Uniformity and the Nation-Building Project in Postcolonial Africa

Tawana Kupe, Lecturer, Department of English, University of Zimbabwe, and Research Fellow, University of Oslo

The question of national identity was linked to the nation-building project, which depended upon national unity for national development, so the argument by the architects of independence the nationalist leaders went. The nation-building project spooned many "national" things, flags anthems, days, national leaders, national stadiums, national heroes, national airlines and other symbols to which everybody should identify with. Ironically some of the so called national things, especially airlines, took away funds from development and were not even a commercial success

The state-owned and -controlled media could not, did not and was not allowed to question in what sense all this was really contributing to the realisation of nation-building. That kind of questioning was considered to be subversion! The media was used in an instrumental fashion to proclaim the existence of the national phenomena and create a sense of national identity. But as pointed out above, the media was in most cases accessible to a minority and the rather narrow instrumental fashion showed up the artificial nature of the attempt to create a national identity.

National identity was something that needed to be deliberately constructed supposedly for the general good. In the construction of national identity, different ethnic groups had to be moulded into a nation, especially since colonialism had used divide-and-rule tactics to perpetuate itself. This was particularly difficult because, as the paper points out, in cultural identity there lies multiplicity which potentially goes against the unifying tendencies of national identity. In most African countries the nation-building project and national identity were simplified by, in fact, attempts at suppressing the diversity of ethnic groups. The ruling elite tended in many countries to be made up of one ethnic group to the exclusion of others. Or to be made up of the elite from various ethnic groups in uneasy alliances. Attempts at creating a hegemony in such situations tended to founder on the narrow base of the support. The adoption of one-party states and African "socialisms" became a short cut for creating genuine popular support based on balancing the interests of various ethnic and cultural groups.

[From Tawana Kupe. "Comment: New Forms of Cultural Identity in an Afican Society." Media and the Transition of Collective Identities. Ed. Tore Slatta. Oslo: University of Oslo, 1996, page 118. Available from Department of Media and Communications [info@media.uio.no].

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