It has now become fashionable in Malawi for ethnic groups to form tribal associations. Following the first tribal associations – Chewa Heritage Foundation, Mulhakho wa Alhomwe and Mzimba Heritage Association—smaller ethnic groups have also formed their own tribal associations. Examples include the Nkhata Bay Cultural Heritage Association, Karonga-Chitipa Cultural Heritage, Chiwanja cha Ayawo and more recently, Mgumano wa Asena na Amang’anja.
These associations are formed to advance wide-ranging purposes. Some are designed solely to promote and preserve their cultures—often interpreted superficially as dance and language. Others are established, in addition or alternatively, to promote and facilitate socio-economic development through education, basic infrastructure and business.
Typically, these associations are driven by the elite who work in cahoots with chiefs and village headmen. Their main activities seem to be hosting discussion fora, fundraising and organising the so-called annual cultural heritage spectacles.
Do these tribal associations have a meaningful role in Malawi’s burgeoning democracy or are they an impediment to unity and the consolidation of democracy?
This question obviously invites a pros-and-cons analysis. On the pros-side of the scale, is the promotion of the value of cultural diversity to which tribal associations no doubt contribute. Except Chichewa, all vernacular languages in Malawi have existed largely in oral form and developed largely informally. These languages remain to be fully studied linguistically, socially and historically. They also have not benefited from sustained formal literary or artistic development.
Due to increased human mobility and enhanced cultural osmosis enabled by globalisation, information technology, television and other media, these cultures face potential extinction in the foreseeable future. The cultural activities that tribal associations are promoting can thus help to preserve these cultures.
Connected to cultural development is socio-economic development. There is a growing awareness that the state of development in the country is dire and that urgent action needs to be taken to assist the state in its development efforts. Unsurprisingly, some associations see themselves as a vehicle for ethnic-based cooperation and mobilisation to solve some of the development challenges encountered in their ethnic-defined geographical areas.
In fulfilling these roles, it could be argued that tribal associations derive their legitimacy from key constitutional rights such as freedom of association and the right to use the language and to participate in the cultural activities of one’s choice.
However, on the cons side of the scale are significantly weighty concerns. Mobilization along tribal lines is intrinsically exclusionary and often results in discrimination based on ethnic or social origin, language or birth status. Such discrimination can occur at the level membership or intended beneficiaries of the charitable causes the associations champion.
Cultural and ethnic diversity, as we have seen in Africa, can be both a blessing and a curse. Some think that cultural and ethnic diversity promotes originality, authenticity and tolerance. Others think that cultural diversity promotes intolerance, hatred and discrimination. Whichever position one takes, the African experience shows that while there are many benefit of cultural diversity, national development has been severely impeded by a pre-occupation with ethnicity and tribalism which tribal associations tend to foster either intentionally or indirectly.
How tribal associations contribute to the curse is that they provide a means for the elite to mobilize and exploit ethnic cleavages for political gain. The political problems Kenya has faced in the last decade have arisen largely from the predominance of tribal pacts in national politics. Tribal associations also serve as a means of distributing and entrenching tribal systems of patronage.
Evidence abounds in Malawi of the troubling links between tribal associations and politics, patronage and tribalism. Every government since 1964 has linked itself to a particular ethnic group, whose culture and people it has promoted. The MCP government raised the Chewa above all other ethnic groups. Muluzi’s government promoted the Yao, although he was generally pro-South in general. The DPP government has tended to promote the Lhomwe.
In general, the tribal association linked to the ethnical group of the incumbent president enjoys greater patronage and disproportionate state support. This not only includes the amount of state resources that are given to the association but also the increased recruitment of its members to public positions.
The negative effects of tribal associations mean that their intended role is often overshadowed. Malawi, like all other African states, needs to develop a strong sense of national belonging so that all her citizens feel equal before the law and free to contribute to the socio-economic development of the country as a whole. To do this, there is no reason why non-ethnic based associations cannot fulfill the positive functions of tribal associations. An association can promote a particular culture or particular cultures without its membership being limited to members of a particular tribe. More importantly, it is the state’s primary function to promote all cultures equally and refrain from discrimination on any ground.
In conclusion, the inevitable politicization of tribal associations and their link to patronage make tribal societies a uniquely improper means of facilitating socio-economic and cultural development in Malawi.