As I saw #KenyaAt50 tweets fill up my Twitter timeline yesterday, I found myself thinking how interesting it is that people who weren’t united before colonisation can celebrate independence together… What I mean is, today’s Kenya is somewhat a creation of the British coloniser, as they were the ones who drew the borders of the country we know. (The other day I read an article about how the British bargained – with the Germans who controlled Tanganyika – Zanzibar, in exchange for the Kilimanjaro, and found it funny how both now are Tanzanian territory). The drawing of borders by the Western powers isn’t something that only happened to Kenya: most African countries as we know them today were marked out by the “white man” who in most places did so by bringing previously independent territories under one single rule. A few exceptions exist however: one of them is Burundi [and Rwanda to some extent, considering that a lot of its historical territory – I hear – went to neighbouring Uganda and DRC.]
Burundi also lost a bit of its territory, to Tanzania (then Tanganyika) – the Bugufi region – but in general, today’s Burundi somewhat looks like pre-colonial Burundi (minus Bugufi), as far as territory is concerned. Moreover, Burundi and Rwanda were colonised [well officially they were a “protectorate”, not a colony] as one country – Ruanda-Urundi, with the Usumbura (today’s Bujumbura) as the colony’s main capital – but the two decided to go back to their former pre-colonial states at independence, rather than remain one country. I’m not actually sure if any negotiations around a Rwanda-Burundi post-colonial unification were held; all I know is that each had their own King and (a somewhat modernised) traditional administrative system… so I guess it kind of made more sense to retract rather than unify. This explains why I’m kind of impressed by how a nation as ethnically diverse and pre-colonially not united as Kenya has managed to stay together within the borders set by the former coloniser; bearing in mind that living in the same territory implies being governed by a single authority. But then there are other countries that haven’t managed their post-independence lives so well…
You know those questions that some sceptical minds ask when most African states celebrate their independences like, “are we really independent?”… Today I found myself questioning something else: are some of these other African countries really united… or should they be? I’m here questioning the expectation that people can be a peaceful nation after they have kicked out the force that united them [against their will], and abide to post-independence systems such as democracy.
Although Burundi territory wasn’t really altered, compared to what it was before colonisation, the post-colonial ethnic tensions and divisions had some extremists preaching that Burundi should be split into two countries: one for the Hutu and another for the Tutsi (the same happened in Rwanda actually). Obviously this school of thought was strongly and rightfully condemned, but it comes to show that differences can so easily arise even within communities that have been united for centuries… Now what of newly (and forcefully) united ones? Let’s say that if the Toro of Uganda today decided that they no longer wanted to be under Museveni’s rule, but wished to become an independent state, just like they were before the arrival of the Bazungu, would that be a bad thing? Would it be right to condemn them?
Independence does mean freedom from whatever systems the coloniser forced upon us, doesn’t it? Isn’t border delimitation a system? What if some African countries just can’t just “work” as they were “designed” by the colonisers? What if some communities would develop better if allowed to retreat back to their initial states (as far as territory is concerned) especially if this would allow them to create systems that incorporate their specific belief systems and traditions?
A friend was telling me the other day that meritocracy is a hard thing to implement in most African countries since our cultures teach us, from a young age, that family comes first… then after the family, the clan, after the clan, the race… and so on. It’s hard for most Africans to appreciate the value of a person solely based on their capacity to accomplish a given task… relationships (a relative, same clan, same village of origin, same political party, a friend) are likely to matter most when considering who to give a job or a vote to. [This makes most Burundians believe that Burundi will never have a Tutsi President again, since a large majority of the electorate is Hutu.] An African who puts capacity before relationship is often branded as brainwashed and “un-African”… but we still somehow envy or expect that meritocratic systems can work at home… Weird! And so if meritocracy can’t work, why should we expect democracy to be effective and our politics to be sane? I do realise that some policies like Nyerere’s “Ujamaa” and Kagame’s way of doing things could work to bridge the gaps between the different communities that make up our nations, kill sectarianism and create sorts of national pride amongst the people, but let’s not forget that many aspects of these policies are often frowned upon by the “International Community” (and they don’t always work).
I don’t want to sound pessimistic, pro-division or anything; all I’m wondering is: what if the reason why some African countries have problems is because they did their independences wrong… i.e. the communities stayed united when they shouldn’t have? I can’t help imagine how our former colonisers could be laughing at us from their capitals, as they watch us clumsily deal with systems [of their creation] that just don’t work with the way we see and do things, starting with the territories they left us to manage. We should change our ways to adapt to the new systems you say? Wouldn’t that be the death of Africa, for what are our societies without their beliefs systems, their traditions and their cultures?