Review

A Culture of Corruption
Everyday Deception and Popular Discontent in Nigeria
by Daniel Jordan Smith (Sierra Leone 1984–87)
Princeton University Press
November 2006
260 pages
$27.95

Reviewed by David Strain (Nigeria 1963–65)

    THIS BOOK’S TITLE, given its lively use in our latest Congressional elections, reminds us that corruption is a worldwide phenomenon. That being agreed, when dealing with any transaction, says author Daniel Jordan Smith, Nigerians always consider “the Nigerian factor,” and the Nigerian factor is corruption. Corruption is also the number one topic of conversation.
         Smith was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sierra Leone. He returned to Africa to work for an NGO in Igboland, where he met and married his wife. Her Igbo community welcomed him both for his marriage and for speaking Igbo. Smith is now a professor of anthropology at Brown University. His research takes him to Igboland where he has taught at Imo State University. Smith is as close to a fly on the wall as any white American could be.
         As the subtitle “Everyday Deception and Popular Discontent in Nigeria” indicates, the volume is not about Nigerian generals and Swiss bank accounts; it is an anthropological study of corruption at local levels, and of how Igbo citizens perceive it. Smith begins with a 419 scam, told as a joke with relish by one Nigerian to a group of friends. The tale is of the sophisticated taking in of a Texas oilman who, promised millions, is stripped of substantial “advance money” when he arrives in Nigeria. This kind of delicious “Mission Impossible” story, however, when Smith observes it locally, becomes the tale of unemployed school graduates in Owerri who for a pittance type out in email cafés, and late at night for economy, the come-ons which blanket the Internet. When a fish bites, higher ups unknown to them take over. Not much Mission Impossible there.
         Nigerians use the phrase “419" broadly (419 refers to a Nigerian Criminal Code section which makes a felony of using false pretenses to defraud). Smith’s definition of corruption is even broader. It pulls in acts which Nigerians do not view as corrupt: an example, contacting a community higher-up whose position lets him get a daughter into a prestigious secondary school when her test scores do not qualify her automatically. Many Americans would agree with Smith, although in his example the official receives a dash, while in the US a college might get a substantial pre-acceptance gift.
         In Nigeria the corruption issue often arises out of the patron/client relationship that orders Igbo society. A village’s big man or high placed individual has often arrived through the village’s efforts, and is entitled to his wealth or power, earned or ill gotten, so long as he shares sufficiently with his community. This feudal-like mutuality of obligation is appropriate and effective in a village setting. It is troublesome when the patron’s job responsibilities should be to a group broader than his own. Nevertheless, as one state commissioner of agriculture says:
    “Even if I wanted to avoid the practice of awarding contracts on the basis of favoritism, I could not. My people would say that I am selfish and foolish. Who gets to such a position of power and then refuses to help his people? Only the worst kind of person.”
         The patron/client relationship seems right to Nigerians when the guy is your guy, corrupt when not.
         Smith examines various petty corruptions: the “settlement” you pay to the official to register your car, the cash you pay extra to obtain school transcripts, the bribes to police at checkpoints, the monetization of grades. Smith points out that officials are often not paid, their salaries are low, or they have fifteen children; that is, corruption is the response of poor people to a world that treats them unfairly.
         The book’s many interesting explorations include corruption in local elections, government support of vigilante groups, and the use of indigenous religion against political opponents. The Nigerian factor does seem to pop up everywhere, as do forces to confront corruption, such as Pentecostal religions and renewed talk of Igbo secession. But Smith answers “No” to the implication of his “Culture of Corruption” title, and agrees with Achebe that the fault lies with corrupt leadership elites, not Nigerian culture.
         The examples however suggest that many Nigerians, imbued with the culture of patron/clientism, are concerned less with its corruption than with its not benefiting them in contemporary Nigeria. Since the Biafran War Igbos feel politically marginalized, and in this context, deprived of Igbo higher ups in the federal oil administration to distribute slices of “the Nigerian cake.” Nigerians also think that many who do control jobs, contracts, and wealth are “eating alone,” not sharing sufficiently. Here there may be a tension with individual values absorbed from the west. I recall even in the 1960s professors hesitating to return home on holidays because of the drain of gifts expected by their communities.
         Like the exaggerated Igbo personality a Northerner remarks upon, excess characterizes Nigerian corruption. The government contract is an opportunity to plunder with no regard for fulfilling the contract. Smith gives no cultural explanation for this quality of excess. Perhaps, as a recent National Geographic article suggested, because Nigerian oil revenue comes from the federal government, politicians and government contractors have no need of help from their local communities and so feel no obligation to share.
         Smith also lays blame for corruption on the Western world, whose meeting with Africa at the juncture of oil and foreign aid contracts he says corrupts the African world. Smith agonizes over what he claims was the inherent corruption in his job with the NGO, which provided children’s health services. Paid a salary (modest, he assures us, by US standards) five times that of his Nigerian counterpart, he felt responsible to weed out petty corruption by Nigerian staff. Smith describes himself as:

    . . . a culpable and complicit actor in the whole enterprise of development-related corruption . . .. Part of the context of understanding Western culpability, and in this case my complicity, in sustaining Nigeria’s notorious corruption is recognizing the peculiarity of a system that legitimizes my privilege [his salary, housing and other perks], but is on the lookout for a local staff person who awards a contract to provide office stationery to any in-law to help a struggling business, or might terminate a driver who carries passengers for a fee in the office vehicle on his way back from an assignment in order to raise some extra cash for his children’s school fees. These actions are viewed by Westerners as forms of corruption. Yet the larger system of inequality is taken for granted, at least by most of us who are its principal beneficiaries.

         He may be right, but I am sorry that A Culture of Corruption does not explore the ramifications of these thought provoking conclusions nor define how aid organizations (and oil companies) could avoid the “corrupt” inequality that Smith condemns.
         Smith’s tells how corruption creeps into daily life with variety, pace and clarity. With his emphasis on what Nigerians feel, there is the question: are Nigerians responding to facts, or to rumors and disinformation from a less than fastidious press? And where patron/client rules dictate, as Smith says, social obligation trumps “a notion of civic duty.” I wonder whether Western ideas of corruption or civic duty are relevant or useful where groups, artificially forced together as in Nigeria, follow a local culture that rewards other competing values.
         Smith believes Nigerians’ full time victimization by corruption dressed in the clothing of democracy is an impetus to real development and democracy. But with tribal groups at odds, and the patron/client relationship prevailing as the standard for right behavior, there is a chasm to span before actual development and democracy can occur. Add the idea that Nigeria’s oil riches are “cake” to consume rather than assets to invest in education, infrastructure and development, and you get “the Nigerian factor” which makes progress difficult in that “geographical expression” called Nigeria.

    David Strain, a lawyer, served in Enugu, Nigeria where he did law reporting for the Eastern Region Ministry of Justice. He taught at the University of Lagos Law School in his second year of service. Retired now from private practice in San Francisco, he is the Book Editor of Friends of Nigeria newsletter.