Podium: A continent infected with corruption

Stephen Ellis From a speech by the Dutch academic to the Royal African Society of the University of London
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CRIMINALS ARE people who break the criminal law. But what happens when people pledged to execute the laws of a country - policemen, officials, cabinet ministers, heads of state even - themselves contravene this same legal code massively and repeatedly? I am referring here not to misconduct of the type alleged against President Clinton in the Starr report, but to such major crimes as large-scale fraud, drug-trafficking, the counterfeiting of currency, and murder or incitement to murder.

In recent years it has become clear that this is a question which anyone observing Africa has to think about. But the phenomenon which I am calling the criminalisation of the state is not by any means unique to Africa. There are other places where the apparatus of the state has been used for criminal purposes on a scale greater than anything seen in Africa, and where professional criminals may have assumed senior positions in government. Russia and Mexico spring to mind. In Europe, Italy has some of the hallmarks of a criminalised state.

Africa stands out only in that, of all the continents, it is the one in which the state as an organisation capable of upholding a monopoly of legitimate violence has declined the furthest and where, in some respects, the interaction of state and society can be studied more fruitfully in this regard than elsewhere.

Let me be slightly more specific about what I mean when I speak of senior state officials who break the laws they are pledged to uphold. Concentrating only on Africa, we might consider first the recruitment by government ministers - or simply by friends and relatives of the president, as happened at the time of the genocide in Rwanda - of private armies, or the use of official armies and security forces for purely private purposes.

This has taken on the most tragic proportions in the Great Lakes region of Africa. It is hard to imagine any crime more serious than the use of organised violence, including large-scale murder, by private persons or for private purposes. It challenges the core of modern ideas about what a state is and what it is for.

Secondly, the engagement of state officials in major forms of illegal trade, such as drug-smuggling. This has occurred in several African countries, such as Equatorial Guinea, where some 20 diplomats have been arrested abroad carrying cocaine or heroin in the past 10 years, most of them close to senior ministers or to the presidency. Many of the culprits were promoted on being expelled from their countries of accreditation. Of all African countries, Nigeria has gained the greatest reputation in the drug trade.

We should also look at the counterfeiting of the national currency by the head of state, such as was done in Kenya in the early Nineties, and the involvement of senior officials, including of the central bank, in major financial frauds or money-laundering schemes, such as has been recorded in Nigeria, Cameroon and Kenya.

The contravention of the national law by officials who, in theory, are required to play a central role in upholding their own national laws, sometimes up to and including the head of state, has become sufficiently common for us to need to think seriously about some of the implications. Elements of this can be seen not only in the countries I have mentioned but also in such major powers as China and India. Clearly we are talking about something different from what is most widely regarded as corruption, that is, an official soliciting a bribe for some service or taking a percentage of a public works contract. We could almost call that "classical" corruption. Corruption implies deviation from a set of norms or laws. But when such activity is blatant and systematic (and involves those required to uphold such norms or laws) it can hardly be regarded as a deviation; rather, it has become the norm in every respect except the letter of the law.

It is apparent that the stuff of power - the accumulation of wealth and the control of legitimate coercion - is closely related to both politics and crime. A politician and a pirate resemble each other quite closely (which does not mean that it is impossible to distinguish between them). I am by no means the first person to point this out (in fact, it is mentioned by that great African intellectual, Saint Augustine). But it is a lesson that is well worth relearning if we are to understand the modern world. We need to understand the accumulation of wealth and power in its historical context rather than to prefer to believe, as we characteristically do at present, that these are temporary deviations from a norm of good governance which is destined to take over the world.