Sunday, January 8, 2012

Tribalism Spreading Like Cancer in Sierra Leone

Professor Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma
The past four years of APC rule in Sierra Leone  has seen among other negatives, a marked increase in the incidence of tribalism in the country. Every true Sierra Leonean belongs to one of the 16 tribes in the country. Tribes form the back bone of most rural communities with people from particular areas frequently being from the same or similar tribal affiliations. In most cases, tribal identity is often confused and juxtaposed with cultural identity.

There is nothing wrong with people from the same region getting together to promote their regions,  as development is more effective and sustainable if it originates from within, rather than from without. Tribal unity however, should never be confused with tribalism, as the former is based on natural affiliation and affinity whilst the latter is based purely on prejudice and ignorance. Tribalism arises when people of a particular ethnicity start to ascribe negative characteristics to others, discriminate and associate with them negatively, simply because they do not happen to be from the same or associated tribal grouping.

Tribal unity can be a source of good, as it may promote regional cohesion and sometimes progress. When however, members of a tribe start to discriminate against others who do not speak the same language, and ascribe certain negative characteristics to others who speak another language, or deprive them of certain rights and privileges, then it is tribalism, and the consequences on any society in the long run will be disastrous.
Gbagbo-Africa's latest tribalist

It is common in Sierra leone for people to say, "Temne people are like this, or Mende people are like that" It is sometimes common even in intellectual forums for people to make disparaging statements about other tribes. Statements that are meant to diminish or sometimes even dehumanize members of that particular ethnic group. The old Cocorioko forum established by Rev Kabs Kanu, was famous for insane attacks on Sierra leoneans from the Mende tribe, who are all bunched as SLPP sympathizers.

In certain cases I've witnessed or read about, tribalism can be so extreme that it becomes ridiculous and dangerous. In Rwanda for example members of some tribes do not eat certain foods only because it is viewed as being associated with another tribe. In other cultures, it is considered an abomination for members of certain tribes to intermarry. Thank God in Sierra Leone, we have not yet reached that point as we do not discriminate in who we have amorous relationships with, but the rate at which the current dispensation is exploiting tribal sentiments for political gain, we are slowly and insidiously getting there.

Tribalism is simply a manifestation of ignorance, narrow mindedness and stupidity, pure and simple. To assume that a fellow human being is good or bad, solely on the basis of the language that they happen to speak, defies rationality and logic. In most cases, environmental or cultural factors  are what are mistakenly viewed as tribal characteristics. People in a region may over time develop a set of rules and regulations and develop a word view, but that does not mean that they were born with those values. The simple fact is that a Mende boy born in New York does not behave like Kpana in Kenema, but behaves like and feels close to African Americans. My son, who was born in Minnesota, has no intererest in my Salia Koroma or Sabanoh Seventy Five music, all he wants to listen to is Usher and Lil' Wayne and we have a domestic war going on for the living room CD player.
Back when he was viewed as a new hope

Tribalism is dangerous at the national level. Politicians, particularly those who have very little to offer their people, use tribalism to keep themselves in power by promoting fear of  other tribes, and convincing members of their own tribe that they would somehow be disadvantaged if members of the other tribe come to power. Sierra leone politicians have dabbled with tribalism in the past. Albert Margai, is famous for  tribalism and Joseph Momoh had his Ekutay. These leaders were however cognizant of the fact that to promote national unity or cohesion, there was no way they could marginalize others of different tribe on a large scale. They had some degree of sensitivity about how they were perceived by other tribes and fought to gain broad national support by making strategic appointments that were meant to convey a degree of regional balance.

President Ernest Koroma on the other hand has taken the concept of divide and rule to a whole new level. In Sierra leone today, your academic qualifications are inferior to your tribal affiliations. With  over 75% of the current cabinet coming from just one region of the country, EBK is ruling like a primitive victorious tribal warrior. His appointment to parastatatals can be viewed as nothing short of institutional ethnic cleansing. The only qualification you need to get a sober job in Sierra leone today is tribal or regional qualification. You may as well get a bogus masters degree from an unaccredited online USA college, who cares, if it were in finance and you are from the north, that qualifies you to be the national financial planner.

The result of these square pegs in round whole appointments, steeped in nepotism  has over the past four years seen the decline in marked decline in technical expertise at every level of government in Sierra Leone. When you make an individual who does not know a cockpit from a plane's cabin as minister of aviation what do you expect him to do, the only thing he knows how to; smuggling planeloads of Columbia cocaine into the country at night. The value of the national currency, the leone has plummeted so much in these four years that a single dollar is now trading for 4500 leones. The simple reason is that those at the helm just keep on printing. There is this famous story of an APC politician who suggested that since it is expensive to print the national currency abroad, they should maybe give the contract to New Era Printing Press in Freetown.

Politician Charles Margai, whose singular ambition and action was the main reason for the success of the APC was so disillusioned by this blatant display of tribalism by the current administration that he was vocal in the condemnation of the practice. Though he later denied, he was unfortunately caught on tape. This week priests in Makeni, the main town in the north where the base of the administration is, were vocal against the appointment of a bishop of southeastern origin. It is almost as if they were asking the pope or Jesus Christ to join them in this tribalism crusade. Word is that politicians were secretly stoking the conflict for purely selfish reasons.

The fact that this blatant display of tribalism is tearing the very fabric of Sierra Leone society apart seems to matter very little to Ernest Koroma, as most people with such deep seated prejudice never actually weigh the broad ramifications of their actions, as long as it enables them achieve their parochial gains. The fact that ethnic tensions are putting the country on the brink of disaster means very little to the current administration, as i in their opinion, it only solidifies their base.
Can still change

Well meaning Sierra Leoneans who are quiet on this issue are doing the country a great disservice. Martin Luther once famously said that they were more troubled by the silence of their friends than the action of the adversaries. Ernest Koroma is consistently putting party and regional affiliations before national unity. The fact that the country has recently gone through ten year of hell seem to matter very little to the dear leader as long as he takes a plane full of sycophants every year to come and hear him giving lofty speeches at the UN. EBK is running Sierra Leone like North Korea, and every well meaning citizen should make sure that this primitive system of governance is voted out of office this year. EBK, the most tribalistic president in the history of Sierra Leone is a luxury most Sierra Leoneans can no longer afford.


Samba Moriba said...

This article is based on facts. The current APC government has exploited the gullibility of its northern base to heighten tribalism in Sierra Leone. Therefore, it doesn’t come as a surprise to see even priests of a tolerant Christian denomination (Catholic) in the northern region refusing to accept a bishop to lead their congregation simply because he hailed from the eastern province. I wrote about this tribalism menace in my book chapter "Tribalism and its consequences: A cancer infecting the corpus of educational leadership in many West African countries." The title of the book is "Educational Leadership: Global Contexts and International Comparisons." On pages 98-100, you will find a sub-title "A Case: 'Northernization' in Sierra Leone." Here is the link to the book:

Anonymous said...

Thanks Samba for your statement and your work on this subject matter. Sierra Leoneans of all shades if opinion should come together to fight and educate people about the evils of tribalism. We have enough problems as it is and tribal conflicts engineered by individuals for political gain is a catastrophe our poor country can do without. We must expose and shame the practitioners of this primitive and backward ideology.