If you ever use the Internet, then you have at some point received a fraudulent email purporting to offer you huge sums of money if you will assist the sender in some crackpot scheme, and commonly, these missives have some kind of Nigerian context. If you shake your head in puzzlement that the scam artists put so little effort into giving a shred of plausibility to their efforts, you are missing the point. The blatant stupidity of the emails is in fact an integral part of the business plan, a tactic designed to winnow out any smart or critical consumers, thus ensuring that anyone who does respond is likely to be none too bright. And today, how can any informed person not know that Nigeria is close to synonymous with fraud and criminality? Across Europe, and many other regions where the country’s migrants roam, mass media usage links the very word “Nigerian” to crime, theft and drug-dealing.
Obviously, such a monstrously unfair stereotype is a grotesque insult to the people of this country with its 180 million citizens, the majority of whom are both law-abiding and deeply religious. Within a few decades, Nigeria will have one of the world’s largest and most fervent Christian populations while at the same time being equally prominent on the Muslim world stage. Nevertheless, Nigerian criminal organizations and syndicates unquestionably do operate on a vast scale, and are thoroughly globalized. What are the roots of this criminality, and—more intriguingly—how does that relate to the vigorous religious traditions? Those questions drive This Present Darkness, which is tragically the last book by the deeply respected Africanist Stephen Ellis, who died before its publication.
Before describing the Nigerian setting too extensively, it is essential to trace the fundamental concept of “organized crime,” which owes so much to American conditions and debates. Through the 20th century, much American writing on organized crime focused on the activities of Italian gangsters and their allies, who were variously described as the Mafia or La Cosa Nostra. In the 1970s, ethnic sensitivities made these terms politically toxic, leading officials and media to use the term “organized crime” but generally referring to the same cast of characters. (The dread Mafia name was all but absent even from the Godfather films). According to the official image, America’s criminal élite was an Italian-dominated national syndicate with its own distinctive structures and hierarchies, its titles and rituals. That Mafia model was subsequently applied to other more recently emerging traditions, such as the Mexican or Russian Mafias.
Critical scholars challenged this picture in many ways, notably by stressing that other ethnic groups had always been involved in the history of American crime. Some, like the Jewish and Irish syndicates, had been very powerful indeed, however systematically their activities had been underplayed in what was termed the “Mafia Mythology.” Instead of ethnicity, left-leaning critical scholars stressed the role of official corruption and malfeasance. If (for instance) Gotham City was in the hands of racketeers, that was not because it had been infiltrated by conspiratorial Italian brotherhoods, but rather because the local political and law enforcement establishment had granted a franchise to run profitable illegal enterprises. Depending on external pressures and media exposés, the same establishment might on occasion choose to purge highly visible and notorious gangsters, but the underlying system remained unchanged generation after generation. Right up to quite modern times, crime syndicates were an essential component of the political machines that ran American cities, and they were crucial to mobilizing the vote. Muckrakers often spoke of city government in terms of a “politico-gambler-police tie-up.”
Viewed closely, organized crime activities look less like random sadistic mayhem and much more like regular business enterprises, and they can be analyzed in the same ways. Throughout American history, those activities have responded to public needs and appetites that, for various reasons, could not be satisfied within the existing legal framework. As those services were so popular, or at least not universally condemned (as with gambling, drugs, or sexual vice), law enforcement agencies knew that little was to be gained by suppressing them rigorously, so they might as well be tolerated – for a price. Many of these activities are clearly mala prohibita offenses, illegal in some eras and regions but not others, and some of the classic specialties of organized crime have now become profitable legal enterprises run with state involvement. Witness the very popular lotteries that have replaced old-style numbers rackets, not to mention widespread casino gambling. Payday loan stores legalize loansharking. Marijuana legalization is an ever more popular cause.
Within the legitimate business world, organized crime generally serves a functional role, eliminating or lubricating potential obstacles, and in some contexts gangsters become almost essential allies of mainstream firms. Organized criminals, overwhelmingly, are rational and opportunistic, although violence is an ineradicable part of their world. The main problem with the illicit business enterprise in which they are engaged is that agreements and contracts cannot be subject to courts or litigation, and must instead be enforced through violence, real or threatened. Violence is especially likely within a highly fragmented and contentious environment, without a single overarching “syndicate” in control.
Organized criminality, then, is best seen as a subset of mainstream capitalist enterprise, albeit a parasitical one, and it must be understood in the context of government and bureaucracy. Some services need to be supplied, and if they can’t be offered legally, they will be performed outside the law. The weaker the state mechanism, the greater the need for unofficial organizations to provide alternatives. Any credible account of organized crime, then, must be fundamentally concerned with those issues of economic power, legality and bureaucracy. Stories of heists, massacres, and gang wars might make for entertaining reading, but they come nowhere close to the heart of the matter.
All of which is to say that if anyone was to write the history of American organized crime in terms of Italian culture or, still more absurd, the “Italian Character,” such accounts would be ludicrously wrong. And the same would be true of the “Nigerian culture” that is sometimes adduced to explain the prominence of that country’s nationals in illicit activities worldwide. Stephen Ellis begins with that basic question, and shows expertly how the criminality arises not just from the misdeeds of any one administration, or the organizational genius of one African Al Capone, but must rather be understood in the broad framework of Nigerian history. To varying degrees, his study shows the importance of all the themes that we have witnessed in the classic American literature—especially the centrality of official power and bureaucracy and the core issue of state weakness.
Because those themes of culture and corruption are so deeply laid, Ellis’s book is necessarily a history of the formation of the Nigerian state. He traces early manifestations of fraud and criminality, which were quite common in a famously entrepreneurial society. Criminality moved to a much higher plane as the country edged towards independence in 1960, and politicians increasingly granted contracts in exchange for kickbacks. The public sphere came to be viewed as projection onto the national stage of the traditional village community, “based on institutions and practices that are indigenous . . . intimately bound up with kinship and ethnicity.” The new state scarcely even made a gesture toward creating a Weberian rational-bureaucratic order. Political relationships were personal and reciprocal—and emphatically, for profit.
Throughout the country’s history, political party leaders and crooked business figures have worked intimately with élites in the military and law enforcement, using ruthless violence against those who opposed them. As those methods became thoroughly familiar and mainstream, they shaped expectations at all levels of society, and Nigeria became a textbook example of “kleptocracy”—government by thieves. The effects of this system can be witnessed in the disastrous inadequacy of infrastructure in all parts of the country, as government scarcely even makes a show of fulfilling its allotted functions.
Aggravating the ethical crisis was the immense prosperity derived from oil. At first glance, oil should have provided Nigerians with a ticket to First World prosperity, but as has often been remarked elsewhere, becoming a petro-state is a very mixed blessing. Oil resources added immensely to the potential spoils of official corruption. In 2013, one estimate held that around ten percent of the country’s oil production was diverted for private gain, almost seven billion dollars a year, but most knowledgeable observers scoffed at such a low figure.
The central fact in understanding “Nigerian organized crime” is the extreme inadequacy of the formal state, and the (justifiable) public contempt in which it is held. Persistent misgovernment has resulted in mass poverty and desperation, forcing ordinary people to venture outside the law to achieve simple survival. As a vampiric élite battened upon the nation’s wealth, educated and enterprising younger people were increasingly driven to seek their fortunes overseas, and most did their honest best to advance through legitimate means. For a minority, though, the riches to be won through criminal enterprise proved enormously tempting, and the global nature of the Nigerian Diaspora offered wonderful opportunities for illicit transnational commerce—in drugs, most famously, but also in gold, guns, and women. Sophisticated younger people also became adept at cyber-crime. These international criminal enterprises were intimately allied with gangsters in the homeland, but also with Nigerian bureaucrats, police officials and army officers. Western media routinely spoke of “Nigerian Mafias,” again wrongly blaming the crimes on national character rather than stressing the political and economic context. As Ellis says, “Nigerian organized crime is not created by culture, but it does arise from a particular history.”
The failure of government has major implications for religious attitudes and behaviors. For some, the perceived betrayal by secular authority reawakens interest in theocratic alternatives, as we see in the support for Sharia law in northern Muslim states—and even for the extremism of Boko Haram. More generally, the fact that government cannot do things drives people into the arms of the relatively efficient and honest agencies who actually might offer goods and services, and that chiefly means the churches. As throughout Africa, Nigerian churches succeed in part by supplying the means of education, health, and welfare that Euro-Americans regard as basic state functions. Like the country’s criminality, Nigerian religiosity represents a response to a justifiable sense of despair at secular government.
Ellis was always deeply interested in religious aspects of African life, and that theme often surfaces here. Only an author so totally free of racial stereotypes himself would think to offer a title like This Present Darkness to a book about African criminality, without a thought that anyone else might take that in a racial sense. He is of course using the spiritual warfare text from Ephesians, which is so popular in African churches, and he has plenty of “darkness” to discuss. In a characteristically excellent chapter on “Cosmic Powers,” Ellis shows the devotion of Nigerian gangsters and criminals to sinister spiritual powers, to primal deities, but also to weird semi-Christian cults. Rather like Mexico’s Santa Muerte, these purely amoral forces offer protection and rewards in even the bloodiest enterprises. A common belief holds that wealth is the reward for the proper use of spiritual forces: “This reinforces the eminently reasonable supposition that hidden mafias and cults have the power to give wealth to those they favor.” But as remarked, those mafias and cults can only exist as long as they serve the existence of officialdom.
This is a very rewarding book for anyone interested in the state of Africa, past or present, or in the nature of organized criminality and corruption. Most troublingly, perhaps, it demonstrates the immense structural obstacles facing any group or individual seeking to challenge official corruption. So many of its lessons are highly applicable to other countries around the world, including some critical to American security. An extended comparison between Ellis’s Nigeria and contemporary Mexico or Russia would be wonderfully enlightening.
Having said all that, This Present Darkness is a difficult book to read, explaining as it does the grim prospects facing a great people and (potentially) a great nation.