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Sunday, June 27, 2004

"Letters from the New World:"
Fighting Corruption at Eye Level in Nigeria

About Denis Beckett

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Whenever we talk Nigeria, we talk corruption. The two go together. Finland, ice and cellphones. Israel, strife. Australia, complacency and kangeroos. When you talk Nigeria, corruption is the first thing that comes up.
nigeria
Try it. Tell people “I’m going to Nigeria.” Four out of five responses will give you detail, usually second-hand, about the necessity of spreading your dollars through different pockets in different denominations. From there they’ll go into horror-stories about corruption.

I found my first trip to Nigeria challenging. Scary, too, but that was a different thing. When the captain said: “We’re commencing the descent” I clutched my wallet. The scare starts fading once reality replaces rumour, but the challenge doesn’t fade at all.

Corruption is one of the main reasons why Africa spent its first half-century of liberation heading, on statistical averages, backwards. Another major one is Indigenisation, Transformation, or whatever the name is for shoving wrong people into wrong roles. Indigenisation is tricky to deal with, and the real answer still awaits.
corruption
Corruption is not tricky at all. The simple answer is: don’t do it. To me that’s the sole answer. It’s ingrained. I can’t pay a bribe, any more than I can kill an animal or fling a bottle. The neurons are just programmed another way. Which poses a certain fluttering of the pulse when one is landing in Lagos, stocked high with dire warnings. But I remind myself that visitors to Johannesburg, too, are warned direly about our corruption, whilst I who live in Johannesburg remain a virgin after all these years – apart from sandwiches and cold-drinks.

Initially a little teeth-gritting is required, to take the same approach to Lagos, but it settles. By the time the first guy outright demanded a bribe (“because I am the one who is in charge of your baggage, heh, heh, heh…”) I was emboldened. All he got from me was two short traditional words.

I recognise that it’s hollow to sound holy when all you’re risking is a suitcase of used clothes, or the R500 fine for phoning while you drive. I admit I have no bosses to sack me if I fail to secure the contract,
no shareholders to re-deploy me as Deputy Manager of the Jammerdrif depot.

Still, the principle is not much different: Most times that you give the bribe-seeker short words he backs down. The times he doesn’t, it’s better to suffer the consequences than to hammer another nail into the coffin of your continent’s aspirations. In which light, the way that the going-into-Africa discussion usually plays out can be depressing.

It starts well, invariably. “We’re all Africans now, isn’t it wonderful. And you should see how much good we’re doing!”

They are, too. And it is spectacular, often. On Monday the housewives of Ndola are buying scrawny ox-shank, little more than bone with hair, chowed on for a week by 10,000 flies. They’re buying baked beans in rusted tins, a year after sell-by. They’re paying three times the price that their privileged southern sisters pay for first-class merchandise at our fancy Cresta or Cavendish supermarkets.
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On Tuesday the new South African supermarket opens its doors. By Friday, Ndola is dancing to a new tune. The city is galvanised. Everybody has to give service, give value, wake up. On a March visit to a provincial capital, the dinner options are a suspicious unnameable stew on a sweltering dusty roadside, or a two-star menu at a five-star hotel with the seven-star tariff designed for the expense accounts of the aid brigade (who keep the aircon on frigid to remind them of home). In April a South African chain introduces middle-class eating at middle class prices. By July the city is holding its head higher.

Similar processes occur in every industry from brick machines to water meters. Good is being done, no two ways. But then the question the question comes up: “and, er, ahem, how do you handle the matter of adaptation to local mores?” There is a common answer to that question: “Oh, no, no, no. No corruption for us. We know that corruption causes ruin and destruction. We have no part in it, except of course when absolutely necessary.”

There is also the increasingly fashionable answer: “You know, we do have to grow into African ways. The time for arrogance is over now. We must mature into an acceptance that our sectional traditions are not universal.”

Then there is the answer that nobody gives unless he’s absolutely certain you are never going to quote him: “Why should I worry? That country is a total stuff-up anyway. If I can give some guy a million rand and make ten million in return, what do you think?”

Finally there is the still small voice that says: “No, on no account do we do it.” You hear that voice not often, and believe it less often. When you do believe it, perhaps because you know the people concerned especially well and repose in them a special faith, it is jolting indeed to find that the rumour factory is thick with alleged inside tales that place your faith under constant question.

The net result is disappointing, especially at the times that I am revelling in the magnificent welcome that tropical Africa addresses to Seffricans of the paler kind. Tropical Africa addresses magnificent welcomes to most people in most circumstances, but they have an added knack of making the whiteys from “South” as they call it, feel like a long lost brother.

You’re taken as a member of the family – a fairly pushy member, perhaps, rich in annoying habits, but in some way one of us, something more than solely a buccaneer on the profit trail. You’re a curiosity factor as well, and you’re assumed to be – potentially, at least – a handily systematic sort of character, the long lost brother who maintained the household inventory and made sure the insurance premiums were paid.

It’s a delightful combination. Not for nothing does every second SA expat go on and on about being wanted, being needed, being befriended, being loved (in the intervals between going on and on about not being robbed).
corruption

The prospects are wonderful, moving, emotional. A continent actually moving upward, after fifty years of empty talk about moving upward; moving upward and forward and with us, us, the once untouchable white South Africans, in there and part of it, in the engine room, the galley, the bridge, the lot.

Unfortunately that vista gets harder to glimpse as time goes by. Reality intrudes. I look at the heavy hands that RSA brings into the rescue of this or that failing African mine or plant or factory. I look at the hubris “stand aside, mere locals; we’re very friendly, as you see, calling us Jack and Joe and not ‘Bwana’ any more, but we’re in charge again so keep out of our way.” I look at the sickening crass insensitivity; the pulling of rank, sometimes unwitting; the disinterest in learning the barest syllable of even French or Portuguese, let alone Swahili or Hausa; the fervour to adopt every management fad emanating from New York or LA.

The pioneers carrying business to the tropics could and should be our heroes, our champions. Too often they become embarrassments. The many lesser embarrassments could usefully be discussed.

The one big embarrassment is not susceptible to much discussion. A culture of corruption means a pathetic nation; that is no more arguable than that the sun comes up in the east, and a critical mass of pathetic nations means a continued pathetic continent.

There’s sabotage in there.

Some foreign companies that have recently tried to enter Nigeria, like Shell and Halliburton, have apparently been following this well-trodden road to perdition. But there are signs of hope. A few others, like Vodafone, have recently been told by their shareholders to refuse to play at all unless they can play it straight.
halliburton
Ironically, behind the closed doors of our cynical business community, it is Vodafone that gets the most ridicule. Indeed, almost wheresoever two or three businesspersons gather together in South Africa these days, one hears: “Look at these wussies, getting their asses whupped in Nigeria; buncha sissies calling themselves an African company, squealing ‘good governance’ because they’ve come short. What business did they have leaving just because they couldn’t play it straight? ”
Vodafone

Somebody’s got this upside-down. The real question we should be asking of is of those who stayed: “Precisely how did you manage to stay on and keep playing it straight?”

***

© Denis Beckett, SubmergingMarkets™, 2004

June 27, 2004 at 10:20 PM | Permalink

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