Purpose: The purpose of this study is to investigate the relationship between corruption, corporate governance and sustainable development goals (SDGs) in Africa. Design/methodology/approach: The authors use panel data from 42 African countries over the period 2017–2020 and ordinary least square regression to test the research hypotheses. The authors also use alternative estimation techniques, including the fixed effect and random effect regressions and the generalized method of moment, to test the robustness of the results. Findings: The results indicate that corruption negatively affects sustainable development (SD), whereas the effect of corporate governance is positive and significant. In addition, the positive influence of corporate governance on SD is stronger for countries with high corruption prevalence. Practical implications: Policymakers may rely on the outcome of this study to formulate practical and implementable solutions around corruption and corporate governance that can help toward the achievement of the SDGs. Specifically, corporate governance mechanisms may be relied upon to achieve SD in countries with a high corruption prevalence. Social implications: The social implication of this paper is that it demonstrates the adverse impact of corruption, which is rife in most African countries. Understanding corruption and the SDGs relationship will promote discussion with overarching implications for developing countries. Overall, the findings can sensitize society to the harmful effects of corruption and the positive effects of good corporate governance. Originality/value: This paper contributes to literature and practice by demonstrating that corporate governance plays a significant role in the realization of national and global objectives such as the SDGs. This paper also provides novel evidence that corporate governance matters more in countries with a higher corruption incidence.