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Mission and democracy in Africa: the problem of ethnocentrism.

The history of the church in Africa reveals that socio-political involvement is an integral part of its mission in, to, and for the world. In the present decade support for democratic governance has reached a new level. Through sermons, interviews, and seminars African church leaders have expressed deep concern about the oppressive nature of the one-party political system operating on the continent.

In January 1990 Timothy Njoya, a Presbyterian minister in Kenya, preached a New Year's sermon in which he challenged African political leaders to reexamine their preference for single-party government. He drew attention to the rapid disintegration of the political system in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Since many African political leaders had adopted the political ideologies of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, Njoya urged that they should also consider pursuing a democratic form of government, which Eastern Europe was then contemplating.(1) Other church leaders in Kenya, including Bishop David Gitari and Bishop Henry Okullu, against strong government opposition, have called for public debate on the need for democracy in Africa based on political pluralism. According to the newspaper African Christian, the church leaders "ignored President Arap Moi's order to put an end to the debate on [multiparty government] in Kenya saying that the debate had not started and should, therefore, not be stopped."(2)

Church leaders from West and Southern Africa also made similar public pronouncements. At a press conference in Cameroon in June 1990, Cardinal Christian Tumi of the Catholic Church argued that his country needed a multiparty system of government with an officially recognized opposition party. He expressed his conviction that a democratic form of government would help to deal with the problem of rampant corruption and other severe injustices in his country. He explained that the church in Cameroon had taken a strong stand against the government because "people no longer see clearly where they are going and are beginning to despair."(3)

In the same year Ghana established a forum for national debate on the type of democratic political institutions best suited for the nation, extending an invitation to all organizations and institutions in the country to participate. Although not officially included in the general invitation yet sensing the need for the church's involvement, the Christian Council of Ghana prepared a document entitled, "The Church and Ghana's Search for a New Democratic System." The purpose of this study document was to "create an atmosphere that would ensure that its members get the opportunity as citizens of the country to share their views freely."(4) What is remarkable about the stance taken by the Christian Council of Ghana is that the government - the Provisional National Defense Council (PNDC) - had wanted to make sure that no other platforms were created for the debate except the one under the control of the government. Thus, the forum created by the Christian Council of Ghana was a radical challenge to the PNDC. The conclusions of the church's debate were formulated, and a copy was sent to the government so that the views of the church could be reflected in the final outcome of the national debate on democracy.

These examples cited from East and West Africa make it clear that the year 1990 marked an important stage of the church's concern for the establishment of political pluralism on the continent of Africa. To be sure, the beginnings of the church's concern for multiparty systems of government in Africa go back much further than 1990. But never before has there been such widespread agitation for democratic governance, affecting almost every country of the continent under a single-party system.

Africa faces several massive obstacles as it embarks on its democratic experiment. One such problem - and the focus of this article - is ethnocentrism. My thesis is that the African church in its missionary witness has some positive contributions to make in addressing the problem of ethnocentrism. First, I define what I mean by the term "ethnocentrism." Second, I show briefly that the single-party system has failed to address the problem of ethnocentrism in Africa. Third, I point out some of the contributions that the African church has made in dealing with the issue of ethnocentrism, and what further contributions it can make in the democratization of the continent. My conclusion is that a faithful missionary witness of the church will have massive impact on the success of democracy in Africa.

Ethnocentrism-a Definition

Ethnocentrism is an intellectual, emotional, and cultural attitude of a particular group of people who regard the identities and values of other groups of people as false, inferior, or immoral as compared to their own. Ethnocentric groups become strongly attached to their own cultural identity, values, symbols, and ideologies, almost to the point of worshiping them. They feel proud of themselves and their system, while regarding other people with contempt, scorn, and bitter hatred. In fact, for such a group "virtue consists in killing, plundering and enslaving" those considered as outsiders. In many cases religion is used to support these negative convictions.(5)

Ethnocentrism is a human condition found among all peoples, Africans not exempted. Every nation in Africa is multiethnic and consists of diverse language groups. Since political independence, one of the major problems is how to shift the emphasis from past allegiance to a single ethnic group to the multiethnic nation-state.(6) During the colonial period the common concern to fight for political independence and economic freedom led diverse ethnic groups to unite. However, after independence multiethnic tensions and pressures surged in most African countries, resulting in civil wars, military dictatorships, political assassinations, and widespread civil unrest.

The Failure of the Single-Party System

The most popular political arrangement since independence has been the one-party system. Almost all African political leaders - with a few exceptions such as President Dauda Jawara of the Gambia - have claimed that a single-party system is the only political solution to Africa's multiethnic tensions. In reality, however, the single-party system has totally failed to resolve ethnic grievances. A citation from President Jawara of the Gambia sums up the failure of one-party governance in addressing ethnic tensions in Africa.

In the past, some African argued that the restriction of political rights and its corollary, the one-party state, is appropriate to Africa as a safety measure against ethnic tensions and internal friction. It was further claimed that one-party rule would provide stability through centralized control during the process of nation-building. In effect, multi-party democracy was seen as an instant recipe for national disaster, on account of the centrifugal forces that were so pervasive in the early stages of our nationhood. This view became even more entrenched as the multi-party experiments in the immediate post-colonial era were marred by confusion and bloody inter-ethnic rivalry and violence .... At any rate, if the justification of one-party rule was to provide stability for economic development, then it has been a disaster. It has led not to sustained economic development, but in most cases to blatant economic failures?

Recent agitations for democratic rule in Africa have confirmed President Jawara's position. The one-party system, which was adopted as a means of creating ethnic unity and economic prosperity, has failed woefully, judged by the intensity with which the people of Africa are urging their political leaders to adopt political pluralism.

What is the church's own missionary witness in such a situation? What contributions can the African church in mission make toward the democratization of the African continent in the face of ethnic tensions and grievances?

Ethnocentrism and Contributions of the Church

In some African countries the church is the only institution of any size other than the state. In the absence of any official opposition party, the church speaks for the whole nation on important sociopolitical issues.(8) The church has such a wide audience partly because, on both local and national levels, the membership of the church cuts across ethnicity. This is all the more remarkable if we realize that in most cases missionary work in Africa began among a particular ethnic group, and then later the indigenous converts and the European missionaries carried the Gospel across ethnic boundaries.(9) The Christian community thereby demonstrated that its mission cuts across ethnicity. Through the proclamation of Jesus Christ as the Lord of all, the church has brought together heterogenous groups.

Not only in the growth of the church across ethnic borders have diverse ethnic groups been drawn together. The promotion of formal education by the church has been another important instrument for breaking down some of the ethnic divisions. It is well known that education has been an integral part of the church's mission in Africa. The church helped to establish higher education including secondary schools and some of the universities in Africa. Education played a major part in bringing together different ethnic groups and offered opportunity for multiethnic dialogue. In the Anglophone countries, for instance, the introduction of a common school system with English as a common foreign language was instrumental in uniting people with different ancestral histories, memories, and customs. The importance of education in uniting people of multiethnic backgrounds is well articulated by some Uganda Christians as they reflected on their own experience at school:

The entire Uganda is strongly unified by the common school system. English is spoken from Cubic to Medullar, from Busia to Natutically. School etiquette, uniform, syllabus, ethos, examination have gone a long way in unifying all Ugandans. Boarding schools throughout Uganda have been and still are admitting pupils and students from every tribe. These sleep in the same dormitories, often sharing the same double-decker beds; they form the same clubs and associations.(10)

Whatever the shortcomings of missionary education in Africa, education has in fact served as a means of uniting multiethnic groups.

Another important contribution of missionary education in terms of ethnicity is that the schools produced African scholars who had great passion for uniting different ethnic groups under a single nation. The early African nationalists, most of whom were Christians, had great determination to build nations that comprised diverse ethnic groups. For instance, S. R. B. Attoh Ahumah, Caseley Hayford, and John Mensah Sarbah, who were Methodists, worked toward the creation of a multiethnic nation-state in Ghana. Attoh Ahumah's book The Gold Coast Nation and National Consciousness is an eloquent expression of the determination of African Christian nationalists to draw together many different ethnic groups to form a nation-state. A citation from this book represents the concerns and the expectations of many Christian nationalists:

We dare affirm, with sanctity of reason and with the emphasis of conviction, that WE ARE A NATION. It may be .... a Nation "scattered and peeled ... a Nation meted out and trodden down," but still a Nation. If we were not, it was time to invent one; for any series of States in the same locality, however extensive, may at any time be merged into a nation. We are a Nation, and what is more, we have a Past.(11)

In carrying out its mission of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the African church produced men and women who had great vision for the day when divided and scattered ethnic groups in Africa would come together as sovereign nations on the continent, sharing together and being mutually enriched by diverse ancestral stories and memories. Today, as the continent of Africa seeks to unite heterogenous ethnic groups under democratic structures, the past contributions of the church must be a source of inspiration. We need to catch the vision of the first-generation African Christian nationalists in our present democratic experiment.

To be sure, the presence of the church in Africa during the colonial and postcolonial periods also created divisions and antagonism among ethnic groups. Some of these divisions can be attributed to historical accidents and feelings of racial superiority. European missionaries, consumed with zeal to establish their particular denominations and Western civilization, afflicted Africa with their own domestic problems of religious intolerance and suspicions. A good example is what happened in Uganda at the beginning of the missionary enterprise in that country. Protestants and Catholics presented themselves as carriers of two different religions. In competition with Muslims to win the souls of Africans, they gave the Kabaka (the king of Baganda) the opportunity to play Protestants, Catholics, and Muslims against each other, as the king sought to maintain power in a delicate political situation. H. P. Gale has well expressed what happened: "The Missions were placed in the position of merchants spreading-out their wares at the feet of the Kabaka which he criticized favorably or adversely, but never bought."(12) It should not surprise us that Kabaka Mutesa, a man who invited missionaries to Uganda, did not encourage any of his citizens to accept the Christian faith. He did not see Christianity as a religion that would help to unite his people and nation. Even today, the tensions and the divisions created in the past still remain.

Despite some of these failures, the church on the whole has made remarkable contributions in uniting ethnic groups in Africa. If the church in Africa wants to continue its missionary witness of bringing multiethnic groups together, then it must take its own Scripture and theology seriously. I have in mind, in particular, Ephesians 2:11-18.

The message that Ephesians brings to the world community is that God has taken the initiative in Christ Jesus to deal with the hostility, antagonism, and bitter hatred that stand between ethnic groups everywhere. In Christ Jesus a new single humanity has been created; therefore, both Jews and Gentiles have been reconciled to God and to one another. We thus should no longer live as enemies but as people belonging to one family of God. So then we are no more strangers to each other. In union with Christ Jesus and through the work of the Holy Spirit, God expects the church to be a community where all ethnic groups meet, recognize, and accept each other as of equal dignity. Because the church confesses Jesus Christ as Lord of all, it must affirm in practical terms that the hostility and the division that stood between the different ethnic groups have been abolished.

This is not a message that the church proclaims only to the political community. The church itself is under the obligation to live out what it preaches to the world if it wants its missionary witness to be credible and authentic. As David J. Bosch has quite rightly pointed out:

The unity of the church - no, the church itself-is called in question when groups of Christians segregate themselves on the basis of such dubious distinctives as race, ethnicity, sex, or social status. God in Christ has accepted us unconditionally; we have to do likewise with regard to one another .... And Christ's work of reconciliation does not just bring two parties into the same room that they may settle their differences; it leads to a new kind of body in which human relations are being transformed. In a very real sense mission, in Paul's understanding, is saying to people from all backgrounds, "Welcome to the new community in which all are members of one family and bound together by love."(13)

The church in Africa has the obligation to seek ways and means to build relationships between diverse ethnic groups in and outside the church that reflect its belief in what Jesus Christ has accomplished in the cross. The greatest contributions that Africa can make toward the world's understanding of democracy will come from Africa's self-understanding of communal life, the "we" feeling. But Africa can make such a contribution more effectively if it is able to deal with ethnic prejudices. It should be able to create structures that will make it flexible enough for different ethnic groups to interact freely in order to establish genuine partnership among themselves. Exchange of goods and services within and beyond ethnic and national boundaries are possible only when we do not continue to raise dividing walls of hostility and antagonism. In this respect the church of Jesus Christ is expected to translate into reality the message of equality and freedom derived from the reconciliatory work of Christ Jesus in the cross. Through the Spirit the church is given a new vision of unity in Christ that can transform relationships between diverse ethnic groups in the sociopolitical and the ecclesiastical realms.


I appreciate the church's call on African political leaders to embrace political pluralism in Africa. It is a bold step. But the church must realize that it has a part to play in making this a reality. The success of the democratic experiment in Africa will partly depend upon the way the church in Africa translates into reality its vision of the unity of all ethnic groups in Christ. That remains an uncompleted mission of the church.


(1.) "Church Ludas Rebuff Moi," African Christian (Nairobi: Africa Church Information Service) 10, no. 12 (June 30, 1990):8. (2.) "Church Calls for Multipartism," African Christian 10, no. 12 (June 30, 1990):2. (3.) Ibid. (4.) The Church and Ghana's Search for a New Democratic System: Study Materialfor Christians (Accra: Christian Council of Ghana, 1990), p. 3. (5.) See Marilyn B. Brewer and Donald T. Campbell, Ethnocentrism and Intergroup Attitudes: East African Evidence (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Sage Publications, 1976), pp. 1 and 2; see also Robert A. LeVine and Donald T. Campbell, Ethnocentrism: Theories of Conflict, Ethnic Attitudes, and Group Behavior (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1972), pp 7 and 8. (6.) See K. A. Busia, Africa in Search of Democracy (London: Routlege and Kegan Paul), 1967 p. 20; see also John S. Pobee Religion and Politics in Ghana (Accra: Asempa Publishers, Christian Council of Ghana, 1991), p. 24. (7.) West Africa November 4-10,1991, p. 1839. (8.) Ghna is a good example of this. See Robert Aboagye-Mensah, Socio-Political Mission of the Church in Ghana," in A.D. 2000 and Beyond: A Mission Agenda, ed. Vinay Samuel and Chris Sugden (Oxford:Regnumbooks, 1991), pp. 82-96;see also J. N. Kudadjie and Robert Aboagye-Mensah, The Christian and National Politics (Accra: Asempa Publishers, 1991), pp. 30-52. (9.) A good example is Uganda, where missionary work began among the Buganda and later spread to all the other ethnic groups. It is also true of Ghana, where missionary activities of both the Roman Catholic and the Protestant churches began mostly with the Akan, spreading later to all the other ethnic groups. (10.) J. M. Maliggo, J. Katoogo, and G. W. Ssebadduka, Political Education (Mbale: Tororo Diocese Communication Centre, n.d.), p. 63. (11.) S. R. B. Attoh Ahumah, The Gold Coast Nation and National Consciousness, 2d ed. (London: Frank Cass, 1971), p. 1. (12.) H. P. Gale, as cited in F. B. Welbourn, "A Sacral Kingship in Buganda?" (Paper given at Third International Congress of Africanists, Dakar, Senegal, 1967; Yale Divinity school, Day Mission Library copy), p. 1. (13.) David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1991), pp. 167-68.
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Author:Aboagye-Mensah, Robert K.
Publication:International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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