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kiri" (One does not give a person to a hyena twice)
African proverb (Gikuyu)
It is virtually
impossible to view reports of the carnage ravaging Africa without
wondering; why? how? Can it ever get better?
Africa of the 1960s was a beacon of hope, promising a bright tomorrow
for a continent bled for centuries under European colonialism. That
promise has not come true for hundreds of millions of African people.
Indeed, the last half of the 20th Century may be termed a nightmare
of violence, war, loss and death.
The nightmare goes on, into the dawning years of the 21st Century,
As certainly as it did the 20th. Is there any hope?
Those who have
read these columns for some time will recall references to the Kenyan
human rights activist, and former political prisoner, Koigi wa Wamwere,
who wrote a remarkable book about Kenya's years of Western-supported
dictatorship under both the Kenyatta and the Moi regimes. Wamwere
told a harrowing tale of political repression and brutality under
both governments in his "I Refuse to Die: My Journey for Freedom"
(New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002).
work, while centered in his Kenyan experience, delves into the itchy
problem of intratribal violence in African life, and in a brief
208 pages, examines what he calls "negative ethnicity."
Wamwere argues that 'ethnicity', standing alone, isn't the problem;
yet the political and economic elites in various countries utilize
this "negative ethnicity" to divide the people, and protect
their upper class privileges, by appealing to the lowest common
denominator: tribe against tribe.
What begins as personal and communal biases explodes into intercommunal,
often bi-national violence, that splits communities and nations
In his latest
book, titled "Negative Ethnicity: From Bias to Genocide"
(New York: Seven Stories, 2003), Wamwere explains recent outbreaks
in Kenya, Nigeria, Sudan, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, and other African
hotspots. Wamwere explains that national elites use the social distinction
of ethnicity to keep people concentrated on their neighbors, rather
than their leaders. Thus, the 'enemy' is the nearest tribe, never
the State; and never the exploiting class which appropriates the
powers and privileges of government. Wamwere cites one example:
a former member of the Kenyan Parlliament and government minister,
used to say that Africans are cursed. This is why we have suffered
so much, why we hate and fight each other. Yet all people are born
with a capacity for both good and evil, and all people have the
impulse to fight. The only curse Africans suffer is the greed of
our elites, who for their own gain promote hatred and wars. I asked
many Africans why we hate and fight among ourselves, and several
explanations emerged: personal gain, political gain, jobs, business,
land. A Nigerian friend, the late Chief Victor Nwankwo, who was
assassinated on August 29, 2002 God rest his soul in peaceput
it well: "(Negative) ethnicity is a personal quest for resources
in a tribal toga." [Wamwere, K., "Negative Ethnicity,"
At first glance,
the prospect of ethnic rivalry in Africa seems perplexing to African-Americans,
who cannot fathom how such bitter and violent conflicts develop
among all-Black peoples in African countries. What is lost on African-Americans
is the meaning of tribe: the very foundation of one's identity.
And yet, Black
Americans who may look down their noses at African tribal wars often
live in urban centers where equally mindless gang warfare has made
life all but unlivable.
Wamwere believes that the first step is to honestly acknowledge
the problem, and then to confront it with ideas. He advocates the
emergence of multi-ethnic political parties and socially progressive
groups. He advocates socialist humanism which accords to each person
the respect of the other. He advocates the establishment of Nkrumah's
dream of a United States of Africa, where the calls of clan, tribe
and ethnicity can be lessened by a greater sense of the whole. He
advocates no less than a rebirth of the ancient ancestral homeland
of humanity, Africa , which is necessary for its very
He advocates life.
2003 Mumia Abu-Jamal
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"Faith of Our Fathers: An Examination of the Spiritual Life
of African and African-American People" at www.africanworld.com
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© copyright 2003 by Mumia Abu-Jamal.
All rights reserved.
Reprinted by permission of the author.