Thomas Sutcliffe: The deadly results of misguided pride

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The Independent Online

Listening to Adam Mynott reporting on Kenya's troubles on From Our Own Correspondent the other day one phrase leaped out of the radio at me. Mynott was talking, in general terms, about the importance of ethnicity in Kenyan life. "Every Kenyan," he said, "knows his tribe and feels, not unnaturally and quite rightly, a sense of pride in his origins".

It was the "quite rightly" that jarred and it seems that someone else felt the same way because by the time Mynott's piece came to be posted on the programme website those two words had disappeared from the text. Perhaps it was just a space thing, or perhaps Mynott himself had had time to reflect on his reflexive genuflection to local cultural mores. Because while "not unnaturally" is arguably true as a description of a widespread human instinct, "quite rightly" is a statement about morality and not one that's easy to stand by when Kikuyu children are being burned alive in the name of clan loyalty. (And what about "pride" for that matter? What happens to a society when pride in an arbitrary accident of birth takes precedence over far more important values?)

As it happened just a few days earlier I'd woken to the news of a triumph of anti-tribalism Barack Obama's victory in the Iowa caucus, explicitly framed by his campaign and speeches as a success for non-partisan politics. "We are one nation, we are one people," Obama exulted, calling for a change "that stretches through red states and blue states".

What Obama's poetry offers, among other things, is the thrill of voting for something larger than your inherited allegiances. And he is consistent about the underlying morality of that vision of democracy; when he visited Kenya he spoke about the dangers of ethnically-based or tribal politics, something which I think he (by accident of birth) knows better than most is not restricted to the developing world.

This is a complicated area when it comes to Africa. Anthropologists have long been uneasy about the concept of tribalism, pointing out that African societies are far more fluid and flexible than the crude divisions of a "tribal" map. African politicians complain that the word contains a slyly racist judgement about the capacity of post-colonial nations to govern themselves. But if tribalism is a poor description of African realities it will serve perfectly well as a shorthand for a pernicious tendency in all societies which is to draw a boundary around those who share your background or politics and treat those who lie outside it as an enemy.

Tribalism in that sense is, as President Moi once described it, "a cancer". Sadly that didn't prevent him from behaving in ways that were carcinogenic but his metaphor reminds us of one important truth about recent events in Kenya. Tribalism isn't the cause of the political failure it's a symptom of a failure that had already occurred. Politicians who had failed to deliver the honest and tribally-diverse government that most Kenyans voted for fell back on ethnic recruitment to shore up their vote. And then people angry and fearful about the evaporation of a civil society fell back on the only thing they could rely on, a sense of ethnic solidarity.

It wasn't a good thing to fall back on though. Indeed one might ask whether that kind of tribalism has ever offered Africa any real benefit at all. Tribalism was used under apartheid to divide the black opposition and under slavery to procure African accomplices to the crime. In a healthy society it wouldn't be a cause for pride, but for affection at most, and even that only in the best of times.

'Big Brother' and the brothers: irresistible

I find myself distressingly intrigued by Big Brother Celebrity Hijack not because the latest inmates are any more impressive than previous batches, but because we've been promised that the Chapman brothers will be among those invited to unleash their ingenuity on the human lab rats. We're not told when any of the celebrity mischief-makers are scheduled to appear, so you have to keep a vague eye on the coverage to make sure you haven't missed them.

Given the brothers' track-record in the field of creative vandalism it should be good though not if the quality of vandalism is intimately yoked to the quality of the thing vandalised. As scathing a portrait as it offers of contemporary life, Big Brother can't quite match Goya.

* News comes of two new initiatives in the field of wishing or "praying", as the devout call it. The Pope, in a move that defies satire, has called for Roman Catholics to pray "in perpetuity" to cleanse the Church of paedophile clergy. Meanwhile the Church of England has launched a campaign to advise those troubled by debt, which will reportedly include prayers for those who have fallen into the hands of loan sharks. I couldn't help but think it would be more impressive if instead of offering up prayers the Church offered low-interest loans to those in desperate need. And instead of wasting time praying, the Catholic Church would stand a much better chance of success if it addressed itself directly to priests who have abused their trust, and the senior clergy who have covered up such scandals in the past. Besides, isn't there something faintly defeatist about that "in perpetuity". And if praying works why not save God's time by asking for a solution that lasts?