About the only thing I can say about Omar Bongo being dead is, “I hope it hurt a bit”. You can’t even say, “Thank goodness that’s over”, because his death won’t change much if anything about the way that the Gabonese state operates.
The fight against corruption in Africa is ebbing, says the New York Times. Not surprising, since much of that fight at the Times sees it has involved a scattering of government officials in isolated departments who were installed in office in part to comply with the vogue for “good governance” in development circles. No matter how dedicated such authorities have been, changing the culture of governmental power and state-society relations is beyond their grasp. The flow of money and power into postcolonial African states from institutional donors, international organizations, outside states seeking influence or resources and companies seeking contracts for extractive enterprise doesn’t really depend on compliance with anti-corruption dictates. Any African elite dependent on that flow knows that the development industry sticks with a particular idea about conditionality for no more than a decade. There are careers to be made off of new policy formations, and past failures are perpetually recuperable as tomorrow’s new and improved approaches.
There is little genuine pressure from below or above within most African societies to change the practice of governance. From below because everyday life is influenced by the state either in the weakest of ways or through dramatic if arbitrary violence. From above because few postcolonial African societies have an elite whose interests stand at a distance from the state: anything that might check or inhibit the state’s ability to extract resources from the global system directly impinges on elites themselves. Look at Gabon. It’s hard to imagine where a serious attempt to transform the social order might come from, save a thin sliver of educated elites with an interest in a more conventionally liberal kind of state, the kind of people who are easy to imprison, intimidate, compromise or exile. Bongo and his associates have had an enhanced ability to buy off any social unrest with oil revenues, but the basic distance between the everyday life of rural and urban people and the attenuated operations of a storefront sovereignty is the same in Gabon as it is across much of the continent.
But it’s also hard to take corruption-fighting ministries too seriously in Africa because as with so many things, what the West imposes on Africa it does not impose upon itself. The bailouts of the last six months are only one example. Corruption is a structural part of the modern state everywhere, not just in Africa. There are big differences in scale (in several respects) between sucking off tax revenues to pay for moat-cleaning in the UK and the Bongo family’s extravagances, but also some strong resemblances.
Everywhere the liberal idea of the state is at least in malaise, if not active crisis. Its problems are old, and so is the conversation about those problems. Is the tendency of modern political classes to become more and more self-aggrandizing a cyclical one that is interrupted and corrected by strong legal and constitutional safeguards, checked and balanced? Or have political elites since 1975, even in relatively liberal and democratic states, become more and more protected from social and political restraints? I tend to think that it’s more the latter than the former despite some notable exceptions and complications. It’s hard to believe that anybody now could have the kind of credulous faith in the nation-state as an administrative or managerial institution that was sometimes expressed earlier in the 20th Century. (Even in dystopian terms: one of the brilliant touches of Gilliam’s film Brazil was that dystopia, too, should be imagined as corrupt and inefficient rather than the perfect machine of Orwell’s envisioning.)
You get a sense of how professional and managerial elites anywhere, not just Gabon, struggle with their relationship to the political classes, by watching the punditry coming out of the UK in the last week. Look at the fatuous tone of the Economist in the past week, for example. Much tut-tutting about the horrible misjudgement of British parliamentarians, and wishing for the stables to be swept clean of all the muck. But also fretting about how it would be a bad thing to hold an election where the expense accounts were the main issue, much concern that a freakshow side-tent might become the center ring. That’s not the Economist alone: you can find echoes of that double-gesture in punditry left and right.
In fact, that’s a realistic response in some sense, because there are no untainted parties to vote for that are not otherwise tainted by their ideology–and besides, given how systematic the abuses of the current political class are, why should anyone suppose that fringe parties would not quickly find ways to spend public funds on their own follies?
The taint runs deeper too than elected officials and bureaucratic elites, whether we’re talking the UK, the US, Gabon or anywhere else you care to name. If the fury that people feel is curiously unlikely to be more than fuel for conversational righteousness over a pint or two, it’s because most folk know that few of us are more than a few degrees separated from practices and behavior that some pitiless observer might name as corrupt, and few of us are more than a few degrees distant from some kind of largesse distributed by the state or by equally powerful civic institutions. I remember a conversation in a decaying post-industrial small city in New England a few years back. One woman I was talking with had just retired from nursing. She bitterly complained about African-American “welfare cheats” but then ten minutes later talked about how she got a doctor to falsely attest that she was looking for work so that she could claim unemployment benefits, which she felt was her right. It’s always the other guy, but it’s hard to think of a way to stop the other guy that doesn’t create a new bridge for bureaucrat-trolls to hide under and demand some price from those who want to clip-clop across it.
But how could there be a better or more powerful basis for voting in the UK than the expense-account scandal? Those who counsel that an election should be fought over “real issues” are missing the point. None of the real issues matter if you’re voting for a political class that cares little for delivering anything meaningful on those issues. (If you promise “change”, that had better not stop with “not appointing flaming incompetents to positions of authority”.) How else can political classes be made to feel the murmur of a threat to their position if there are no consequences for systematic misrule? How can we recognize the distributed costs of corruption to our human possibilities if not by making corruption the center of public attention?