LONDON — There was a time not very long ago when African leaders insisted that it was politically incorrect to discuss tribalism. Tribalism was the old face of Africa that the modernizers, inheriting their domains from the departing colonialists, refused to accept.
Thirty years later, the independence movement has come of age and African leaders have been forced to come to terms with reality. Rwanda is only an episode in a series that began with Katanga and Biafra. One hundred years of colonialism -- less, in many countries -- followed by the creation of four dozen new sovereign states, each accepting the colonial boundaries, could not blot out 800 natural tribal groupings.
Rwanda is African tribalism at an extreme, but everywhere on the continent it is an everyday reality. If tribalism is the glue that holds ordinary society together, it is also the gunpowder that can blow it apart when politics, economics or the increasing pressures of a degraded, over-crowded, environment flare up.
In village life, and often in the cities, tribalism operates like free-masonry or the old-school tie -- helping along with jobs and introductions, sharing the burdens of harvest, resolving disputes marital or material and, not least, fashioning distinctive art and music. It is only when conflict erupts that these virtues mutate and the wrong tribal scar becomes a death warrant.
Tribalism became Africa's curse only because of the colonial attempt, aped by the early generation of African nationalists, to ignore it. Thus in Uganda, described by the young Winston Churchill as the ''pearl of Africa,'' the British fashioned a country out of the curdling mixture of Nilotic and Bantu peoples, who had been hostile for centuries. Once the British left it was not long before the country started to fall apart. Idi Amin's terrible regime was the product of tribal enmity, not the cause.
This is not to argue that Africa should be broken up into 200 parts, with boundaries neatly drawn around each tribe, however inconsequential. This might work in Nigeria, where the tribal groupings are large enough to rival many European nations; elsewhere it would often be ludicrous.
Besides, traditional leaders are not necessarily models of virtue. Who, after all, would want to be ruled by the Lunda paramount chief, Mwatayamvo, who reputedly wears a necklace of human testicles passed down by his ancestors? His writ runs in parts of Zambia, Angola and Zaire. Even such a dictator as Zaire's Mobuto Sese Seko is careful where he treads on Mwatayamvo's turf.
Nor would war disappear from Africa if tribal rule were reintroduced. In Somalia, the scene of one of Africa's worst modern disasters, there are no ethnic or religious divisions, but, armed with the feast of weapons left over from the country's Cold War patrons (first the Soviet Union and then America), clan leader has fought clan leader in an unmitigated personal quest for power.
Some redrawing of the map of Africa is inevitable. Is it possible for the Hutus and Tutsis ever to live together again, even though they speak the same language? The latest is their fourth pogrom since independence, each more murderous than the last. Hutus also people parts of Zaire, and tribes closely related to the Tutsis inhabit Uganda. Maybe Rwanda, a totally artificial creation of the Belgians, should be negotiated away.
Ethiopia shows that it is possible to have an amicable divorce of peoples. After the overthrow of dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Eritreans of the north went their own way in civilized fashion. There was a referendum, then a pause for reflection, and then both sides agreed on a timetable for separation.
On the other hand, Julius Nyerere's relatively benign one-man rule in Tanzania showed that it is possible to bind various tribes together into one nation if the leadership is both impartial and inspired, as his was. Tanzania, to my knowledge, has never even experienced a Saturday night tribal punch-up, much less a pogrom.
To tribe or not to tribe. It is a most difficult question. After Rwanda, Africa has to start answering it.
Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.