This Present Darkness (book review)

As my academic summer break is coming to its end, I am keen on sharing another book review with you.
This Present Darkness: A History of Nigerian Organised Crime
is one of the most extraordinary books I have read in a long time.

The book follows, supported by stunning and meticulously analyzed archival data, about 100 years of Nigerian history through a wide, constantly refocusing lens on ‘organized crime’ from early 1920s mail order scams to the political corruption of the oil boom to today
s cyber scams.

But if you are expecting a journalistic expose filled with juicy details of crime and corruption, a culture-deterministic review of ‘the Nigerians’ and their skills to defraud or steal or a singular narrative blaming things on colonialism and capitalistic natural resource governance you will be pleasantly disappointed.

Stephen Ellis, who passed away shortly after the completion of the manuscript, has been conducting research on the continent since 1971. He asks in his introduction

Can culture be an explanation for such (criminal) behaviour? In any case, how does a specific culture come into being? Didn’t the experience of colonial rule play some part? (p.3)
Throughout the book the reader’s perceptions and answers to these questions will constantly move around from ‘Yes’ to ‘No’ to ‘Maybe’. There are just so many shades of grey and so many nuances that make blanket generalizations impossible.

Pre-independence: ‘Nigeria’s economic life became politicized not so much through the imposition of colonial rule as the manner of its withdrawal’
At the end of chapter 3 (p.59) we have already been exposed to an intricate web of (non-) governance since the early days of the 20th century. An intricate web of customs, culture, religion and spiritualism, secret societies, colonial rule and the emergence of a new local political elite all play their part in forming Nigerian society.

Right from the beginning, Ellis captures the reader’s attention by challenging our conventional notions of (organized) crime. Take the story of an impersonator of a District Governor for example:

A benevolent way of interpreting this incident was that a shrine priest was simply trying to continue his traditional authority in a new guise, which required a claim that he represented the colonial government (…). But one could also consider such a person to be a charlatan or a confidence trickster, a breed that could flourish in Nigeria as people learned to manipulate the symbols of colonial authority (p.18).
Neither are these ‘victimless crimes’, nor does Ellis suggest at any point to romanticize traditional practices, but they are re-shaped with all the paradoxes of ‘modernity’.
As higher education expands, secret societies enter universities; a new group of professional politicians emerge who found it ‘often hard to distinguish their personal financial ambitions from their political goals’ (p.52); and as colonial rule came to a close there was a ‘kind of diffuse, unregulated scramble stemming from fluidity of the social structures and the absence of efficient organisation’ (p.55).

So first and foremost, the organized crime in pre-independence days was as much driven by human aspirations, as it was a response to colonial rule-as well as the disappearance of it.

Independence: ‘Political corruption spread…
…from the official sphere into wider circles of daily life, making law-breaking a routine practice detached from any particular moral opprobrium for substantial numbers of people’ (p.75).

The opportunities of independence, together with weak local governance create new opportunities for criminal activities, leading to a sad and toxic mix of the military coups of the late 1960s and the Biafra war which created ‘great opportunities for profiteering and corruption’ (p.87) fueled by the increasing importance of and wealth from oil production.

The oil boom of the 1970s fueled growth in all sector of society, including the military, but also higher education, for example. And when ‘hundreds of thousands of new graduates’ were unable to find opportunities, the rulers

regarded the emigration of young Nigerians overseas as a useful safety-valve. So began Nigeria’s bran-drain, but also its reputation as the heart of a criminal diaspora (p.114).
Guns, oil and drugs: The globalization of crime
The processes we commonly refer to as ‘globalization’ and that started around the mid- to late-1980s found keen Nigerian criminal enterprises-and vice versa.
Participating in the narcotics trade from South America, upgrading the ‘four-one-nine’ mail or wire fraud (predecessor to contemporary E-Mail spam messages), expanding trafficking of women mainly to Italy and the ascent of dubious financial off-shore deals met a Nigerian elite, a growing diaspora and many ordinary people who had been exposed to criminal activities and corruption for all their lives.

Add an oil price windfall from the first Gulf War (More than 12 billion dollars seem to have passed through special accounts of President Babangida) and the scene was set for Sani Abacha who managed to divert another 2 billion dollars in his five-year rule from 1993-1998.

In October 2006, Nuhu Ribadu, director of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, estimated that Nigerian governments since 1960 had stolen or wasted over 380 billion dollars’ (p.153).
And even as Ellis never loses sight of the enablers and supporters whether they are sitting in the offices of financial services in London or the global oil industry, the globalization of crime met large oligarchic and smaller secret society crooked cogs in the criminal machinery of state and society at home in Nigeria.

Cyber-crime and mystical power-new and old sources of criminal wealth
In the 2000s the state of crime is still sobering, even as the days of the most corrupt leaders ended with the death of Sani Abacha in 1998.
Most armed robberies suspects are students of one of the hundreds of tertiary institutions, 10s of thousands of cyber-crime attempts have a Nigeria origin and there are now an estimated 20-30.000 women working as sex workers in Italy. Yet still most of these aspects of globalized organized crime have very traditional, historical Nigerian roots:

Houston oil men and Washington bureaucrats struggle to understand how the world price of oil can be affected by the antics of Niger Delta warlords sporting juju amulets as well as AK-47s (p.195).
Why Nigerians? Why Nigeria?
In his concluding chapter Ellis attempts a summary, as always merging local history and global dynamics. He looks at state crime, for example:

From the implementation of Indirect Rule until today, much of the routine law-breaking by state officials that has gone under the general name of corruption has come to constitute the fabric of the state itself (p.219).
But behind the ‘fabric of the state’ are individuals who often ‘simultaneously condemn (state corruption) and aspire to profit from it’ (p.219). It happens in a context where the ‘administration of justice was inseparable from religion, whether in the form of Islam or that of the shrines and oracles’ (p.220), where leaders resorted to coups and violence and where oil money exacerbated traditional bonds and ruptures around community and wealth.

In the end, Ellis is careful not to buy into a simple globally organized crime narrative with Nigerians at the heart which ‘underestimates the degree to which business, organised crime and politics have become integrated through their mutual interests’ (p.229).
But he does not let individuals off the hook by defending themselves that today’s crimes are somehow rectifying past wrongs and are justified by historical, colonial, pre-modern developments.

He also stressed the local-global connection throughout history:

Nigerian practices of organised crime notably in the regard to fraud and embezzlement were well developed locally just at the point where global criminal activity exploded in the late twentieth century, with a profusion of new markets (p.230).
In going back to the his questions from the introduction, Ellis attempts an answer, leaving the reader with a final question, rather than a full ‘explanation’:
Nigerian organised crime is not created by culture, but it does arise from particular history.
Where else could it possibly come from? (p.230).
Read this book!
Add it to reading lists of your courses as an exemplary case study of how history, ‘development’ and globalization ‘work’. Recommend it to colleagues who are interested in historical narratives that are well researched and richly illustrated with examples and yet can claim to tell history-in this case the history of Nigeria-in a way that respects places and people and leaves everybody who engages with the book a wiser person!

Ellis, Stephen: This Present Darkness: A History of Nigerian Organised Crime. ISBN 978-1-849-04630-5, 313 pages, 20 GBP, Hurst, London, 2016.


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