New Internationalist

Tribal Fusion Or Fission

Issue 128

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MINORITY RIGHTS [image, unknown] Separatism and sovereignity

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Tribal fusion or fission
Two decades ago, when most African countries were achieving independence,
fears were rife that the dominant tribes, free from the restraining influence of the
colonialists, would persecute the minorities. But Richard Hall argues through
a Zambian case study that the continent’s instinctive pressures
are for fusion rather than fission.

Map of Zambia YOU could well say that it is not so much the minorities who have been persecuted in Africa, but the majorities. The whites in South Africa impose their will upon a far larger number of blacks, through economic power and armed forces. In colonial times it was the same throughout most of the continent. Even in today’s independent African countries this alien pattern is maintained, As Rena Dumont argues in Stranglehold on Africa, urban African elites have now replaced the old colonialists. In their turn, they exploit (or, at best, neglect) the hapless masses in the rural areas.

Yet the treatment of tribal minorities in Africa cannot be equated with, for example, the way Brazil treats its tribal peoples in the Amazon region. What one observer might brand as persecution on tribal grounds is seen by another as a short-term aftermath of the independence struggle. The recent tribulations of the Ndebele people in Zimbabwe are a case in point. Are they fated to become a long-term persecuted minority, or are they simply caught up in a temporary political upheaval? Almost certainly, the latter. I was in Biafra during the Nigerian civil war in the late 1960s. The beleaguered Ibos told me:

‘This is genocide.’ Even the most coolheaded assured me that if the war was lost, they would always be condemned to second-class citizenship in Nigeria. They sincerely believed it, and so did many outsiders, But the war was lost and the Ibos have not been victimised or persecuted, The African continent does have minorities whose sufferings are beyond question:

for example, the Bushmen and other nomadic peoples of southern Africa, certain smaller communities in the Sahel, and religious groups such as Jehova’s Witnesses - who do not conform to the new political dogmas. But generally the anxieties that gripped minority tribal groups have proved unwarranted in the post-independence era. Nation-building has been too demanding a task, within imposed and illogical national boundaries, to risk alienating one group or another. The gradual - and bloodless - absorption of what was the Barotseland protectorate into Zambia during the past 20 years is a good example. The traditional ruler of Barotseland, known as the Litunga, fervently wanted complete independence outside Zambia. He had much support, as many Lozi (Barotse) people truly feared in 1964 that the Bemba, the dominant tribal group in Zambia, would subjugate them ruthlessly as soon as the protecting white man left.

Yet the fears of the Lozi have proved groundless, What used to be Barotseland is now just Zambia’s Western Province and the persecution feared by the Lozi has simply not happened.

The successful integration of the Lozi people into Zambia deserves a closer look, starting back in pre-colonial times, when Cecil Rhodes was extending his imperialistic sway across the Zambezi River. The Lozi lived in the Zambezi floodplains, with grandiose traditions setting them apart from neighbouring peoples. These traditions were epitomised by the ceremony that took place - and still does - every March or April. The Litunga and his royal entourage make a ritual journey, the Kuomboka, in colourful barges to the winter capital at Limulunga. The Lozi also had a highly organised political structure, and the first white men treated them with more respect than was accorded to so-called ‘lesser’ tribes.

So throughout colonial times, the Lozi people kept a special status within what was Northern Rhodesia, and would ultimately become Zambia. Shortly before independence the Litunga, Sir Mwanawina Lewanika - the last ‘black Knight’ in central Africa - demanded complete separation. Kenneth Kaunda, the nationalist leader later to be President, responded to the Lozi hostility with great diplomacy. He went to see Sir Mwanawina and rolled before him on the ground in the time-honoured tribal style. The Lozis’ reaction was guarded. After all, it was the Bemba they really feared and Kaunda was not a Bemba, even though he had grown up among them in the far North of the country. More persuasive, however, was the argument of the outgoing white administrators that the protectorate would be hopelessly poor if excluded from the wealth of the Bemba-dominated Copperbelt.

Some of the younger, more educated Lozi have strongly supported the nationalist struggle. Among them was Nalumino Mundia, now Zambia’s Prime Minister. In an effort to win over the protectorate, Kaunda appointed Mundia and several of his ‘compatriots’ to the post-independence Cabinet. This allegiance foundered and at one point Mundia found himself in jail for his political activities. Parliament passed tough legislation fully integrating the former Barotse protectorate into the young nation.

Yet the rights of the Lozi people to full political representation at national level have never been infringed. Neither has the government practised financial discrimination against the Lozi. Although Zambia as a whole is going through desperately hard economic times, the Western Province still receives its fair share of government and foreign aid funds. The Province’s communications with the national capital, Lusaka, have improved markedly, firmly locking it into the nation. And, most remarkable of all, Mundia is now fully reconciled with President Kaunda, becoming both Prime Minister and Finance Minister,

Twenty years after Zambia’s independence, the threat of Lozi succession has faded away completely, and the Lozis’ fears of persecution are just a memory. There is a lesson to be drawn from the Lozi story. It is that persecuting tribal, ethnic and linguistic minorities in Africa is just too dangerous a game to play. Although Africa’s political dust takes time to settle, the instinctive pressures are for fusion rather than fission.

Richard Hall is Africa correspondent of the London Observer.


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