Bring back corruption: A critique of neoliberal anti-corruption rhetoric
Sep 08, 2016
Nigeria is gripped by the familiar anxieties of an economy in distress. This escalating crisis has demystified a president once thought capable of astute, if not magical, economic management. In their desperation for respite, many Nigerians are now paradoxically yearning for the corruption that they and their leaders blame for their economic woes.
Kerry describes corruption as not just a disgrace and a crime, but also dangerous. He praised President Muhammadu Buhari for confronting the monster frontally and pledged continual support in that regard. From the way the war is being conducted, he surmised that Nigeria could in fact be a model to other nations.
And truly since assuming office May 29, 2015, Buhari has lived up to his campaign promise of tackling corruption headlong and providing a fresh template for instilling transparency and accountability. On the matter of corruption, credit goes to him for he indeed hit the ground running. Seeing the way the screw has been turned on treasury looters and the big thieves in the society, all those harbouring the belief that there are ‘untouchables’ who would never be called to give account are now beginning to have a rethink.
The message is now out there that under this administration, it would no longer be ‘business as usual.’ But the fight should also not be conducted in a manner that leaves the impression that Buhari as the general of this war has no army behind him. It cannot be denied that at the federal level the battle is raging, but it has to percolate to the state and local government levels for it to register the desired impact. Governors, especially those of the ruling party, must take a cue from Buhari in the quest for zero tolerance for corruption.
But theirs is not nostalgia for corruption per se but for a period in which, despite or because of corruption, the flow of illicit government funds created a sense of economic opportunity and prosperity. During a recent research trip to Nigeria I sampled the opinion of various segments of the Nigerian people to gauge their perspectives on the troubled economy of President Muhammadu Buhari, which just entered recession. One refrain I heard fairly regularly was “bring back corruption.” It is not an entirely new rhetoric. For months, Nigerians have been advancing this idiom on social media as a sarcastic rebuke of what they see as Buhari’s narrow, obsessive focus on corruption.
“Bring back corruption” mocks the logic of making the fight against corruption the sole preoccupation of government while unprecedented hardship stalks vulnerable Nigerians and expands to the ranks of citizens who previously occupied safe economic perches, and while the government fails to ease the economic strictures and contractions caused by the said fight against corruption.
When the refrain first appeared in Nigeria’s dynamic political lexicon, its architects intended to use it to draw attention to the tension between fighting corruption, a vice which Nigerians believe to be responsible for their economic predicament, and worsening economic conditions. It was meant as an indictment of Buhari’s singular focus on corruption to the detriment of sound economic management.
Many of those who invoke the refrain today do so half-seriously to make two points; first, to illustrate the primacy of economic survival and wellbeing above all else, including the fight against corruption; and second, to yearn for a return to the imperfections of the pre-Buhari era, when, in their reckoning, corruption was rampant but life was easier, cheaper, more livable.
“Bring back corruption” is profound beyond the awareness of those deploying it as an idiom of political critique. It underscores the paradoxical, often unacknowledged political and economic utility of corruption in Nigeria — the functional, instrumental entwinement of corruption in statecraft as well as corruption’s capacity to mediate the economic relationship between Nigerians and the state.
The Buhari administration’s feisty rhetoric on corruption ignores the ways in which governmental graft has been democratized in the polity, trickling down in the form of monetary flows, patronage, expanding volumes of business transactions, and general liquidity. The Nigerians I heard saying “bring back corruption” were not simply saying that they preferred the corrupt but more prosperous era of former president Goodluck Jonathan to Buhari’s less corrupt but leaner time, although their rhetoric signals that order of preference. They were not endorsing corruption either.
Without realizing it, they were making an insightful comment on how corruption is paradoxically, and contrary to conventional political rhetoric and anti-corruption discourse, the fuel of the Nigerian economy, sustaining everything from major real state transactions to the patronage economies of petty retailers. In Nigeria, the trickle down effect of governmental corruption is enormous. Corruption generates secondary and tertiary ripples and transactional economies that benefit even the pepper seller in the market.
Rather than simply being a vice that has invidiously infiltrated the institutions of the state, corruption has become integral to the patronage networks through which politics and governance are conducted. This is a controversial but important point to make. For decades, corruption was at the very center of the state, politically and economically. The circulation of illicit funds, which move stealthily from government to the private sector and back again through a convoluted loop in repeated circular flows, became the mainstay of the economy.
Historian Steven Pierce makes the point eloquently in his book, Moral Economies of Corruption, arguing that, to understand the history of statecraft in Nigeria, one must understand how corruption, in its various governmental iterations, has functioned as an arbiter in both adversarial and productive political engagements. Corruption is the recurring decimal in politics and governance. Rather than being an anomalous virus of politics, what we call corruption, Pierce argues, is integral to how the Nigerian state is constituted and reconstituted by political elites.
The corollary to Pierce’s argument tacks back to the “bring back corruption” meme. While corruption flourished unchecked in the previous administration of Goodluck Jonathan, that corruption found its way in trickles to all the consequential corners of the economy, lubricating the sinews of an economic system that depends, for good or ill, on the state’s revenue mobilization, spending, and leakage.
Nigerians who secured jobs and livelihoods working in or tending to the investments of corrupt politicians and bureaucrats didn’t care where the money came from. They were happy to have a job or to partake in the financial rewards of investments and projects financed by illicit money.
The concept of an economy nourished by illicit financial flows may be hard to grasp for many outside the Nigerian context but it is the crux of the Nigerian economic dilemma: you may have to undermine the economy in the interim by fighting the political graft that sustains it, in order to ultimately save it. But if you push the envelop of anticorruption too hard, you may destroy the entire economic edifice and risk popular backlash.
In Buhari’s Nigeria, the avenues of leakage are being plugged and corruption is being fought, however imperfectly, preventing the trickles that traditionally lubricate the economy. This has trapped funds, which usually circulate to fuel the economy, at the top of the state-dominated economic food chain. The non-circulation of corruptly acquired funds does not necessarily mean that corruption is not occurring under Buhari. Rather, it indicates that corruption is now restricted to a small circle of people in government, who are too spooked and too discreet, given the current anticorruption measures, to release their illicit funds into the real economy.
Aside from sensational, multipronged investigations, high profile arrests, and multiple, ongoing prosecutions of corruption cases, the government has implemented a set of measures to keep illicit flows of government funds to a minimum. The most important of these measures is the Single Treasury Account (TSA), a policy instrument designed to centralize and domicile the funds of all federal government agencies in a single account at the Nigerian Central Bank, preventing the proliferation of multiple government accounts that are difficult to monitor, prone to abuse, and are the primary source of funds for lazy commercial banks feeding fat on government deposits.
The result is a cash crunch never before seen, a squeeze that has affected all sectors of the economy, and that, coupled with the government’s import and foreign exchange restrictions, has led to a loss of confidence and a drastic reduction in liquidity. Manufacturing has since collapsed and many companies, local and multinational, have either closed or have laid-off high numbers of staff.
When Nigerians say “bring back corruption” they are decrying this cessation of secondary and tertiary benefits from the pipelines of official corruption. They are lamenting what happens when a regime of anticorruption supplants sound economic policymaking. They are expressing a nostalgic longing for an economy in which corruption may have been the order of things but in which this corruption performed a functional, productive service to the economy by loosening and oiling its crevices.
Once you shut down the pipelines of monetary flows with origins in corruption, the logical outcome is an economy starved of its lifeblood.
This logical, unintended consequence of the war on corruption calls for a loosening of other avenues of monetary and transactional flows, such as the foreign exchange and import sectors, both of which, if managed intelligently, can generate increased domestic trade and arbitrage as well as patronage that would mitigate the squeeze caused by the disruption of illicit financial flows.
This is one of the biggest blind spots of the Buhari administration. In its righteous zeal to fight graft, the administration has not reckoned with how corruption, like it or hate it, had become the mainstay of the economy and how fighting it without easing restrictions in other corners of the economy would inevitably generate self-defeating outcomes and hurt the Nigerians the fight is meant to help.
Much of this failure to recognize a complicated, nuanced reality stems from the administration’s determination to live up to a mystique of unflappable incorruptibility that Nigerians erected around Buhari, and which the president and his party leveraged to dislodge Jonathan and the PDP in last year’s elections. The elections are over. The president needs to free himself from the burden of an election-time persona that keeps him from governing realistically and effectively.
The “bring back corruption” meme illustrates the ways that governmental corruption has become instrumental to the quotidian transactional momentum of the Nigerian economy. It shows that serious efforts to fight corruption without a corresponding set of ameliorative and stimulative measures can be counterproductive, causing increased hardship and turning citizens against anticorruption measures, no matter how sincere the measures may be.
Nigeria may provide, at this point, the best illustration of the “bring back corruption” phenomenon, but the same counterintuitive popular critique of anticorruption is percolating in Tanzania, where some people are complaining that President John Magufuli is too rigid and that life under him is too hard. Tanzanians, like Nigerians under Buhari, are not disagreeing with President Magufuli’s widely praised anticorruption stance or his insistence on probity and scripted order. What they are highlighting is the same point being made by beleaguered Nigerians: if an anticorruption regime undermines the economy or a corruption-fighting government fails to manage the economy in a manner that mitigates the negative impact of clampdowns, the whole point of fighting corruption in the first place gets lost as economic conditions deteriorate.
Scholars and policy experts need to reckon with how a narrow focus on anticorruption without attention to corruption's social character and without the implementation of easing and ameliorative measures in the economy can in fact worsen conditions and do irreparable damage.
Much of this phenomenon is a product of the relentless neoliberal infiltration of governance and politics in Africa. Neoliberal ideas about accountability, transparency, and anticorruption being the ultimate solutions to Africa’s problems are happily and uncritically disseminated by NGOs in a textbookish, abstract manner. Governments then adopt these ideas zealously without adapting them to local realities, local anxieties, local aspirations, and local expectations.
African governments gleefully appropriate the buzzwords of neoliberal political and economic prescriptions without reference to how these ideas do not always mesh with actual conditions in African countries and how in fact the graft that is demonized in unqualified terms as the cause of Africa’s underdevelopment is precisely what sustains the quotidian economic rhythms of life in many countries.
It is important to critique this blind devotion to the neoliberal jargons and grammar of anticorruption, a devotion that fails to reckon with how some of what we call corruption in the lingo of modern democratic governance is, for good or bad, integral to the economic wellbeing of many citizens and must therefore be carefully engaged in crafting a realistic anticorruption regime that works and that will not kill the economy and destroy citizens’ livelihoods in the process of combating graft.
Neoliberal discursive hegemony is real. It has infected the very language we adopt as baselines and points of reference for discussing the economic challenges of African states. We take for granted that terms such as accountability, anticorruption, probity, and transparency are apolitical, value neutral universal referents for governmental virtues. We rarely stop to interrogate the neoliberal origins of these constructs, the fact that they originate in the moment of global capitalist triumph and in the moment of neoliberal assaults on Africa and the Third World. We rarely question the fact that these buzzwords are seldom operationalized in the West, the cradle of neoliberal thought, or the fact that there are alternative visions and practices of accountability, anticorruption, transparency, and probity that may be unintelligible to the West but that are nonetheless, and however imperfectly, the normative, functional economic orders in several African states.
Take transparency. In generic terms, it simply means the existence of clearly understood rules. Whether these rules are considered enlightened or crude, formal or informal is of secondary importance. If we proceed from this definitional premise, we will see the informalized (in neoliberal language, corrupt) economies of many African countries as transparent. The rules of engagement may seem opaque to the untrained, distant eye but they are clear to local participants and stakeholders.
The neoliberal blind spot in our analytical practice compels us to fetishize anticorruption and its associated idioms even as critical areas of national economies atrophy. We then seek and find “corruption” everywhere and proceed to fight these identified signs of “corruption” with a myopic ferocity that damages the capacity of ordinary citizens to earn a living. Next, abstract policy narratives about anticorruption measures are formulated and the search for both corruption and accountability become the supreme order of governance. This search is permanent, never fully realized, so Africa is perpetually theorized, at least in policy terms, as the land of corruption, inspiring more counterproductive anticorruption measures. This is the endless loop of neoliberal anticorruption work in Africa.
The "bring back corruption" narrative that is percolating in Nigeria and Tanzania (and perhaps in other countries) is a populist articulation of the aforementioned critique of neoliberal anticorruption obsessions. It should not simply be dismissed as an anomalous, fleeting sentiment. We must take it seriously and engage with it as a poignant expression of the hardship that ordinary people in these countries are experiencing. Policymaking is not an end onto itself or an abstract undertaking. It is about human beings, citizens. If a particular policy has devastating unintended consequences, it should be modified, no matter how lofty it looks on paper or in theory. At the very least, these unpalatable unintended consequences should be addressed. That is the lesson from Nigeria — and Tanzania.
* Moses E. Ochonu is Professor of African History at Vanderbilt University, USA. He is the author of three books, the most recent of which is Africa in Fragments