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Religion constitutes an inextricable part of African society. As such, political and socio-economic activities are often flavoured with religious expressions and rituals. Whilst Africans are steeped in religiosity - this is expressed in many ways - poverty and corruption are rife on the continent. The question thus arises as to whether African religiosity gives impetus to poverty and corruption on the continent or whether religion has a crucial role to play in the liberation of African societies from poverty and corruption. By using the concept of religion in relation to African Traditional Religion, Christianity and Islam, this article investigates the role of religion in the crisis of poverty and corruption in African society and argues that whilst religion has been instrumentalised in some instances to perpetuate poverty and corruption on the continent, it remains a crucial component of 'Africanness' and could contribute to moral, socio-political and economic transformation.

But although religion is flourishing in Africa, many sub-Saharan African countries are amongst the world's poorest nations. In response to the challenges of poverty, corruption and underdevelopment faced on the African continent, Lual Deng has called on African intellectuals to look at African history for a possible guide to an appropriate developmental framework that would integrate African social values and institutions in combination with the economic fundamentals included in contemporary development theories.

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In the same vein, Dele Omosegbon has suggested that the study of African culture and history could provide guidance for future African development. African religions therefore constitute an enormous terrain that overlaps with the socio-political and economic spheres in sub-Saharan Africa and its diaspora.

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Harold Koenig argues that the definition of religion is generally agreed upon by scholars of religion: it comprises beliefs, practices and rituals that are related to the sacred, to God, to the mystical or to the supernatural. Religion, accordingly, is not just a typical function or variable amongst other variables: it constitutes the root from which the different branches of life sprout, grow and flourish. From this point of view, religion is of integral importance: it concerns the deepest root of human existence and integrates human life into a coherent whole Schuurman John Mbiti, for his part, has argued that it is difficult to define religion.

He argues that it is even more difficult to define religion in the context of African traditional life. Despite this difficulty, he asserts that for Africans, religion is an ontological phenomenon: it pertains to the question of existence or being Mbiti Religion has rules about conduct that guide life within a social group and it is often organised and practised in a community, instead of being an individual or personal affair.


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All African societies view life as one big whole and religion permeates all aspects of life. In terms of this thinking, it is the whole that brings about the unification of the parts. There is no such thing as com-partmentalisation or dichotomisation when it comes to human existence: there is no division between matter and spirit, soul and body, and religious practice and daily life.

Speculative reflection without practice has never been characteristic of Africans; the two always go together Kunhiyop As such, in the African worldview religion permeates the political and socio-economic life of Africans, just as politics, economic activities and other vital components of life permeate religion. In many African countries people who do not subscribe to any form of religion make up less than 0. Mbiti In line with the perspectives or claims of several other scholars Deng ; Koenig ; Kunhiyop ; Nkom ; Omosegbon ; Schuurman , in this article we uphold the thesis that religion constitutes the main fabric of African societies, and is intertwined with their general existence, including their sociopolitical and economic development.

Furthermore, like these scholars we similarly depart from an understanding of 'Africa' as constituting 'a specific cultural context' that allows for at least some degree of common identification amidst diversification. Kalu a: Within a framework that allows for common identification and understanding, this article wishes to reconsider the role of religion in eradicating poverty and corruption - and in doing so contribute to the socio-political and economic transformation of sub-Saharan African societies. By using the concept of religion in relation to African Traditional Religion, Christianity and Islam, the article seeks answers to the following questions: What is the essential nature of African religiosity?

How do poverty and corruption pose major challenges to African societies? If African societies are very religious but at the same time very poor and corrupt, to what extent does religion contribute to poverty and corruption on the continent? If religion is crucial to Africans, how could its resources and actors be mobilised to liberate African societies from poverty and corruption? In striving to answer these questions, we will first seek to develop a better grasp of religion as a major constituent of the worldview of African people.

This will be followed by a more pertinent examination of how the realities of endemic poverty and corruption pose ongoing challenges to African societies, despite the phenomenon of overt religiosity in those same societies.

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Departing from this discussion we will proceed to reflect more critically on the factor of religious complacency and on how religion is instrumentalised - especially through Africa's leaders - to sustain and enhance the structural existence of poverty and corruption in African societies. Finally, we will end our discussion by giving new consideration to the ways in which the resources of religion could be utilised by Africans as a force for positive social transformation and development in African society.

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Religion as a Way of Life. However, despite the influence of secular modernism in Africa, such separation has not left a lasting imprint on African societies, where religion continues to play an important role in socio-economic and political life. Mbiti asserts that Africans are notoriously religious. According to him, religion permeates all departments of life to such an extent that it is not easy or possible to isolate it Mbiti Although the African religious consciousness was initially derived from the practice of traditional religion, Christianity and Islam have given further impetus to this consciousness.

Conversely, however, as the unfolding of a natural cultural process, both Christianity and Islam have in turn been influenced by traditional religion Muzorewa In African traditional life, the individual is immersed in religious participation that starts before birth and continues after death. For the African, "to live is to be caught up in a religious drama" Mbiti Religion is indeed fundamental for Africans, since human beings live in a religious universe.


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Both the universe, and practically all human activities in it, are seen and experienced from a religious perspective. This means that the whole of existence is a religious phenomenon, which leads Mbiti to argue that in the African worldview, to exist is to be religious in a religious universe. In this sense it is unthinkable for an African to live without religion. This religious worldview informs the philosophical understanding of African myths, customs, traditions, beliefs, morals, actions and social relationships Mbiti This same worldview also accounts for the religiosity of the African in political and socio-economic life Kalu a That Africans resort to religion unconsciously shows how deeply a religious consciousness is ingrained in an African person, whether he or she is at home or in the diaspora Chitando et al.

It is, therefore, common for Africans to display their religious beliefs and rituals in moments of joy and despair. Africans come alive when they manifest their religiosity. African expressions, names, activities, symbols, celebrations, work, ideology and philosophies are loaded with religiosity.

Whilst the African traditional religious heritage remains a potent force that - on a subconscious level - still influences the values, identity and outlook of Africans, Christianity and Islam have become major sources of influence in African society. Christianity has been in existence in Africa for more than two thousand years and its enormous influence is undeniable. Evidence of such influence can be seen in, for example, the number of Christian churches, names and institutional establishments in many African societies Metuh vii-xvi. In turn, Islam has also been around for such a long period of time that it has led Mbiti to comment that these two religions can both claim to have become indigenous, albeit as later additions to African societies when compared with African Traditional Religion.

Mbiti argues that it is obvious that - in their encounter with indigenous religious traditions - Christianity and Islam have succeeded in converting many Africans. However, traditional religion shows resilience in its impact in such areas as Africans' historical-cultural roots, self-consciousness and expectations Mbiti ; see also Ejizu The influence of Christianity on African Traditional Religion and African Christian religiosity was achieved through the evangelisation of Africans by returnee African Christian slaves and Christian missionaries from the West.

The emphasis of the Aladura, Zion and Roho churches is on prayer, dreams, prophesy, faith-healing and providing solutions to existential problems. The Aladura of West Africa, for example, strongly believe that the spoken word can be endowed with 'Agbara emi' spiritual power. This idea is derived from Yoruba traditional beliefs but finds biblical backing in 1 Thessalonians 5 and 1 Corinthians The Aladura, like other AICs, believe in witchcraft, demon-possession, and in the link between sickness, misfortune and the activities of evil spirits - which are also familiar themes in the New Testament and correlate with traditional beliefs Kalu b:5; Metuh xiii; Ejizu The influence of the beliefs and practices of the AICs on mainline and Pentecostal churches in Africa and the African diaspora is substantial Adogame Although the emphasis on prayer, healing, the power of the spoken word and music and dance is rooted biblically, these liturgical activities derive from traditional religious practices.

The impact of these practices in sustaining a vibrant Christian faith and promoting the growth of the church in Africa and in the diaspora is indeed undeniable Kalu c; Adogame Whilst the influence of Christianity on traditional religion and vice-versa is significant, especially as this concerns attaining a meaningful indigenous African Christianity, the mutual influence of religion and the socio-political and economic life of Africans should not be underestimated.

Admittedly, just as religion influences the socio-political and economic spheres, so is religion also influenced by these spheres Kalu a African political and economic elite have often resorted to religion in their intense competition for the diminishing resources of wealth, political power and prestige. In African societies such as Nigeria, the state provides a source of power and wealth, more so than any other institution in society.

The power and wealth provided by the state is usually competed for with enormous ferocity. Religion is used in this contest as both a contested field and as an instrument of competition.

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The religious dimension in socio-economic and political contestation in Africa could be said to be both pervasive and complex Kalu d Kalu argues that the intrusion of spirituality in contemporary political dynamics is, firstly, given impetus by the claim of African politicians that African political ethics are rooted in an African traditional worldview. Secondly, religion is employed in the political and economic spheres by those who legitimate their power by appealing to ritual sources to be found in traditional religion and culture.

These two factors "enable traditional secret societies such as Ogboni, Nyamkpe, Owegbe, and Ekine to serve as instruments for mobilising economic and political power" in contemporary African society Kalu d Whilst Christianity and Islam, like traditional religions, serve as instruments for the mobilisation of political and economic power, they are also wrongly used by the elite as "instruments of political conflict" Kalu d At the same time, however, if religion is so entrenched in the socio-political and economic lives of Africans, it is unimaginable that it does not also have a vital role to play in the transformation of the continent.

The recent economic performance of African countries has clearly not done enough to promote economic diversification, job growth and social development in order to lift millions of Africans out of poverty UNECA And whilst poverty persists on the continent, corruption is also rife Kolade Definitions of poverty are varied and there is no consensus on the definition of the concept Laderchi et al. According to Peter Townsend, in a more recent discussion on the concept of poverty initiated by the United Nations Development Programme UNDP , "people can be said to be in poverty when they are deprived of in -come and other resources needed to obtain the conditions of life - the diets, material goods, amenities, standards and services - that enable them to play the roles, meet the obligations and participate in the relationships and customs of their society" Townsend ; cf.

For his part, Stan Burkey defines poverty in terms of basic needs and he distinguishes between absolute and relative poverty.

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Absolute poverty refers to the inability of an individual, a community or a nation to meet basic needs such as the need for food, shelter, potable water, healthcare and education. Relative poverty refers to conditions where basic needs are met, but where an inability persists to meet perceived needs and desires.

Most African countries fall within the absolute poverty category. African communities also have definitions, anecdotes and proverbs that depict both the meaning and implications of poverty. For instance, among the Olulumo Okuni people of Cross River State in Nigeria, poverty okpak , besides referring to a lack of possessions, financial incapacity and the inability to meet the basic needs of individuals and the community, also denotes a state or condition devoid of people, happiness and good health. This understanding is reflected in proverbs such as okpak oni okor "the poor has nobody" , kelam ka okpak a dima koide "the speech of the poor is heard in the evening or when it is late" , and okpak oradoma kenyam "the poor has a stench".

These proverbs clearly imply a real awareness of how poverty as an undesirable state or condition of human well-being not only leads to exclusion from communal life but also to an undermining of the 'good life' that gives meaning and purpose to human existence. According to Ndem Ndiyo , corruption "is the offering, giving, receiving or soliciting, directly or indirectly, of anything of value to influence improperly the actions of another party". He goes on to argue that corrupt practices vary enormously in kind from place to place, but usually include fraudulent, collusive, coercive and obstructive practices.

Given the levels of poverty on the African continent, Omosegbon supports the acceleration of Africa's development through diversification but maintains that challenging issues such as corruption, civil strife and bad governance - recurring factors in many African nations, such as Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Congo, Egypt, Malawi, Zambia, South Africa and many others - should be taken into consideration.