This Present Darkness, by Stephen Ellis, Hurst, 256 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-1849046305
After years of devising neoliberal-inspired policies of good governance for sub-Saharan Africa, it has been dawning in recent years on the international agencies – most notably the World Bank – responsible for their implementation that they have not had the desired effects. African political elites have learned the rhetoric of balanced budgets, privatisation, free markets, economic and financial accountability, efficient public services, as well as democracy, civil society and a free press. But the social and political realities, and not least self-interest, have precluded its internalisation as a form of political praxis. Local conditions and circumstances have determined what could and could not be done. To the extent that these policies benefited local elites intent on maintaining their position, they were utilised; otherwise, they were ignored, often with good reason.
Meanwhile, China, while operating policies at odds with those of good governance, has achieved economic results outpacing anything in Africa or the West. It has also operated a policy of doing deals with anyone in a position to do them, so long as key Chinese positions – particularly on Taiwan – and interests are respected, and regardless of the internal policy orientation of the regime in question. Meanwhile secular trends pulling parts of central and eastern Africa towards the Indian ocean trading routes have continued. Sub-Saharan Africa, for so long said to be a place without a history, has been adapting, shifting, and acting according to the maxim that everything changes so that everything remains the same.
The collapse of many sub-Saharan African economies in the aftermath of the oil price hikes of the 1970s, and economic and political mismanagement after independence, brought about a Western re-engagement with Africa based on the supposedly universal truths of liberal economics. These were topped off with the wholesale naivety of pop singers and Live Aid concerts that gave the politicians an aura of glamour and a gloss of humanity, something they badly needed. Those days are over. The West is on the back foot: high aid budgets are not universally popular and most Africans have no memory of colonialism. We are seeing the end of an era, a generational change.
Western development policy has always sought a phrase, a trope, that explains what it is trying to do: poverty reduction; structural adjustment; good governance – something that it is practically impossible to be against. The phrase that is emerging, and has been for some time, for the new era seems to be “going with the grain”. It comes from Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa report of 2005, and might be summed up as meaning that things only succeed when they “work with the African way of doing things”. Theoretically, and contrary to Blair’s own economic and political inclinations, this marks a radical break with policies (about which some people were more than sceptical, even cynical) which consciously sought to remould African societies on overtly liberal-individualistic, Western lines as the only way economic development, economic growth and that which should flow from it might be achieved. It has come about slowly. Ten years ago, the British Department for International Development began to work on what development policies that somehow went with the grain of informal, neopatrimonial African power practices – the realities of African power – might look like.
Modernisation, the sometimes unstated assumption underpinning much Western development thought, has been marginalised to the extent that “African feudalism” – in the pejorative French sense meaning (and this is how Western developmentalists understand it) anti-modern, anti-democratic – has at least to be taken into account. Meanwhile, any gains, and there have been some, in the areas of economics and democracy may be retained. All of this is grist to the mill of those Africanists who have long sought to establish the at least partial autonomy of African history. Their aim has been to show that, over the long term, it has its own rhythms, its own periodisation, its own situational logic, and its own moral understanding independent of the colonial civilising mission or the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
Colonialists had initially resorted to anthropology, most famously at the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, in their attempts to make sense of the world they were encountering; witchcraft exercised a particular fascination. African history, as an academic discipline, appeared on the continent in the late 1940s and 1950s. Initially, it was for the service of colonial and missionary aims. Later, around the time of the push for independence, it was frequently allied with the nationalist movements – still by far the most successful political projects undertaken on the continent – and sought, consciously, to provide a national history for new states as they took their place. History was at least partially mobilised in support of contemporary political struggles, not least in the context of the cold war. But the emphasis was on the exploitative nature of Africa’s insertion into the world economic system and how this retarded the continent’s developmental potential. Long histories that might show long patterns of continuity and rupture over the precolonial, colonial and post-colonial span took a long time to produce. Even if early developmental economists had been much inclined to use such indigenous African history as a resource – and AG Hopkins had warned against regarding history as a black box where the source of all Africa’s problems might be found –in which their own projections might be located, there wasn’t a lot of it available for that purpose. Rather, development plans were couched in the economic orthodoxies of the day: Keynesian in the first twenty-five years or so after independence, neoliberal subsequently. Both have amounted to little more than pipe dreams: Keynesian policies could hardly operate in societies where most people weren’t in the banking system, or even living in monetised economies; neoliberal prescriptions – above all the minimal state – took absolutely no account of what the African state actually was.
But if the deeper patterns of African history remained opaque, very soon after independence other phenomena became all too evident. The new states were inordinately prone to military coups, civil wars and corruption. Famine, now visible on worldwide television, frequently etched the consequences indelibly into the consciousness of an audience which hitherto had not taken much note of Africa or its inhabitants. Africa was, and has in many ways remained, incomprehensible at a basic level and tragic in its day-to-day manifestations. Occasionally, attempts are made to redress this – an African renaissance is proclaimed – but something happens and everything reverts to type. The Federal Republic of Nigeria, the continent’s most populous state with ambitions to be the continental leader (there was once even talk of a Nigerian nuclear capability) is a product of the long forces of African history operating from the beginning of the nineteenth century as much as it is the result of British colonial intervention at the century’s end. A jihad established the Caliphate of Sokoto in northern Nigeria in 1809, as part of a wave of militant Islamic reformism. Over the century, Islam, if it never established Sokoto’s dominance beyond collecting tribute from the various emirates, nonetheless either incorporated or overpowered existing codes of honour. The adoption of Sharia remains a contested political aspiration.
In the Yoruba west, the decline of the Oyo empire in the nineteenth century led to a long series of wars between city states. Towards the century’s end, military defeat by the British, who had annexed Lagos in the 1860s in order combat the slave trade, saw an increase in Christian missionary activity. To the east, acephalous states of quite some complexity were also proselytised and chiefs created where none existed before. More recently, Pentecostalism, with its emphasis on material success, something that finds an easy resonance across Nigeria, but also talking in tongues, the casting out of demons, and a deep hostility to older African religious forms which it regards as akin to Satanism, has made great headway. On January 1st 1914, Lord Lugard, in the remote town of Zungeru, proclaimed the unity of the northern and southern protectorates and Nigeria came into being. As Stephen Ellis makes clear, opportunities to abuse power existed in precolonial Nigeria: those in a position to act as broker between ruler and supplicant took their opportunity. But the establishment of indirect rule whereby the British ruled through existing power structures, suitably modified, increased the opportunities enormously: tax collecting and native courts provided ample opportunity, while the colonial justice system never achieved the legitimacy necessary to combat abuses. More prosaically, the international postal system allowed for the prototype of the now famous email scam that promises a fortune on the payment of an enabling sum to a named recipient. Along with indigenous and exogenous religious belief, like the Mafia in Italy during the Risorgimento, corruption was folded into the process of modern state formation. Stephen Ellis sees the two as intimately related, and quite early into independence large-scale state corruption – the buying of political office – was well-established.
Nigeria’s first military coup was launched in January 1966. The ostensible aim of the “five majors” who led the coup was to eradicate the tribalism and corruption rampant in the First Republic, which had taken over after independence in 1960. In fact, it was widely perceived as a move by the Igbo of eastern Nigeria against the predominantly Muslim north, which had dominated state leadership since independence. Among those killed were federal prime minister Balewa and premier Ahmadu Bello of the northern region, along with many military officers; Igbo officials and military were spared, and the new military dictator, Ironsi, was an Igbo who surrounded himself with Igbo personnel. Ironsi abolished the federal system, leading to northern fears of domination by southerners, who were better educated and dominated in the civil service, as well as in regional administration. Northern NCOs and officers mounted a counter-coup, killing Ironsi and instating General Gowon as supreme commander of the armed forces. Between May and September 1966 between eighty and a hundred thousand easterners based in northern Nigeria were massacred, provoking revenge attacks on northerners in the eastern region: ethnic cleansing, north and east, ensued, and in May 1967 Colonel Ojukwu declared the Eastern Region independent, renaming it the Independent Republic of Biafra. In the resulting civil war between one and three million people died, many from famine. A classic civil war of secession, it was prosecuted on the lines of much African politics: total victory rather than compromise was pursued ruthlessly. With victory achieved, Gowon declared a “no victors, no vanquished” policy, but that is not how many Igbo experienced it. A pattern was being set. A World Bank-funded study of 2005 claims with a statistical precision that historians can only envy that Nigeria has been on the brink of civil war intermittently ever since 1967. Since then, long periods of military rule, interspersed by occasional civilian government, both marked by kleptocracy (a term invented by Stanislav Andreski in the 1960s to describe Nigerian government) and reaching its apogee under Sani Abacha between 1993 and 1998. Since 1999 generals elected to the presidency have predominated: democracy of a sort, but the military a permanent presence. All have condemned corruption; all have been associated with it.
Stephen Ellis’s last book (he died in 2015), The Present Darkness, takes an historical perspective on organised crime and corruption in Nigeria, for, as he concludes, Nigerian organised crime is not created by culture, but it does arise from a particular history. And, as he asks, where else could it possibly come from? He is well-placed to ask. In 1999 he co-authored with Jean-François Bayart and Béatrice Hibou The Criminalisation of the State in Africa, which examined the relationship between African elites, holders of public office and criminal activity, often on a global scale. Bayart had transformed the understanding of African politics with his 1989 (English translation, 1993) book The State in Africa: the Politics of the Belly, a book far more often cited than actually read and understood. Far from being simply a collapsed version of its colonial predecessor, the African state was shown to be often a highly complex and deeply historically rooted network of elites and their subalterns that permeated most aspects of life across the territory.
In 1999, the authors concluded that while US authorities were convinced Nigerian armed forces, political class and members of the government were up to their necks in the drug trade, run in large part by Igbo personnel, it was more likely that the main factions involved in government simply levied an unofficial tax on drugs that transited Nigeria and charged for whatever services were needed. Ellis may not demonstrate a hidden, collective structure of power surrounding the president running the drugs trade, but he does instance cases where senior politicians were involved in that trade. In 1989, a former member of Nigeria’s senate was arrested in New York for heroin trafficking, and subsequently convicted. Prior to this he had offered to pay $20 million of his own money to settle a debt owed by Nigerian Airways to France to release an impounded Airbus; ostensibly a patriotic gesture, he actually intended using the aircraft for trafficking purposes. But with oil producing massive revenues on a daily basis, with illicit money gained by every conceivable fraud, politicians draw most of their personal revenue from the oil sector: it is in everyone’s interest to keep things going as they are: the consequences of closing things down are incalculable, but possibly catastrophic; there is simply too much money at stake for anyone to consider seriously closing things down voluntarily.
In 1958, Shell-BP began to pump oil from the Niger Delta. After independence in 1960, exploration rights in adjoining areas were sold to other foreign companies, and by 1963 it was being said that Nigeria had greater oil reserves than Kuwait. Oil would become the mainstay of the Nigerian state. Also in the 1950s, Nigerian politicians began to acquire real power at the regional level; foreign companies, writes Ellis, immediately began courting them for contracts: bribery, often ten per cent of the contract price, became routine. Distrustful of the long-term prospects, foreigners also began immediately devising ways, unofficial or illegal, to get their money out; false invoicing was often the preferred way. Politicians were at the hub of corruption and on Ellis’s evidence, it determined who occupied what position, who held which office, and even what laws were passed. He concludes that the two processes of decolonisation and corruption were intimately related. And it was something the City of London was anxious to facilitate. In 1950, the city acquired the status of an offshore centre. This followed a decision by the then president of the Board of Trade and future prime minister, Harold Wilson. Given the scale these operations would achieve, Ellis concludes that it was possibly the most important decision Wilson ever took. And it meant that even as the British empire was disappearing from the political map it was perpetuating itself in the financial world.
Within a few years of independence, writes Ellis, wealthy Nigerians were moving their money offshore to Europe, the UK and US particularly. For even as Nigeria’s population was growing exponentially, so too were its oil revenues: this would lead to carnivalesque excess and vast personal fortunes. Between 1979 and 1984, for instance, it is estimated that $16 billion, or twenty per cent of oil revenues, was lost to fraud, and it had to go somewhere safe. Ellis draws an amusing parallel between the Nigerian belief in the immaterial world of the spirits that nonetheless can be harnessed for material purposes, and the distinction between the physical place where a transaction takes place and the equally immaterial legal space – offshore – where it is recorded, which can serve a similar purpose: the lawyer as ju-ju man.
Corruption very early on became an integral part of daily life for ordinary Nigerians. School principals illegally charged for a variety of services, including, for instance, the provision of school books. The money involved was not small beer: one estimate in the western region in 1963 put it at £1 million sterling – a vast sum. Secondary students in Port Harcourt were required not only to pay the school fee, but also the relevant local councillor. Regional governments multiplied the number of councillors, and thus the opportunities for graft, thereby building up networks of support for parliamentary candidates who could rely on them at election time. Meanwhile, local councils gathered very little tax and local government hardly functioned. With no proper land registers, local land disputes festered.
Ellis quotes one contemporary observer as saying the general public came to see politics “as a source of miraculous benefits”. In fact, most Nigerian voters were, and still are, torn between wanting the benefits of politically distributed largesse and revulsion at the necessity of bribery and the resulting chronic inefficiencies. And people could be compelled to cooperate: local councils had the power to refuse to turn on various schemes such as water distribution, unless people played by their rules. If that failed, political violence could be used: from the inception of the Nigerian state violence, ranging from petty thuggery to wholesale murder, has been a feature of political life. Outside the political realm, Nigerian crime has increased and multiplied from early scams equivalent to the three-card trick to very sophisticated frauds aimed at naive and greedy westerners. It has also globalised; producing far more graduates than positions they might fill, from universities and colleges riddled by secret societies. Nigerians have emigrated, creating well-connected networks in and across just about every country. Touchingly, some international crime shows a neat confessional symmetry. Nigerian Muslims asked for, and got, grants to make the hajj to Mecca. They used the opportunity to smuggle drugs to enhance the spiritual experience of their fellow pilgrims, while making a profit. Catholics, demanding parity of treatment, were awarded grants to make the pilgrimage to Rome to see the pope. Apart from making their devotions, they used it as an opportunity to traffic girls from around Benin to newly opened brothels in southern Italy.
In an innovative chapter, Ellis examines the pervasive Nigerian belief in the association between successful criminal activity and spiritual power. It has long been recognised that Africa has two public spheres. One contains the residual elements of the colonial state: a national government; a national parliament; a national press. It may appear a rather sterile zone. The second sphere is inhabited by local, indigenous institutions and practices, bound together and regulated by kinship and ethnicity. It inspires deep, emotional loyalty in a way the other has never done. The two have been likened to the difference between the air-conditioned office and the veranda. The air-conditioned office is where visiting officials from such institutions as the World Bank and the IMF do business. The veranda is the place most Africans do business, transact politics, live their lives. Some Africans – the elite – inhabit both spaces. But on the veranda the world view is religious, and in many instances it is the world view of a syncretic religion: the ancestors, the spirits, the power of shrines is deeply real.
This is not unique to Africa: both Ronald Reagan and François Mitterrand toyed with astrology, but in the Western, liberal tradition religious belief is held to be a private matter. In Africa, it intervenes directly to determine public events: the random, arbitrary catastrophe that befalls a great many people’s lives – war, infant mortality, premature death, sickness, poverty – speaks of a vengeful god that needs propitiation: it is the only form of control a great many people ever feel they have, the only intervention they can make. Donal Cruise O’Brien, who also wrote on religion and politics in West Africa, mainly Senegal, tried to make sense of this world view: religion (in Africa), he wrote, was a first-order political force, shaping the environment, setting the scene in which politicians operate, thereby limiting political choice. In order to understand how this works, O’Brien retailed something told him by a Catholic prelate, talking of his own rural flock, in Ireland in the 1950s. One third of each individual believes that after you die you just rot, that’s an end of it. One third of that same individual believes that, depending on how you conducted yourself in this life, you’ll go to heaven or hell. And one third of that same individual believes that after you die you’ll meet your dead relations who have been plotting against you underneath the floorboards. This, O’Brien thought, might also stand for religious belief in West Africa. But the point is this: people can believe in different and contradictory things at the same time, so the religious substructure of the political is far from stable; hierarchies can fall, but as Ellis shows with reference to the Orika Shrine in Nigeria, underlying beliefs can also be remarkably enduring. These beliefs, this way of looking at the world, is very much at variance with the legal framework that formally constrains the operations of government, the view from the air-conditioned office. It is, as Ellis says, in this gap between the two that political power is generated and vast fortunes made.
Since 1999, there has been democracy of a sort. For the moment, that may be the best that can be hoped for. The present incumbent, General Buhari, is deeply authoritarian – he held power after a coup in the 1980s – and there are serious questions about his personal wealth garnered from the time he was federal commissioner for petroleum and later when in charge of Nigerian electricity provision, even though he now presents himself as anti-corruption incarnate. Yet Nigeria has never split asunder. This is because the elites from North, West and East have a hefty incentive to keep it together: they do very well out of it. But the explanation also in part lies in a genuine Nigerian nationalism. Wole Soyinka is one of the most eloquent and sensitive proponents of a belief in the potential for a genuinely pan-Nigerian outlook that articulates itself across regional, ethnic and religious sensibilities and sees democracy – ballot box democracy – as a way of reconciling competing interests. John Iliffe, the pre-eminent African historian of his generation, also attributes a real Nigerian nationalism to Olusegun Obasanjo, the general who secured Nigerian victory in the civil war. Obasanjo also served as military dictator but returned Nigeria to civilian rule, served time in prison under another and particularly grotesque dictator, Sani Abacha, and became a born-again Christian. He would go on to accrue considerable personal wealth and serve two terms as elected president.
Nigeria is modelled on the US constitution and Obasanjo, a man interested in power on a global scale, pursued Western-type economic reform policies, with limited success. He did however get a deal on debt relief. For Iliffe, Obasanjo remains a Yoruba farmer, a Nigerian patriot, one who sees the necessity for a wider Nigerian identity. Obasanjo saw the horror of the Biafran war at first hand and knows there may be three dominant blocs, but also caught up in the federation are myriad smaller groupings who would get eaten alive in any competition for their resources: when elephants fight, the grass gets trampled. Yugoslavia is the obvious comparison. Damning obloquy was heaped on Obasanjo by his fellow Nigerians when he retired as president in 2007, not least because he was seen to have rigged the election of his successor, something for which Soyinka is suitably unforgiving. There were also questions about his economic management, his imperial political style, his personal wealth – only recently he opened a presidential library – while his ex-wife and son denounced his personal life. Yet Obasanjo may, in some version or other, represent where the historic compromise lies, where the politics of the possible can actually take place.
Stephen Ellis was and is a much missed and serious scholar of Africa: never a sensationalist, he also never shied away from describing the continent as he saw it. Needless to say his work contains the mandatory exculpation of all those Nigerians who live decent, honourable lives. But it must also be said that it also betrays on occasion a real sense of shock at the extent of the corruption in Nigeria his researches have uncovered.
Eoin Dillon works on the history and theory of the African state.