Civilization has brought forth a plethora of phenomena; From religions and gods, languages, political-economic systems as capitalism and socialism, technology, science, and mathematics, to fashion and social trends.
But perhaps the most subtle one, yet still the most fundamental is the organization of different tribes and cultures into nations.
Think about this. It is pleasantly astounding how the same tribe, split by an imaginary national or international boundary, considers the group on the other side of the border as a different people yet identifies with a tribe of a different ancestry residing within the same boundary; How a Luo would enlist into the Kenyan army to ward off the Acholi invaders from neighbouring Uganda with whom they share a common lineage with. It is amazing how powerful this nation-state civilization is, that it has separated cultures and tribes with a commonality and amalgamated divergent people
And so, here we are. Stuck with nation-states. Let us define the parameters. A nation is by definition a people united by tribe, culture, ancestry, or history while a state is a physical territory occupied by the nation. We can hence piece together the definition of a nation-state as a people unified by culture, history, tribe, or ancestry occupying a given territory.
Given the above definitions, we gather that a tribe is a constituent of a nation-state. A tribe is specifically a people united by blood ties, culture, language or/and ancestry. Tribes have been around for a longer time than nations. Throughout our evolution, our forbearers have organized themselves into tribes for various reasons, among them to maintain the “purity”of our bloodlines, to preserve our respective cultures, and as a sense of belonging and identity. All these have helped the tribe to survive.
Nations are relatively young. Looking at the nation-states today, whether monarchs, autocratic or democratic ones, we notice a trend. That although they are composed of people of the same tribe or culture, most are in existence as a result of a series of related or unrelated historical events.
African states would serve as a consummate example. The states, as we know them, are a consequence of history. The history of modern-day Africa starts at the Berlin Conference of 1884. The Industrial Revolution is peaking in Europe. The major European powers are meeting to discuss how they would partition among themselves a colossal stretch of land, South of Europe, inhabited by a black race. This stretch of land they christened “The Dark Continent” is apparently, having key natural resources requisite for their manufacturing industries. An agreement is reached. The scramble for resources is on.
The first Imperial European ships hit the coasts of Africa in the late 1800s. In East Africa, the British formed the Imperial British East African Company(IBEACO) that would coordinate the siphoning of East African Resources for British industries. However, one of the major hindrances the Europeans faced in this resource rush was hostility from local tribes. The British, as with other European powers in Africa realized that if they were to systematically cart away African resources while avoiding tribal hostility, they would have to organize large swathes of resource-rich lands into a state under one ruler. In this way, the exploitation of natural resources would be centralized
However, the history of states isn’t a modern civilization. The Europeans themselves got organized in medieval times, during the Middle Ages. A series of wars and treaties among ancient European tribes gave birth to modern states like the United Kingdom, France, and Spain. The present-day nation of Greece is an amalgam of Ancient Greek Nations of Athens, Corinth, Thebes, and Sparta. The Roman Empire, The Ottomans, and The Mongols are all ancient groups of states. The list is long.
We realize that states are just constructs from the illustrations above. In the case of African states, they are what I would call “Imperialist constructs”. They were brought into existence by the Imperialist Europeans. They aren’t permanent or a result of a natural process but are much a man-made phenomenon. What this implies is that nations can merge to form states and states can break into their constituent nations. In fact, even a nation can break when the culture or the cause that defines the nation breaks. Like the ancient nation-state of Sparta, nation-states can cease to exist in the fullness of time.
Are tribes also constructs? Tribes disappear too, don’t they? I concur that tribes are constructs because they aren’t permanent. If a tribe is also defined by language which is a disappearing phenomenon of human civilization, then tribe must be a construct. History agrees with this discourse too. But I wouldn’t put the tribe in the same group of constructs as nation-states.
What constitutes a tribe runs deeper than what constitutes a nation. A tribe is formed by more complex social forces than a nation. There’s an evolutionary angle in the formation of a tribe; the need to maintain the “purity” of the bloodline which ensures the survival of a people. On the other hand, a nation serves no evolutionary purpose. It only aims to organize a people for prosperity. Evolution, the most powerful force in nature, prioritizes survival over any other need of the animal, we humans included.
From historical and political perspectives, we clearly see why tribes will outlast nations. From history, nations have either formed or disintegrated as a result of tribal and cultural realignments. History is littered with examples; The tribes of Scots, Irish, and English came together to form the United Kingdom, The Soviet Union was a constituent of smaller tribal nations that united to practice the communism cause, The United States of America was formed when a group of capitalistic states merged, etc.
What about nations that have disintegrated due to tribal disagreements? The nation of South Sudan, most recently, was formed when the Southern tribes seceded from the larger Sudan. The nation of Somalia may be teetering on the brink of failure due to a protracted war, which, although is globally interpreted as a war between Islamists and the Western-backed Somali government is much a war among Somali clans. What about the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds wreaking havoc in the nation-states of Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Afghanistan under the pretext of establishing a caliphate, while the whole fiasco is, largely, a fight for domination between the warring Arabic tribes? The above examples should suffice.
In conclusion, tribes are much stronger constructs than nations. When the civilization of nation-states will come tumbling down or metamorphose into a hybrid system, tribes shall remain. The tribe is the atom, maybe even the quark, in the nation-state element.