Fantastically corrupt?

Corruption in other countries is often represented as a political exoticism – in Cameron’s words a fantastic phenomenon. This is a familiar and analytically weak understanding of corruption. If we think of corruption as part of ordinary politics, its provincialisms appear far less convincing.

‘They’re trying’

There is very little that is remarkable in Cameron’s remarks about a ‘fantastically’ corrupt Nigeria. It is rather a weak scandal, clearly worked up by the media who are excited to have caught informal comments on camera. Anyone who speaks off the record with a few aid or diplomatic staff in African countries is likely to find similar notions. I interviewed a British consultant in an African country who was just finishing a two-year term supporting an administrative reform programme and he reminded me of nothing more than Kurtz: seemingly maddened by a system of governance he could neither understand nor change. I would not have been surprised if he had ended the interview with ‘The horror. The horror.’

Corruption is a major point-of-reference in British-African relations. It is a powerful word, loaded in judgement. Corruption is the commonest concern expressed in discussion about development aid – both within government and amongst the British public. An development researcher and later Conservative Peer (Peter Bauer) once called aid the transfer of money from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries.

But, there are deeper roots here that predate anxieties about aid. One is a general sense of post-imperial superiority. The current monarch of Britain – a position bequeathed through a long history of fantastic corruption, ‘olde’ and modern – expresses this arrogance in her patronising comments about ‘trying’. British elite culture continues to harbour within it an increasingly forlorn sense of post-imperial grandeur, and ‘Africa’ plays a central role in that decrepit narcissism. Sorrowful stories about corruption are accompanied by fragmented defences of Christian missionaries and political endorsement of charitable campaigning to produce a rather inglorious discourse excellently summarised by Paul Gilroy as Britain’s post-imperial melancholia. In this context, terms like ‘fantastic corruption’ have dual vectors: one to pose British politics as virtuous and the other to talk up Britain’s role in the world as a leader in the promotion of good governance and democracy.

Additionally, the coupling of ‘corruption’ and ‘Africa’ represents an implicit racism, built on the idea that cultures and governments throughout the continent share an African property which is in some sense the reason why corruption remains an exceptional or essential problem. This is a sanitised discourse of racial prejudice but it is racial nevertheless because it rests on some implicit premise that Africans and African societies are in some essential fashion more ‘backward’ or ‘tribal’ than elsewhere and especially Europe. In Africa, European development professionals sometimes speak of their work in different African countries as if sharing something almost conspiratorial: a comparative study of Africanness constructed out of vignettes of hardship, bureaucracy, and exoticism. The word ‘they’ becomes an implicit signifier of something shared but not articulated. Perhaps someone will mention ‘big man’ politics in the same vein.

So, Cameron’s in flagrante words are no more than a tepid surfacing of prevailing attitudes amongst the government and development professionals who consider Africa their area of expertise and concern. Corruption is a powerful lightning rod for these values: an anxiety for those who manage aid, connecting with implicit assumptions that Africa and Africans live in ethnic, politically dysfunctional and ‘black’ realities.


Corruption: the universal solvent

What happens if we de-provincialise corruption and understand it not as something fantastic but as an intrinsic property of politics in general? We might recognise that some African countries have pervasive and systemic political practices of corruption. This, I think, is true, although one needs to be very cautious about evidence, bearing in mind the prevailing prejudices of observers and the intrinsic opacity of corruption itself. In any case, we should recognise that corruption is pretty much everywhere.

There are, in fact, very complex debates about what corruption is and is not, but most writers end up in a fairly similar place which is that corruption is the use of public office for private gain in a fashion that contravenes the letter or spirit of the law. In this sense, corruption can be found in the American ‘pork barrel’, the ‘crony capitalism’ of East Asia, the oligarch politics of Russia, and the ‘cash for questions’ or expenses scandals at Westminster. It exists in democracies and dictatorships, poor and rich countries. If we take on the ‘iceberg metaphor’ which states that the corruption we can observe is the tip of something large and submerged, then we have no good reason to assume that corruption is any more ‘deviant’ a political practice than deliberative policy-making, electoral canvassing, ‘nudging’, or any other thing we define as politics-as-usual.

The rise of corporate lobbying blurs the line between ‘proper’ and ‘corrupt’ political practices. Transnational corporations deploy ‘sweetener’ payments to governments that host their investments. The world is governed not only through summits and protocols, but also through shadow practices in which soirees, hospitality, networking, and the exchange of information are key and take little cognisance of formally-separated ‘official’ and ‘private’ identities. This is not conspiracy: it does not generate grandiose and paranoid imaginings of global projects. It is simply how intergovernmental politics works. The revolving doors between government and the private sphere have, if anything, spun more rapidly as public-private partnerships and the rise of the political consultancy and security industries have proceeded apace.

Corruption is global, not just in Nigeria. If it is ‘fantastic’ in Nigeria, then we should ask why rather than simply assume that it part of an essential and timeless African malaise and wonder how it can be addressed by ‘global leaders’ such as Britain. Nigeria’s corruption is inextricably connected to its oil. Oil produces bounties that can create great wealth relatively quickly and easily for those who control the state: not only through the revenues generated from the oil exports but also through the receipt of ‘signature payments’ from oil companies. Interestingly, one of the first books written on the routine bribe payments used by international companies was written by George Moody-Stuart, brother of Mark who was once Chairperson of Royal Dutch Shell. Royal Dutch Shell has been the subject of many questions about its payments to various Nigerian governments to get access to oil. These questions have come from academics, journalists, shareholders and government inquiries. They are not simply rumours. If the source of Nigeria’s ‘grand corruption’ (to use Moody-Stuart’s phrase) is oil then to some degree the corrupt practice that derives therefrom is co-owned by the government and the companies that invest in the oil-rich Delta.

Not that one can simply blame ‘the West’ for an African country’s corruption. It is, rather, that we might want to ask why corruption exists in greater degrees in some countries than others. If corruption indices – such as they are – tend to identify African countries as heavily represented in the higher levels of corruption and transparency rankings, then rather than waving a lazy post-imperial hand over the continent’s ‘big man’ culture of ‘ethnic’ political sentiments we might think about what the practices of corruption do within specific political systems?

If corruption is not deviation from but rather part of governance then we can understand it as a kind of solvent. That is to say, corruption tends to emerge in situations where the clear separation of ‘state’ and ‘private’ realms comes under severe pressure. And, in Africa, the pressures on the modern Weberian separation of government and society are immense and arguably this separation has historically never existed – certainly not during the colonial period.

Corruption can be a way for government officials to cope with extremely low salaries, an ‘informal’ and arbitrary tax on citizens who are coerced to pay teachers, traffic police, and those who yield the ‘rubber stamp’ in order to receive a service or not be harassed. This is obviously an oppressive practice, focussing as it does on the poorest and most vulnerable. One of the most astute researchers of corruption, Stephen Riley, called this a kind of ‘Robin Hood in reverse’: taking from the poor to give to the relatively less poor. But, do bear in mind that low level officials’ salaries might be a few hundred dollars a month and might not be paid on time. For all of its socially regressive effects, bribe taking is a way for woefully- or irregularly- paid public employees to get something like a living wage for a family.

In another context, corrupt practice can feed into a kind of politics of accountability. People in a political community give gifts to a local politician in order to cement an expectation that the politician will bring ‘development’ to their area. It creates, as all ‘gifts’ do, a sense of mutual obligation between giver and recipient. If the politician fails to bring the school, agricultural project or whatever, he or she will suffer considerable social shame. Arguably the dynamics of accountability in this practice are stronger that those generated by competitive multi party manifesto pledges.

Corruption is also a way of covertly allocating the rights to accumulate. Contracts, licenses, subsidies, and knowledge are distributed politically to well-connected companies. This happens because very often capitalist classes are fragile in African economies and as a result they seek political support. Research on the political economy of corruption by Mushtaq Khan reveals that this is an intrinsic part of capitalist development, and in this sense African states are neither exceptional nor ‘fantastic’. Corruption is, indeed, part of the ‘original sin’ of capitalism.

So, in many parts of Africa, corruption is a political practice that works to resolve the tensions generated by modern governance in poor and unstable states whose formal mechanisms of accountability are weak and in which capitalism is a political-economic project under construction. It is also predatory, secretive, and hardly likely to have socially-equitable effects.

Most models of the political economy of capitalism start with a distinction between the state and market. This institutional separation defines corruption as a deviant activity by virtue of its transgressiveness. I am not so sure. Perhaps capitalism always has its corruption. It is always the case that powerful businesses and ruling elites share power, trying to support and balance their own pre-eminence. States – or parts of states – are always at risk of being ‘captured’ by some faction of capital. The ‘national interest’ is often realised as the interests of supposedly ‘leading’ national companies, which is why export credit, aid, and international diplomacy in support of business deals are always so ‘murky’. The realignments between private and public generated by economic liberalisation has created increasing confusions over the interface between public and private: privatisations that undervalue assets and benefit institutional shareholders or companies; public-private partnerships; tax evasion; collusion and so on. Add to corruption related concerns about fraud and embezzlement (which in concrete terms are often intertwined with corruption) and one has quite an archive. There is only so much of this evidence that one can take before one has to question the ‘exceptional’ and ‘scandalous’ nature of these processes. There is a strong case for saying capitalism is institutionally corrupt, and that the most one can hope for is that it is minimised and pushed into as small and discrete a place as possible. Which is, of course, precisely the challenge facing both Nigeria, Britain, and everywhere else.

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