By Ebou Gaye
The remarks made by some participants in the ongoing debate on tribalism are a cause for great concern to many Gambians and friends of The Gambia who have been following lengthy exchanges. The debate takes the form of accusations and counter-accusations of tribalism, accompanied by the use of foul, provocative language. To put it bluntly, the remarks are too dangerous, as they are derogatory, disparaging, disgusting and disturbing. I therefore consider it necessary to add my voice by giving my opinion on the issue as a way of defusing tension with the ultimate goal of safeguarding our peaceful co-existence as people of diverse tribes/ethnic groups and religions. Gambia is a very small country/community in which people are related/connected in one way or the other, know each other and have lived together in peace and harmony for so long in spite of tribal/ethnic and religious affiliation. I can use myself as an example in this respect. I have experience of intermarriage (marrying a Mandinka woman), like many other Gambians. Besides, I have family members/close relatives (men and women) who are married to members of tribes different from ours, such as Fula, Mandinka, Jola and Manjago. Additionally, I am blessed with good, affectionate friends and confidants from various tribal/ethnic and religious backgrounds. Hence, I have the conviction that we should try as much as possible to avoid acts and utterances that have the danger of raising tribal/ethnic or religious tension and souring or jeopardizing our relationships, so that we can continue to cohabit or live together and interact peacefully and harmoniously despite our diversity. Engaging in such acts or making such utterances is just like playing with fire. As one can easily be consumed or seriously burnt if he plays with fire, one can endanger oneself or facilitate his destruction by exciting or arousing tribal/ethnic and religious sentiments. Thus, I am appealing to all participants to try to exercise self-restrain in the debate by refraining from utterances that have nullifying effects on the intimate, cordial relationships/ties we been enjoying over the years, taking into account the undeniable, irrefutable fact that the subject under discussion is an extremely sensitive one. We all know that it is part of human nature to have divergent views or different ideas, but we should not regard or treat each other as enemies based on that or other unreasonable, irrational considerations such as tribal/ethnic and religious identity. I believe we can debate, exchange ideas and iron out differences in opinion without using vulgar, inflammatory language. Our venerable prophet (may peace be upon him) has said in this regard: “A good/nice word is charity.” “Let him who believe in Allah and the Last Day (the Day of Judgment) say good/beneficial things or keep quiet.” May Allah guide and protect us! Amen!
Now, allow me to reproduce- in this connection- an article I wrote in the Daily Observer newspaper of The Gambia on 17 April 2004 and later published in Gambian online newspapers, entitled Intolerance: A Recipe for Conflicts and Sufferings:
Intolerance can be defined as inability or lack of willingness or readiness to accept ideas, ideologies or ways of behaviour of others or refusal to co-habit, co-operate, interact or deal with people or members of a group one conceives to be different from oneself or different from the members of one’s group.
Experience has taught that intolerance engenders conflicts and is most dangerous where it is connected with religious, racial/tribal/ethnic and political sentiments, each of which can influence the others.
What obtains in northern Nigeria is a glaring example of religious intolerance. There, Muslims and Christians are always at daggers drawn, killing each other and vandalizing churches, mosques and other valuable properties. This is not in the interest of either of the contending parties, as both suffer casualties and material losses besides having their daily businesses hampered or interrupted, which would not happen if they co-habited in peace.
Religious intolerance can be interpreted as ignorance of the teachings of the Religious Scriptures- particularly the Muslim and Christian ones- or blatant, flagrant disregard of such teachings. Allah the Almighty has stated in the Glorious Qur’an that there is no compulsion in religion. According to the Qur’an, those who call people to God should do it with wisdom and fair exhortation- not with violence. The Holy Bible enjoins us to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. This injunction concurs with the saying of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) that he who believes in Allah and the Last Day would not harm his neighbour. The venerable prophet (peace be upon him) signed peace pacts with Christians and Jews in Medina and lived with them in perfect peace. Thus, people of different faiths who live together can enjoy veritable, durable peace if they understand and follow the teachings of religion.
The Rwandan genocide involving the Hutu and the Tutsi tribes, in which an estimated number of 800,000 people were massacred in 100 days, serves as a pertinent example of racial/tribal/ethnic intolerance. Added to this appalling holocaust is the displacement of a large number of people who suffered miserably, coupled with a very great loss of properties. The clashes between the Hutus and the Tutsis in neighbouring Burundi and the Hemas and the Lendus in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), former Zaire, also exemplify racial/tribal/ethnic intolerance.
Again, it can rightly be stated that having knowledge of the teachings of religion and practising such teachings could help prevent or avoid a tragedy of this nature and magnitude. The Holy Qur’an reads in this regard: “Oh you who believe, We have created you from a single pair of male and female and made you into nations and tribes so that you may know each other. Verily, the most honoured among you is the one who fears God the most. God is knowledgeable and well experienced.”
It can be seen from the above citation that no one can rightly claim superiority over others on the basis of race, tribe or ethnicity, and such a claim can be interpreted as challenging God’s wisdom and intelligence. Logically and scientifically speaking, such a claim is preposterous and untenable, for human beings are born equal and made of the same materials, which makes it folly to hate, despise, disrespect or look down on others based on race, tribe or ethnicity.
Examples of political intolerance are plentiful in Africa where politicians on the opposite sides of the political divide are always locked in squabbles, with the members of each side defaming or demonizing the other. Owing to the insincerity, hypocrisy, selfishness and greed characterizing African politics in many cases, political intolerance impacts heavily and negatively on tribalism. In Africa, perfidious, power-hungry and blood-thirsty politicians have the nasty habit of fanning the flames of tribal sentiments for political gain.
The Ivorian crisis, which claimed so many lives and displaced a colossal number of people, can be cited as an example in this respect. In Ivory Coast, discriminatory laws were passed with the sole aim of barring popular candidates from contesting in elections as a way of guaranteeing victory to less popular candidates. Chief among these is the heatedly-disputed ivoireté law according to which some Ivorians were deemed more Ivorian (bona fide) than others who were considered to be second-class citizens or foreigners, and hence have less rights than the members of the former category, thereby disenfranchised. This silly act by crooked, errant politicians split the country into two main parts for quite a long time: the northern part dominated by Muslims and controlled by the New Forces rebel group, and the southern one dominated by Christians and controlled by the government. A remarkable fact is that a very large number of the inhabitants of the northern part are from the Dioula tribe whereas the southern part is predominantly inhabited by other tribes.
Likewise, politicians have a big share of the blame in the Rwandan genocide, as evidenced by the conviction of former politicians and the confessions of former Prime Minister Jean Kambanda at the Rwandan war crimes tribunal. The same thing can be said about the crisis in Burundi where Nelson Mandela’s idea of rotating presidency and having in place a president from one of the two tribes and a vice-president from the other tribe was implemented to resolve the problem but without attaining the desired degree of success. The politicians of these two countries can be said to be tarred with the same brush as their counterparts in the DRC where the president, Joseph Kabila was at one time assisted by four vice-presidents chosen from different rebel factions and different tribes/ethnic groups with a view to resolving the crisis which still fails to subside. It is worthy to note here that DRC is a misnomer for Zaire, judging by the behaviour of her politicians.
The civil wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea Bissau had some elements of tribal/ethnic and political intolerance blended together in that many people fought to help leaders from their tribes/ethnic groups mount or stay in power, which made the situation enormously catastrophic and grave. An astronomical number of people were killed, with many maimed.
The war involving Islamic groups in Algeria and the rebellion involving the Lord Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda can be viewed as springing up from religious and political bigotry. In the former case, the Islamists resorted to venting their spleen on people after the cancellation of the results of elections which were widely believed to be won by them, and were hence confronted by government forces. This created great terror and led to many deaths and destruction of properties. In the latter case, the leader of the LRA, Joseph Cone was engaged in abducting, killing and mutilating people, especially women and children. He claimed to have the intention of overthrowing the Ugandan government and rule his country by the Ten Commandments of the Holy Bible, but his acts run counter to the teachings of this holy book. Superfluous to say, the resulting confrontations between the LRA and government forces also proved to be calamitous.
The conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis can be analyzed as having religious, racial and political dimensions, and being influenced by both internal and external factors, thereby making it extremely complex and difficult to resolve. Arabs, Muslims and Jews in and outside Palestine and Israel, irrespective of whether they are politicians or not, may be held responsible for this long-lasting, bloody conflict. Everything boils down to intolerance, as support for and opposition to either side of the conflict is normally based on religious, racial and political reasons or sentiments.
We should bear in mind that no country or region on earth is immune to conflicts and their undesirable, unsavory accompaniments in the absence of tolerance. Ivory Coast, which used to be a safe haven and attracted a huge number of migrants during the time of the late President Felix Houphet Boigny, is a clear testimony to this. What has befallen Ivory Coast can happen in any country where people change attitude from ‘tolerance’ to ‘intolerance’ as the Ivorians did. This statement is substantiated by the Qur’anic verse: “God would not change the situation of a people unless they change their attitude.” In other words, God changes the situation of a nation only when they change their attitude or behaviour. So, the citizens of a country can expect positive changes in their lives if they change attitude from bad to good. By the same token, they should not be surprised when they see negative changes in their lives if they change their behaviour from good to bad.
Intolerance breeds discord which can germinate into conflicts that yield affliction or sufferings, affecting everybody, directly or indirectly. Therefore, it is wise for those countries renowned for tolerance to try to safeguard or maintain such a virtue if they want to avoid conflicts and live in peace and harmony, for prevention is better than cure. Countries that are marked by intolerance and conflicts should try to change attitude for the better if they want to manoeuvre their way out of their awkward situation or troubles. To enjoy global peace and stability, people all over the world should learn to exercise tolerance and restraint.