Thursday June 30, 2022

A black mark

November 17, 2021

In his article, Corruption and the post-colonial state: how the west invented African corruption, racism scholar Gabriel Apata notes, that while corruption is universal, “when it comes to Africa, [corruption] has remained a permanent black mark that will not shift, an idea that encapsulates the African predicament in all its various shades and manifestations”. He shows how media descriptions of it often present it as a form of pathology: “a cancer, virus, epidemic, cankerworm and so forth, these descriptions evoke images of disease, like Ebola and HIV-AIDS whose origins lie in Africa … Nowhere else or about no other continent is corruption described in these terms.”

This is despite the fact that African scholars have long traced the roots of corruption to colonialism. As Kenyan author Joe Khamisi notes in his book Looters and Grabbers: 54 Years of Corruption and Plunder by the Elite 1963-2017, the role of colonialism in establishing corruption practices has not stopped attempts to portray them as a legacy of the pre-colonial past – including as a consequence of a wholly imagined ‘African tradition’ of handing out gifts to ‘chiefs’ who, ironically, are themselves another colonial invention.

Such attempts to indigenise graft follow the path of other invented and supposedly ‘African’ realities such as the ‘tribe’. As Apata points out, the corruption prototype “emerged out of Western neo-liberal capitalist tradition and its exploitative tendencies, a system that was exported to Africa and which in turn became Africanised”.

In this sense, the corruption found especially in ‘Black Africa’ is presented as something unique and exotic, quite different from the enlightened practices of the ‘developed’ West. So while they may both have corrupt officials who abuse their power to rip off their citizens, the corrupt European politician is presented as a societal aberration, a negation of its wholesome values, while the corrupt African official is taken as the embodiment of African values.

This racialised approach is also reflected in the different language used to describe practices that look very similar. MPs in the UK are paid by companies to ‘lobby’ for public contracts which are then placed in a ‘high-priority lane’. When much the same thing happens in Kenya, MPs are said to have received ‘bribes’ and money is ‘funnelled’ into the pockets of their corrupt benefactors in the private sector.

When public officials steal money from Africans, their countries quickly earn themselves the unhappy distinction of being ‘corrupt’. Yet when the same money is hidden, as revealed by the Pandora Papers, in Western tax havens, with the help of Western consultants, firms and institutions, those countries are not similarly branded.

“It has caused me the greatest trouble, and forever causes me the greatest trouble, to perceive that unspeakably more depends upon what things are called, than on what they are,” wrote German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. This is undoubtedly true of the Western worldview regarding corruption.

Excerpted: ‘Why isn’t British ‘sleaze’ called what it really is?’