything else.

I couldn't agree more with that and with the Speaker of the National Assembly, Dr. Theo-Ben Gurirab, when he said Namibia's body politic was "slowly but surely entering a slippery terrain which is encouraging disunity and regionalism spurned by tribalism and nepotism of the old fashion kind". Dr. Gurirab said these tendencies are "very dangerous" for nation building, political tolerance and mutual respect of public officials at all levels and therefore urged MPs to re-read the Namibian Constitution alongside that of the Swapo Party that addresses nation building and social restructuring, and called for the combating of retrogressive tendencies of tribalism, ethnicity, nepotism, racism, sexism, chauvinism, regionalism, personality cults, and so on. "We must walk in tandem with the letter and spirit of the Constitution in particular the preamble", concluded the speaker who said this after the alleged outburst against "stupid and hungry Ovambos" who were said to be "worse than the Boers" and a tribal tirade against members of the police when someone told them of being tired of a "Swapo'sOwambo Government" as well as reports in the newspapers on tribal stand offs in Otjinene between the Ovaherero and Damara and tribal squabbles in the Kunene Region also between the Ovaherero and Damara.

Against this backdrop, I would like to elaborate on the topic following the thesis on Identity and Power-Based Conflicts in a Postcolonial African Stateby Sabelo J. Ndlovo- Gatsheni from the NordiskaAfrikainstitutet, Uppsala, in2011, who states thatif nationalism is mobilised for progressive purposes, it leads to the formation of national identity within a political institution called the state. It has the potential to make both the state (making of nation-as-state) and nation (making of nationas- people). Any nation-state project refers to that protean process of making the nation asstate and making the nation-aspeople.

Ideally, a good political communityis one whose citizens are actively engaged in deciding their common future together.Bound together by ties of national solidarity, they discover and implementprinciples of justice that all can share, and in doing so they respect theseparate identities of groups within the community.In reality, however,as noted by Michael Billig, the creation of the 'nation-as-people' has neverbeen a harmonious process by which, for example, a traditional 'ethnie' growsfrom 'small shoot into the full flower of nationality, as if following a process of"natural" maturation.' The process is typically attended by conflict.'A particular form of identity has to be imposed. One way of thinking of theself, of community and, indeed of the world has to replace other conceptions,other forms of life'says Ndlovo- Gatsheni. This process is even more complicated in ex-colonies whereimperialism and colonialism added the politics of race to the equally complexlayers of the 'tribe,' ethnicity, religion and regionalism and other power strugglesemanating from precolonial histories.

Ivor Chipkin argued that African people as a collectivity organised in pursuitof a common cultural and political end did not precede the African nationaliststruggle. Rather, an African 'people' came into being in the first place as apolitical collectivity in the midst of resistance to colonialism. He added that thenation is a political community whose form is given in relation to the pursuit ofdemocracy and freedom. To him, the nation preceded the state, 'not because ithas always existed, but because it emerges in and through the nationalist strugglefor state power.'Understoodin this context, the African liberation struggle could not avoid assuming theform of a conflict between the black 'natives' and the white 'settlers,' makingthe liberation struggle take the form of an identity-based-conflict inwhich black 'natives' fought to defeat white 'settlers' in their quest for freedom and independence. According to Ndlovo- Gatsheni again, the roots of the African national project are located in colonial encounters.

Theproject emerged at the confluence of the complex politics of domination, resistance, appropriation, negotiation, warfare, hybridity, and syncretism asworldviews collided and blended.YashTandon has this to say about theAfrican national project:The national project, however, is not solely a nationalist strategy, but a strategyfor local, national, regional and South-South self-determination, independence,dignity and solidarity. It is the essential political basis for any strategies to end aiddependence. The national project is the continuation of the struggle for independence.It is a project that began before countries in the South got their independencefrom colonial rule, continued for several decades after political independence,and then, in the era of globalisation, it appeared to have died a sudden death and if it has died, it needs to be revived.

The most celebrated phase of the African national project is decolonisation.The key objective was to secure liberation from foreign domination and its sloganwas self-determination. Paul TiyambeZeleza argued that:The wholesale repudiation of nationalism, and it proudest moment, decolonisation- whether in the name of the juggernaut of globalisation or the anti-foundationalismof the 'posts' - is ultimately a disavowal of history, an act of wilful amnesiaagainst the past and the future. Against the past because it forgets, in the case ofAfrica, that the progressive nationalist project, which is far from realisation, hasalways had many dimensions in terms of its social and spatial referents.Zeleza went further to argue that African nationalism was never simply a representationaldiscourse: it involved concrete struggles over material resources andmoral possibilities.

Despite its internal inconsistencies and contestations, the Africannationalist imaginary sought to achieve decolonisation, nationbuilding, development, democracy and regional integration.However, the trajectory ofthe African national project became complicated during the period when politicalindependence was achieved. As noted by Tandon:After independence ... [p]eople who fought and won independence, involvinghuge sacrifices ... began to ask their political leaders and intellectuals some criticalquestions:

Where do we go from here?

What now? What do we do with thishard won independence?

There also came to the surface even more difficult questionsabout self-identity that had been subdued during the struggle for independence:Who are we as a 'nation'? How do we forge nationhood out of disparateethnic, racial, religious linguistic, regional and sub-regional groupings?

The African national project is described as a 'project' because of its being 'workingprogress' since the end of the Second World War. Much 'unfinished business'remains. Its tasks can be summarised in the following key questions: How toforge national consciousness out of a multiplicity of racial and ethnic groupsenclosed within the colonial state boundaries?

How to fashion a suitable modelof governance relevant to societies emerging from colonialism?

What models ofeconomic development are relevant to the promotion of rapid economic growthto extricate postcolonial states from underdevelopment?

What role was the independentAfrican postcolonial state to play in the economy and society?

Howmight the new African political leaders promote popular democracy that wasdenied under colonialism? What type of relationship was to be maintained betweenthe ex-colonies and the ex-colonial powers and other developed nations ofthe world without being dependent on aid?No wonder, then, that at the centre of the African national project is thechallenge of defining the criteria for citizenship. Amina Mama noted that identity is aboutpower and resistance, subjection and citizenship, action and reaction.Africannationalism has tried to sort out these issues.

Ndlovo-Gatsheni says African nationalism, like other nationalisms, is a quintessentially homogenising,differentiating and classifying discourse. The attempt to respond to the main questions of the national project hasgiven birth to many imaginations of freedom and liberation ranging from thenativist, the liberal, the socialist, the popular democratic, the theocratic andthe transnational prescriptive models.Looming over these internal Africanprescriptive models were various versions of pan- Africanism that included theTrans-Atlantic, Black Atlantic, continental, sub-Saharan, Pan-Arab and globalimaginations.

It is within this broader context of overlapping and intersectingantinomies within African liberation thought and the continual search formodels through which sovereignty, self-determination, economic development,state-making and nation-building as well as usable democracy could be achievedthat the African national project has remained unfinished business and a continualwork-in-progress. As argued by FantuCheru, there is also the element ofcontinual search for policy space within which Africans were/are able to takecontrol of their destiny.This is the broader terrain within which the African nation-state project can be understood and its problems made sense of.

Ndlovo-Gatsheniconludes that the imperatives of ethnicity, in combination with other factors such as ideologicaldifferences and personality clashes among leading nationalist actors, sawthe African nationalist movements fragment into various factions which inaugurated complicated ethnicised politics that made unity very hard to achieve among leading actors. It also laid the basis for imaginations of the nation that were bifurcated into irreconcilable identities which constitutes the high point in this history of nationalist bifurcation and fragmentation.

With the policy of National Reconciliation mainly between the former white 'settlers' and the black 'natives', the ethnicity issue hibernated for some time but now ethnic generated conflicts unfold along the fault lines of tribal identities. The remnant of intra-party ethnicities also gradually came to the surface of national politics, further complicating the character of the nation-state project. Beginning with factionalism whence such nationalist political heavyweights split, intra-party ethnicity reverberated loudly within the country's political parties creating various factions. The zenith of this type of ethnicity was the name calling which openly sought to accept the ubiquity of ethnicity as a challenge in the country's politics that needed to be addressed through careful balancing.

According to Professor KwesiKwaPrah, the way to contain and counteract ethnicist tendencies is to articulate clear philosophical and ideological positions as rallying points, as opposed to quixotically stamp cultural sentiments underfoot just to re-emerge at later stages in more strident and atavistic forms as political contestation degenerates into personality rivalries and ethnicist squabbles, since ethno-cultural solidarities remain the strongest defining considerations for the traditionbound masses.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of my employer and this newspaper but solely reflect my personal views as a citizen.


SWAPO Headquarters Mandume Strt
Windhoek, Katutura