Why Ndii’s amnesty for corruption philosophy is impractical and the dilemma of morality

Sunday, May 23rd, 2021 05:02 | By
Economist David Ndii. PHOTO/File


Recently, Kenyan public intellectual David Ndii suggested an amnesty for past corruption in the country. His thesis was that all Kenyan presidents from past to present have engaged in one form of corruption or another, so picking on one and leaving out the others may not seem feasible. What Ndii’s thesis fails to indicate is that all the Kenyan presidents accused of corruption have professed a religious identity. Some, like Daniel arap Moi, were conspicuous church goers. Yet, given that it is assumed that religion is the main source of morality, how come we have presidents who profess a strong religious identity but engage in morally questionable conduct within the public realm?

Indeed, the country brings into sharp focus the question of religion in shaping public morality. On the one hand, Kenya is assumed to be a deeply religious country, with up to 80 per cent of Kenyans professing one faith or the other. On the other hand, religion is assumed to be the source of morality among human beings, without which, human beings would have no standards and values to shape how they behave. It would therefore follow that a deeply religious country would be one of the most morally upright. So, what explains the dilemma of Kenya being deeply religious yet still have one of the most corrupt public spheres across the world?

The answer may lie in two reasons.

 The first has to do with discounting the claims which religion makes in shaping public morality. Secular scholars such as Richard Carrier and the late Christopher Hitchens have argued that religion is not a source of morality. For instance in citing the case of the Good Samaritan who behaved better towards a person in need compared to religious people of his time, they show that religion, even in Jesus’ time, was not the only basis of morality. If it was, then the story of the Good Samaritan would not have been necessary. More profoundly, Carrier argues that morality, much like most other human faculties, has evolved with time. If religion had been the basis of morality, the world should have witnessed one constant form of morality through the ages, provided by the world’s leading religions. There would have been no such morally cruel events in history as slavery and the Holocaust.

Yet since these events happened despite the presence of religion, it can be assumed that humanity has slowly evolved and developed standards of moral behaviour over time, independent of religion. This gradual growth in morality is what accounts for differences in moral standards of the past, which allowed for mass atrocities such as slavery, and those of the present, which are sensitive to the rights of everyone. Based on this argument, it can therefore be said that the contribution of religion in shaping morals among Kenyans is questionable. Perhaps Kenyans as a people will evolve their own morality over time, determining what is good and bad on their own, with little contribution from religion.

The second reason for Kenyans having a highly religious yet morally depraved public sphere could lie in the examples provided by senior public figures within the country’s public sphere. We have seen presidents and other senior figures who unfailingly attend religious events and begin speeches with elaborate religious incantations. They also cultivate personal relations with leading religious leaders. Yet outside these personal relationships and highly publicized religious identities, these public figures engage in morally questionable behaviour within the public sphere. For instance under the KANU regime, it was possible to see a president order his security forces to unleash diabolical terror on hapless mothers of political prisoners pleading for the release of their imprisoned sons and at the same time attend a church service in which he would project an image of deep devotion to the godly. It is also possible, under the current setting, to see a public figure who has been accused of diverting substantial resources from a public project attend a church service in which s/he makes massive donations to the church.

What this suggests is that our public figures have a double personality. On the one hand is the private personality, in which religion plays a major role in shaping behaviour within that private realm. Within this private realm, it is possible that these figures are morally upright and godly. They do what is expected of them, cultivate personal relations with religious figures and largely follow the guidelines provided by the holy books of the religion they follow. Outside the private realm however, they drop all moral prohibitions and engage in morally reprobate behaviour. Within the public realm, they become beasts of elastic morals and only follow the mantra of the end justifies the means.

This behaviour would fit very well within the phenomenon of the African public sphere which Nigerian sociologist Peter Ekeh disclosed. According to Ekeh, the sphere is divided into two, the public and private. The public is official and was imposed on Africans under colonialism. The private realm, on the other hand, was strongly attached to the African traditional set up and largely remained intact even with colonisation. The official public sphere was seen as alien and hostile. In the fight for independence therefore, African heroes were expected to destroy it as a way of getting back at the colonialists who had set it up. Since it belonged to hostile aliens, it was to be engaged without any morals. The only realm where morals counted was the traditional, clan-based private/communal realm. This is therefore the reason for the few morals we witness within the Kenyan and to a large extent, African public sphere. The public sphere and the public figures circulating within it take it as a space where moral values count for little. The proper place for moral behaviour among Africans is the private sphere.

With this reality remaining constant, providing amnesty for corruption and other morally unacceptable behaviour within the public sphere will become a cyclic process with no end in sight.

Mr Muyumbu  is a researcher on governance.

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