STEVEN PIERCE, who holds a Ph.D. in anthropology and history teaches in the history department at the University of Manchester. His most recent book, ‘Moral Economies of Corruption’, offers a new perspective and fresh insight into the discourse of corruption in Nigeria. He is completing two books at present; a history of corruption in Africa, and a study of the politics of criminal law in colonial Northern Nigeria. He spoke to NOSA IGBINADOLOR
You have studied, researched and taught Nigeria and Nigeria’s politics and political history over the years, how would you describe the state of Nigeria’s politics today?
The safe answer is to say that it is in a crucial period of transition! While there’s little we can say for certain, it’s clear that Nigeria will soon have a new president. By itself, a new presidential administration will bring sweeping change—not necessarily for the new policies that it implements or through a different way of exercising power, but because a different constellation of stakeholders will surround the president.
The shift will have knock-on effects across the National Assembly, the states, and the political parties. More than that, we can expect the security situation also to change. Again, I wouldn’t predict a change there simply because of a new president’s policies, support for the military and police, or even the new president’s ethnic, regional, or religious identity. The simple fact of a new political configuration will have consequences for all of the terrifying situations Nigerians are facing today. Tragically, violence has been part of Nigerian politics for many years, so a new political settlement will change the ways in which insecurity manifests itself.
Twenty-three years after the return to democracy, how would you assess the health of Nigeria’s democracy and the state of her democratic experiment?
With all respect, that’s the wrong question. It assumes that there is a model of a ‘healthy democracy’ that Nigeria either approximates or does not. But we see across the world today that even wealthy, long-established, stable democracies are becoming politically paralyzed (see responses to the climate crisis, or government coalitions in countries as diverse as Belgium and Israel), while others have descended into bad governance and corruption (the U.K., for example), while still others are becoming authoritarian or are likely to do so (the U.S., India, Brazil). This is not a moment in which ‘healthy democracy’ appears to be much more than a story we tell ourselves about utopian communities we hope someday to create.
That’s not a fancy way of saying that everything is fine in Nigeria. 2023 will be an important test of whether Nigeria can maintain two large political parties, or whether the tendency will be to have a party that controls the presidency and then an opposition that tries to organize itself into a credible alternative. It’s hard to see Nigeria soon developing ‘healthy democratic’ features like a tradition of political parties that alternate in power and that willingly give up control, as Ghana has done. At the same time, there is much to be said for the continued vibrancy of Nigeria’s civil society and its public sphere. In the long run, true Nigerian democracy—that is, the Nigerian people’s ability to determine the policies under which they live—will depend on articulating demands that can be translated into public policy and making their voices heard. That is a domain in which Nigerian institutions are already very strong, and where you have a vast cadre of talented people already active.
Quote: It’s hard to see Nigeria soon developing ‘healthy democratic’ features like a tradition of political parties that alternate in power and that willingly give up control, as Ghana has done
You did tell me that contemporary politics in Nigeria has left you befuddled. I am sure many Nigerians will say the same. What as an academic has been so perplexing about Nigeria’s politics?
Nigeria has always been an almost bewildering complex country—in its size, its diversity, the complexity of its many political traditions, the sophistication of its economy. Given that, there have also been grand narratives to help make sense of that complexity—the deep histories of states like Benin or Borno, ancient traditions of long-distance trade, the impact of incorporation into a global economy that exploited Nigeria for its wealth of people and resources.
What is striking about the past decade is how difficult it is to find any explanatory framework for recent events. Many of the narratives and models we have used in the past don’t work very well. I’m an historian, and so the very recent past is hard for me to get my head around.
I know that one of your areas of academic and research interests is Northern Nigeria. It is a region in socio-political and religious turmoil right now. How would you define the state of Northern Nigeria today especially from the point of view of someone who studies the region?
There’s no way around the basic fact that the security situation in the North is very worrisome. The enormity of its suffering tears at the heart and the conscience. At the same time, it’s crucial not to reduce northerners to victims and perpetrators. The north is not and cannot be reduced to or defined by Boko Haram, or bandits, or religious extremists, or other violent actors. I don’t see that the north is particularly different from other parts of the federation, in that it is a region with marvels of cultural tradition and brilliant peoples, plagued by a deeply entrenched political system that victimizes ordinary people and perpetuates violence, even if the current moment makes its suffering exceptional.
Your book, ‘Moral Economies of Corruption: State Formation and Political Culture in Nigeria’, was well acclaimed and received by the thinking class in Nigeria. In the book, you provided a cultural history of the last 150 years of corruption in Nigeria as a case study for considering how corruption plays an important role in the processes of political change in all states. How does corruption play an important role in influencing political change?
One of the lessons one learns from looking at the history of Nigeria since colonial annexation is how deeply the structures of the colonial state—which forms the core of the modern Nigerian state—depended on corruption.
This had three key features: 1) the state’s reliance on traditional officials who needed to have bounty to give people, and its inability to pay those officials salaries that would support the wealth they needed to maintain authority; 2) a legal system that made corruption illegal, but also so common that it could be prosecuted in only a tiny fraction of the cases in which it occurred; and 3) an economy that depended on the centralized export of goods, making state resources necessary for acquiring wealth.
Much has changed since 1914, but corruption continues to be built into the logic of the Nigerian state. That means it’s impossible to wish it away, or to suppress it with sufficient determination, even though fighting corruption has been a consistent feature of Nigerian politics for as long as there have been Nigerian politicians. Corruption isn’t just a set of evil practices, it’s an accusation to be hurled at one’s enemies and overlooked in one’s friends. One consequence of this historical legacy is that corruption is at the centre of politics, and political change is largely driven by the manoeuvring politicians must do around and within the politics of corruption.
You did posit in the book that the taxonomy of corruption in Nigeria perhaps needed to be reclassified, since corruption could be seen as a moral discourse as well as an objective reality. Do you think that corruption has become so culturally Nigerian, that it would be foolhardy to war or pretend to war against it?
To be clear, I’m suggesting that we need to see corruption as both a set of objective acts (taking a bribe, giving my grandmother a multi-billion naira contract, etc.) and a moral discourse (that is, a set of ideas about how I should behave with my official responsibilities, which allows people to debate whether I have done so properly or not). I wouldn’t want to say that it is culturally Nigerian, but rather that this logic is central to Nigerian politics and the economy. It isn’t necessarily so different from a country like the U.S. The reason it’s so much more destructive in Nigeria is that Nigeria is relatively poorer. There isn’t much left after everyone has taken his or her share.
That said, it’s a great question. Perhaps a better way of thinking about the challenge is to go beyond thinking of corruption as an objective fact we can tolerate or attempt to suppress. Corruption and its consequences, such as a lack of resources for state institutions, have a terrible effect on people’s lives. The problem is that Nigeria has two incompatible sets of political principles underlying state institutions. One presupposes officials who exercise their authority without any attention to personal interest. The other assumes that officials exist within networks of allies, patrons, and clients who also constrain how far he or she might misbehave. Each system undermines the checks and balances of the other system. My guess is that in the long run Nigerians will develop a system in which communities (and these might be real-world towns and villages, or they might be Facebook networks or WhatsApp groups or something not yet invented) are able to exercise power directly on those who lead them.
Nigerians themselves have already proposed answers to many of these dilemmas. In addition to the brilliant people writing and organizing today, it’s worth returning to some of the country’s founders. There are many lessons to be learned in the writings of figures like Obafemi Awolowo, Aminu Kano, and Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. And in addition to the brilliant scholars commenting today, it’s always worth returning to older figures, Claude Ake, Bala Usman, or Peter Ekeh.
Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari has now been in power for seven years, as at May 29, what has surprised you about the last seven years?
Well, I thought when President Buhari was elected that he might have the stature and the respect genuinely to suppress Boko Haram. I’m very sorry to have been wrong about that.