Sports gambling and religious zealotry enemies of development in Africa

Sports gambling has escalated addiction rates and, alarmingly, contributed to poverty and relationship breakdowns. [iStockphoto]

My recent weekend activities, split between watching football matches and attending church services, prompted me to reflect upon the intricate interplay of sport and religion in Africa.

The fervour and devotion Africans invest in sports and religion are palpable. While it is undeniable these cultural phenomena have contributed to African development, it’s crucial to acknowledge their potential downsides.

Sports have undeniably left their mark on Africa, with one consequence being the staggering $37 billion gambling industry. This has led many young people to view gambling as a quick escape from poverty, fostering a generation that may prioritise instant riches over critical thinking and innovative ideas that could drive societal transformation.

However, this widespread involvement has escalated addiction rates and, alarmingly, contributed to poverty and relationship breakdowns, casting a shadow on its impact.

Simultaneously, religion’s significance in Africa has grown, echoing Karl Marx’s depiction of it as the “opium of the masses.”

While religion remains a robust industry on the continent, the affluence of religious leaders contrasts starkly with the struggling lives of their followers. The allure of a better afterlife has sometimes overshadowed the practical importance of improving earthly existence. In Nairobi, churches spring up like dandelions.

Emotions deeply entrenched in religious beliefs often stifle critical questioning. Fundamental queries such as why pastors, who preach about earthly sacrifice, often lead opulent lives with private jets and luxury cars, become uncomfortably difficult to address.

Governments attempting to regulate the proliferation of religious sects face challenges due to the principle of freedom of religion or belief. Any suggestion that churches need to be regulated is often met with strong criticism by many, including the clergy. Such calls are dismissed as works of the devil.

Kenyans will recall the reaction that greeted the call by Ida Odinga, the wife of the Former PM Raila Odinga, that the National Council of Churches of Kenya should abolish some churches not being run by trained theologians. The reactions were fast and furious, forcing Ida to retract her statement and apologise.

Months later, Kenyans are yet to recover from the suspected cultism in Shakahola, Kilifi County, where the death toll is way above 350. The shocking discovery was described by government officers as religious terrorism.

As a young African working for/with fellow young people, I am apprehensive about the potential consequences, over the next decade, if immediate action isn’t taken on football and religion. Sports gambling and religion could potentially impede our development and erode the creative spirit among young Africans.

The prevailing dominance of sports and religion presents an unprecedented challenge to Africa ’s development. Addressing these challenges requires a multi-faceted approach involving responsible gambling regulations, critical dialogue about religious practices, and nurturing of innovative and creative thinking among the youth.

-Mr Acho is director of programmes at Emerging Leaders Foundation-Africa