Nigeria: Faith Against Corruption

Martin Luther King Jr.'s life and teachings are an inspiration for anyone who fights for social justice. Shaun Casey, a theologian and savvy political analyst, serves as the first Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs in the US State Department. At a bold and somewhat improbable meeting of Christian religious leaders in Lagos, Nigeria that took place on January 18, Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the US, he linked King's lessons to Nigeria's fight against corruption. The State Department met the next day with a group of Muslim leaders (I was not present for that event).

King was a preacher but also a pragmatist. He did not shy away from the grunt work of collecting and working from facts, using them to diagnose the parameters of injustice, and to map out ways to fight it. He stood for the fight against injustice but he also knew how to negotiate and use reason, and then when and how to turn up the temperature. As a leader he understood well the need to look inwards but also to help his colleagues to attend to their own roles and to learn how to sustain the effort that was required to see results. Practicing what is preached and targeting action carefully and strategically are what's needed to succeed.

All these lessons echoed in discussing Nigeria's fight against corruption. At the heart of a gathering (organized by the American Consulate and Office of Religion and Global Affairs) were two ideas. The first is that people who follow religious teachings should be less susceptible to the temptations of corruption than those who ignore or are ignorant about the ethics of honest government. It would follow that religious leaders are naturals in fighting for integrity, for impeccably honest public service, and thus for social justice. The second is that corruption fuels much public ire and distrust of governments at all levels. It is fundamentally linked to violence and instability. It was in this spirit that a group of Christian pastors and Muslim imams and scholars were invited to explore how religious leaders might shed light on the root causes of corruption and help to find better solutions.

Nigeria is sadly quite renowned for high levels of corruption, but it is far from alone. The international think tank, Transparency International, came out last week with its always anticipated Corruption Perceptions Index, that ranks countries from "good" to "bad", based on an elaborate methodology. Nigeria came 136th out of 168 countries. The cost of misallocated funds and efforts are hard to measure precisely but they are tragically high, both in lost chances for education and health, wasted investments, and frayed trust among citizens. Nigeria's President Buhari, in office less than a year, has highlighted his government's commitment to fighting corruption, stressing that this is an all-hands job, involving all sectors.

So, the question is, how best can religious leaders contribute to the effort? What aspects are most problematic? What is being done? And how can the religious community come together and work as partners with private companies, universities, governments, and other civil society organizations?

A first obvious topic is to identify what religious communities can really do. Their primary business seems rather removed from the nuts and bolts of fighting corruption: clean procurement, proper contract oversight, and rules of conduct for civil servants for example. But the power and influence of religious communities is real, as the moral voice of the community, more trusted than most other leaders and with a literal pulpit. Their media presence is large, they have enormous organizational capacity, and access to diverse groups of citizens including senior government and business leaders. Their moral authority can be powerful in a real sense. Religious leaders exercise power through example (personal leadership and exemplary church financial management, for example) and through their preaching and teaching.

Looking more towards what might be termed the nitty gritty, it is well understood in the anti-corruption movement that systems matter, a lot. Many systems are involved: electoral systems, public management, and education for example. Religious leaders often have intimate knowledge about these systems and can point to weak points and egregious problems. And they can do still more by working together: there is power in numbers and in organization. Partnership can be powerful.

In religious discussions about corruption that I have been part of there are two tendencies. The moral fiber of society is blamed and of course over the long term it is vital. But, assuming that this means starting with very young children and education at home and school, the implication is that the fight will take a long long time. The second is to veer between a focus on mega corruption: large leakage of funds, and vast ill gotten gains stashed in accounts or assets overseas, or the embedded, endemic corruption that affects all citizens: teachers who demand payment, venal police and judges, for example. A first step is to not to get stuck in moral revitalization alone or in undue focus on, for example, the sins of a small number of individuals. The challenges are urgent and they are systemic and that is where religious leaders and institutions have special advantages. They can keep the temperature up and keep a constant eye on results.

On all fronts Nigeria's religious leaders have the power to make a difference. They can raise awareness and invest in education for their congregations, calling on civil society organizations to conduct training on financial management, reading and understanding budgets, and highlighting available anti-corruption resources. They can indeed change the moral tone, with stories, inspiration from scripture, example, and forthright willingness to speak truth to those in power. They can ensure that their own houses are in order to have credibility as they challenge public officials and private sector businesspeople. They can point to what is wrong, in systems and in holding leaders to account. And they can work together as part of a civil society that believes in a vision of a society where the welfare of citizens and especially those at the margins, those who suffer, is paramount. They can model the courage and persistence that are needed to fight the unpleasant fight that is required.

The day long discussion with people who understood well what the challenge involves, who seemed at times to despair or walk away in disgust, concluded with a call to common action. We can, this group agreed, bring about change. We can change the expectations and the tone. And we can show the way. A critical mass of religious leaders who agree on common action can make a real difference.