The descent into normlessness in various African countries calls for a new scholarly and policy approach.
In the middle of December, the protracted political tussle between incumbent Governor of oil-producing Rivers State, Siminalayi Fubara and his predecessor and now Nigerian Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Minister, Nyesom Wike, took a bizarre turn when Governor Fubara ordered and briefly oversaw the demolition of the State House of Assembly complex in Port Harcourt, the state capital. In a statement to the media, the State Commissioner for Information and Communication, Joseph Johnson, attributed the governor’s decision to expert warning that continuing use of it in its present state “would be disastrous” and that “having tried all cost-saving measures towards the repair of the complex,” the government had “bowed to the superior view of rebuilding the complex to a more befitting edifice (sic).”
Few people were convinced by the official explanation, and it seems more plausible that Governor Fubara had taken the extraordinary step of sending in the bulldozers in order to prevent the twenty-seven House of Assembly members who had defected from the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) from convening and, as he had every reason to fear, sanctioning his impeachment. In other words, with his tenure and political future on the line, Governor Fubara elected to sacrifice a legislative complex built with taxpayer money. The governor may have made a Freudian admission later when, at a meeting to broker peace between him and his political principal, he said that “no price was too big to pay” for peace in the state.
Governor Fubara’s apparent willingness to sacrifice the collective good on the altar of personal-political survival is iconic of a unique tragedy of the commons increasingly witnessed across Africa, whereby those entrusted with public office at various levels approach their appointment with an attitude of naked malevolence, seeing it more as an opportunity to take as much as they can from the treasury before making way for the next appointee, who then proceeds to behave with a similar lack of conscience, extending a pattern of casual expropriation that, in many cases, goes back all the way to the dawn of political independence. True, in this example, the governor has in fact not taken anything; however, it makes no difference, since what is of note is the absence of concern or care for public property, and a deeply symbolic one for that matter.
South Africa offers a compelling, if disturbing, glimpse of this mentality. For an observer, the striking thing about the “catastrophic dysfunction” in, say, the Electricity Supply Commission, Eskom, or the state rail network, Transnet, is not the persistence of the pilferage, which, sadly, one has come to expect, but the seeming determination of those involved to sabotage and run the entire enterprise aground. This impulse is of moment insofar as it marks a transition from ‘normal’ corruption in which the object is to ‘obtain,’ albeit illegitimately, to an ‘ab-normal’ one in which perpetrators take aim at the very foundation of–or at least act with nary a regard for–targeted public institutions.
Recent allegations of political graft in Nigeria provide further illustration. Whether it is the Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, where an overwhelmed Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) has uncovered an N187 billion fraud, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) where a special investigation has “linked” former governor Godwin Emefiele and other top officials with a N22.7 trillion “Ways and Means fraud,” or, before that, the case of former oil minister Diezani Alison-Madueke, from whom alone the EFCC has confiscated “about $153 million and more than eighty properties,” one discerns a pattern in which systematic theft, occurring as a matter of course, is propelled by a worrying nonchalance towards public institutions and agencies, and by implication the public good. Alarmed at the emerging trend, a leading media commentator describes Nigeria as “the most openly stolen and looted country in the history of humanity,” adding: “If the reports of humongous stealing from the federal coffers and outlandish pilfering are anything to go by, it has been a bazaar of barracudas.”
Nor, to be clear, is the destructive impulse limited to the elite. For every member of the political class purloining away at the top, there is an ‘ordinary’ citizen below busily vandalizing or stealing public amenities. In South Africa, Transnet was brought to its knees by a combination of high-level corruption and low-level “train vandalism, cable theft and blockages at ports.” In Nigeria, public buildings, streetlights, electric cables, power transformers, railway tracks, telecommunications masts, and oil pipelines are regularly defaced, damaged, or looted without cause. Between August and October 2021, the country reportedly lost an estimated N556 billion to pipeline vandalism.
‘Ab-normal’ corruption might, on one level, be plausibly interpreted as the natural progression of ‘normal’ corruption, the acknowledged failure to rein in the latter logically giving rise to a Gramscian “variety of morbid symptoms.” Yet, it is difficult to contemplate the wanton predatoriness of the former, and the (material and symbolic) destructiveness that is its inarguable concomitance, without at least pressing some of the questions that ensue about the place of social norms in African societies, what the dominant conception of “public good” is and how it is materialized, and who the society (the elite and the masses) thinks the state “belongs” to. For example, if, pace Peter Ekeh, amoral behavior towards the civic public originates in the artificial duality of colonialism, how to account for the tenacity of amorality several decades after independence when, for all intents and purposes, Africans have taken full possession of the former colonial state? If perceived colonial ownership of the civic public engendered alienation, why has ‘native’ assumption of ownership, the meaning of independence, done little to alter attitude towards it? Furthermore, why has the corresponding morality meant for the primordial public yielded to the amorality once reserved for the civic public? Finally, and crucially, why did the reverse not happen? In other words, why, in the conduct of both public and primordial lives, has morality not prevailed over amorality?
Not only are these questions of more than theoretical interest; indeed, answers to them can illuminate and help reverse what appears to be a real descent into normlessness that ought to change how scholars and policymakers have always regarded and fought public corruption in Africa. If the problem is social anomie, understood as the breakdown of the system of moral norms, and not ‘mere’ corruption, what happens to our theory of change, predicated as it is on an abstract legalism that the political elite has proved so adept at subverting?
Ekeh, invoking Durkheim, introduces the idea of anomie in his inaugural on “Colonialism and Social Structure,” but perhaps there are other reasons, apart from a long overdue disruption of the civic/primordial binary, to begin to give it closer attention. In the first place, a focus on anomic behavior gives us the kind of “whole-of-society” perspective that Abdul Raufu Mustapha insists is a sine qua non for a true understanding of African politics. Second, and in contrast to the technicist focus of much Africanist political science, it allows us to put societal mores and individual behavior (private and political) at the center of our analysis and, consequently, policy intervention.
Across Africa, a perverse ethical regime, frightening in its social and political implications, is ascendant. To begin to get a handle on it, a change of scholarly and policy focus is needed. For scholars, the diagnosis begs the questions: what elements within the social structure of African states incentivize and reward anomic behavior? What can Africa learn from the experience of societies that have overcome social anomie?
Taking a cue from scholarship, policymakers must jettison a narrow obsession with dry legalism and institutions in the abstract and focus instead on norms and popular attitudes that shape and govern political behavior and socialization.