1 Looking Like a State: Colonialism and the Discourse of Corruption in Northern Nigeria STEVEN PIERCE School of Arts, Histories, and Cultures, University of Manchester In the international press Nigeria is represented almost exclusively as a state in crisis. Recurrent military coups, ethnic and religious sectionalism, a civil war, a series of bloody riots and local unrest (of which the Niger delta situation is the best-known example), economic turmoil, and the re-imposition of the Islamic criminal code in many northern states have all been used to paint a picture of chaos and collapse. Journalists and government officials alike tend to find the roots of Nigeria s problems in intractable ethnic conflict, the collapse of oil prices in 1983, structural adjustment mandated by the International Monetary Fund in 1986, and hatred between Muslims and Christians. The trouble with Nigeria is also understood to illustrate the trouble with Africa. With 25 percent of the population of sub-saharan Africa, Nigeria appears as representative of Africa. Potentially wealthy from its oil revenue, it symbolizes Africa s promise denied. 1 Acknowledgments: Earlier versions of this article were presented to the Department of Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, the Symposium on Contemporary Perspectives in Anthropology, the Complexity conference at the University of Michigan, the African History Research Seminar at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London, The Postcolonial State: Decolonization and After at Nottingham Trent University, and the Workshop on Comparative Colonialism at the University of Chicago. I am grateful for the comments I received on those occasions, and especially to Misty Bastian, my discussant at SCPA. I also thank Anupama Rao, Carin McCormack, Leah Hagedorn, Darryl Peterkin, Mark Wegner, Adeline Masquelier, Leander Schneider, Sharad Chari, Arvind Rajagopal, and the editor and reviewers for Comparative Studies in Society and History, whose comments have been both helpful and kind. Research was supported by fellowships from the Social Science Research Council, the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, the Rackham School of Graduate Studies at the University of Michigan, and the Center for Research at Tulane University. Archival documents are cited in the footnotes. NAK refers to documents stored at the Nigerian National Archives, Kaduna. HCB refers to documents stored at the Kano State History and Culture Bureau. 1 This is not to say that Nigeria is typical of Africa both its size and its vast oil resources make it very different from most other countries in the region /06/ $9.50 # 2006 Society for Comparative Study of Society and History 887
2 888 STEVEN PIERCE Within Nigeria s litany of woes, its notorious corruption is particularly prominent. Nigeria regularly tops Transparency International s list of mostcorrupt countries. 2 The country has become famous for its 419 s and faxes, messages purporting to be from present or former government officials, asking the recipient for bank account information so that they can launder embezzled money. In recent years, Nigerians have been mesmerized by a series of scandals that have come to light despite President Obasanjo s wellpublicized war on corruption. One of the most recent was a case in which officials of the Ministry of Education were implicated in bribing senators to increase the ministry s budget. This corruption is hardly a new development. British authorities complained about governmental corruption from the very beginning of the colonial period (e.g. Lugard 1906: ch. 5; Temple 1918). Politicians have denounced it for as long as politics have been allowed (Tafawa Balewa cited in Yahaya 1980; see generally Reynolds 1999). And scholars have tended to view corruption as integral to government structures (Smith 1964) and intimately tied to the demands of ethnic politics (Laitin 1986; Joseph 1987). 3 The prominence of Nigerian corruption can be seen as a result of the country s status as a symbol of Africa; it fulfills a stereotype. But this very notoriety may obscure a more complicated totality: practices almost everyone would term corrupt are rampant, though they are a contingent product of contemporary social structures rather than the result of some kind of African or Nigerian dysfunction. Corruption is the legacy of a long history of politics, state formation, and economic exploitation, and of a complex interplay between indigenous and foreign understandings of appropriate governmental conduct. This article considers the problem of corruption in Nigeria through the lens of its emergence as a label for governmental malpractice in northern Nigeria across the twentieth century, focusing in particular on enduring legacies from the colonial regime that constituted structures persisting as those of the Nigerian state. This is a critical, if limited, frame. It suggests that contemporary corruption must be understood as the product of the historical interaction between three intertwined phenomena: (1) a complex network of patron-client ties that constituted the moral economy of precolonial systems of governance 2 Transparency International is an NGO whose sole purpose is combating what it terms corruption. In its mission statement it declares, Corruption is the abuse of entrusted power for private gain ( accessed 16 Aug. 2005). One fascinating aspect of this statement is that it shifts definitional questions to other terms abuse, entrusted, and private gain. 3 Andrew Apter, by contrast, suggests that at least the spectacular quality of recent forms of Nigerian corruption are intimately tied to the country s oil wealth, specifically to the political and cultural effects of the petro-naira, a currency whose value is artificially maintained with oil revenue (2005). While I would agree that oil receipts have fueled the sheer volume of contemporary practices (and that the oil boom has been powerfully transformative), there is a much longerterm process at stake.
3 CORRUPTION IN NORTHERN NIGERIA 889 and that persists into the present; (2) academic and technocratic paradigms of corruption that both describe governmental practice and have driven its transformation; and (3) the politico-administrative history of governance in northern Nigeria, specifically, how indigenous systems of rule were incorporated into (or as) the structures of the contemporary state. The three phenomena are not entirely discrete. 4 The way in which corruption has emerged as a category describing governance in northern Nigeria reflects a continuing interplay between the local knowledge of indigenous politics and the local knowledge of technocratic bureaucracy, which are distinct though commonsensical modes of apprehending the world (Geertz 1983). The emergent character of corruption in this sense highlights a very basic problematic in paradigms of the African state. To the extent that the state is an ideological project, a way of characterizing, homogenizing, and claiming legitimacy for a disparate collection of actors, institutions, and projects (Abrams 1988), Nigerian corruption denotes the failure of this device. As such, corruption outlines the contours of some of what is peculiar to African state forms. CULTURE AND CORRUPTION In the course of fieldwork among small-scale farmers living in the town of Ungogo in northern Nigeria, I have had many conversations about their interactions with state actors, ranging from contemporary events to ancestors experiences across the past century. Practices one might call corruption were a key feature in almost all of these stories. Stories of politicians fantastic corruption are rife. Interactions with bureaucrats almost always result in demands for bribes. Travel is complicated by the demands of police who must be bribed at roadblocks. This is nothing new. During the colonial period, officials who measured farms for tax assessment demanded bribes. A farmer who could or would not bribe the surveyor might find himself listed as having a much larger farm than he actually possessed and thus liable for much more tax than he could afford to pay. Ward, village, and district heads could exercise a certain amount of discretion in distributing the burden of taxes or in levying tax rates on particular farmers. While this enabled them to adjust the burden to account for individual disasters, it also allowed them to inflate particular assessments, either to absorb the revenue directly or to bring tax bills above what particular farmers could pay, which would result in their farms confiscation. People s descriptions of tax assessment often turned into catalogs of extortion. I was told many stories about tax assessments billed at five shillings 4 This suggestion is indebted to but distinct from that of J. P. Olivier de Sardan, who also terms contemporary corruption as emerging from a specific, socially embedded moral economy (1999). But while de Sardan considers corruption to be related to longstanding phenomena, he also sees it as distinctively a postcolonial phenomenon.
4 890 STEVEN PIERCE or more over the theoretical level, of hostile officials who drove farmers off their land through inflated tax bills, or who confiscated livestock as interim payment and later pretended to have received nothing. Other taxes were levied on adult men, and officials extorted additional money by categorizing young boys as adults or by levying taxes on men who had died. These stories were all from the memories of elderly people, or were told by younger men recounting what their elders had experienced. The land tax itself was abolished in 1979 when a left-wing government came to power in Kano State, and so people s contemporary experiences with corruption take somewhat different form. Discussions of local courts and official systems of dispute resolution placed at least as much emphasis on the bribes extorted from litigants as they did on juridical mechanisms themselves. Judges and territorial heads acting as dispute mediators were known for supporting the claims of those who paid the most, or those who were already clients. Some of these practices were systematic: officials inflated the absolute incidence of tax and then skimmed the excess. Others were particular: improper tax bills presented to specific unfortunates. Qadis (Islamic judges) have great discretion over which witnesses to believe and which to impugn, which testimony to allow to be supplemented with oaths and which to let languish unsubstantiated. Prevailing in court is therefore a matter of marshalling a variety of resources, of which the true facts of the case are often less important than monetary resources and political standing. An article of common wisdom, indeed, is that one should avoid going to court as much as possible. In part this is because of people s disinclination to air their dirty laundry in public, but it is also an article of common sense that to go to court is to risk massive financial losses, as bribes and other forms of extortion grow to dwarf any potential gains from victory. In cases of inheritance, when surviving relatives are unable to agree on the proper division of estates, it is not uncommon to take cases to court but to conceal from the judge the full extent of the estate, so that any extortion misses the really valuable things. 5 With a series of local-government reforms across the past thirty years, the number of officials whose favors one might need to curry has multiplied. Descriptions of malfeasance depended very much on individuals relationships to particular officials. Thus for example one fairly conservative religious scholar who had close ties to the village head and was also sympathetic to the emirate government (represented in Ungogo by the district head) admitted that low-level officials sometimes committed malpractices. Higher officials, 5 The idea of going to court is to have the judge assign the proper proportion of the state to each inheritor, which then (at least in theory) allows the family to divide up the hidden portion appropriately. This does not always work: some families are forced to go to court several times, when they are unable to agree on how to divide parts of the estate not already allocated (Pierce 2005).
5 CORRUPTION IN NORTHERN NIGERIA 891 like the village and district heads, were both too pious and too well educated to stoop so low. Illegal practices were a product of their naïve trust: They could not know because they trusted [their subordinates]. When malfeasance was brought to their attention, it was quickly corrected. People who had been members of Kano s left-wing opposition parties, by contrast, saw official malpractice in terms of a class divide between commoners and officials of the native authority, with the actions of subordinates less important than those of high-level office holders. Although these parties did indeed prove important for exposing and ameliorating government corruption, politicians who gained office under their aegis have proven little better. This politicization of memory stems in part from individuals political ideology, but more significant is their positions in complex chains of patronage and clientage that subtend much of economic and political life. Rich and powerful people gain prestige and political support through the largesse they are able to give clients. A person in need is therefore well advised to ingratiate himself or herself with such a protector, who may be able to help out with employment, cash for medical and other crises, places at school or university, or just about anything else for which influence might be required. Such influence and largesse is not cheap: acquiring it can require engaging in corrupt practices. Nonetheless, it would be difficult if not impossible to become politically prominent without being able to produce such patronage. Common sense in Ungogo would have it that relations with state officials are intrinsically problematic and that it is wisest to make sure that officials know little about one s affairs. Political sympathies, friendship, and patronage loyalties lead to differing assessments of who is oppressive and why, but a sense that contact with the state causes problems permeates popular discourse about interaction with the government. Consider the case of an old man I shall call Malam Balarabe, who was in his early seventies during my fieldwork. He lived in desperate poverty along with his wife. 6 Balarabe had inherited no land from his equally impoverished father, and as a young man during the 1940s he supported himself as a wage laborer, working on other people s farms. By delaying his first marriage, he was able to save up enough money to buy a small parcel of land and take up farming for himself. He managed to support himself and pay his land tax through cultivating his farm and continuing in wage labor. During this period he also managed to get married. After a few years of this he took an extended trading trip that lasted some years and in the interim left his farm in trust with a brother a patrilateral cousin. When Malam Balarabe returned to Ungogo his cousin, who had assiduously cultivated ties with the ward and village heads, refused to return his farm. Although Balarabe had witnesses willing to testify that he 6 Balarabe is based on a real individual, though in the interest of protecting his anonymity I have substituted a composite of others experiences for certain details of his story.
6 892 STEVEN PIERCE had only lent the farm to his cousin, he did not think a court case feasible or wise. 7 His hard-won farm lost, he returned to supporting himself through wagelabor. The hostility of the village head proved enduring, and he was unable to get allocated a farm through the head s good graces. Instead, he devoted himself to trying to find a farm that officials did not know about. After several years of cultivating ties to prominent men around Ungogo, Malam Balarabe did manage to get an even smaller plot than he had before. He eked out an existence on this farm, his solvency always imperiled by tax bills assessed by officials unimpressed by his importance or his potential utility to themselves. The village head regularly inflated Balarabe s tax bill, sometimes with dire consequences for this very poor family. Even in the time after the land tax was abolished, Balarabe and his family lived with the constant danger of economic disaster. Malam Balarabe s dispiriting biography is somewhat extreme; few others in town were so poor or so put-upon. Nonetheless, his description of official actions was not terribly unusual. Official self-interest and a tendency to ignore the theoretical legalities of administrative procedure were commonly accepted as typical government procedure. However, to call this situation corruption would be to read something novel into their descriptions. To the extent that people offered a negative evaluation of official action, they tended to call it oppression, zalunci which has a connotation of being bad but is also naturally to be expected from those who hold office. In Hausa there is a basic linguistic distinction between aristocrats, masu sarauta, and commoners, talakawa. Masu sarauta means literally possessors of office ; the offices in question refer to titles within the constitutions of the Hausa states, emirships and subordinate positions. Many of these offices are heritable or inhere in particular lineages; nonetheless, the basic distinction between commoner and aristocratic status is a simple question of whether or not one has been appointed to office. Talakawa (sing. talaka) also has an implication of poverty, although factually not every talaka is poor. The structural relationship between masu sarauta and talakawa is very often, perhaps normally, one of zalunci tempered by ties of patron-clientage and by the constraints of Islam to piety and moral behavior. Officials quotidian oppressiveness is also testified to by people s emphasis on the nakedly extractive quality of taxation. Their word choice here was instructive: in addition to talking about taxes being collected (karba) or paid (biya), people often talked of taxes being cut out (yanka) or pulled out (cire). Sometimes even giving up one s farmland was not sufficient to avoid tax bills. Migrating into Kano city was insufficient; for the sufficiently ill-connected could find themselves pursued and dunned for back taxes. 7 The question of land litigation is explored in more detail in Pierce 2005
7 CORRUPTION IN NORTHERN NIGERIA 893 Those still unable to pay were often beaten. What is interesting, however, is that for the most part people did not describe any extorted payments, however extralegal, as bribes (rashawa, cin hanci), or the oppressive state of affairs as corruption (b aci). Ideas about appropriate conduct on the part of state officials are complex and somewhat contradictory. While a good and upstanding official should not be oppressive, he or she should also have largesse available to redistribute to a following of clients sums far beyond what officials could expect to gain legitimately from their state salaries. The contradictions of zalunci, as undesirable but also necessary (how else are officials to get the wherewithal to be big men?) are intriguing. They are also distinct from a notion of corruption, which implies a certain kind of pathology in the state. While corrupt behavior is antithetical to the functioning of government, zalunci emerges directly from it. 8 The perception of official actions as unfortunate but normal is neither limited to farmers with little western education nor applied only to the domain of traditional government. A highly educated friend with a professional, publicsector job, someone who has been eloquent in condemning corruption in government and Nigerian society, one day surprised me by going on at length about his desire to gain government office in order to provide for his children. Failing such a job, he wanted to be given a government contract. Public works are generally assigned to contractors, but many of these contracts are handed out because of one s proximity to government officials and do not reflect any actual capability to fulfill the assignment on the part of the original contractor. Getting a contract therefore is a lucrative opportunity to get paid by the firms that will actually perform the services, which can recoup their money (and then some) with substantial cost over-runs. My friend saw nothing hypocritical in the disparity between his political beliefs and his ambitions; it is an imperfect world, and life is full of compromises. He is hardly alone in this. Nigerians have long been eloquent in attacking government corruption in these familiar terms. A relatively early but very famous example was in a 1950 speech before the Northern House of Assembly by Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, who would later become prime minister. Balewa called for a commission of inquiry into malpractice by the native authorities, institutions of the precolonial government that had been retained as part of the colonial system of indirect rule. Balewa cited the twin curses of bribery and corruption. He went on to argue: Native Administration servants have monetary obligations to their immediate superiors and to their sole Native Authorities [i.e., emirs]. It would be unseemly for me to particularize further but I cannot overemphasize the importance of eradicating this ungodly evil. No one who has not lived among us can fully appreciate to what extent the 8 M. G. Smith made a very similar point in a classic article on corruption in the Zaria Emirate (1964), though our emphases are somewhat different. See below.
8 894 STEVEN PIERCE giving and taking of bribes occupies the attention of all degrees to the exclusion of the ideals of disinterested service. Much of the attraction of a post lies in the opportunities it offers for extortion of one form or another (quoted in Whitaker 1970: 98). Both politicians and ordinary citizens have extended their critique from the native authorities to all state institutions. Thus, for example, [F]or Nigerian people there is no armour against thievery. It seems set to go on unchecked in all the top places. And the result of all the thievery has succeeded in privatizing Nigeria more than the combined efforts of the National Council on Privatisation, NCP, and the Bureau of Public Enterprises, BPE, will ever hope to do...[t]hievery had itself privatized not just a few government-owned companies and parastatals but everything with which it came into contact. It had virtually privatized the whole of Nigerian society every nook, every corner and every straight line, if there was one (Adamu 2005). The rhetorical shift from Tafawa Balewa s ungodly evil to a full-bore condemnation of ubiquitous thievery points to an absolute breakdown in what one might term the moral economy of zalunci. Even if in earlier times one were inclined to condemn particular officials and actions as oppressive, there was still a sense that a certain amount of self-interested accumulation was to be expected, indeed was necessary. And yet perhaps there are limits, a line that when crossed changes normal conduct into thievery. 9 Nigeria has long possessed an extremely dynamic civil society, and even in periods of government repression (as with Sani Abacha s military administration, , when journalists were regularly attacked and jailed) there has consistently been a freewheeling, very critical press, both domestic and expatriate. In recent years, print publications have been supplemented by the internet; listservs, bulletin boards, and weblogs have extended debates yet further. 10 It is impossible to provide a real summary of these discussions. 11 One consistent theme, however, is to link Nigerian corruption with the country s divisive history of ethnic politics. In Nigeria as in much of sub-saharan Africa, accounts of the historical emergence of corruption tend to locate it at the start of significant African party politics, which also touched off (at least in many areas) a very damaging form of ethnic politics. From the start of the colonial period ethnicity had become integral to local administration, as African administrators held offices as chiefs ruling culturally homogeneous chieftaincies, or chieftaincies 9 The term moral economy, comes from Thompson (1971), as reinterpreted by Scott (1976). See de Sardan (1999), who makes a similar argument about the moral limits for the acceptability of corrupt governmental practices in Africa. Unfortunately, the limits to a general acceptance of corrupt practices in Nigeria are a matter to complex to be explored in this article. 10 See Reynolds 1999; Ochonu n.d. 11 For a particularly eloquent example, see Odia Ofeimun s extraordinary eight-part series that appeared in the Nigerian newspaper Vanguard (2003).
9 CORRUPTION IN NORTHERN NIGERIA 895 in which one ethnic group was elevated above others. 12 The alignment of ethnicity with administration was compounded by migrants to cities, who often sought help from acquaintances from home, a tendency that ultimately resulted in the emergence of self-help associations that cemented ethnic identities and homogenized them. The inauguration of formal party politics after World War II also coincided with significant investment in infrastructure and social welfare. Gaining office thus provided politicians with the wherewithal to channel these new development monies to favored areas and groups. Because existing mechanisms of administration and political mobilization already tended to accentuate ethnic identity, self-rule heightened these ethnic cleavages, politicized them, and made them simultaneously integral to and injurious of good governance. 13 As communal identity and patronage politics interacted to heighten religio-ethnic cleavages and to constitute a steady demand for governmental largesse channeled through redistributive networks organized by political big men, the natural tendency of politics was increasingly toward governmental irregularity and ever-shifting centrifugal tendencies. For this reason, the seeming disjuncture between common sense in Ungogo and more elite (and more English-language) discourses covers over substantial continuities between the two modes of thinking, as witnessed by my friend s ambitions and by many commentators ironic awareness that any official, no matter how initially upstanding, is likely to prove corrupt. Ultimately, this suggests an important dynamic to contemporary manifestations of corruption. On one hand, they emerge from a deeply ingrained, longstanding cultural logic subtending political relationships and governance, this moral economy of zalunci. And on the other they emerge from an administrative and ideological logic of bureaucratic forms of governance, a logic that corruption disrupts and in that disruption causes great suffering. This dual locus has not resulted in simply an interaction of opposed, perhaps contradictory forces, nor does it make corruption meaningless, an empty sign, nor yet an imposition of western imperialism. In the two sections that follow I first outline the contours of formulations of corruption relevant to its role in affairs of the Nigerian state and then sketch out the history in which these most complex formulations have produced present dilemmas. 12 This system, most famously codified as the British policy of indirect rule, had analogs in francophone and lusophone Africa as well. 13 See for example Peter Ekeh s influential 1975 article, which argues that colonialism in Africa created two public spheres, one oriented around primordial regional, personalistic, patronclient, ethnicized ties, and one analogous to western civil society. Richard Joseph (1987) has made a detailed, extremely powerful argument that the emergence of politicized ethnic groups in Nigeria is intimately tied to a logic of government in which politicians are expected to deliver goods to their increasingly ethnicized constituencies. This politics of office seeking and office holding then leads to increasing roadblocks to democratic governance, or indeed any form of governmental efficiency. On ethnicity, see also Young 1994 and 2002.
10 896 STEVEN PIERCE CORRUPTION AND THE STATE It is unsurprising that Nigerian society provides the preconditions for both corruption and its critique; Nigeria s form of government presupposes technocratic rationality that political society cannot reasonably achieve. Though popular appreciation of zalunci and the desirability of patron-client politics has deep historical roots, this is largely an inferential argument based on using contemporary ethnographic information to interpret historical material. 14 Similarly, although it would be possible to provide a history of western-inspired accounts of corruption going back to nineteenth-century Liberal reform if not before this is not the place for such a discussion, and in the interest of parallelism I shall sketch out some dominant strands in contemporary accounts. What is wrong with inflating tax assessments, demanding bribes, redistributing farms to one s friends? People in Ungogo say that the reason is that it harms them and that it violates religious principles. Theorists of corruption (e.g., Williams 1987; Rose-Ackerman 1996) would suggest that it harms the state s ability to function as it should, impeding the development process, weakening the state forms demanded by the global system. Other commentators (e.g. MacGaffey 1987; MacGaffey, Mukohya et al. 1991; Ellis and MacGaffey 1996; MacGaffey and Bazenguissa-Ganga 2000; Chalfin 2001) have pointed out that while the state and official economies are corrupt, inefficient, and oppressive, the domains they control are oftentimes dwarfed by unofficial economies and informal political ties. Official corruption and maladministration are part of a more complex whole (Heyman 1999). Paradigms of the state thus must be altered to accommodate its practical instantiations. The positions are not necessarily incompatible but rather suggest that Nigeria and other African countries pose serious challenges to paradigms of the state. One can thus distill several tendencies in work on corruption. Most common are idealist positions that it consists of officials problematic deviations from the conduct of rational, modern state actors and that it thereby constitutes a roadblock to Africa s achievement of a modernity that would otherwise emerge. To the extent that commentators see this as arising from countries histories or positions within the global economy (Elliott 1997), this implies countries suffering from corruption will continue to do so, barring a deus ex machina like the emergence of a powerful (and incorruptible) civil society (Fatton 1995; Kempe and Chikulo 2000) or wide-scale privatization (Diamond 1987a; 1987b). Absent that, idealist tendencies ultimately dictate 14 That is to say, there is no direct evidence of similar popular sentiment in 1910 (or 1810), though support for the jihad of the early nineteenth century or for uprisings in the early twentieth might be used as evidence of a similar sense of a moral economy that had been violated, as Scott (1976) famously suggested. Here, however, I am interested in a different point, which can only be demonstrated inferentially, by considering the likelihood of continuity or discontinuity between contemporary cultural fields and their precursors. For more extended discussions, see Pierce 2003 and 2005.