Gordon Brown and Omar Bongo

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?

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5 Responses to Gordon Brown and Omar Bongo

  1. jfruh says:

    During the parade of nations in last summer’s Olympics (which I watched all the way through — yes, I am a huge dork), I was actually particularly struck by the chatter when Team Gabon walked in. Obviously the sportscasters have to come up with something interesting to say about all 200+ countries and territories, which can get dicey; but when they saw Gabon, Bob Costas said “Every four years when we prepare for this job, we check to see if Omar Bongo is still President of Gabon, and every four years he still is,” and then riffed on that for a minute or so. It actually got a little uncomfortably “Oh those Africans and their wacky dictators,” exacerbated by his name being inherently funny to English speakers (at one point they referred to him as “the wily Bongo”).

    Sadly, this was the first thing I thought of when I heard about Bongo’s death. I’m vaguely interested to see if they’ll mention it in 2012.

  2. kwame says:

    Most of your article does a good job of shortening the yardstick between Bongo and Brown. But then why start with “I hope it hurt a bit”? Black people in America have been, in real terms, sub-human and then, slightly better, second class citizens right up until the Equal Employment Opportunity Act was passed in the early 1970s. My mother remembers Jim Crow vividly. So, yes, as you indicate there is a vast difference in “scale,” but I think you tilt the scale in the wrong direction. If we Americans were to look at the issue of “corruption” more comprehensibly (annihilation of the “Natives,” Slavery, Manifest Destiny, imperialism, assassinations of foreign leaders, Jim Crow, prison industrial complex, redlining and so on, it would be clear that any American president has been worse than 10 Bongos. k

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Oh, I can think of other people whose deaths I wouldn’t really mourn that much.

    I do agree that “corruption” is defined very narrowly and myopically in many respects. Think about settler states with strong color bars in employment: what is that, by liberal standards, but corruption, e.g., privileging people not because of their skills or talents but because of a kin-like connection through race. Somehow when the media conceptualizes corruption, it becomes strictly postcolonial and a characteristic problem of poor societies, rather than a wide range of illiberal governance and economic practices that have a deep history and wide distribution.

    On a slightly separate track, I’ve thought occasionally of trying to compare South Africa’s current political turmoil with that of the U.S. after the creation of the Constitution, to inject a bit of proportionality into the reaction that some people have. Think of the viciousness of the political struggle between Adams and Jefferson and maybe Mbeki and Zuma don’t look so extraordinary. Think of the Alien and Sedition Act and maybe the democratic character of American governance doesn’t look so established at that point. The problem with the comparison though is its typical teleology: the West did something first, now Africa undergoes the same history on the same track. This is 2009, not 1800, so things play out differently now. Still, the comparison does maybe help to put some of the political struggles of the moment into perspective of some kind.

  4. NadavT says:

    Oh man, was this a depressing read. Turns out, the only thing more disheartening than considering the governance problems in Africa is realizing that Africa’s problems are not at all unique to Africa. Isn’t there some silver lining we can cling to?

  5. Doug says:

    “why should anyone suppose that fringe parties would not quickly find ways to spend public funds on their own follies”

    The experience of fringe parties in German state parliaments is that they find ways to spend public funds on their own follies even more quickly than the larger, established parties.

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