Of corruption and organised crime
What is the most scary thing you have ever read in a book? In the course of reading two books recently, I came across the most scary narrative that I have ever read. The two books are This Present Darkness: A History of Nigerian Organised Crime by Stephen Ellis and published by Jacana Media of Johannesburg in 2016; and The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia by Mark Galeotti and published by Yale University Press of New Haven and London. It was in the second book that I came across the scary story that will haunt my imagination forever.
The title of the first book is taken from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians: For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Professor Stephen Ellis (d. 2015) has a section in the introduction to the book called “How to read this book.” It is in that section of the introduction that the following statement is made: “Most Nigerian practices of organised crime, including document fraud, embezzlement and large-scale smuggling, originate in politics and the state itself, or at least have important and durable connections to the state.”
This book has many incredible details about Nigeria’s Organised Crime. In the first place he places the origin of 419 in a 1920 letter of demand by a self-styled Professor of Wonders. He was tried and sent to jail. Another claim of the author is that it was the prevalence of fraud and embezzlement and illicit violence that led to the first military coup d’etat in Nigeria.
All through the book Crime and politics are link as if they are born one out of the other, like mother and child. Chapters have titles like “Rules of Law”, “Enter Politicians”, “The National Cake”, “Men in Uniform” and “The Business of Crime”. Chapter 8 is perhaps the most provocative being entitled “Godfathers: Babangida . . . and Another Criminal Arrives”.
Professor Ellis was a historian of African politics from Liberia to apartheid South Africa and the 419ners of Nigeria. He was fascinated by spirituality and the psychological in politics and everyday life. I have come to the conclusion that this is not a book about Organised Crime in Nigeria.
‘The UN Office on Drugs and Crime identified five main types of Organised Crime grouping: Standard hierarchy, Regional hierarchy, Clustered hierarchy, Core group and Criminal network.’ (Results of a pilot survey of forty selected Organised criminal Groups in Sixteen Countries, Vienna: United Nations, 2002).
Most of the crimes and corruption in Nigeria are opportunistic and individual and individualistic. Infrastructural underdevelopment and chaos affects legitimate business as well as Crime business. The industrial level corruption of the South African state capture model are still to be dreamed of in Nigeria. The ghost worker menace is the nearest that Nigeria has to a crime that keeps on giving, month after month.
The second book about Russia’s Super Mafia hit me with its stories on many levels but only two will matter here: the scary story and my trip to the then Soviet Union. But let’s begin with two quotes one each from two former presidents of the Russia: “No one lives on wages alone. I remember in my youth we earned money by unloading railroad freight cars. So, what did we do? For every three crates or bags unloaded we’d take one for ourselves.
That’s how everybody in the country lives.” Leonid Brezhnev. The second quote is: “Russia is becoming a super power of crime.” Boris Yeltsin, 1994.
Here then, in the history of Russia before the Soviet system and since the collapse of that system. Here you find Slavic gangs and Chechen gangs and Ukrainian gangs as well as the Far Eastern Association of Thieves proudly display their personal histories of crime and prison sentences served carved in tattoos on their body. Not only that. Over the decades, under the tsars and later under the rulers of the Soviet Union criminals were used by governments for one thing or another. At some times organised crime lived as an alternative to the normal world of law and order. At other times, organised crime gangs lived the life of governments. There is nothing in Nigerian criminality as yet to compare with this.
In 1983 I made a two-month trip to the Soviet Union at the invitation of the Soviet Writers Union travelling from Murmansk in the Arctic Region to Tashkent in Uzbekistan. I was looking at Theatre houses in major towns. My sense of shame comes from the fact that I had no inkling that in less than ten years the whole Soviet edifice would collapse. Instead I was elated and crowed to anybody who would listen that I had seen the future and it worked!
Was I in Tashkent when the Uzbek Cotton Scam scandal broke in 1983? The general se restart of the communist party of Uzbekistan fooled the Soviet Union to the tune of three billion roubles pretending to be delivering six million tons of cotton from the improved cotton fields of Uzbekistan. Cotton that was never planted, never harvested from fields and farms that did not exist was delivered and paid for by Moscow.
After the death of Brezhnev in 1982, Andropov who succeeded him sent spy satellite planes over Uzbekistan to confirm that those cotton fields did not exist.
The Gulag were a series of prisons in Siberia from which nobody escaped not because of the security or anything. The sheer expanse of the ice bound land had no settlements and no huts or villages from which escapees could beg or steal food for survival. The few who escaped persuaded another prisoner to escape with them. So the escaping criminal takes his future food with him. This is because the person he has persuaded to escape with him would be his meals of survival during the weeks of escape until he reached civilisation. At some point he would kill this companion and feed on his meat. This was the only way to escape from the Siberian Gulag prison and survive. Scary!