by Keith Somerville
Keith Somerville is a lecturer in journalism at the School of Arts, Brunel University in Uxbridge, on the outskirts of London. Somerville, who spent his journalism career at the BBC, has written widely on Africa. He was executive producer for the BBC’s international award-winning Legal Online course and co-authored the BBC’s Scoops and Stories course. Somerville also was in charge of the BBC’s interactive journalism teaching tool, The Journalism Tutor. His books include Southern Africa and the Soviet Union: from Communist International to Commonwealth of Independent States (London, Macmillan, 1993).
I’ve been researching and reporting Africa for over 30 years. It has always struck me that it is reported differently from the rest of the world. The words used differ, particularly adjectives, and the assumptions behind the use of those words differ hugely.
What brought this home to me powerfully was the difference in coverage and the use of certain words in describing the conflicts in Georgia and South Ossetia and the post-election violence in Kenya.
The violence in the Caucasus was nationalism, or perhaps a mix of nationalism and ethnic conflict. Kenya was tribalism. Much of the British media – from the BBC to the Guardian and then to the tabloid press – used the term “tribalism” widely, giving an impression of primitivism and a violence endemic to Africa. But why? What is it about UK and wider Western (and, it has to be said, some African) views of Africa that lead to this? What is the result for those who read, listen to or watch this reporting?
Vibrant or primitive?
Africa is often described as vibrant – a good thing, one would think – but this very vibrancy has a primitive aspect in the way it is reported: a colourful barbourusness. It is the vibrancy of a simple people and continent, also implying that explanations and descriptions apply to Africa as whole in a way that would never be implied when talking about Europe, Asia or the Americas.
But the words that most sum up reporting of Africa are tribe, tribal, tribalism and tribalist. The words are redolent of primordialism, chaos, endemic violence but also colour, vibrancy and identity.
The word tribe (from the Latin tribus) is perhaps the most misused adjective in the media to describe conflict or even lifestyle, culture or art in Africa. It originated in Rome as the description for the pre-republican and pre-imperial factions, based on families and ethnic communities competing for power. The formation of the Roman empire led to Roman leaders and historians applying “tribe” to peoples whom the Romans saw as inferior and ripe for conquest – the German and Gallic “tribes.” Julius Caesar used the term widely to describe peoples Rome conquered or sought to conquer.
“Tribe” became a descriptive term in classical history for peoples at a state of development that preceded kingdoms, principalities, empires and “advanced” forms of state or government.
In the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, as European powers or settlers gained control, usually by force, of large areas of the Americas and Africa, it was used to describe peoples encountered and conquered. These were peoples who did not have the same societal or political structures as Europeans. It was used rarely in Asia.
The colonial imprint
It was used by British colonisers throughout Africa. Communities, peoples and even strong kingdoms (the Asante/Ashanti in Ghana or the Zulu or Ndebele in southern Africa) were designated tribes and ruled through a system that created tribal areas, reinforced chiefly power or even created it in communities lacking a history of chieftancy. It was a convenient way to rule and, where expedient, to divide people.
Under colonial rule, African aspirations had to be channeled through tribal associations, and attempts to form “non-tribal” national movements were repressed. English often became the language of political discourse; tribe, tribal, tribalist and tribalism became entrenched in the political vocabulary, even though the term had no equivalent in the languages of the colonised.
The Zulu word for their own identity as a people is isizwe, meaning people or nation, not tribe. But in African states where English is a main language, tribe remains the dominant term. It was, after all, the term for African communities drummed into pupils in schools and throughout the administrative system.
The term became entrenched and ubiquitous, as did the assumptions that went with it. Tribal meant primitive, inclined to a narrow outlook and lacking a wider sense of nationhood and, of course, prone to violence to protect or advance the interests of the tribe. Political conflicts in newly independent Africa were labeled as tribal, a term rarely, if ever, used to describe national conflicts in Europe, the Americas or Asia. Conflicts in those regions were described as perhaps ethnic or more often as clashes of nationalisms – the Basques in Spain, the “troubles” in Northern Ireland, the wars that followed the break up of Yugoslavia and now the conflicts in the Caucasus.
These wars were on a higher plane, more understandable and less clearly primitive than those in Africa, or so you would think if you read journalists’ accounts of them.
The all-purpose label
The tribal label frequently meant that no other explanation or research into the causes of conflicts in Africa was necessary. “Tribal” covered it all, with occasional injections of corruption and dictatorship (though, of course, these usually could be traced back to tribe).
The post-election violence Kenya was a good example of this. It stemmed from disputed elections and the machinations of powerful political cliques. These groups were willing to use all and any means to protect or increase their political power. This included playing on the poverty and deprivation of many Kenyans, convincing the poor and vulnerable that they were under threat of losing what little they had to supporters of the opposing political leaders. But this was couched in ethnic terms. People from Kalenjin communities in the Rift Valley were told that Kikuyus would take their land and force them out if President Kibaki stayed in power. Kikuyu leaders were telling their supporters similar things – the Kalenjin will drive you out, so organise! Communal and ethnic violence resulted.
But for much of the printed, broadcast and online media, this was tribalism – like the saying about nature, red in tooth and claw. Tribal violence of a primitive and atavistic kind was wrecking the tourist and wildlife paradise. Even normally sober and careful journalists like the BBC’s Bridget Kendall went for the tribal bloodletting line in an analysis of the violence. But curiously, this was not the approach taken during the fighting in South Ossetia – which was nationalism or at most ethnic rivalry. Not tribal. What happens in Africa is “tribal” and so primitive, but what happens in Europe, the Middle East or the Americas is always on a higher plane of organised state or nationalistic violence.
Words and stereotypes
The difference in terminology is key to the way in which ordinary people and decision-makers approach Africa. This not only leads to the further reinforcing of misleading stereotypes but it colours the world’s view of Africa and its development problems and political divisions. How often do you see it described as a basket case or beyond hope? And why? Because deep down, there is the assumption created and nurtured by the belief that Africa is tribal and therefore unable to get out of the cycle of violence, dictatorship, corruption and further violence.
What happened in Kenya and other conflicts in Africa over the past 50 years and the wider development problems in Africa cannot be viewed in isolation from globalisation or from the colonial and post-colonial history of Africa. To develop a more accurate and realistic view of events in African states, we need to lose tribalism as the all-purpose explanation.
Over 30 years ago, anthropologists began to question its validity, then sociologists and political scientists. It is surely now time that journalists examined why they so frequently use the term as a catchall for Africa.
Certainly, their readers, viewers and listeners often have little or only a transitory knowledge of Africa and are satisfied with simple terms or don’t show any desire for more complex explanations. But we owe it to ourselves as journalists to be fair not only to our audience but also to the subjects of our stories and reports. A debate within journalism about how we report Africa is long overdue, and I can see no better starting place than the use of these words.