Our review of the Chatham House Africa report "Collective Action on Corruption in Nigeria: The Role of Religion"
We argue that religious institutions should be tasked with intensifying their role as the moral conscience of society. If they do so the chances are that corruption would be drastically reduced.
Religion is deeply embedded in the fabric of life in Nigeria. Religious language and practice pervade everyday discourse and social encounters. In March 2021, Chatham House Africa Programme released a briefing report that examined the role of religious norms and language in shaping behaviour and expectations that drive responses to corruption in Nigeria. The report, Collective Action on Corruption in Nigeria: The Role of Religion, focuses on the behavioural causes of corruption and how shared religious beliefs influence people’s decision to accept or reject corrupt activities. The report looked particularly at the acceptability of the diversion of public funds for the provision of religious goods.
The 22-page briefing report is thoroughly well researched and useful for understanding the current dynamics and complexity of addressing corruption. It relies on extensively detailed surveys from across several states in Nigeria and which include responses from Christians and Muslims. The report challenges two key assumptions about the beneficial role of religion in anti-corruption efforts: that the strong moral values of religion can be effective tools against corruption, and second, that religious institutions and leaders can be effective communicative agents in the struggle against corruption. It states that religion is “limited” in engaging in anti-corruption measures.
The report’s conclusion is that, given that corruption functions as a collective practice, in designing anti-corruption policies and programmes, “religious institutions should not automatically be seen as the most effective means of tackling corruption” because “[i]n Nigeria, moralizing language, specifically religious discourse and expressions, is often used to justify corrupt behaviour and condemn individuals who refrain from engaging in corruption” and so the report suggests a non-moral based approach to fighting corruption would be more fruitful.
Justifying its claim that religion facilitates and sustains corruption is the evidence, based on its analysis of a 2018 survey data, that 20% of respondents agreed that taking government funds for the benefit of one’s religious community was acceptable. The pressures and norms of religious giving and need to demonstrate conformity to collective practices are some of the explanations for the acceptance of such behaviour.
However, the weakness of the report is that it underplays the primary role and function of religious institutions as the moral compass of society. One of the essential obligations of religions is to proclaim righteousness amongst its members. Religions are expected to perform their prophetic role as the bastions of morality.
Indeed, in addition to social and political problems, Nigeria is engulfed in a moral crisis. It is a crisis that has been compounded by the nature of the disorder of our postcolonial society. The tension between being fully African yet fully Christian exists within the African person is at the heart of the moral crisis. This fundamental problem is evidenced in the way in which religious institutions articulate moral messages. There is a philosophical dissonance in the mind of the African between the imported western colonial Christian morality and the indigenous African worldview. For example in Igboland the biblical command, "thou shalt not steal” may mean thou shall not disgrace your family or community for the sake of their name. In African societies, the concept of honour and shame helps to prevent people from stealing. Stealing stigmatised and brought shame on the thief, his family and community. But "thou shalt not steal" in the Bible means you shall not belittle your God for he is Holy or destroy the common economy of your people.
This moral crisis can be resolved and thus the position of religion as the most effective instrument in the moral fight against corruption can be restored so long as Africans draw sources of morality from Africa’s intellectual and cultural resources that are relevant to our current situation and problems with corruption and social development. As Professor Nimi Wariboko says the issue is about engaging with the moral situation and asking the questions about how we reconstruct Christian social ethics in Nigeria. Professor Wariboko suggests drawing sources of morality from Africa’s intellectual and cultural resources that are relevant to our current situation and problems with corruption and social development.
It is our view is that religion can still play a role as the most effective means of challenging corruption if religious morals were re- evaluated and reframed to incorporate African culture rather than adopting and practicing a moral system that is based on western Christian rationality.
Religious institutions have a very strong role in society and everyday life but society itself influences religions. The Chatham report notes the way political elites exploit religious organisations to gain power and influence. Therefore it must be acknowledged the role society plays in diminishing the moral messages of religions. The nature of the political disorder and corruption in Nigeria's postcolonial society has destabilised and undermined the practice and study of religious ethics in Africa. This makes it possible for allows religious communities to protect an individual from an consequences of engaging in corruption. If the state functioned as it should, and punished individuals for corruption, that would also reinforce religion’s moral disapproval of corruption when it calls out the crime or the individual.
Therefore, we believe that rather than shifting the primary emphasis away from religious institutions, as the Chatham report does, as the most effective partners in anti-corruption interventions, religious institutions should be tasked with intensifying their role as the moral conscience of society. If they do so, as Dr Charles Prempeh argues, the chances are that corruption would be drastically reduced.
Photo credit: DW/F. Fascar