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283 Nigeria has a widespread reputation as a corrupt country. Some years ago it appeared at the top of Transparency International’s list of the most corrupt countries, and it continues to be regarded as a bastion of fraud, graft, and deceit. This image of Nigeria coincides with an era in which corruption is a common explanation for political and economic disappointments in Africa and in much of the developing world. In the language of cause and effect, corruption is often portrayed as an independent variable inhibiting the desired and supposedly dependent outcomes of democracy and development . The view that corruption is a problem in and of itself is prevalent and powerful. Despite this widespread perception, scholars have long recognized that corruption is as much a product of political and economic problems as it is their cause.While corruption is typically studied from the top down with a focus on the state, a perspective that privileges the everyday lives of ordinary people offers different and important insights. Looking at corruption from the bottom up reveals the complex ways in which this phenomenon is woven into the fabric of political and economic life—part and parcel of both the maintenance of social inequality and the struggles to respond to it. This chapter conveys the advantages of looking at corruption ethnographically, as a lens through which to understand processes of social change in Nigeria, and arguably in other societies as well. For many years, my affection for Nigeria, my attachment to friends and colleagues there, and my intellectual orientation as an anthropologist prevented me from approaching corruption as an object of scholarship.1 Writing about corruption in Africa runs the risk of perpetuating common Western misrepresentations of the continent. However, Nigerian citizens exhibit an intense preoccupation with their country’s corruption, which suggests that simply 11 The Paradoxes of Popular Participation in Corruption in Nigeria daniel jordan smith 11 0328-0 ch11.qxd 7/15/09 3:50 PM Page 283 284 Daniel Jordan Smith countering negative images obscures important questions. Nigeria is rife with corruption, and no one is more aware of this reality than ordinary Nigerians. This chapter examines the various ways that Nigerians are fixated on and passionate about corrupt practices. Instead of trying to minimize the significance of Nigeria’s notorious problem, I have increasingly realized that explaining corruption is central to understanding the very fabric of Nigerian society.2 Many of the ethnographic examples here come from southeastern Nigeria —the Igbo-speaking region. However, the kinds of everyday corruption that I describe are not unique to the Igbo or to the Southeast. Indeed, part of my argument is that corruption and the discourses that it produces are central to the way that Nigerians—and arguably people in many postcolonial contexts—experience and understand the relationship between state and society. The central issue addressed in this chapter is how ordinary Nigerians can be, paradoxically, active participants in the social reproduction of corruption , even as they are also its primary victims and its principal critics. Understanding Nigerians’ seemingly contradictory positions requires situating corruption in its political, social-relational, and moral contexts. For Nigerians, corruption can be, on the one hand, a survival strategy and a moral imperative , and, on the other hand, a political ruse to be condemned for its deception and venality. Corruption, in its many valences in Nigeria, is a potent stimulus for cultural production, both as a means for corruption’s pursuit and as a method to combat its consequences. The contradictions of corruption both mirror and explain Nigerians’ growing expectations of and frustrated aspirations for democracy and development. Scholars have offered analyses that contribute to explaining why ordinary Africans participate in corruption that can be inimical to their own interests .3 In a seminal article, Ekeh examined corruption in Africa in terms of “two publics,”one moral and rooted in ties to kin-group and community of origin, and the other amoral, a legacy of institutions imposed under colonialism.4 While Ekeh’s notion of two publics is analytically useful, in practice the two publics overlap and interpenetrate (and I would go further to suggest that the domains of public and private intertwine as well). The realms of kinship and the state are mutually implicated in a political economy that is organized around patron-clientism, in which people rely on kin, on people of the same community of origin, and on other hierarchically organized social ties of affection and obligation for assistance. To understand the...


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