Africans are very religious. The Kenyan philosopher and theologian, John Mbiti, in his book titled ‘African Religions and Philosophy (1969)’, states that ‘Africans are notoriously religious and that religion permeates all departments of life to such an extent that it is not easy or possible to isolate it’.
Religion forms a core part of the African identity. It is, therefore, no surprise that political, social and economic activities are all saturated with religious expressions and rituals.
But, paradoxically, while Africans exhibit high levels of religious fervor, the scourge of corruption is rife on the continent. It is mind boggling that intense religiosity on one hand and the debauchery of corruption, on the other hand, can coexist in equal measure on the continent!
Can religion play a role in curbing corruption? Or is African religiosity consistent with the debased culture of corruption which is creating entrenched poverty on the continent?
Let me hasten to add that while religion has been an instrument used to perpetuate corruption in Africa in many instances, it remains a crucial element of the African identity. It can, therefore, be used to contribute to the moral transformation of Africans.
How religious are Africans?
A 2009 Gallup survey of 114 countries shows that Africans tend to be the most religious. Of the 10 countries where more than 98% of the respondents stated that religion is important in their lives, 6 of those countries were from Africa.
Similarly, the online statistics and market research portal Statista’s list of the most religious countries in the world in 2015 have 7 African countries in the top 10. Unsurprisingly, not a single African country is among the 10 least religious countries in the world.
Countries like Denmark, Finland, and Sweden may have the lowest corruption perception in the world but they are also amongst the least religious countries in the world. Conversely, countries like Nigeria, Uganda, and Pakistan are amongst the most religious countries in the world but they all have higher corruption perception than Denmark, Finland or Sweden.
The fact that the deeply secular populations are consistently ranked less corrupt than the populations that are overtly religious is interesting.
Africans may be steeped in religiosity, but the continent has always had a contradictory relationship with religion. There are cases where religion has been used to oppress, subjugate and demean others. In other cases, religion is a subtle manipulative tool. Religion also serves political ends in many African countries.
In some African countries, religion is a source of conflict while in other African countries, it is a tool for oppression, intolerance, and bigotry. In some instances, a deeply religious African may have no qualm seeing a person from another religion as a ‘lesser human’. Human rights abuse and inequality are rife in supposedly religious African societies. Some African societies are clearly divided into religious lines. In many instances, religion is the vehicle that spreads vices and creates the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality.
Religion and Corruption
Religion may play an important role in the lives of Africans. But the religiosity of Africans is not preventing them from engaging in corruption that has kept large portions of the African population steeped in poverty and conflict.
And the truth is, in most African countries, corruption is endemic at all levels of the society. For example, a report indicated that in some Cameroonian public hospitals, patients had to bribe to get into doctor's consultation while students cannot pass examinations without bribing the teachers.
Similarly, in Liberia, 7 out of 10 people in the country say they have had to pay bribes to access basic services like healthcare and schooling, according to Transparency International.
In fact, Transparency International estimates that around 75 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa have paid a bribe in 2015.
So, it is safe to say that corruption is not limited only to public officials. Even civil servants and those at the lower echelons tend to be corrupt in African countries.
But the reckless abandon exhibited by African leaders is exasperating. Many African public officers have not only kept the corrupt traditions of the likes of Mobuto Sese Seko, Jean-Bedell Bokassa or Sani Abacha alive but they are even in a race to surpass them.
For example, the son of the President of Equatorial Guinea spends millions of dollars financing a lavish lifestyle which includes luxurious property in France and Malibu, almost 100 million dollars’ worth of arts collection in France alone, luxury cars worth millions of dollars, and Michael Jackson memorabilia while the country has one of the highest under-5 mortality rates with very low access to healthcare for the rest of the population…….and this is a country with such a small population that the value of the arts owned by the President’s son alone could go a long way in assuaging poverty for a majority of the citizens of small Equatorial Guinea.
So, why are Africans who tend to be overtly religious seem to be obsessively and compulsively corrupt?
Is the belief in God not enough to make people live reasonably honest lives? How can people who are so bent on pleasing God also do everything to demean and degrade their fellow man?
This compulsion and obsession to steal are summed up by Farida Waziri, the former head of Nigeria's Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, who stated in a lecture that: "The extent of aggrandizement and gluttonous accumulation of wealth that I have observed suggests to me that some people are psychologically unsuitable for public office…….We have observed people amassing public wealth to a point of madness or some form of obsessive or compulsive psychiatric disorder."
There are public officials in Africa who steal millions, buy properties in USA, Dubai, and Europe, maintain multi-million dollars bank accounts, maintain a fleet of private jets, but would still steal a small amount that was meant to construct a one-room clinic in a remote town.
How can such wickedness exist amongst a people who fill churches on Sundays and the Mosques on Fridays? How can such wantonness exist among a people who are obsessed with a belief in God?
I may not know the answer to these questions. What is obvious is that the obsession of Africans for corruption is matched by their obsession with religion.
A public official in Africa would pray to God multiple times daily, attend regular worship or prayer services, donate huge amounts to churches, mosques, and schools or other charitable organizations, go on religious pilgrimages, amongst others. But that same official obsession with stealing would make him/her totally incapable of having any emotion or responsibility to the millions of ordinary people who he/she should be serving. For them, it is okay to work in Monrovia and spend the weekends in London while their citizens cannot travel to a nearby hospital because there is none. For them, it is okay for their kids to attend the best universities in Europe while those they serve will not have access to education. They have no feelings for those they serve as their only concern is to continue amassing ill-gotten wealth while the rest of the population must bear the consequences of their corrupt practices in entrenched poverty, despondency, deprivation, disease, and hopelessness.
Most of the African migrants dying in the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea are coming from countries where public officials are accused of stealing BILLIONS!!!!! For example, the figures of the alleged loot of Nigeria’s former Petroleum Minister, Diezani Alison-Madueke, is simply unbelievable and would make one wonder if any Nigerian should live in squalor.
Corruption, Poverty, and exclusion
Corruption generates and intensifies poverty and exclusion. In many African countries, it is perfectly okay for corrupt individuals with the political power to bask in a lavish lifestyle while the rest of the population are deprived of their basic needs.
The culture of exclusion and oppression that corruption generates in Africa is distressing. For example, the poor are most likely the ones to be forced to pay a bribe because poor people feel powerless to stand up against a corrupt official, while the rich and powerful will not have to pay such bribes due to their connections. In many instances, the poor are the ones who pay taxes and the rich pocket it.
According to a Transparency International report in 2015, nearly one in five Africans paid bribes to obtain official documents, and access to medical care is sometimes negotiated through an unofficial fee, gift or favor.
Most governments are not doing enough to combat the problem. According to the aforementioned Transparency International report, in South Africa, more than four-in-five people said they have seen corruption rise recently and in Nigeria, the figure stands at 75%.
Religion is not only striving alongside corruption. It is a source of huge division amongst Africans.
Africans are killing each other today to prove which religion is from God or which God is better than the other God. Religion in parts of Africa is an instrument of oppression, bigotry, and marginalization. Religion has become radicalized in countries like Nigeria, Egypt, and Sudan and has often led to violence, deaths, injustice, poverty, and hardship.
Intense Religiosity but non-conformance to moral values?
The harmonious coexistence of corruption and extreme religiosity in African countries raises questions about the kind of Christian, Islamic and traditional religious morality that exists on this continent.
How can we explain the remarkable rise and rise of corruption, fraud, exclusion, marginalization, poverty, looting of public coffers, armed robbery, kidnapping, and other vices in countries where Christianity, Islam, and traditional religions are the norms?
How does the ethical experience of Africans follow the requirements of their biblical, Quranic and African traditional religious teachings?
How can Africans be religious but fail to live up to the tenets of their religious vocations?
These are questions I do not have answers to. But it is good that we have a conversation about this issue.
I do not attempt to draw any causal relationship between religiosity and corruption. What I hope to do is to generate a discussion about how Africans can translate their faith into their everyday lives.