A Culture of Corruption: Everyday Deception and Popular Discontent in Nigeria
Daniel Jordan Smith
E-mails proposing an "urgent business relationship" help make fraud Nigeria's largest source of foreign revenue after oil. But scams are also a central part of Nigeria's domestic cultural landscape. Corruption is so widespread in Nigeria that its citizens call it simply "the Nigerian factor." Willing or unwilling participants in corruption at every turn, Nigerians are deeply ambivalent about it--resigning themselves to it, justifying it, or complaining about it. They are painfully aware of the damage corruption does to their country and see themselves as their own worst enemies, but they have been unable to stop it. A Culture of Corruption is a profound and sympathetic attempt to understand the dilemmas average Nigerians face every day as they try to get ahead--or just survive--in a society riddled with corruption.
Drawing on firsthand experience, Daniel Jordan Smith paints a vivid portrait of Nigerian corruption--of nationwide fuel shortages in Africa's oil-producing giant, Internet cafés where the young launch their e-mail scams, checkpoints where drivers must bribe police, bogus organizations that siphon development aid, and houses painted with the fraud-preventive words "not for sale." This is a country where "419"--the number of an antifraud statute--has become an inescapable part of the culture, and so universal as a metaphor for deception that even a betrayed lover can say, "He played me 419." It is impossible to comprehend Nigeria today--from vigilantism and resurgent ethnic nationalism to rising Pentecostalism and accusations of witchcraft and cannibalism--without understanding the role played by corruption and popular reactions to it.
society. In many instances, ordinary Nigerians see themselves as complicit in corruption, and indeed it is this awareness of collective responsibility for corruption that fuels hopes for change, even as it paradoxically perpetuates cynicism and a sense of intractability. THE NIGERIAN FACTOR: CORRUPTION AS A NATIONAL DISCOURSE Throughout the 1990s, Amibo struggled to become the last of eleven villages in Ubakala to he connected to Nigeria's national electricity grid. Many families in Amibo had
suggests that Nigeria-based scam artists frequently have Nigerian expatriate partners who further develop the scam scenarios and hook potential dupes in places like Texas (Smith, Holmes, and Kaufmann 1999; Buchanan and Grant 2001; Edelson 2003). In addition, Texas is the huh of the U.S. oil industry, and legitimate deals between Texas-based U.S. companies and the Nigerian government are common. Sometimes even the official deals are plagued by allegations of corruption. For example, recent
proprietors asked them to work mainly when legitimate business volume was low, especially during the allnight browsing hours. In only one case was it obvious that the cafe proprietor was directly aware of and involved in 419. In another case, it seemed as if other employees managing the cafe may have been facilitating the activity behind the back of the proprietor, or perhaps they engaged in 419 with the proprietor's awareness, but the proprietor was not involved in any contact with the scam
Yet also implicit in this collective self-criticism are growing expectations about new forms of morality and accountability, associated with the ideals of democracy and development. Paradoxically, corruption and the discontents it fosters may be part of a process in which democracy and development are transformed from distant ideals into real expectations. ONE OF THE REIGNING jokes in contemporary Nigeria, told only partly facetiously, is that when students complete their education they have
a verb through which people expressed how their government and international powers were sapping their money, livelihoods, and very capacity to survive. In addition, people spoke of the adjustment in their diets forced by SAP. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, everyone in Nigeria knew what was meant when someone described his daily diet as "0-1-1," "1-0-1," "0-0-1," or some other permutation (Apter 2005, 250). Each numeral in the three referred to a meal: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Someone