What is a tribe? The Zulu in South Africa, whose name and common identity was forged by the creation of a powerful state less than two centuries ago, and who are a bigger group than French Canadians, are called a tribe. So are the !Kung hunter-gatherers of Botswana and Namibia, who number in the hundreds. The term is applied to Kenya’s Maasai herders and Kikuyu farmers, and to members of these groups in cities and towns when they go there to live and work. Tribe is used for millions of Yoruba in Nigeria and Benin, who share a language but have an eight-hundred year history of multiple and sometimes warring city-states, and of religious diversity even within the same extended families. Tribe is used for Hutu and Tutsi in the central African countries of Rwanda and Burundi. Yet the two societies (and regions within them) have different histories. And in each one, Hutu and Tutsi lived interspersed in the same territory. They spoke the same language, married each other, and shared virtually all aspects of culture. At no point in history could the distinction be defined by distinct territories, one of the key assumptions built into “tribe.”
Tribe is used for groups who trace their heritage to great kingdoms. It is applied to Nigeria’s Igbo and other peoples who organized orderly societies composed of hundreds of local communities and highly developed trade networks without recourse to elaborate states. Tribe is also used for all sorts of smaller units of such larger nations, peoples or ethnic groups. The followers of a particular local leader may be called a tribe. Members of an extended kin-group may be called a tribe. People who live in a particular area may be called a tribe. We find tribes within tribes, and cutting across other tribes. Offering no useful distinctions, tribe obscures many. As a description of a group, tribe means almost anything, so it really means nothing.
Somewhat related is this post by Josh Ruxin about why Kenya Isn’t Rwanda:
That kind of blithe comparison obscures more than it clarifies. If you rely on the foreign press, the parallels with Rwanda may appear striking: violence committed by one tribe against another (in this case, multiple groups against one); rioting characterized by intense brutality and seemingly indiscriminate murder; most horrifically, hundreds of sanctuary seekers burned to death in a locked church. But there, the similarities abruptly end. What is happening now is terrible and horrifying, but it is not the 1994 Rwandan genocide; something else is occurring, a failure to accompany economic development with a concomitant strengthening of the institutions of political democracy.