Africa’s Tragic Ethnic And Religious Past – The More Things Change The More They Stay The Same

To begin a discussion of Africa it is necessary to go back to pre-Christian days.  This may seem irrelevant to today, but it is actually necessary in understanding the origin of contemporary affairs on this continent.  Ancient civilizations vied for control of portions of what we now refer to as Sub-Saharan Africa as early as 1630-1540 BC when the rulers of Egypt drove their armies south into what was known as Nubia.  Back and forth these struggles ensued for domination as other forces from the Middle East and southern Europe spread out across northern Africa.  In brief, the Africa we know today is a result of thousands of years of struggle – sometimes between major armies and ofttimes simple, but bloody, local tribal conflict.

The diversity of the peoples of Africa is not simply a matter of coloration.  Not only did the predominately dark-skinned Nubian empire at one time control southern Egypt and most of what we refer to today as Sudan, but later lengthy wars and occupation by the lighter-skinned Romans racially and physically affected all the northern part of the continent.  Sub-Saharan Africa repeatedly was ravished by tribal conquests and indigenous slave-taking long before the business of slavery was exploited by European entrepreneurs.

Unfortunately, today, politics and clan affiliation carry the same discrimination as color used to in colonial days.  To make things even more complicated, an individual African’s religious affiliation often defines the legitimacy and depth of their political alignment.  In the United States this is known as “identity politics.”  In Africa “identity” is established by a commitment to follow a particular leader or leadership group.  In many instances this amounts to allegiance to what is in effect, a cult.  Boko Haram is an example of this form of often radical grouping.  Starting out as a tribal and/or religious affiliation, in the end the violence intrinsic to this socio/political/religio grouping becomes an end in itself.

The relatively short period (in terms of history) of Western colonialism superimposed a fragile control over much of Africa’s traditional societies.  A vestige of colonial forms of governance and their various forms of democracy have not had strong roots.  Some of the leaders of these newly independent African countries would have preferred otherwise – as long as their inheritance of rule remained intact.  However, this too is nothing new for Africa.  After all, such dominance was seen acutely in the Sudan where Northerners of the Islamic faith came to rule over Southerners who were primarily Christian, and animist. Arab and Islamic presence in the northern areas of Sub-Saharan Africa have a continuing political influence.  The Arabic language is the lingua franca (except where local dialects have survived) and this solidifies the Islamic faith in its cultural – and sometimes political – dominance also.

Ties to Western Europe have remained in former colonies of those countries such as Britain, France, Portugal, and to some degree, Italy.  These connections have provided an historical influence that shows even today in language, education and governmental structure, and even to some extent customs.  It doesn’t mean these ex-European colonies are free of African tendencies toward violent extremism, as post-independence Congo has shown, but their political structures have provided a mechanism on which Western systems can be overlain, if sometimes abused.

In brief, Africa contains a very diverse society of peoples, often riven with religious, political, and ethnic divisions.  In such a mélange of systems it has not been difficult for terrorism to find post-colonial roots.  Terroristic violence certainly had existed in various manners even in colonial days when the presence of European military commands was necessary to maintain peace among the indigenous factions – to say nothing of the occupying power’s control of the populace.  The appearance of a peaceful environment was the objective, but maintained always at the point of a gun and not always very successfully.

The Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1950’s derived support primarily from the Kikuyu tribe, the largest in that region.  Inequitable distribution of land during British colonial rule had been an issue going back many years.  By 1952 the Mau Mau organization had developed into a brutal anti-white, anti-British colonial movement.  Jomo Kenyatta was charged with being an instigator of the outbreak and was thrown into jail where he remained for nine years.  By the early 1960’s the British conceded rule to the indigenous Kenyans and Jomo Kenyatta became their first Prime Minister, then President. This led to the departure of British colonial rule from all of East Africa.  With the earlier independence of Ghana and Nigeria on the West Coast, movement was set for the independence of all the former colonies throughout Africa.

Hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded marked the combination of independence movements and simple tribal struggles for dominance throughout the fifties and sixties throughout Africa.  The covert roles of both East and West non-African nations spread weapons and politics along with religious-based terrorism throughout the continent that lasts until today.  The current disturbances in South Africa, now under African rule, is a belated extension of what began nearly seventy years ago.

The tragedy of Africa is its inability to grow out of its radical ethnic and religious past. Democracy battles with tribal influence and both are taken advantage – when they can – by European, North American, Middle Eastern and Asian interests, political and commercial.  And yes, this is in addition to powerful indigenous African entrepreneurs themselves.  The general African population has benefited little in comparison to its elites and preferred foreign interests.  Tourist industries in some areas have thrived; major cities have become modernized; military forces have gained advanced weapons; communications and air transportation has grown appropriately. Security, however, is haphazard and misused.  Medical facilities still depend on assistance from the developed world, often the former colonial governments.  Africa does not seem to be able to free itself from exploitation – even by itself.

Africa today is not that much different than it was ages ago, even with the overlay of economic and technological advantage of modern times.  The tribal-based conflicts continue to exist only now accompanied by the wider elements of sects connected to Middle Eastern radical movements – among others.  The modernization of Africa, Northern and Southern, has brought with it great change, but the French had summed up today’s situation a long time ago: “Plus ça change, plus que reste la même.”