Academic journal article African Studies Review

A Culture of Corruption: Everyday Deception and Popular Discontent in Nigeria

Academic journal article African Studies Review

A Culture of Corruption: Everyday Deception and Popular Discontent in Nigeria

Article excerpt

ANTHROPOLOGY AND SOCIOLOGY Daniel Jordan Smith. A Culture of Corruption: Everyday Deception and Popular Discontent in Nigeria. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. xxiii + 263 pp. Photographs. Notes. Appendix. Bibliography. Index. $27.95. Cloth.

There is a paradoxical politics to the study of corruption in Africa: one that oscillates between paternalism and caricature, on the one hand, and justification and expose, on the other-and one that also requires considerable intellectual diplomacy. African scholars may be tired of Western accusations of corrupt leadership and business practices, but they are equally frustrated with long-winded arguments that let corrupt leaders and malefactors off the hook. How do we navigate the embedded dialectics of history, structure, and agency to explain the varieties of corruption in postcolonial societies? How do we define a space of critical analysis that informs a "culture" of corruption?

Daniel Jordan Smith rises to this challenge with extraordinary insight and sensitivity in his study of the Nigerian arts of dissimulation. First, I must note the richness of ethnographic description and detail in Smith's engaging account of everyday deception, known as "419," "advance fee fraud," and "the Nigerian factor" in Africa and beyond. Smith has spent more than six years in Nigeria, and his cultural competence within Igboland (where he has affines) and within the broader mix of cosmopolitan cities (where a Nigerian national culture is more apparent) jumps off of nearly every page. On empirical grounds alone, Smith provides the most thorough survey of "419" confidence tricks to date, ranging from the dense regional sociology of Owerri to the global highways of the Internet, where the "419" has flourished during the last eight years.

Second, his study provides us with local understandings of state power and patronage within the context of the Nigerian petrostate, where the imperatives of national development and ethnic clientage are so often at odds. Less an ethnography of the state, as he says, than an ethnography of popular discourses and perceptions of the state, his study explores a popular imagination that is indeed transethnic and in constant negotiation. Rumors of hidden conspiracies within the inner corridors of government, ritual kidnappings and murders, kinship obligations extending into official offices and ministries, empty mansions of first ladies, ideas of entitlement to the national cake, and the sheer symbology of government limousines, protocols, and official insignia all inform pervasive idioms of state power as seen from below. …

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