Cultural dilemmas: Tribalism in PNG

Ex kiap Paul Oates explores problems associated with tribalism in Papua New Guinea and overseas.
Cultural dilemmas: Tribalism in PNG Cultural dilemmas: Tribalism in PNG Cultural dilemmas: Tribalism in PNG Cultural dilemmas: Tribalism in PNG Cultural dilemmas: Tribalism in PNG

Papua New Guinea officially turned 38 on September 16. While the national borders may be traced back to the 19th century colonial split up of the South Pacific, PNG's people, cultures and languages go back many thousands of years.

With Polynesian, Melanesian, Micronesian and Austronesian backgrounds, PNG has been referred to as the land of 1000 tribes and 850+ languages, or a significant proportion of the world's living languages.

So what is tribalism?

Tribalism can be seen as a sense of belonging to or identifying with an ethnic grouping or essentially an extended family. It's putting a handle on things, such as familiar culture and language or possibly physical resemblances.

PNG's national motto is ‘Unity in Diversity'. The nation presents a unique picture of diversity made up of many different cultures. Each of the artificially imposed regions of Papua, Islands, Mamose and Highlands have then been split up into provinces, districts, Census divisions, tribes and clans. These divisions can be even further divided into extended families.

Yet there are signs that the wonderful diversity of culture and languages that has so far created a system of checks and balances and preserved national solidarity may well be breaking down.

This noticeable shift in the status quo may well have the potential for generating tensions within the nation that could threaten future national solidarity.

Typically, in nations where many small ethnic groupings exist and no one major group dominates all others, stability results. Conversely, a significant imbalance that emerges in the ethnic or cultural makeup of a nation often means that problems will arise.

An awareness of this was seemingly evident during the pre-Independence period (1888-1973) when Australia dominated the government and infrastructure of PNG.

During the Australian administration, efforts were made to ensure no one region, district or ethnic grouping dominated the PNG public service and the armed services.

Prior to Independence in 1975, PNG had a stable infrastructure and public service.

Recruitment initiatives for the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary consistently tried to ensure that each intake of trainees was composed of representatives from a variety of districts or today's provinces.

The Pacific Islands Regiment, the forerunner of the PNG Defence Force, was recruited using much the same methodology. Squads and platoons were made up of many different ethnic groups, training and working together for the common cause.

This perhaps left PNG better placed than many young African nations in post-Colonial times.

In the colonies of Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Kenya for example, civil war and strife erupted when the large ethnic majority started to exert its dominance over the smaller minority or minorities.

In Nigeria, the Hausa and other northern Muslim tribes sought to dominate and control the resources (predominantly oil) of the Christian Ibo minority, thus creating the Biafran war. Yet the Nigerian National Motto is: ‘Unity and Faith, Peace and Progress'.

In today's nation of Zimbabwe, the country's motto of ‘Unity, Freedom, Work' seems to sit on a very shaky pedestal. Zimbabwe is basically made up from two main ethnic groups. In Mashonaland, the Shona majority of 70% seeks to dominate the Ndebele 20% minority of Matabeleland through political appointments made by the nation's virtual dictator Robert Mugabe.

Mugabe comes from the Shona majority.

The term ‘ethnic cleansing' has even been used to describe Mugabe's actions against his tribal enemies, the Ndebele.

Clearly the word ‘Unity' means different things to different people.

If the history of Zimbabwe's tribal struggle were to be examined, it goes back to when the Matabele under Mzilikazi broke away from their Zulu king, Shaka, and fled north in the early 19th century.

Here the Matabele attacked using Zulu warfare methods and defeated the Mashona. The Matabele then settled on Mashona land. The capital of Matabeleland is Bulawayo and translated into the local language means ‘Place of the killing'.

While a basically European minority held power, Zimbabwe prospered and was a rich food and resource producer and exporter.

When Ian Smith's UDI regime was toppled - due to external pressures, along with internal warfare by the allied ZANU PF and ZAFU guerrillas from the Mashona and Ndebele - the expectation was that the new nation's prosperity would continue.

After the first national elections held after the Smith regime was overthrown, the overwhelming Zanu PF (a Mashona-majority party) gradually sought to dominate the Ndebele minority through all means at their disposal.

Zimbabwe then slipped into virtual dictatorship, with Zanu PF leader Robert Mugabe expropriating land and farms, effectively excluding his Ndebele rivals from power and wealth. Zimbabwe has slipped to become a net importer of food and many are reportedly starving.

Being a land of many tribes, Kenya's national motto is ‘Let us all pull together'. After the granting of independence, the Kikuyu majority (currently 22%) clearly saw their role in post-colonial times as the logical dominant force to control the nation. The post-colonial leader Jomo Kenyatta was a Kikuyu and the Kikuyu clearly felt that the nation's motto equated to pulling in the direction those from Kikuyu tribe wanted.

Are there any parallels from these recent African examples that may equate with the tribal make-up of modern PNG? Let's look at some examples of post-colonial nations closer to home.

During World War II, the American forces then fighting the Japanese expansion on the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands imported some labourers from a neighbouring island of Malaita.

After the war, when the allied forces left the Solomons, these Malaitan people stayed on and increased in population, thereby displacing the original owners.

This led to a direct confrontation and open battles between the two ethnic groups, for which even after the hostilities ceased, there is still no real answer today.

The people of Bougainville and Buka Island in the North Solomons Province are very conscious of their shared ethnic origins with the neighbouring Solomon Islands.

An impending referendum may well see the North Solomons Province succeed from PNG and either become a separate nation or possibly join the Solomons in a free association.

Political point-scoring from some politicians has raised the possibility that other Provinces such as New Ireland, might attempt to follow to follow the North Solomon's example.

Tensions between the various tribal groupings on the main island have existed for many thousands of years and are not likely to disappear any time soon. Papuan land originally belonging to the people of the original coastal villages of Hanuabada, etc. is now being used for the growing Capital of Port Morseby and the various surrounding squatter settlements.

In the city of Lae, the same situation exists with the original Ahi landowners now having to compete with those from other areas.

Landowners are constantly being reminded not to try and sell their land no matter what offers they receive. Land is owned communally and is not for sale. Leasing agreements are also fraught with danger, because what happens when the lessors then won't or can't move away when the local landowners want the land back?

Could more traditional landowners lose control over their own land?

The recently reported O'Neill government's moves to change the PNG Constitution are seen by some to be a gradual tightening of control by those who hold political power. The Permanent Committee on Constitutional Laws, Acts and Subordinate proposes to cut the sitting days of Parliament each year from 63 to 40, increase the time required to raise a ‘no confidence' to one month, and increase the number of votes necessary to hold a no confidence vote.

Given the inability of the vast majority of PNG people to become engaged in discussing this proposal, the democratic principles of this move must surely be held in question.

Could population pressures and the relative densities from areas such as the PNG Highlands or the Sepik end up as political voting blocs controlling future government decisions over Papuan or Morobean land?

Given the known historical precedencies, could this be the shape of things to come?

Published in the October 2013 PNG Report magazine

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