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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

The Common Good in Kenya

Politicization of ethnic identities

Aquiline Tarimo, S.J.

One of the challenges tearing Kenya apart includes the tendency of manipulating ethnic identities for private interest. We can grasp the root causes of the prevailing ethno-political competition, discrimination, and violence insofar as we take seriously the following questions. How is ethnic identity related to the conflict of loyalties and interests? How has the dynamics of ethnic identities fashioned the existing understanding of the common good and political life? Have Christian churches and other religions managed to stand above ethnocentrism and the tension it generates? In search for long-term solutions to these questions this essay shows how ill-founded methodologies tend to substitute equal citizenship among citizens in favor of the model of exclusion founded upon ethnic affiliation. The challenge of integrating cultural identities in the processes of political integration and democratization is closely related to the problematic concepts of nation-state, citizenship, and common good.

Problems challenging Kenyan political life are numerous, and some of them are cultural in the sense that they are related to cherished practices inherited from indigenous cultures. It could be argued that such problems do not only result from the imposition of European colonial rule with its concomitant introduction of European cultural values and institutions. Rather, some of the problems are related to the Kenyan capacity to grapple with the changing conditions of life, especially the challenge to integrate ethnic identities into the structure of nation-state.

The tendency of manipulating ethnic identities for private interest can thoroughly be understood if we take seriously the following questions. How is ethnic identity related to the conflict of loyalties and interests? How has the dynamics of ethnic identities fashioned the existing understanding of the common good and political life? Have Christian churches managed to stand above ethnocentrism and the tension it generates? Given the importance of these questions the root cause of ethno-political competition, discrimination, and violence deserves a critical examination. The focus and structure of this essay follow the framework of the aforementioned questions.

Ethno-Political Competition, Discrimination, and Violence
Kenya is a multi-ethnic society, and many communities have lived in harmony for many years. In recent years, however, the dominant ethnic groups have been on the forefront in fighting for political power. This situation has resulted into fighting to control the state. The relatively less dominant communities have been playing the card of opportunism. Many ethnic groups supported the armed struggle for independence in hope that they could regain their stolen lands. This expectation did not become reality. The situation has fomented anger, resentment, lust for revenge, and aggressive competitiveness that has overlooked the common good of the entire country. Frustration among the poor, both in urban and rural areas, has created a growing tendency to use violence as a viable means to correct the situation. When violent reactions emerge, under the influence of ethno-political ideologies, tend to take the form of ethnocentrism, the ideology that animates the competition between ethnic groups.

A section of the population was unhappy about the outcome of the election of December 2007, but, to a certain extent the occasion presented a chance to correct some of the historical wrongs committed against certain communities.1 Injustice occurred in the area of land ownership, when land was confiscated from the indigenous people by British settlers and later retaken by politically powerful personalities after independence in 1963. Instead of returning the stolen lands to the original owners, the politically connected personalities benefited the occasion of the departing white settlers to grab land, while relegating those who owned the land before the white settlers came to the category of the landless. Reactions of discontent have been revealed in the land clashes of 1992, 1997, and 2007. These clashes display the anger among those living in impoverished conditions. Others are also frustrated because of the deliberate delay in addressing certain problems haunting the society since independence.
Ethno-political competition, which has been alive since independence, has finally degenerated into ethno-political competition, discrimination, and violence.2 Ever since the flawed election triggered a wave of ethno-political violence "many people have been violently driven from their homes and many are now resettling in ethnically homogenous zones. Even some of the packed slums in certain cities have split along ethnic lines." 3 Ethnic demarcation and regionalism, as promoted by ethnic leaders, revolve around the practice of ethnic discrimination. The phenomenon of ethnic discrimination comes into play when each region is identified with a certain ethnic group, and whenever political misunderstandings emerge those who are identified as foreigners are always forced to go to their ancestral land. Macharia Gaitho presents the pattern and consequence of ethno-political competition, discrimination, and violence:

  • We are our own perverse version of regionalism by forcing certain ethnic groups to leave certain regions exclusive to the supposedly indigenous communities. We are witnessing, on a massive scale, the forced movement of people back to their supposedly ancestral homelands. And this raises the very serious question of whether Kenya will ever continue to exist as a modern nation-state, or whether we will be going back to the pre-colonial stage of ethnic fiefdoms with no central authority. That is the consequence of politics based on ethnicity rather than any of the usual ideologies and principles that hold modern democracies together. Instead of evolving, most of the African democracies have regressed to produce ethnic leaders more intent on leading their people in warfare against rival communities.4

The political crisis, under the influence of ethnic rivalry and violence, has recently killed hundreds of people and destroyed property, including burning of houses. Such crisis has erupted due to the lack of peaceful means to address grievances. The condition has been aggravated by the lack of the rule of law and constitutional reform since independence.

Ethno-political violence is a deliberate political strategy by desperate groups intended to effect change in the political system that marginalizes them. The situation has emerged because of unequal distribution of land and other resources, unabated corruption at the national level, extreme poverty in urban slums and squatters, unemployment, and irresponsible leadership. The situation is combined with the political unwillingness to address structural injustice. The inability to go beyond the ethnic framework has intensified the climate of political crisis. According to John Githongo, "the country's leadership is responsible, not just the political leadership but also the cultural and religious leaders. Among them, there are those that have allowed their love of power to overwhelm the common good."5 The phenomenon of ethno-political competition and violence is not limited to Kenya. It is also found in Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, and elsewhere within the continent of Africa. In order to address the problem we have to find ways of forming inclusive structures of the common good, wealth distribution, and political consensus. There will be no lasting peace unless "the country addresses the fundamental inequalities that turned neighbor against neighbor and ethnic group against ethnic group."6 The following analysis attempts to outline the main characteristics that fashion politicization of ethnic identities and the root causes of ethno-political competition, discrimination, and violence in contemporary Africa.

Competing Identities, Loyalties, and Interests

Ethnic identity, as applied to Africa, refers to a group of people sharing a common ancestry, language, symbol, and territory. Ethnic identity derives its foundation from combined memories of the past and common expectation. Many people have lived and continue to lead their lives within the framework of an ethnic group. When a person is in difficulties, it is normal for this person to call for help from the ethnic community to which he (she) belongs. In urban areas ethnic identity is appealed to when people are in need of financial support and political support. For many people ethnic identity stands as a symbol of communal solidarity and security. Ethnic identity, be it in rural or urban areas, remains a powerful force to reckon with, although it varies like temperature, from time to time, depending on prevailing political circumstances. 7 It is a fluid concept, meaning different things at different times and contexts.

The nature and meaning of ethnic identity are difficult to grasp unless we relate them to the changing conditions of life.8 One may continue using old answers for new questions if he (she) does not pay attention to such connection. One has to consider cultural, socioeconomic, and political changes that have been taking place and how they have continued to fashion ethnic identities, loyalties, and interests. Ethnic identities, from the African perspective, assume a triple history: pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial. In the pre-colonial period, ethnic groups were more rural and homogeneous, and there was less competition between them for the scarce economic resources than it is today. In the pre-colonial period, observes John Lonsdale, there was a recognized art of living in a reasonably peaceful way without a state structure in the way it is understood today.9 Small ethnic groups, during the colonial period, were forced to merge.

Because of the ethnic competition for the scarce economic resources and political power, each ethnic group tends to fight to have a president from their group. For them, the president will loot the state for his ethnic group. In other words, the president is not for the state, but his ethnic group. This is the root cause of the struggle to control the state. Ethnic strategies are often connected with the resources of modern economy, such as in gaining employment, education, securing loans, and seizing appointments for lucrative offices. The competition for the limited economic resources within the state today, to a certain extent, has changed the meaning of ethnic identities.

Ethnicity is one of the most difficult concepts to grasp, and one of the most essential in understanding Africa. David Lamb argues that

  • African leaders deplore ethnocentrism. They call it the cancer that threatens to eat out the very fabric of the nation. Yet almost every African politician, practices it, most African presidents are more ethnic chief than national statesman, and it remains perhaps the most potent force in day-to-day African life. It is a factor in political struggles and distribution of resources. It often determines who gets jobs, who gets promoted, who gets accepted to a university, because by its very definition ethnicity implies sharing among members of the extended family, making sure that your own are looked after first. To give a job to a fellow ethnic member is not nepotism, it is an obligation. For a political leader to choose his closest advisers and bodyguards from the ranks of his own ethnic group is not patronage, it is a good common sense. It ensures security, continuity, and authority.10

The challenge is not how to overcome ethnic identities, but how to integrate them into social relationships and political processes. The effort of promoting democracy cannot succeed without taking into account the challenge of appropriating ethnic identities into the structure of nation-state. Any project, be it political, economic, or religious, which involves the mobilization of people must take into account the cultural contexts in which individuals live, rather than those in which someone may think they ought to be living. The process of building democratic institutions will succeed insofar as it starts with what people are and from where they are.

Many studies of ethnicity concentrate on justifying the claim that any political organization based on ethnic identity is a primitive model. In most cases such approaches suggest that if Africa wants to make progress it must first of all eradicate ethnicity. The African political leadership puts an accent on "assimilation, rather than pluralistic inclusion and acceptance of difference as the only approach to national unity."11 Because of such influence, many leaders think that ethnic identities will disappear as the process of urbanization gains momentum. They conceive the existence of ethnic identities and loyalties as some sort of an atavistic residue to be erased with the march of modernity.12 Similarly, ethnicity is seen as an impediment to political integration and attaining the essence of nationhood. My argument, on the contrary, is that when people of different origins come together in urban areas within a short period of time while maintaining ties with their home areas and constantly recreating in homogenous groups, their vision of life remains substantially unchanged.13The process of urbanization brings changes in cultural traditions. These changes, however, cannot happen at once. The feeling of belonging to an ethnic group may, in fact, be stronger in towns than it is in a homogeneous rural context. Ethnic affiliation is reinforced in urban areas because of the diversity found in these places. Such affirmation supports my argument that urbanization, high levels of education, and high social status do not necessarily decrease ethnocentrism.

Ethnic identities provide meaning and content to the nation-state. Whatever point of view is adopted, the issue of ethnicity must be approached in a constructive way. Ethnic identities cannot be suppressed by the state. In acknowledging the role of ethnic identities, however, we must be ready to grapple with these questions: Because of multi-ethnicities in Africa, what forms should the nation-state assume? How can we order the conflict of interests between the majority and the minority groups? What form should the concept of the common good assume in the midst of economic disparities that exist between ethnic groups? These questions could be answered adequately insofar as we acknowledge that each ethnic group has some voice in shaping political decisions. However, the strength of ethnicity is a two-edged sword. Ethnic identity, on one hand, when manipulated, can be the root cause of internal problems connected with disrespect to human rights and social justice. If appropriated properly, on the other hand, ethnic identities could be ingredients required for the realization of the ideal of civil society, political integration, participation and common good.
In most cases, ethnocentrism reveals itself in the form of resistance against the oppressive structure of nation-state. It could also be said that the problem of ethnocentrism is related to the crisis of citizenship, lack of political consensus, economic insecurity and the lack of an agreed-upon concept of the common good. While ethnicity cannot in itself form the basis of modern social organization, its potential in shaping social cohesion cannot be ignored. Such affirmation helps us to comprehend citizenship as a process that involves consensus-building between identities ethnic groups while maintaining ethnic differences. The failure to recognize the power of ethnic identity will continue to foment political instability, and thereby exacerbate the situation of civil unrest found in many countries. Ethnocentrism is not a result of primordial communal sentiments, sentiments that obstruct the unification of the state; rather, it is a problem of incomplete structural integration. African states have failed to modify ethnic identification in favor of the national identity while at the same time not undermining the diversity of ethnic identities.

It is often argued that economic insecurity makes self-interest seekers recruit men and women of their own ethnic groups into authoritative positions for the interest of their ethnic groups. Ethnic identities, taken from this perspective, generate a loss of national culture, a culture that could be enriched immensely by the absorption of different cultural identities. If ethnic identities are constructively appropriated they could become a national treasure. Ethnic identities are not evil in themselves as it has been portrayed by the forces of colonization and post-colonial politics. Ethnic identities become harmful when manipulated for self-interest. Henry Okullu makes the same claim:

  • Ethnic affiliation as an extended family system is a great asset in nation-building especially when acting as a moral retaining influence upon, and a means of security for, its members. It can be argued that an ethnic group as a larger family unit is an order of creation. A nation, some people will argue, is not an aggregate of individuals, but rather a unity of independent institutions, of which ethnic grouping is one. If such is true then ethnic groups are a very strong foundation upon which a strong nation can be built. To do this effectively it is necessary to know how to distinguish between that which belongs to the ethnic group and that which belongs to the nation.14

It is unrealistic to think that a state can ignore ethnic identities without repercussions. My argument is that ethnic identities need not destroyed; what should be destroyed, instead, is the practice of manipulating them. Similarly it is a mistake to think that state affairs could be dictated from the viewpoint of one ethnic group.

The significance of ethnic identities has not diminished with the formation of nation-states for several reasons. First, family, clan, and ethnic group are still the essential structures of social relationships.15 Second, one's identity is ethnic, not national. African leaders "have done very little to convince their people that nationhood offers more benefits than ethnicity."16 Third, African leaders have failed to define the relationship between an ethnic group and nation-state with respect to the common good. Fourth, African states have failed to appropriate inherited cultural traditions to help come to terms with the cultural realities of the times in order to emerge with a new vision for the future. Fifth, the approach of nation-building has not attempted to find a way of welding together several ethnic groups into a large cohesive political community, nation-state, intended to eliminate confusion and transfer ethnic loyalties to the larger political community. Sixth, there have been no efforts made to formulate contextualized ideologies for contemporary Africa. Seventh, there have been no effective ways of dealing with traditional moral standards that seem to crumble in the wake of rapid socio-political change.17 Eighth, most governments do not respect the freedom of the judiciary and the rule of law, which result into disregard to political morality and responsible leadership.

The emergence of the ethno-political violence could be linked to the process of competing identities, loyalties, and interests. In many parts of Africa, ethnic loyalties have risen above other loyalties because during the colonial era there were few incentives to do so. Today, ethnic identity and loyalty may mean a quick promotion in one's status in places of work. If that is the case, then, how can Africa integrate ethnic identities, loyalties, and interests within the structure of nation-state? To answer this question we have to acknowledge that a leader has "commitments not simply to general values and ideals but also to concrete people." 18 The process of decision-making and the kind of common good that one is committed to is heavily dependent on the loyalty of persons and groups which claim one's loyalty.19 Loyalty can be influenced by interest group, cultural group, religious group, or self-interest, which uses others as a ladder to acquire power and wealth. Conflicts in public life can therefore be looked at as conflicts between concrete commitments to various identities, loyalties, and interests. The analysis of Abner Cohen on the relationship between African cultures and modern politics in urban areas reveals that ethnic organizations camouflage their existence in public and its members will adopt a low profile and attempt to fade into the general social landscape.20At the same time, however, its members must know about one another and should be able to recognize one another as co-members in order to coordinate their activities in the interests of the group and to avail themselves of the privileges of membership. They have to be visible to one another, but invisible as a group in public.

Maintaining a balance between competing identities, loyalties, and interests is possible by developing social structures founded upon the principle of overlapping loyalties. This is the only possibility that can keep leaders from becoming persons who advocate interests of a particular group. This project entails "weighing competing loyalties and competing goods and to act in a way that attends to their rightful claims."21 The need to respect the diversity of ethnic identities is an important aspect of forming a cohesive political society. As such, the process of harmonizing competing loyalties must be achieved by maintaining a balance between the state and ethnic communities. Such observation brings us close to the need of understanding the relationship between ethnic identity and the common good.

Ethnic Identity and the Common Good
Ethnic identities shape the meaning of the common good. While ethnic sentiments may undercut the nationalistic approach, they may also be a force that enhances any sense of nationhood and common good.22 Despite the call for national unity, the typical understanding of the common good remains limited to the framework of particular ethnic groups. Important issues such as how to form a nation based on political consensus and ethnic identities have not been addressed since independence.

Involvement of an ethnic group in a super-structure like a nation-state should be understood from a perspective that enables each ethnic group to develop deliberative powers and a sense of purpose in search for the common good. In this context, access to a multiplicity of groups promotes a diversity of interests and enables each group to participate in the common structure laid down by consensus. The idea of political consensus can articulate new perspectives and preferences which will eventually enter into the balancing process by dissolving ethno-political competition and creating institutions that can guarantee equal citizenship, participation, and justice. This approach gives priority to those approaches that seep into the balancing process, affecting the shape of interest groups. Pluralism protects rights of individuals and groups by promoting political consensus based on consent. A balance of interests achieved by free bargaining between ethnic groups creates a comprehensive conception of the common good, and it should be regarded as a way of lessening the competition and tension between ethnic groups.

The task of African societies is to formulate an inclusive concept of the common good based upon ethnic identities, political consensus, and consent. To develop such a paradigm does not mean that ethnic differences must be suppressed. The challenge we face is how to orient such identities toward an overlapping consensus that fosters the common good. Such project entails developing a profound unity that respects ethnic diversity. It is not a unity that imposes uniformity, but a unity that cherishes participation and creativity in the interest of the common good.23 This way of proceeding is valuable because the African understanding of the common good is still limited to the framework of the ethnic community. That is why city-dwellers are sensitive to the needs and interests centered on their village of origin and ethnic group. The place of birth and ethnic identities are seen as having influence over cities, despite the fact that cities are the seats of power and wealth. The understanding of the common good follows the same framework. Two examples illustrate this point. During his reign, Mobutu Seseseko, the former President of the Democratic Republic of Congo, used state funds to construct an airport in his village, Gbadolite. In the same way, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, the former President of Cote d'Ivoire, built the state house and a basilica in his village, Yamoussoukro. These two examples show that ethnic identities remain the point of departure for the concept of common good that African nations intend to pursue.

Politicization of Ethnic Identities
Ethnic identities act as a pole around which group members are mobilized and compete effectively for state-controlled power and economic resources. Under the leadership of the predatory elite, members of the ethnic group are urged to form an organized political action-group in order to maximize their corporate political, economic, and social interests.

Conflicts involving ethnic interests have been summed up as those advocating interests of culturally distinct peoples, or clans in heterogeneous societies who are locked in rivalries about the access to power, and in which those concerned have certain regions as their stronghold and tend to follow the strategy of ethno-nationalism.24 Most of the political conflicts found in Africa today involve ethnic groups struggling for the control of their region (as it is the case in Angola, Nigeria, Sudan, and Ethiopia), or even struggling to control the entire country (e.g., Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia, and Sierra Leone). It has been argued that ethnic groups engage themselves in a struggle for political power with other ethnic groups. In this battle, each ethnic group advocates its interests in different ways. Such phenomenon does not happen simply because of conservatism; rather, ethnic groups are also interest groups whose members share some common economic and political interests.25People do not kill one another merely because of the ethnic differences. They kill each other when these differences promote unhealthy competition. The situation does not even become explosive until such a climate of social relationship is extended to the economic and political spheres.

Ethnic identities play a significant role in informal relationships, because in many ways they are political in character. It is not just a mere cultural identity limited to friendships, rituals, and marriages. A number of leaders, at the national level, allocate to their ethnic groups considerable state resources to maintain their political influence and control of the ethnic group concerned. Such leaders aim at maximizing their support and their access to resources in competition with rival politicians. Consequently the practice breeds destructive competition and conflict.

The competition for political power and economic resources has become intense in many countries. Political leaders, argue Solofo Randrianja, encourage the emergence of an ethno-nationalism in order to mobilize supporters.26 This type of politicized ethnicity makes its appearance when nationalism extends its field of action to another level, from socio-cultural to that of politics. The progressive transformation of the Inkatha Movement in South Africa, which began as a cultural association into a political organization, is a good example. When ethnic groups are politicized, ethnic identities and loyalties move from the private sphere to the public sphere.

The tendency of politicizing ethnic groups tends to appeal to cultural identities for its effectiveness. In this project political leaders cooperate with cultural intermediaries in using cultural identity for political maneuvers. In this process, ethnic loyalties are reformulated to suit political agendas. Such leaders proclaim themselves as representatives of the ethnic group while at the same time promoting their own interests. "They combine knowledge and power in a context where the colonial economy of predation, except in a few rare cases, has left the state as the principal source of wealth and social advancement.27" Politicization of ethnic identities appeals to the ethnic solidarity founded upon ties of blood-relationships as a model that can guarantee economic security. This approach takes the form of a conservative return to the grassroots of ethnic identities. It appeals to cultural symbols in order to construct a sense of allegiance, which makes it easier to mobilize people. Sometimes they use cultural slogans to arouse emotions of the people in order to make them accept what they do not even understand. That is to say, interest groups competing for scarce economic resources tend to "invoke traditional sentiments to reinforce their appeal."28 The success of political leaders in winning popular backing depends upon the trust which they inspire, and ultimately on their ability to obtain material benefits for their faction, in the form of government jobs or loans, a school or clinic, a road or electric supply. In this case "we are dealing with a kind of patronage politics, with economic resources used as a political tool to enable the leadership to buy support for their policies."29 Since political and bureaucratic leaders may also appeal to ethnic identities to fulfill their ambitions, the practice of politicizing ethnic identities becomes one cause among many causes of ethno-political violence.

By appealing to ethnic identities and loyalties political leaders urge people to keep allegiance to those who safeguard ethnic interests. The way of persuading people to support politicians tends to appeal to the traditional methodologies of supporting the traditional chiefs. Ordinary people feel that such politicians are about to restore the traditional political systems. However a number of political leaders, under the cover of African cultures, apply principles of manipulation and predation to serve their own interests. The consequence of using these methodologies is that ethnic groups are trained to acquire an attitude of concentrating on winning favors and fighting for the limited national resources. Their participation in public affairs is reduced to a game of advocating ethnic interests rather than building structures that can guarantee equal participation, justice, and development for all. Consequently people no longer see hard work as the source of economic success.

The introduction of multiparty politics in the 1990s opened a competition that has shaped the context of struggle for political power among the political leaders and ethnic communities. Under the influence of ethnic politics voters do not appeal to the criteria of economic performance, health services, education and the common good. The important concern for them is enabling their members to control the state. The rationale used is to ensure that many from their ethnic group control government offices. Political leaders convince ethnic groups to believe that they rule the country on their behalf. The president is seen as an ethnic ruler. People believe that if one of theirs holds a high post, it is held in trust for the benefit of their ethnic community. Similarly, political parties have become ethnic parties slated for ethnic bargaining to acquire political power that would allow them to loot the state. It is from this perspective that a number of political parties promote ethnic politics, and regard the introduction of multiparty democracy as a way of decentralizing the state in favor of ethno-nationalism. Such practice creates mutual mistrust between ethnic groups. Those who belong to the less dominant ethnic groups feel left out and discriminated against by the system. In turn, they feel obliged to act, legally or illegally, to ensure their survival. The tendency of self-assertion emerging from different ethnic groups for survival is, in fact, the root cause of the widespread African conflicts today.

Ethnocentrism and Christian Churches
The tendency of manipulating ethnic identities prevails also in Christian churches. The situation has robbed African churches of the ability to promote social justice. According to David W. Waruta, "most religious groups and denominations, closely scrutinized, are also ethnic in their composition and leadership. Those that happen to be multiethnic with a national outlook are plagued with internal inter-ethnic conflicts."30Ethnocentrism exists in churches as it does in the political sphere. In view of trying to understand the dynamics of this phenomenon one has to find out the real causes of the situation. As far as the history of African Christianity is concerned, this situation is linked to methods of evangelizing given ethnic groups in isolation, "thus producing a largely one ethnic denomination. In the process of maintaining their dominance, such ethnic groups tend to conduct their worship services in their ethnic languages, thus keeping out all others."31

From the perspective of administration, some ecclesiastical leaders are often appointed and assigned duties following the criterion of ethnic affiliation because "a number of dioceses are created along ethnic boundaries. Christian churches are lured by the clamor for each ethnic group to have its own bishop. Sometimes these arrangements are justified by language and cultural considerations."32 It could be surprising if churches were not both a victim and accomplice of ethnocentrism. So far Christian leaders have been reticent about the ways in which they have been affected by ethnocentrism. Christian leaders tend to approach the challenge of ethnocentrism "with extreme caution, creating ethnically encapsulated dioceses, and aligning with ethnically oriented governments. Even so, it was always possible to avoid appointing bishops who were ethnic outsiders, or who belonged to unpopular minority ethnic groups."33

Christian teaching calls its followers to promote a multi-ethnic community of an inclusive family of God built on faith, love, and hope. This teaching, however, has not yet become a reality because even churches have not remained untainted by ethnocentrism and partisan politics, and therefore they too have lost the ability to promote mutuality and social justice. The challenge for the guardians of public morality who include churches is how to address this challenge in a constructive way. Someone has to unveil evil practices in hope of soliciting appropriate action otherwise they will torment us forever. The fear of addressing sensitive issues has crippled the growth of the continent. We are all afraid of telling the truth, and expect foreigners to do it on our behalf. Even the religious who are supposed to challenge the unjust social structures are afraid. Christian churches have failed to play their prophetic role even in situations of severe human rights violations because they have taken sides by playing in the hands of partisan politics, and thereby fall into the trap of ethnocentrism.

Even the internal administration of churches has shown that their loyalty often lies with their ethnic groupings rather than with Christianity. In time of problems, religious leaders, as political leaders, take refuge in their ethnic groups. A good example here is the genocide that occurred in Rwanda. In this event, Christians could not appeal to the Christian conscience to address the situation. Even those in positions of authority could not raise their conscience above the criterion of ethnicity. Christianity, for some, is like a coat that can be put on only when it is needed; when it is not, it is forgotten in the wardrobe. This is the sign that Christianity is still on the periphery of the African way of life.
When Augustine Karekezi, a Rwandan Jesuit, was asked in an interview to link the role of churches in Rwanda with what happened there in 1994 he said:

  • My faith as a Christian has been affected seriously, in the sense that I cannot realize that such evil could happen in a country where so many people are Christians and where there are so many Catholics, over sixty five percent, with such influence in education. What have we been doing as Christians and as priests? How can we preach the love of God, the compassion of God, in this situation? All these questions rise from an experience of the deep mystery of evil, evil that is so consistent and so strong that its power is prevailing.34

One may deceive oneself by saying that the conflict of Rwanda was a unique case, and that such experience does not exist elsewhere in the continent. The questions of Karekezi cannot be limited to the Christians of Rwanda. The experience of Rwanda should be taken as a typical example for many Christians of Africa. The experience of Rwanda reminds us that all Christians from Africa are called to ask themselves serious questions especially the relevance of Christian faith in public life. This means we have to scrutinize the kind of evangelization found in Africa, our preaching and celebration of the sacraments in relation to social relationships, all these must be scrutinized very carefully. The question that can guide us in this engagement should be: Does Christian faith makes any difference in everyday life? There is no way we can avoid this question.

The challenge of the African churches is how to appeal to the Christian values to inform and transform social relationships. This is a serious challenge because churches are considered to be a part of the problem of ethnocentrism, and consequently they have also failed to stand above the situation. An expression that articulates the situation within churches says: the blood of ethnicity is thicker than the water of baptism. There are six points which support this assertion: first, for many years Christian churches have been using the structure of ethnicity for evangelization; second, churches have been reluctant to address the problem of ethnocentrism openly; third, bishops' pastoral letters have not yet succeeded to transform public conscience because there is no active participation of Christians from the grassroots communities; fourth, an ethnic bias is also held by some ecclesiastical leaders; fifth, with regard to social problems, churches have failed to be self-critical; and sixth, there is no serious ecumenical collaboration intended to address socio-political issues because of religious competition.

The Rwandan holocaust underlines the artificiality of the kind of Christianity found in Africa. This is not a condemnation, but a matter of fair examination of conscience. There is no doubt that churches have failed to be the conscience of society in Africa. I do not, however, intend to argue that Christianity is automatically able to overcome the sinful nature of a human being. My observation is that some churches have failed to create even a minimum awareness of promoting social justice. This situation has been created by the fact that many churches have done very little in promoting integral human development which includes awareness in social justice, human rights, common good and political responsibility. The kind of religious knowledge emphasized in Africa, apparently, remains confined within the framework of doctrinal disputes and religious competition.

In this essay we saw that ethnic identities become a blessing when they enrich social relationships. They can also become a curse when they become the source of political violence. In search for a balanced way to deal with ethnocentrism I would argue that Africa does not need to get rid of ethnic identities. Such effort would not succeed because Africans, like all other peoples of the world, need to device culturally informed modalities that can enable social groups to live together in a complementary relationship to each other. In view of implementing such modalities we ought to device practical ways of promoting social cohesion through educational and cultural programs at the grassroots level so that ethnic identities and cultural diversities can be appreciated. Non-governmental organizations, including churches, can play a significant role in developing these programs. Inter-ethnic integration, pluralism, tolerance, and mutuality could be promoted as political strategies. Such initiative is urgently required because the situation in some countries so bad that, if not challenged, certain forms of ethnic discrimination could be as dehumanizing as the apartheid system of the former South Africa.

In search for long-term solutions to ethno-political competition and discrimination the exploration showed that ill-founded methodologies tend to substitute equal citizenship among citizens in favor of the model of exclusion founded upon ethnocentrism. Such a model reduces equal access to resources to the rivalry between ethnic groups. The challenge of integrating cultural identities in the processes of political integration and democratization is closely related to the problematic concepts of nation-state, citizenship, and common good. Such effort requires models of governance that can promote long-term solutions to ethnocentrism, irresponsible leadership, and ethno-political violence.


1Kipchumba Some, "How State Land Policy Shaped Conflict," Daily Nation, Kenya (February 10, 2008) 9.
2Jeffrey Gettleman, "U.S. Envoy Calls Violence in Kenya 'Ethnic Cleansing,'" The New York Times (January 30, 2008) 1. See also "U.S. Envoy: Kenya Violence in Ethnic Cleansing," at (accessed February 20, 2008); and "Ethnic Cleansing in Kenya's Rift Valley," at (accessed February 20, 2008).
3Geoffrey Gettleman, "Signs in Kenya of Land Redrawn by Ethnicity," The New York Times (December 15, 2008) 1.
4Macharia Gaitho, "Will Kenya Continue to Exist as a Modern State?" Daily Nation, Kenya (February 5, 2008) 12.
5 John Githongo, "Githongo on Kenyan Violence," BBC World News, (accessed February 8, 2008).
6Editorial, "Kenya's Glimmer of Hope," The New York Times (February 22, 2008) 6.
7John Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (Oxford: Heinemann Educational Publishers, 1969) 102.
8Jean-François Bayart, The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly(London: Longman, 1993) 50.
9John Lonsdale, "States and Social Process in Africa: A Historiography Survey," African Studies Review 3, 2 (June-September, 1981) 139. I am not saying that modern African societies are to be organized in the same way. My argument is that the operative force and validity of a particular model of social organization depends on the culture and historical background of a particular society. As such, the structure of nation-state in Africa has not received commitment and support from the ethnic models of political organization.
10David Lamb, The Africans (New York: Vintage Books, 1984) 9. Those who benefit from ethnocentric politics, disorder, and status quo tends to deny the fact that ethnocentrism exist in their countries. Such attitude has to a certain extent retarded political development, because it frustrates any effort geared toward resolving the basic problems related to socio-political organization. Because of the colonial background we tend to blame the West for the problems caused by ourselves. The problem of ethnocentrism is real; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without comprehending its roots and dynamics, or take no action to challenge it, only serves to strengthen it.
11Heather J. Sharkey, "Arab Identity and Ideology in Sudan: The Politics of Language, Ethnicity, and Race," African Affairs 107, 426 (December, 2007) 21-43, at 39.
12Mahmood Mamdani, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996) 185.
13See, for example, the analysis of ethnic interactions in the city of Nairobi, Kenya by Anthony O'Connor, The African City (London: Hutchinson University Library for Africa, 1983) 99-120.
14Henry Okullu, Church and Politics in East Africa (Nairobi: Uzima Press Limited, 1987) 45-46.
15Lamb, The Africans, 11.
17Kwame Gyekye, Tradition and Modernity: Philosophical Reflections on the African Experience (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997) vii-xii.
18David Hollenbach, S.J., "Plural Loyalties and Moral Agency in Government," in John C. Haughey, ed., Personal Values in Public Policy(New York: Paulist Press, 1979) 77.
20Abner Cohen, The Politics of Elite Culture: Explorations in the Dramaturgy of Power in a Modern African Society (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1981) 220.
21Ibid., 79.
22Henry Shue, Subsistence, Affluence, and U.S. Foreign Policy (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1980), 144-152.
23Stanley Hauerwas, Vision and Virtue (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame University Press, 1974) 238.
24Ted T. Gurr, "People against States: Ethno-Political Conflict and the Changing World System," International Studies Quarterly 38 (September, 1994) 347-377, at 355.
25For a similar thought, see Robert H. Bates, "Modernization, Ethnic Competition and the Rationality of Politics in Contemporary Africa," in Donald Rothchild and V. A. Olorunsola, eds., State Versus Ethnic Claims: African Policy Dilemmas (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1983) 164-165.
26Solofo Randrianja, "Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Democracy," in Stephen Ellis, ed., Africa Now: People, Policies, and Institutions (London: James Currey and Heinemann, 1996) 31.
27Ibid., 32.
28William Tordoff, Government and Politics in Africa (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993) 86.
29Cohen, The Politics of Elite Culture, 79.
30David W. Waruta, "Tribalism as a Moral Problem in Contemporary Africa," in Jesse N. K. Mugambi and Anne Nasimiyu-Wasike, eds., Moral and Ethical Issues in African Christianity (Nairobi: Initiatives Publishers, 1992) 112-130, at 127.
31Ibid., 128.
33Aylward Shorter, "The Curse of Ethnocentrism and the African Church," Tangaza Occasional Papers, No. 8, Ethnicity: Blessing or Curse (Nairobi: St. Paul Publications, 1999) 28-29.
34David Hollenbach, S.J., "Report From Rwanda: An Interview With Augustine Karekezi," America (December 7, 1996) 13 - 17, at 16.

Aquiline Tarimo, S.J. is professor of social ethics at Hekima School of Theology in Nairobi, Kenya. This is the text of a talk he delivered April 2 at an Ethics at Noon presentation, "Kenya, the Common Good, and the Politicization of Ethnic Identities."

Apr 7, 2008
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