Steven Pierce, Moral Economies of Corruption: state formation and political culture in Nigeria.
There is an intellectual urgency to challenge contemporary consensus understandings of corruption in Africa. In Moral Economies of Corruption, which is scrupulously researched and engagingly written, Pierce traces the situated nature of how conceptions of corruption developed in Nigeria, focusing particularly on Northern Nigeria. Close attention is paid to the evolution both of practices that can be considered corruption and, vitally, of the rationales and methods by which certain actions are called out as corruption. Starting on the eve of British colonialism in Nigeria, he traces the transformation and perpetuation of practices and, perhaps more pertinently, the political logics of how these are understood or called out (both successfully and unsuccessfully) as corruption. His meticulous research highlights how allegations of corruption have often been accusations used to criticize and depose leaders, from the British colonial authorities' removal of Emir Aliyu (p. 48) in 1921, to the political critique of Fela Kuti's 'Army arrangement' containing accusations levelled at Buhari in the 1980s, and to Seun Kuti's re-performance of his father's song as an undermining of Buhari's reputation for honesty in the run-up to the 2015 elections (pp. 108-11). This focus on the specifics of how corruption allegations arise at particular junctures illuminates their partial, positional and political nature; only some are accused and the context of their selection is often highly political. Pierce's analysis of these allegations carefully reveals how these contexts and allegations, and the responses to them, arise from the particularities of Nigeria's political history.
In the large existing literature, accounts that address the origins of corruption often end up placing blame on 'African cultures' or on the perversion of 'African cultures' through colonialism; these are shallow treatments that do not account for the different inflections of these activities in different eras and contexts. Moral Economies, however, does not fall into either of these traps due to its penetrating focus on the detailed historical evolution of practices of corruption and of making and dealing with allegations of corruption. Moreover, it serves to trace how 'corruption' and its political significance changed with the political evolution of Nigeria--amidst the shifting of power in Northern Nigeria as the bureaucratic state was established in that region under British rule (Chapter 1), the advent of federalism and the ways in which these structures produced the salience of ethnic and regional politics (Chapter 2), and the economic and political reforming of Nigeria under the twin influences of oil wealth and army rule (Chapter 3). This meticulous examination illuminates the historical emergence of practices and forms of allegation without slipping into explanations based on 'character' or 'culture', although it highlights how these discourses have themselves played a role in this history.
One of the key insights of the book is that, throughout this period, corruption is best understood not as a breach of a set of bureaucratic norms or principles (or not solely so) but rather as an accusation that is applied selectively and positionally: levelled successfully in the 1920s at 'officials the administration desired to depose' (p. 49); mockingly in the 1980s and mid-2010s at national leaders (pp. 108-11); and continuing in public discourse to 'express contemporary loyalties' (p. 155). This insight chimes with my observation in Negotiating Corruption (reviewed in this issue) that, in early twenty-first-century Nigeria, scandals are frequently understood to arise not because corruption is discovered but because of the political relationships of those accused. The significance of positionality and politicking that emerges from Pierce's work highlights the inadequacy of current approaches to corruption.
By examining corruption not just as historically situated but as closely entangled with the development of the Nigerian state, Pierce shines a light on the emergence of facets of the state that seem dysfunctional, and on how it projects itself to 'look like' a state even as it struggles to act like one (p. 215). Corruption in Nigeria, then, is not simply a moral failing eating at the fabric of the Nigerian state, or a different conception of norms. Rather, it comprises complex negotiations around authority, leadership, obligation, accountability and power. These negotiations, as Pierce ably establishes, have long historical roots but have been, are and will be subject to change as the Nigerian state itself is reworked.
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|Date:||Nov 1, 2019|
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