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A paper delivered at the National Seminar on Corruption

Organised by the NASRUL-LAHI-IL-FATHI Society of Nigeria (NASFAT)

At the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Lagos, August 5, 2004

 

 

Introduction: The Place of Religion in the Modern Society

After our failed experiment in recent centuries with secularist fundamentalism expressed most graphically in the French Revolution which actually abolished religion for a while, and Atheistic Communism which effectively banished it from public life, the twenty first century society has come to recognize the resilience of religion as a factor in the private and public behaviour of citizens in many parts of the world. Along with the forces of culture and ethnicity, the importance of religion and the identity that derives from it have been very much highlighted in recent times. It has become clear to many leaders that the world cannot pursue truth, justice, transparency, accountability, peace, social integration and solidarity within and among nations while neglecting the place of religion in the life of people. Instead leaders are beginning to explore the immense potential for good to be found in all religions, and are asking how these can be exploited for the promotion of truth and justice and for the building of a more wholesome human society.

 

I understand that my task at this seminar is to highlight the role of religious organizations in the fight against corruption - corruption, that systemic evil which is responsible in large measure for the broken promises, the dashed hopes and the shallow dreams that have characterized the existence of the multitude of Nigerians for such a long while. I commend the NAFSAT, the organizers of this event for the laudable initiative, which I believe has come at a very auspicious time. For indeed modern men and women in our country and everywhere today are becoming impatient with religious organizations and leaders. They seem to be challenging all religious groups to develop a critical social conscience or risk being dumped in the ashes of history as one of the past times of primitive humanity. Modern men and women are challenging religious organizations to demonstrate their usefulness to the 21st Century human society by uniting warring people, by giving hope and meaning to despairing people, by identifying with the poor and oppressed and doing something positive to improve their lot, and by promoting among their adherents such values and principles that will make for a wholesome humanity as truth, honesty, justice, accountability, respect for human rights and dignity, peace and non-violence, concern for the common good and care for the environment. In the Nigerian context, the ongoing seminar is one answer to this modern challenge.

 

Let me begin with the fundamental premise that all major religions in the modern world do have the potential and indeed the mission to promote truth and justice and to contribute immensely towards the emergence of a more wholesome, peaceful and prosperous humanity, since these religions often provide the spiritual force and the moral basis for the maintenance of social equilibrium, notwithstanding the many instances in the history of the world and of our own country when religious sentiments have been capitalized upon to cause havoc and unleash a regime of violence or social injustice.

 

Between the Politics and the Practice of Religion

In discussing the immense potential for the good ordering of society that religious organizations can make within the context of a society that has witnessed so much violence in recent times at the hands of religious fanatics and bigots, we must first of all make the distinction between the politics of religion and the practice of religion. In the course of history fanatics, extremists, fundamentalists, war-mongers, conquerors, expansionists, crusaders and jihadists (propelled by nothing but the primordial sentiments of greed and avarice and pride and arrogance and hatred and vengeance), have often jettisoned the best elements of religion and capitalized on the highly emotive nature of religion to kill and maim people and cause immense tension in the human society. But no matter how widespread this aberration may be and no matter how many highly placed people are involved, religious fanatics and extremists have never been acknowledged as the best examples of their faith. Instead their preoccupation with hatred and violence is a corruption of the very fundamental orientation of theistic religions, for as Pope John Paul II says, the God of peace is never glorified by human violence.

 

Thus fanatics and extremists are not the best examples of their faith. They may make waves for a while, but in the end they are often dumped in the ashes of history. Society never fails to take note of the other kind of religious power that shines through the humble disciple who draws people to his or her faith by the witness of a holy life, devoted to the pursuit of justice and peace, a life which constantly points the way to the rest of society. Think of the regard the world continues to give Mahatma Gandhi a devout Hindu. Think of the positive waves made by Mother Teresa of Calcutta, a devout Christian. Think of the respect we continue to have for the late Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sadauna of Sokoto, a devout Muslim.

 

I am able to say without fear of contradiction that the genuine practice of Islam and Christianity for example will hurt no one in our land or in any land whatsoever. Instead, the faithful practice of Islam and Christianity, which include private and public prayer, fasting and acts of charity, the pursuit of truth and justice, generally avoiding evil and doing good, and living by the golden rule which admonishes that we do to no one what we would not like done to us, these tenets should normally hurt no one. Instead the observance of these tenets of Christianity and Islam should ensure a just, accountable, corrupt-free, non-violent and peaceful polity. Yes, when devoid of hypocrisy and bigotry on the one hand, and the destructive politics that makes religion an instrument of violence, manipulation and exploitation on the other, Christianity and Islam (and to a very reasonable extent the Traditional Religions of our people) should be a powerful instrument in the nurturing of a nation of integrity where corruption, fraud and social injustice have no place.

 

Religion in Nigeria: A booming enterprise

Very much unlike some other parts of the modern world, where the widespread practice of religious ritual is becoming an anarchronism, our own is a country that is saturated with religiosity. Religion is not just thriving in Nigeria. Here in our country religion is a booming enterprise. Religion features at the very beginning of our nation’s constitution. In the preamble to the 1999 Nigerian constitution, it is affirmed that we intend to live together as one united country under God. The overwhelming majority of Nigerians are religious people. We believe in the supremacy of God. We believe that God is the very basis of our individual lives and our corporate existence. We believe in and relate with supernatural realities through prayers and supplications and through the offering of sacrifices. We find churches, mosques, shrines and sundry prayer houses everywhere in the land.

 

Yes, while there is noticeable decline in religious fervour in many parts of the world, the religious enterprise appears to be thriving very much in Nigeria, as more and more company warehouses and private buildings are being converted to prayer houses, and our sports stadia all over the country are used more for religious crusades than for sporting events. We take part in crusades, worship sessions and vigils; we offer sacrifices and observe fasting days and religious holidays; and we go in large numbers on religious pilgrimages to Jerusalem and Mecca, taking pride in being called Jerusalem Pilgrim (JP) or Alhaji the rest of our lives. Within this religious firmament, bishops, pastors, evangelists, faith healers, prophets and visionaries, as well as sheikhs, imams and gurus of all sorts are swelling in number and having a field day.

 

In the last few years, a new dimension has also been added to the thriving religious enterprise. It is the increased patronage of high-ranking public officials who openly call for and sponsor regular prayer sessions in different prayer houses, and the emergence of prayer merchants in and out of public service. These days, prayer and preaching sessions are no longer limited to churches, mosques and homes. They are held at corporate boardrooms, in government offices, in commercial buses and in open markets. Nigerians going about their daily business can be seen brandishing the Bible or the Koran, the Rosary or Islamic prayer beads. The largest billboards in our towns and cities are those advertising upcoming religious crusades and faith healing carnivals. Religious exclamations such as “to God be the glory,” “praise the Lord,” and “Alaahu wa ku bar,” are often on the lips of Nigerians, at work or at play - from the exalted members of the National Executive Council or Council of State, to the young ones who are about to sit Common Entrance examination. Thus, from all outward indications, Nigerians are a chronically religious people. This must be why a recent survey came up with a declaration that Nigerians are the most religious people on earth.

 

The Embarrassing Contradiction in Nigeria

With all this show of religiosity or outward display of piety, one would have expected to see a very high degree of social morality in Nigeria, since all world religions generally promote truth, justice, honesty and probity. But this is not to be the case with us. There is an embarrassing contradiction between the high ethical demands of the two religions which the majority of Nigerians profess, and the phenomenon of corruption, greed and graft that has earned our country the unenviable status of the “second most corrupt country in the world!” for the third year running in Transparency International’s Annual Corruption Perception Index.

 

While the damning verdict of Transparency International may be contested on many grounds by patriotic Nigerians, we cannot run away from the embarrassing truth that corruption in Nigeria almost passes for state policy. Yes, some keen observers of the phenomenon actually say that corruption is so endemic in the Nigerian society that the socio-economic and political system can almost not function without it. Alongside religiosity, corruption in its many shapes and sizes is booming in Nigeria - from the petty bribery taken by the clerk in the office or the policeman at the check-point, to the grand corruption by which huge project contracts are hurriedly awarded, not for the sake of the common good, but because of the greed of the awarding official, who requires some money via contract “kick-backs.”

 

Fraud, thievery and roguery are the order of the day, even as our environment is awash with prayers and ritual sacrifices to the God of truth, justice and holiness. It doesn’t seem to be a matter of contradiction for many highly placed Nigerians that they embezzle or misappropriate stupendous amounts of public and company funds, while at the same time struggling to occupy the front seats in their churches and mosques. Examination malpractice is witnessed on a wide scale from the common entrance examination organised for the placement of 10 year-olds into colleges to the final qualifying examination at the Nigerian Law School. It is alleged that unscrupulous parents are not only accomplices, but sometimes initiators of these shameful practices.

 

Many Nigerians, including seemingly pious Christians and Muslims, who would go to war in defence of their religions, have no qualms of conscience when they pay to obtain yellow cards without the necessary inoculation for which the card is supposed to be evidence. Many of our countrymen and women who flock our churches on Sunday and fill the mosques on Friday are at one time or the other involved in such fraudulent activities as evading tax, issuing and obtaining of fake receipts, over-invoicing and under-invoicing, importation of fake drugs, petty and large-scale bribery, fake audit reports, “creative book-keeping,” “round-tripping,” advance fee fraud, etc. All these practices are so commonplace and so widespread that many young Nigerians are today unable to distinguish between good and evil or between right and wrong.

 

This evil of corruption in Nigeria has been described as systemic. And the unwholesome consequences are legion. Corruption has bred inefficiency and diminished productivity in both the public and private sectors of the economy. It has discouraged investment, fuelled capital flight, increased unemployment and inflation, created an acute degree of poverty, brought about a severe decline in the quality of life and life expectancy in Nigeria, and given Nigeria and Nigerians a terribly bad image in the eyes of the international community. Corruption is an affront on human dignity and an assault on the human conscience, apart from being a negation of the Muslim and Christian calling to promote holiness and righteousness in the world.

 

Religious Organisations and the War Against Corruption

I have observed elsewhere that the struggle against corruption in our national landscape is one for the very survival of the nation itself. The choice before Nigerians is very clear: We either go to war against corruption in all its ramifications or we shall soon be consumed by this hydra-headed dragon. And in the fight against corruption we religious leaders would first of all have to do a serious soul-searching. We would have to purge ourselves of our own acts of complicity in corruption, repent of the evils of the past and make an irrevocable commitment to a life of truth, probity, transparency and accountability in our individual and corporate lives and in our mosques, churches and institutions. Then we shall have the moral authority to teach our adherents the much-needed lessons in a life of integrity, for as the saying goes, nemo dat quod non havet (no one can give to others what he himself does not have). It is when as religious leaders we have purged ourselves of corrupt tendencies that we shall tell our followers who claim to be good Muslims and Christians, but who engage in sharp practices and dubious manoeuvres in the economy and in politics the truth that they need to know; namely, that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, is the God of holiness and righteousness, who in Leviticus 19:2 says “Be holy for I the Lord am holy!”

 

Yes, when we ourselves stand sufficiently secure on a moral high ground with regard to the many dimensions of corruption in Nigeria, we shall demonstrate to our followers that the God of Moses is the same one who on Mount Sinai presented the 10 commandments as the terms of his contract with his people, insisting that fidelity to this ethical code is what will distinguish his people from all others. Religious leaders can help fight corruption in Nigeria by constantly reminding the multitude of worshippers who flock to our prayer houses but who at the same time offer and take bribe, defraud, evade tax and circumvent just laws in numerous ways, that the God of Moses in Exodus 22:8 says, “You will accept no bribes, for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and is the cause of the ruin of the upright.” We can help fight corruption in Nigeria when we religious leaders constantly emphasise such passages in our Scriptures as Isaiah 33:15 where God says that the person who will be qualified to be in his presence is the one who “acts uprightly and speaks honestly, who scorns to get rich by extortion, who rejects bribes out of hand, who refuses to listen to plans involving bloodshed and who shuts his eyes rather than countenance crime…”

True, Nigerian worshippers who make a daily show of their religiosity should be constantly reminded of such passages as Micah 6:8 where we are told that what the Lord truly requires of those who know him is “to love tenderly, to do justice, and to walk humbly before your God.” While preparing for the coming of Jesus, John the Baptist condemned the kind of religion that thrives side by side with corruption as empty ritualism. In Luke 3:13-14 he told those who had gathered to listen to him, among whom were soldiers and tax collectors: “Exact no more than the appointed rate…No intimidation! No extortion! Be content with your pay!”

 

Jesus Christ himself denounced the kind of religious practice that was not matched by high moral and ethical standards in private and social life. A comprehensive discussion of these standards can be found in the Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew 5-7). They include a high level of truth and honesty in interpersonal and social relationships, a high sense of purity, modesty and humility, a profound sense of self sacrifice, a readiness to forgive as often as one is offended and a disposition towards peace and non-violence. He made his followers realise that not all who claim to be Christians (not all who say Lord, Lord) will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of the father in heaven. And the will of the Father in heaven is that they be perfect as the heavenly father himself is perfect. (Matthew 5:48). Thus the Christian religion, like Judaism and Islam makes no room for crooks and fraudsters. It has no place for those who offer or receive bribe. It has no place for those who would lie and cheat. Authentic religion cannot accommodate the sum total of aberrations which is called “the Nigerian factor” today. It has no place for those who would use ill-gotten wealth to manipulate the political process. Instead, corruption is a negation of the fundamental orientation of all major religions of the world, which is to do good and avoid evil always.

 

Faced with the contradiction and the embarrassment of a booming religiosity in the midst of an environment that stinks with corruption and indiscipline therefore, religious leaders and organisations can contribute to the fight against corruption by demonstrating to their members that with the low level of social morality observed in our country, what camouflages as widespread religiosity may be little more than a mass movement with elements of religious ritualism, but one that is in large measure shallow, superficial, noisy and devoid of substance and depth. Religious leaders and organisations can contribute to the fight against corruption in Nigeria by attacking materialism and consumerism or the love of money which St. Paul says (in Timothy 6:10) is the root of all evils. Authentic religion can help the generality of Nigerians find satisfaction for the profound hunger of the heart and recover a sense of ultimate meaning beyond material and physical gratification. For the loss of the sense of meaning and purpose is often linked to the preponderance of deviancy, delinquency and all forms of social pathology.

 

Religious leaders and organisations can help turn many Nigerians away from what appears to be an incredibly high sense of devotion to the cult of material prosperity and material success towards the spiritual values of truth, justice, holiness and purity. Christian leaders and groups can use the message of the cross to promote a modest and an austere lifestyle that will contradict the crass materialism and extreme economic liberalism of our age which is responsible for the worsening plight of the poor in our country and elsewhere. Muslims can do the same with the notion of sacrifice which is a key element of the three Abrahamic religions. Popular religion in contemporary in Nigeria which lacks the essential components of sacrifice and a critical social conscience, has inadvertently supported the monumental pillars of corruption in the country. The challenge before us demand that we take a critical look at our penchant for scandalously expensive churches and mosques, harbouring stinkingly rich and nauseatingly flashy priests and pastors and imams, whose marks of success include palatial mansions, state of the art cars and fat bank accounts! No, Nigeria needs religious leaders and groups of austere disposition who would spearhead a moral revolution and an ethical re-orientation for a nation and its people that have been brought low in the course of a protracted midnight of debauchery.

 

Religious organisations in Nigeria can use their influence over people’s consciences to bridge the gap between religious ritualism and social morality. To dislodge the evil dispensation by which Nigerians of all walks of life seem to have decided that the price to be paid for honesty, fidelity, truth, hard work and diligence are too high, and by which they have settled for the short cut and the quick fix, and by which they have resorted to mutual betrayal, calumniation, opportunism and manipulation in the bid to make it by any means foul or fair, religious organisations must take up the challenge of constantly highlighting to their members the deadly consequences for the body and the soul, of those seven social sins identified by Mahatma Gandhi, namely: “Politics without principle; pleasure without conscience; wealth without work; commerce without morality; education without character; science without humanity; and worship without sacrifice.”

 

Conclusion

What we need in Nigeria is a reconstruction of our damaged corporate psyche. We need a fundamental re-visioning, and that will involve a re-definition of our communal ethos, a re-appreciation of our social habits and a re-prioritization of our national values, and it is my contention that in today’s Nigeria, there is no organ better placed than Religious organisations to champion this cause. Authentic religion teaches people that the meaning of human life is beyond humanity, and beyond this world, therefore the proper dissemination of the best principles of our two great religions, will help to checkmate the human instinct to grab and to accumulate for self, while neglecting the common good. I am convinced that the undiluted dissemination of the spiritual values in the two religions – not the message of convenience that we have become familiar with these days - is capable of purging Nigeria of the scourge of corruption, and salvaging our country from the gang of rogue nations in the world.

 

Yet, I must quickly add that religious bodies alone cannot do what every segment of the society must do to fight corruption in Nigeria. The generality of Nigerians must pay attention to the provisions of the Criminal Code against the various shades of corruption, especially involving public servants, and insist on the rigorous application of these provisions to all and sundry without fear or favour. To demonstrate its seriousness about prosecuting a war against corruption, the present administration must bring out the reports of the various probe panels that have been gathering dust in government archives, including the Oputa Panel Report about which so much fanfare was made and upon which so much premium was placed by Nigerians and the international community, but which appears to have been frozen by the very government that established the instrument. Concerted action must be taken on the most recent Auditor-General’s Report and the one before it, which indicted practically all sectors of our public service including the Presidency, the Legislature and the Judiciary. I am not aware that anyone has been sanctioned over those damning reports except the Acting Auditor General himself whose position was not confirmed after the release of the report. The perception created by this kind of disposition on the part of government does not help in the campaign against corruption.

 

The judicial system must be strengthened and the law enforcement agencies must be thoroughly cleaned up, re-structured and re-oriented, so that they may become more efficient in detecting and fighting corruption. Religious organisations cannot do this for government. Employers of labour should strive to pay adequate salaries and wages to workers. And finally, the society in general should desist from conferring honours on people whose wealth is questionable. The conduct and processes of the National Merit Award scheme should be thoroughly reviewed to make it more meaningful and tailored towards acknowledging and rewarding true patriotism (not sycophancy), hard work, honesty and probity. All Nigerians must be at alert to ensure that their elected representatives operate with truth, honesty and accountability. Yes, even those who find their way to the presidency, the national assembly, the state houses, and the local government councils, by corrupt means, can be forced to become accountable by a nation that suddenly wakes up to the imperative of fighting corruption.

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