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Year : 2015  |  Volume : 18  |  Issue : 7  |  Page : 1-7

Religion politics and ethics: Moral and ethical dilemmas facing faith-based organizations and Africa in the 21st century-implications for Nigeria in a season of anomie

Programme of Bio and Research Ethics and Medical Law, School of Nursing and Public Health, Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine, College of Health Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa

Date of Web Publication1-Dec-2015

Correspondence Address:
S C Chima
Programme of Bio and Research Ethics and Medical Law, School of Nursing and Public Health, Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine, College of Health Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban
South Africa
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/1119-3077.170832

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How to cite this article:
Chima S C. Religion politics and ethics: Moral and ethical dilemmas facing faith-based organizations and Africa in the 21st century-implications for Nigeria in a season of anomie. Niger J Clin Pract 2015;18, Suppl S1:1-7

How to cite this URL:
Chima S C. Religion politics and ethics: Moral and ethical dilemmas facing faith-based organizations and Africa in the 21st century-implications for Nigeria in a season of anomie. Niger J Clin Pract [serial online] 2015 [cited 2022 Aug 14];18, Suppl S1:1-7. Available from:

   Introduction Top

African peoples value social order and peace as essential and sacred. This is because of the traditional communalism of African societies. To maintain this sense of community and solidarity and avoid disintegration, there are many laws, customs, rules, and regulations constituting the ethics and moral code of African communities. These are believed to be instituted by God or derived from ancestors. This idea gives sanctity to these customs and morals, which are enforced by the traditional leaders, priests, or elders of the community. Any breach of this code of behavior is, therefore, considered evil, wrong, or bad because it tends to destroy the accepted social order and must be punished by the corporate community.[1] Therefore, traditional African life is dominated by religion, morals, and ethics. It is religion that influences the Africans' understanding of the universe and the individual's participation in it, making life itself a religious phenomenon.[1] Every adventure of life including governance and survival is clothed in rituals and symbolism, and African peoples did not traditionally differentiate between the sacred and the secular.[2] Every facet of life was defined in religious terms and in religion the society found its unity and progress.[2] It is within this traditional social order that foreign religions and ideology were introduced, according to Mbiti,[1] "without warning and without physical and psychological preparation Africa has been invaded by a world revolution," bringing with it modern science and technology including telecommunications, mass media, schools, universities, and urbanization.[1] Further, foreign religions such as Christianity and Islam came to Africa as complex phenomena made up of Western culture, politics, technology, medicine, education etc.[1] It has been argued that African peoples experienced these modern changes as a religious phenomenon, which disrupted the prevailing peace and social order,[2] described proverbially by The Mupun people of Plateau state, Nigeria as: "a world that had turned its tail into its mouth… a world that has completely turned around."[3]

Faith-based organizations (FBOs) have recently re-emerged as new partners in international development. International organizations such as the World Bank, WHO, UNESCO, DFID, and USAID, involved in providing aid to developing countries, have in recent times endeavored to channel some of their development aid through FBOs.[4],[5],[6] FBOs have been described as "formal organizations whose identity and mission are self-consciously derived from the teachings of one or more religious or spiritual traditions…"[4] The renewed interests in FBOs have been fueled by such observations as, "one cannot fight poverty without tending to peoples spiritual dimensions…" or "the enormous political voice of faith communities and their equally significant role in delivering social services suggests that they are critical development partners and agents of change."[5] This is due to the fact that religious leaders and institutions may have been more trusted in developing countries, especially where the state is unable to deliver; religious networks appear to gain new attractiveness.[6],[7] Advocates of increased aid for developing countries such as the Commission for Africa have argued that "for African states to become more effective, they need to understand what it is about religion that builds enormous loyalty in adherents, creates infrastructural benefits, collects tithes and taxes and fosters a sense of belonging that builds material and spiritual benefit."[7] It has also been observed that the worldview of the majority of people in Africa is deeply rooted in religion and spirituality, with up to 99.5% of Africans being religious and large numbers converting to Christianity and Islam.[1],[2],[3],[7],[8],[9]

   Discussion Top

However, it must be observed that while religious entities and FBOs have assisted with provision of healthcare services, education, etc., to underserved populations,[2],[3],[4],[5],[6],[7],[8],[9] perhaps based on the perceived moral, benevolent, and religious value of altruism, the religious worldview of Africans and their intense spirituality have often been exploited in an unethical manner.[1],[2],[3] The introduction of Christianity and Islam into Africa have always been done with strong paternalism and hegemonic belief systems, which required complete abandonment of African traditional religions (ATR), medicines, belief systems, and spiritual worldview [1],[2],[3],[9],[10],[11],[12],[13] [Figure 1], adapted from Mbiti JS and Alolo NA [1],[9] These changes caused "things to fall apart"[10] in traditional African societies with the advent of colonialism.[1],[2],[3],[9],[10],[11],[12],[13] The introduction of foreign religions into Africa and other developing countries, while purportedly based on the best interests of local population groups, was morally tainted by the "myth of the disinterested other," whereby surrogates with "interests of their own" misused religion to advance their own spiritual worldview, personal or economic objectives, whether it be colonization, apartheid, slavery, or religious expansionism.[1],[2],[3],[9],[10],[11],[12],[13] The control and domination of local populations was often accomplished by unethical means such as trickery, deception, outright enslavement, or by introducing associated social benefits such as healthcare and education, which recipient populations have been unable to resist due to their vulnerability.[1],[2],[3],[8],[9],[10],[11],[12],[13 This "race for souls"[3],[12] by competing religious entities and denominations was also accompanied by religious and political rivalries resulting in all forms of cultural and structural violence,[1],[14],[15] culminating in wars, terrorism, racial domination, apartheid, marginalization, slavery, etc.[1],[2],[3],[9],[10],[11],[12],[13] The consequences have been described as being:
Figure 1: The African spiritual worldview

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"Recognizable in the forms of annihilation of the "other," of forced assimilation of individual historical identities, of presupposed uniqueness of a falsely universalizing thought."[16]

These observations are consistent with the Marxist interpretation of religion as based on a self-interest theory, which envisages religion as an ideological tool used by the ruling class to maintain political control and domination of the oppressed, "the opium of the people?"[17]

Religion as an opiate not only implies sedation from the pain of a life of exploitation, but also suggests a systematic and strategic attempt to deaden or absorb any critical impulse to liberation.[17]

This longing for escape from a life of pain and suffering by marginalized and oppressed peoples can be visualized by a popular rap song which goes, "Am going through hell, I gotta make it to heavenFor going through hell, I hope I make it to heaven…"[18] Reminiscent of poignant lyrics about the vagaries of religion by the late famous Nigerian-African artist Kuti.[19] Where he lamented that while African religious believers and followers were often suffering and smiling under burdensome poverty, the leaders of Christian or Muslim congregations were busy enjoying the considerable benefits of ill-gotten religious aggrandizement.[19] This longing for escape by the poor and oppressed is often exploited by religionists who paint a picture of faith and belief in a better eternal life captured in Wittgenstein's [20] statement as:

It is this picture of a supposedly better life, which keeps adherents enthralled and believing in things unseen.


Religion is not simply an idea, but [becomes] a medium of transmission and control, with its own organizations, networks, and mnemotechnic devices of indoctrination [and] remembrance.[17]

It must be recognized that while religion and faith have an enormous capacity for good, there is also the alternative view by some religious leaders that faith is often "misused" to justify violence.[21] Other commentators have suggested that "we should realize that there is good religion, bad religion, and very bad religion."[5] Accordingly, FBOs have been described as a heterogeneous group produced by very different world faiths with radically different interpretations of faith in differing cultural, social, geographic, political, and historical contexts.[5] Therefore, based on their objectives or functionality, FBOs can be classified into a five-fold typology ranging from faith-based representative organizations or apex bodies to faith-based radical, illegal, or terrorist organizations, which promote radical or militant forms of faith identity or engage in armed struggle or violent acts justified on the grounds of faith.[22] Indeed, many ongoing conflicts in Nigeria and elsewhere in the world can be traced to religious intolerance and extremism.[23],[24],[25] According to the Commission for Africa:

Religion is not only a force for goodReligious movements can produce great passivity and fatalism in their adherents, enforced by belief in miraculous divine provision or a malevolent spirit worldSome religious beliefs contribute to the spread of HIV and AIDS, for example where the use of condoms is resisted. Although some traditional medicines work, belief in supernatural causes of disease can prompt a search for supernatural remedies that may be harmful. Religion can also be a vehicle for fraud, criminality, human rights abuses and extremism[7]

Nonetheless, opponents of new protections based on multiculturalism and liberal ideologies given to religion and faith-based entities in the developed countries of the North have argued that extra protections given to FBOs are likely to lead to increasing conflicts with Western cultural values and the secular arrangements of European liberal democracies [Table 1].[26],[27] In Africa, challenges facing FBOs include their inability to practice faith in a nonpaternalistic, hegemonic, and dogmatic manner.[1],[2],[3],[25] Faith should not be misused as a means of exercising control over traditional communities because of their vulnerability, for example, lack of alternative means of obtaining healthcare, education, etc., as defined by UNAIDs on the concept of vulnerability.[28],[29] FBOs should provide aid in an inclusive, nondiscriminatory, nondenominational, and nonjudgmental manner. Neither faith nor FBOs should be misused to induce intolerance and incitement against other religious points of view. The double standard where Western liberal societies have allowed their own populations to either accept or reject religion leading to dwindling numbers of churchgoers and practicing religionists must also be allowed in African communities without the misguided threat of eternal damnation or perverse inducements, aimed at deceiving African populations into abandoning their traditional cultural practices for imported religions and ideology. The inherent competition between Christianity and Islam and interdenominational competiveness, has perpetuated conflicts in places such as Central African Republic, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria, leading to the negation of the stated goal of development assistance in Africa.[1],[2],[3],[9],[10],[11],[12],[13],[24] It has been suggested that FBOs in recent times have also been challenged by their financial needs and poor management practices, leading to instances where their faith-based activities and goals are dictated by funders, rather than organizational mission or religious doctrine.[25],[30]
Table 1: Some ongoing moral dilemmas and controversies confronting religion and society

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Nigeria in a season of anomie

The right to life and security has been described as the most basic of human rights.[7] Unfortunately, the preponderance of weak and ineffective governance occasioned by poor leadership in African states including Nigeria has provided a breeding ground for insecurity due to religious extremism.[23],[24] Often religion is misused by weak leaders and religious demagogues who prey on the fears of the people and foster religious zeal and extremism.[3],[14],[23] Such circumstances are then exploited by politicians and "instant religionists"[1] to the detriment of the African peoples, stalling the advance of democracy and perpetuating the cycle of underdevelopment, poverty, ill-health, and marginalization of African populations. The Oxford English dictionary defines anomie as "lack of the usual social or ethical standards."[31] Nigeria today is confronted by problems of leadership and governance. According to Achebe, "The trouble with Nigeria is pure and simple a problem of leadership."[14],[32] Despite several changes in government, both democratic and military, the results have remained the same. It is clear that, at present, Nigeria is not an effective state, where an effective state is defined as: "one that can promote and protect human rights, deliver services to their people and create a climate for entrepreneurship and growth which are the foundations of development."[7] Critical to this, effectiveness is the capacity to organize and deliver policies and accountability in how the state answers to its people [7] and provides the fundamental human rights to life and security. In this climate of insecurity and poor governance, corruption, mismanagement of natural and human resources, there is a proliferation of politicians, religionists, charlatans and religious demagogues, who prey on the people's insecurities and fears encouraged by a weak government and leadership.[24] In the current atmosphere and season, it is clear what Nigeria needs is not more religion or FBOs. To paraphrase the Commission on Africa,[7] it needs rather:

Better governance and the building of the capacity of the states to deliver goods and services to the people. It needs peace. It needs political and economic stability to create a climate for growth - a growth which is inclusive, in which poor people can participate. It needs investment in infrastructure and in the health and education systems which will produce a healthy and skilled workforce as well as a happy and fulfilled people. It needs to trade more, and on fairer terms than the rich world has allowed to date.[7],[33]

Separating religion from politics: A way forward

One of the ways in which African countries such as Nigeria, which have been polarized along religious lines, can maintain secularity and separate church from state affairs, maybe by incorporating a "nonestablishment clause" into national constitutions, similar to the US constitution's first amendment "establishment clause."[34] This clause prohibits the US Congress from making any law "respecting an establishment of religion."[34] Accordingly, while the first amendment guarantees freedom of religion, expression, assembly, and the right to petition, it forbids the US Congress from both promoting one religion over others and also restricts individual religious practices.[34] Such an amendment would generally prohibit federal, regional, or state governments from actively supporting any particular religion, for example, using government funds to support or any religion or religious organization. The current Nigerian constitution while prohibiting a state religion guarantees the fundamental right of freedom of religion. However, this constitutional provision is complicated by the dual legal system which recognizes Sharia religious laws, which has been adopted by some Nigerian states. By passing a nonestablishment law, anecdotal, and actual evidence suggesting that state funds are used to support particular religious groups/organizations in Nigeria [35],[36] or used for propagating religious laws such as Sharia law, may be minimized or completely proscribed.[36] Similarly, overtly Christian or Islamic religious activities such as proselytizing or evangelization in public places or places of employment could be prohibited, thereby reducing religious fervor and interdenominational competition.[1],[2],[3],[12],[13],[24] It is hereby suggested that Africans must rather reflect on the true and tested African traditional values and existential moral philosophies of tolerance and mutual coexistence as exemplified by the Igbo adage which says:

Let the kite hawk have a perch, and let the eagle also have a perch. Whichever begrudges the other the right to perch, may its wings break.[37]

Similarly, Yoruba moral philosophy emphasizes virtue ethics and promotes the central value of character [Iwa], which suggests that: "it is a good character that is man's guardgentle character it is which enables the rope of life to stay unbroken in one's hand…"[1],[38] Good character manifests itself in such ways as: "…faithfulness, hospitality, generosity-the opposite of selfishness, kindness, justice, truth and rectitude as essential virtues. Also avoiding stealing, keeps a covenant, avoiding falsehood, protecting the poor and weak, especially women [vulnerable people]; giving honour respect to older people; and avoiding hypocrisy…"[1],[38]

This resonates with the African philosophy of Ubuntu/Botho, which proclaims "sumus ergo sum" or "I am because we are, and because we are, therefore I am."[1],[14],[39],[40] These African moral philosophies and worldview which promote the spirit of brotherhood, communalism, togetherness, religious tolerance, and acceptance of the "otherness of the other,"[14] are arguably superior to the rugged individualism of modern Western civilization and capitalism, as well as the Judeo-Christian retaliatory philosophy of "an eye for an eye" or the Jihadist idea of complete annihilation of the "other."

The importance of ethics and human rights to Africa

The importance of ethics and human rights to Africa in the new millennium and beyond cannot be overemphasized. Since the advent of colonialism, African peoples have often been exploited because of their vulnerabilities, which include, ignorance, poverty, low education, poor governance, and lack of alternative means of obtaining healthcare, as well as other forms of structural and cultural violence.[14],[15],[29],[33] African population groups have often been used as un-consenting subjects of human biomedical research without respect for their individual autonomy.[41] Further, the natural mineral wealth of Africa including flora and fauna have been exploited via biopiracy, unfair trade agreements, and other unethical means.[7],[14],[33],[42],[43] African citizens are often misled by religious and political demagogues and exploited by bad governments and weak leadership. As suggested by the UNESCO committee on teaching ethics, perhaps it is time to emphasize the teaching of ethics in all educational institutions in Nigeria and Africa.[14],[42],[43] As I argued previously:

The study of ethics is not only important for improving healthcare in Africa, but also for developing the insight and competence African communities need in order to face the challenges of the present and the future successfully. The study of ethics often enables individuals to distinguish between good and bad ideas, and to be able to construct good "rational arguments" to defend one ethical position against another. Argumentation is not only crucial for fruitful discussions and learning, but also important in recognizing the autonomy and rights of others, by acknowledging the "otherness of the others." Contestation of ideas is particularly important for social ethics because emphasizing arguments will make life more difficult for political leaders and fanatics who spread messages that may not stand up to critical scrutiny, but that nevertheless often have the capacity to seduce the masses into intolerance and violence.[42],[43]

Perhaps, there is a need to introduce courses on ethics and human rights into the educational curriculum of Nigerian schools starting at the secondary level, similar to foregone colonial courses in "civics." The proposed curriculum would include the study of African moral philosophies and ATR in addition to other world religions as well as ethical principles and human rights, etc. This will help toward reorientation of the youth on their civic and social responsibilities to society. A good example exists in South Africa, which recently introduced a course in the high school curriculum called "Life Orientation."[44] According to the curricular description:

Life Orientation is the study of the self in relation to others and to society. It addresses skills, knowledge, and values about the self, the environment, responsible citizenship, a healthy and productive life, social engagement, recreation and physical activity, careers and career choices.[44]

As currently constituted and taught in South African high schools, the course contains of six topics including: (i) development of the self in society (ii) social and environmental responsibility (iii) democracy and human rights.[44]

Such a curriculum could be easily adapted and adopted into most secondary school curricula in Nigeria and the rest of Africa, and should assist in the teaching of ethics and human rights including African moral philosophies to the future generation.

The future role of faith-based organizations

Opportunities for FBOs exist in providing social services for newly emerging and developing countries in Africa. For example, services such as homes for the aged and hospices are sorely needed. Because with better healthcare services, increasing income and life expectancy, African populations are poised to live longer and diseases of the aged and disabled will likely proliferate, leading to the need to manage conditions such as disorders of aging, disabled children, and people living with cancer. Therefore, providing better palliative care as shown by reports from others papers in this issue is extremely important. FBOs can also be of great assistance in the fight against HIV-AIDS, tuberculosis, leprosy, and other neglected tropical diseases in Africa, through encouraging options such as male circumcision or use of condoms and other family practice methodologies in a nondenominational and nondogmatic manner that respects the traditional customs, morals, human rights, and dignity of local populations. There is a need to encourage culturally sensitive approaches to the funding and developmental aid activities of FBOs and other international aid organizations, which take into consideration African traditional beliefs, religious worldview, and cultural values. It has been argued that development efforts which do not consider the culture of its beneficiaries may not enjoy popular support or participation.[45] Finally, FBOs should not be used a Trojan horse toward neo-colonialism, cultural domination and hegemony, or the re-colonization of the African mind. It has been suggested that some FBOs in Africa operate with hybrid objectives or dual intention of both providing material assistance to the marginalized as well as proselytism, which may foster foreign ideologies and ultimately be destabilizing by increasing political tension in African communities.[3],[6],[11],[24],[25]

It has been argued that jointly or competitively, religions in Africa should be able to exert a force and make contributions toward creating new moral standards and ethics suitable for a changing society. They also have a responsibility to define, shape, and protect human rights and dignity in the face of power, cultural and social violence, terrorism, epidemics, scientific progress and a search for peace in the age of industrialization, and new political ideologies.[1] What is overwhelmingly clear is that while religion can be a force for good or bad in African development, it can never be ignored in African societies.[2],[7]

   Conclusion Top

From the foregoing, one can conclude that because religion plays such a prominent role in the African life, it can neither be ignored nor abandoned. However, there ought to be a discussion on the modalities for adapting African moral philosophies and religious worldview into the practice of modern democracy and development aid within African countries in a way to effectively separate the church and state in governance of the polity. This can begin by re-examination of idea of the secular government in national constitutions and whether it would be possible to introduce a "nonestablishment clause" in state constitutions which would prohibit the adoption of any religion as the official state, regional, or national religion, thereby building a more secular society. Perhaps, a gradual change can be initiated by introducing courses in ethics, human rights, ATR, and moral philosophy into the school curriculums for edification of the youth and future generations on their social and civic responsibilities.

Finally, the papers included in this special issue on ethics, human rights, and medical law range from the role of religion and ethics in African societies, discussions on women's reproductive rights including abortion, and the medico-legal issues surrounding termination of pregnancies with severely malformed fetuses. Other papers deal with informed consent, patient's rights, shared healthcare decision making, and the right to mental health care. Others explore palliative care and clinical negligence in resource-poor settings, regulation of biomedical research in Africa, as well as enhancing the skills of medical doctors and biomedical researchers through better training in biostatistics and ethics. We hope that these papers will be found useful by readers as we continue to try and expand the boundaries of African bioethics.[14] As noted by other eminent global personalities, "Africa can only ignore ethics at its own peril."[42],[46] As suggested by the former President of the United States, Bill Clinton:

In a world where there is not enough money to go around, and people die every time we make a mistake, it is immoral not to be relentlessly focused on how we can be more effective.[28],[42]


Publication of articles in this supplement have been partially supported by institutional funding from the Research Office, University of Kwazulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa. Selected articles in this supplement are derived from papers presented at the 4th Ethics, Human Rights and Medical Law Conference (4th EHMRL), Africa Health organized by Informa Life Sciences Exhibitions at Gallagher Convention Centre, Johannesburg on May 29 2014.

   References Top

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