Tribe, land and politics – Africa’s toxic mix

Blaming clashes between Borana and Garre on Ethiopian side of Moyale as tribal disguises deeper political malaise.

A wiser journalist that I once knew gave me a piece of advice, saying: “Beware of simple explanations for complex problems.”

It is a bit of wisdom that has proved profoundly true for the crisis that emerged on the Kenya-Ethiopia border over the past week.

On Friday, fighting between two ethnic groups – the Borana and the Garre – erupted on the Ethiopian side of Moyale, a town that straddles the frontier.

The brief but savage battle killed at least 18 people, and wounded a dozen more (the fact that so many more people died than were injured points to the ferocity of the fighting). More than 30,000 people fled over the border to take shelter in Kenya.

The obvious and easy explanation is that it was a battle over land. The two tribes have competing claims over a stretch of territory in Ethiopia’s arid southeast corner, and an ongoing drought has added pressure to the already scarce grazing land.

Neither the Borana nor Garre refugees could agree on who started the fighting, or what triggered it.


The Borana, who had crammed into the dusty Somare Primary School, a few hundred metres south of the border, said the Garre attacked with weapons the government had given them to fight off an insurgency by ethnic Somalis.

Across town, in another school, the Garre said another group of separatists linked to the Borana had taken advantage of an apparent power-vacuum in Addis Ababa to launch their offensive.

But in a rare moment of consensus, when I asked the respective community elders what lay behind the crisis, all agreed that it was a problem of politics and not tribe.

One Borana elder, Kefiyalewu Tikku, described it as a failure of governance, saying: “This business of tribe can be managed.

“We always had our traditional ways of solving our problems, but the central government (in Addis Ababa) has used a policy of ‘divide-and-rule’ to keep us marginalised.

“The government here is very weak, and so they use it to control us.”

In a way, that is encouraging. Tribe is, after all, an immutable characteristic in Africa. You can’t change your tribe any more than you can change the colour of your blood, so any “tribal conflict” is by definition almost unsolvable.

Describing a conflict as “tribal” also avoids the problem of assigning responsibility. It blames an entire ethnic community for the sins of a few protagonists.

Convenient diversion

And so, as is often the case in Africa, tribe becomes a convenient diversion from the deeper political malaise that seems to drive so many conflicts here.

In the case of Ethiopia, human rights groups and ethnic minorities have repeatedly accused Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of trying to centralise power in Addis Ababa, at the expense of ethnic minorities who live on the fringes of this vast, and incredibly diverse country.

That neglect has spawned separatist movements in the east and the south, and it is no coincidence that Moyale, where the latest fighting erupted, sits on the faultline that separates those two restive regions.

Anyone who doubts this need only look over the border in Kenya. Both Borana and Garre live on this side of Moyale too, yet literally a few metres south of the frontier beacons that dot their way through town, there is no fighting.

The geography and the ethnic mix are the same. The only difference is the way politics is done.

That’s not to suggest the Kenyans are immune from manipulating tribe for political ends though. The last time the Garre and Borana fought was in 2008, when Kenya last held its elections.

So, the solution to the fighting between the two ethnic groups is not to change genetics it is to improve the way they are governed.

Of course, that needs courage and commitment by political leaders to sit down and discuss the problems that create friction in the first place.

At the moment, that is not on anyone’s agenda.