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Africa And Aboriginal Tuesdays: From Tribe, Ethnicity, Religion And Race To Nation I


To me one of the most striking aspects to the manner in which the current situation in Liberia is being publicly discussed is the lack of attention to the cultural and economic context in which the country's political problems occur. Taking advantage of the gross ignorance about Africa, the mainstream media and even supposed experts (Black and White) on Africa discuss the nation's problems only in the context of one man - Charles Taylor. This narrow and totally out-of-context analysis may serve the interest of a fast-paced topical news debate and perhaps understandably reflects ideological and financial constraints (especially for those African-centered think tanks and interest groups that struggle and depend upon contributions from non-African donors) but it is absolutely a disservice to those seeking the truth regarding the roots of Liberia's problems and why they have been so difficult to solve.

Independent of whether or not one is a supporter or critic of Charles Taylor, I seriously doubt that any serious "expert" on Africa could sustain the view, while under proper questioning, that the country's problems or solutions rest or even begin with a single man in power.

In fact, the past history of Liberia, particularly since the era of its U.S.-backed president, William Tubman (who served for 27-years, 7 consecutive terms) shows that the country's problems have, for decades, been rooted in the cultural dynamics of the country, compounded by oppression, monopolies and corruption established or perpetuated by multiple governments. A study, or even just a cursory glance of the history of only the four leaders who preceded Mr. Taylor shows that the endemic and chronic cultural problems of Liberia have not been caused by one man, nor have they been solved by the departure of a single ruler. The country's political problems stand on a foundation of cultural diversity and conflict. The country is composed of 95% indigenous African tribes (including Kpelle, Bassa, Gio, Kru, Grebo, Mano, Krahn, Gola, Gbandi, Loma, Kissi, Vai, Dei, Bella, Mandingo, and Mende), Americo-Liberians 2.5% (descendants of immigrants from the United States who had been slaves), and Congo People 2.5% (descendants of immigrants from the Caribbean who had been slaves). 30 indigenous groups in Liberia belong to 3 cultural or linguistic groupings - the Mande and Atlantic Mel in the north and the Kru (or Kruan)in the south.

Although English is the official language (but a Creole version, Merico, is the mother tongue of the Americo-Liberians) only an estimated 20% speak it, with some other 20 ethnic group languages spoken, only a few of which can be written and used in correspondence and communication. And as a revealing anecdote, the country's largest tribe, the Kpelle has never had a member lead the country's government in 180 years, while Americo-Liberians, who only make up 2.5% of the population ruled the country for over 160 years.

There is so much more to Liberia, for better or worse, than simply Charles Taylor.

Are even some of the most respected and popular "experts" on Africa falling into the trap of reducing an entire nation's history and cultural context to fit inside of (or become compatible with) a politically-expedient "evil dictator boogeyman" (Manuel Noriega, Moammar Khadaffi, Daniel Ortega, Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, Osaama Bin Laden) paradigm, which has influenced popular thinking on foreign affairs for the past few decades? In every case, from Panama to Libya, to Iraq to Yugoslavia to Afghanistan, the "evil dictator boogeyman" paradigm has revealed critical, even fatal blindspots, preventing root cultural, economic and as a result political problems from being solved. In a way that is so subtle (and yet pervasive), are intellectuals and politicians sincerely concerned about Africa being influenced (even intimidated) into speaking (if not thinking) superficially, by the actions and words of the Bush administration and the mainstream media in the post-September 11th environment?

If so, the crisis of the Negro intellectual has now become the crisis of the African intellectual.


One possible result of the fallacious reasoning (mixed with fear of expressing disagreement with center power centers) on Liberia is that it prevents clear thinking about Africa as a whole. In all of the analysis that I have heard in the past week, I have not once heard or seen a single major African expert state forthrightly what is obvious to many: that Africa's problems can best be solved by her unity. What prevents the African intellectuals and Black political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic from openly stating, for instance, that the entry of an all-African peacekeeping force is a better idea for Liberia than the presence of United States troops? Is it simply an innocent oversight? It is hard to imagine that - when a meeting was held by Experts on the Common African Defense and Security Policy Committee of the African Union (AU) in March of this year to develop a continental defense policy intended to address Africa's calamities and conflicts.

Some may remember Volume 1 of our 200-plus page report, "Establishing The United States Of Africa", published two summers ago at BlackElectorate.com. That first volume addressed the important economic foundations of the African Union. Volume 2 of that special report deals with the political and cultural foundations of that work. It is our intention to properly combine the two volumes into a single book, to be made available next year.

The thesis of the second volume is based upon a statement made by Minister Louis Farrakhan, National Representative of The Lost-Found Nation Of Islam in the West, in July of 2001 upon the birth of the newly created African Union, which replaces the dissolved Organization Of African Unity. Minister Farrakhan who attended the official meetings and ceremonies in Zambia in 2001 (and in South Africa last year) commemorating this event, wrote of the African Union, in part, in The Final Call newspaper the following(bold is mine):

The African Leaders have a great responsibility. Though many of these Leaders are former military men who fought in the liberation struggle for their people, now each of these Leaders must become a teacher of profound magnitude in order for the African Union to become a reality. Each leader and teacher must recognize that their frail political reality is based upon a tribal, ethnic, religious and racial reality that can become very unstable.

If these tribal, ethnic, religious and racial realities in the Nations of Africa become unstable and these divisions are exploited by outside forces, it can have the affect of an earthquake, which topples powerful buildings. Likewise, these frail political realities can come tumbling down. There is an answer and solution to these problems of ethnic, tribal, religious and racial differences that are found in the scriptures, in both Bible and Qur'an. If the Leaders are unaware of these solutions, and/or, ignorant of how to utilize these solutions that have already been given to these problems, then, the African Union and its success is as far away from us as we are far away from understanding the solutions to these problems that are already given in the Wise Revelations of Allah (God) through the mouths of His Prophets.


It is particularly the portion, "Each leader and teacher must recognize that their frail political reality is based upon a tribal, ethnic, religious and racial reality that can become very unstable. If these tribal, ethnic, religious and racial realities in the Nations of Africa become unstable and these divisions are exploited by outside forces, it can have the affect of an earthquake, which topples powerful buildings. Likewise, these frail political realities can come tumbling down. There is an answer and solution to these problems of ethnic, tribal, religious and racial differences that are found in the scriptures, in both Bible and Qur'an" which grabbed my attention.

In my view many Black Americans in the West have an uninformed or very romanticized view of Africa. One that grows out of miseducation, a lack of exposure to, or willful ignorance of, the nuances that impact the self-concept of Black people on the continent of Africa. Of course knowledge of Africa's history is not taught in American public schools with any real depth. Similarly, Blacks in Africa quite often display an allegiance to categorizations of social organization that appear contradictory and confusing to those seeking a clear grasp of the supposed "African" identity. These mindsets on opposite sides of the Atlantic ocean contribute to the lack of unity and the frustration of the fulfillment and propagation of a pan-African vision capable of serving as the basis of the creation and building of a State, or instituted government, under which those on the continent of Africa and those in the Diaspora may one day claim citizenship.

Minister Farrakhan, very succinctly explains the fundamental challenge and problem to be solved by the Pan-Africanist and those who have already initiated the work of establishing the United States Of Africa, when he offers that in Africa, "Each leader and teacher must recognize that their frail political reality is based upon a tribal, ethnic, religious and racial reality that can become very unstable. If these tribal, ethnic, religious and racial realities in the Nations of Africa become unstable and these divisions are exploited by outside forces, it can have the affect of an earthquake, which topples powerful buildings. Likewise, these frail political realities can come tumbling down".

In a public speech in 2001, in the United States, to promote the African Union, Minister Farrakhan stated that the eventual success of the African Union was related to the ability, of those on the continent of African, to think less in terms of "tribe" and more in terms of "nation".

The Minister's thesis opens up a tremendous opportunity for discussion. Among other factors it can and should serve as the platform by which Black nationalists and pan-Africanists can discuss their differing views regarding the concept of nationalism. A fundamental misunderstanding as it relates to this subject revolves around the Nation Of Islam and whether or not they are "Black nationalists", as the term has been commonly defined. Few people today even know the role that a single book, Black Nationalism by Dr. Essien-Udom (formerly of the University of Ibadan in Nigeria) played in the labeling of the Nation Of Islam as a "Black nationalist" group. An interesting point that I have never read in the writings of those who comment on whether or not the Nation Of Islam fulfills or violates the definition of "Black nationalism" is the comment, repeated several times by Minister Farrakhan, in public, about how the Honorable Elijah Muhammad dealt with the term and concept of "Black nationalism" as it related to his mission. Here is Minister Farrakhan's brief comment on this as it appears in one of his Study Guides, which are available in mosques throughout the world:

When labeled "Black Nationalist," the Honorable Elijah Muhammad never fought the term. He told me that "Black is not National, Black is Universal." So, first Black people must be made into a Nation, then a Witness of Allah (God) to the ends of the Earth. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad would simply say of his critics, "They don't have my mission."

One of the most interesting reactions to the first volume of the BlackElectorate.com "Establishing The United States Of Africa" report came from one of our viewers who is a White man whose family has lived for several generations in Zimbabwe. This gentleman - though very critical of many African leaders today, including Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe - expressed his delight at the idea and beginning of a United States Of Africa. Yet, he wondered if those spearheading the United States of Africa effort were adequately dealing with the subject of the racial dynamics on the continent of Africa. We too, shared that concern with him. In fact, in the introduction of our report we wrote:

It is the largest effort at political and economic unity in modern history. The Organisation of African Unity's drive toward establishing an African Union, popularly referred to as the United States of Africa, is simultaneously ambitious, inspiring and challenging. Once depicted by its detractors and even some of its sympathizers as too difficult to construct, with each passing day it becomes more apparent that the OAU, against tremendous odds is successfully forging the union that many have prayed for, others have hoped for and still others have feared.

The African Union envisioned de facto and de jure by former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and former Prime Minister and President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, is well on its way to becoming a reality with the recent ratification of the proposal by well over a majority of Africa's 54 nations.

While the OAU has made tremendous progress in advancing the African Union, it is not difficult to understand why so many have doubted the prospects of the proposal from the moment it was announced. On the surface, the challenge of fostering unity and cooperation across a continent of nearly 750 million people is staggering. A cursory glance of the continent and its numerous cultures, reveals dramatic lines of apparent division, which many believe are too difficult to cross. It is easy to point out possible scenarios of division and disunity. Some may ask how can the continent's estimated 800 languages, and 1,000 cultural groups be merged into an African Union? How can the cultural differences and bad feelings be bridged on either side of the Sahara? How can Arabs and Berbers be united with Amhara, Mossi, Fulani, Yoruba, Mossi, Kongo, Zulu, Akan, Oromo, Hausa, Masai, Dinka and Igbo peoples? The possible depictions of disunity are almost limitless in nature. If anyone is looking for evidence to support the opinion that the African Union will not work, they seemingly have a plethora of inventory from which to choose.


While, in my opinion, it is possible, with qualifications to properly consider the "United States Of Africa" as a Black nation; there are many persuasive arguments that can be used to counter and at least refine that depiction.

For the sake of clarity I will place the excerpt of Minister Farrakhan's comments from two years ago regarding the African Union below, followed by the series of questions from the excerpt above, which dovetail with his thesis:

- The African Leaders have a great responsibility. Though many of these Leaders are former military men who fought in the liberation struggle for their people, now each of these Leaders must become a teacher of profound magnitude in order for the African Union to become a reality. Each leader and teacher must recognize that their frail political reality is based upon a tribal, ethnic, religious and racial reality that can become very unstable.

If these tribal, ethnic, religious and racial realities in the Nations of Africa become unstable and these divisions are exploited by outside forces, it can have the affect of an earthquake, which topples powerful buildings. Likewise, these frail political realities can come tumbling down.


-Minister Louis Farrakhan, 2001

- A cursory glance of the continent and its numerous cultures, reveals dramatic lines of apparent division, which many believe are too difficult to cross. It is easy to point out possible scenarios of division and disunity. Some may ask how can the continent's estimated 800 languages, and 1,000 cultural groups be merged into an African Union? How can the cultural differences and bad feelings be bridged on either side of the Sahara? How can Arabs and Berbers be united with Amhara, Mossi, Fulani, Yoruba, Mossi, Kongo, Zulu, Akan, Oromo, Hausa, Masai, Dinka and Igbo peoples? The possible depictions of disunity are almost limitless in nature. If anyone is looking for evidence to support the opinion that the African Union will not work, they seemingly have a plethora of inventory from which to choose

- The BlackElectorate.com special report, "Establishing The United States Of Africa", Volume I

****

One of the factors that supports Minister Farrakhan's view is the unresolved issue of border and boundary disputes among African nations, created by the nations of Europe which colonized Africa. These historic problems are aggravated today by a competition among African nations for the favor of the United States - in the form of foreign aid. One recent example of this was provided by The Daily Star when it wrote the following regarding relations between the United States, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti:

Djibouti's president, Ismael Omar Guelleh, a staunch Islamist, has parlayed his new relationship with the Americans to his country's advantage even though much of the Muslim world disapproved of his alliance with Washington. US aid has risen from $3 million a year pre-Sept. 11 to $10 million now and is expected to rise further. But Guelleh must also worry about his neighbors who have long cast coveteous eyes on his strategically placed country that sits on the Bab al-Mandeb, the southern gateway to the Red Sea across the waterway from Yemen. Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia all would like to get their hands on Djibouti's deep-water port. Djibouti is Ethiopia's only outlet to the sea and allied itself with Addis Ababa during Ethiopia's war with Eritrea. That angered the Eritreans, who have conducted incursions into Djibouti. Ethiopian premier Meles Zenawi was sufficiently concerned to warn Eritrea he would not tolerate any Eritrean presence in Djibouti. For its part, Somalia maintains that historically or at least until the French moved out it was part of "Greater Somalia" and has long campaigned to incorporate the tiny enclave within its border.

This problem, as Mohamed Hamaludin writes in a recent column, goes beyond just Africa (although Africa may provide the best example) and is a factor in U.S. foreign policy. He writes (bold is mine):

"The colonial era did not end for altruistic reasons. The colonial powers drew the national borders of small states to make them vulnerable to destabilization. Borders cut across tribal lines and across previously sovereign territory. It is no accident that Africa has some 54 'independent' nations, while Europe, for the longest while, had just a handful and North America has three. The manipulation of those nation-states has been at the center of the foreign policy of the former colonial powers for many decades. We in the United States have no great history of colonialism, so Europe's divide-and-conquer tactic gave way, for us, to economic pressure, outright bribery and 'regime change.' For our foreign policy, as enunciated by the president, to succeed, it would require the smaller nations to be prepared to accept more imperial domination. They may -- but religion will almost certainly play a role."

But it is not just Americans or European "foreign nations" that take advantage of the "divide-and-conquer" tactic as this excerpt from a recent Knight Ridder article, "Rival tribes battling over Congo's natural resources" shows (bold is mine):

Joseph Nzeloy had committed the worst possible crime in the town of Bunia: He belonged to the wrong tribe. He was a Hema. So three Lendu gunmen burst into his home and slit the throats of his wife, eight children and two brothers. Then they turned the knife on him, slicing so deep that his head almost came off. He survived by playing dead. "I couldn't do anything," mumbled Nzeloy through the bloodied bandage wrapped around his thin, long neck. "I was powerless." This embattled town is the latest killing field of Congo. An estimated 3 million people have died in a four-year war that once involved nine foreign nations vying for Congo's vast deposits of gold, diamonds, coltan - a mineral used in cellphones and video games - and possibly, oil. Today, the foreign troops are largely gone as the result of a multinational peace pact, but the scramble for wealth continues. Local Hema and Lendu militias tussle for control of the mineral-rich northeastern province of Ituri as United Nations peacekeepers watch helplessly. The Congolese government backs the Lendus, while neighboring Uganda and Rwanda support various Hema factions. The Ugandans are said to be seeking access to diamonds and mineral wealth; Rwanda hopes the Hemas can keep the Congolese military away from its borders. "All the warlords want is power and money," said the Rev. Jan Mol, a Belgian priest who has lived in Bunia, Ituri's largest town, for more than a decade. "They exploit the ethnic problems for economic and political interests."

****

One only need to look separately, and then jointly, at the subjects of border disputes, wealth distribution, and property rights on the continent, to see the difficult complexities accompanying the creation of a continent-wide African nation. Seeking a solution by looking at the problem in terms of the popular conceptions and paradigms of "pan-Africanism"; "Black nationalism"; imperialism; colonialism; capitalism; and socialism; is helpful but inadequate in my view. More wisdom is required if the barriers facing a United States Of Africa are to be dissolved.

Could Minister Farrakhan be correct that the solution for Africa's racial, ethnic, religious and tribal differences is contained within both the Bible and Qur'an?

I believe so, and will attempt to support his thesis next by looking at the subjects of nationalism, the purpose for government, conflict resolution and property rights.


Cedric Muhammad

Tuesday, July 8, 2003

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