It’s February 2015 and I am in Kano, northern Nigeria. Not three months back, in the midst of Friday prayers, Boko Haram struck the Grand Mosque in the old fortress-like centre of town. The dead and the bloodied lay strewn in their hundreds across the public square.

I’m sitting with some lawyers – a prosecutor, the chairman of the state bar association and a court administrator – trying to work out the mechanics of corruption in the justice sector, in this most corrupt of countries. We’re talking details: how judges rarely demand bribes directly, their clerks collect the money; and how lawyers collude, blaming judicial corruption for the extra fees they pocket.

“Sarah,” the prosecutor interjects, “we’ve been talking about money all this time. But this isn’t just about money …”

I wait.

“The saying goes,” he resumes awkwardly, “if you want to win your case, go to the judge with a beautiful girl.”1

I’m stopped cold. I imagine the girl. She may be 14 or 15. She returns home from school each day with her friends, the white veils of their school uniforms fluttering like matched plumage. I picture the glistening eyes of some overfed judge as he reaches for her. My stomach turns.

Abruptly another image comes to mind: the girl’s brother, a lanky young Nigerian man. Already disillusioned, he is pushed right over the edge. He would kill that judge if he could.

And Boko Haram, all around this town, would like nothing more than to help him do it. I could suddenly understand how it happens. I could see how the corruption perpetrated by officials of the then Nigerian administration – like that of many governments around the world – was itself helping to generate the terrorist threat.

The problem, I realised, is far more severe than white elephants or poor service delivery. Corruption entails a violation of a person’s basic humanity that can spur an enraged response.

It is these connections – between government corruption and terrorism or other violence – that this essay explores.

Corruption is one of those consensual topics. No one would argue it’s a good thing. International charities and multilateral organisations have worked hard to combat it, racking up impressive achievements in recent years. Anti- bribery laws, once unheard of, have spread well beyond their initial US–UK beachhead. Major arrests and asset seizures are increasingly common, as are citizen-led anti-corruption protests. Such protests have resulted in the resignation of senior officials or their ousting through the ballot box. That’s what happened in Nigeria, where a hard-nosed reformer – who has penned an essay in this volume – gained an upset victory in March 2015 elections over the administration those Kano legal practitioners were criticising.

And yet, when push comes to shove in bilateral relations, Western governments, businesses and charities are still most likely to prioritise other imperatives ahead of corruption. If an international aid agency or philanthropic organisation has set its sights on delivering health programming to rural villages, its government may be reticent to act against corruption in the host country for fear the precious permissions to operate will be cancelled. If the objective is a major extension of electrical power across a whole region or a trade foray into an emerging market, corruption may be seen as a ‘cost of doing business’. Corruption helps facilitate economic activity and growth, some maintain. Others cite culture: “It’s just the way people do things over there. Who are we to impose our norms?” These and other excuses are proffered to rationalise looking the other way or outright collusion.

Upon closer inspection, it thus appears that corruption is not so consensual after all. A remarkable number of Westerners actually argue in favour of it.

Of all the competing priorities, the one that most swiftly trumps anti-corruption is security. Co-operating with this or that corrupt leader is seen as critical, because he is our partner in the war against terrorism. His is the only military worth its salt in the region, troops that actually go on the attack against militants. He provides us with intelligence or bases or overflight rights. And so the kleptocratic practices of his network of cronies are overlooked. The way they have bent state functions, wired the whole economy to their own benefit, given free rein to low-level officials to rake in extorted bribes and blocked off every avenue of recourse – none of that matters, so long as they are ‘with us’ in the fight against terrorists.

This common framing is particularly ironic given the growing evidence that corruption is helping to drive many people into the folds of extremist movements and indeed lies at the root of many of today’s security crises (Chayes 2015; Sky 2015). The purported trade-off between security and corruption is a false dichotomy. Take southern Afghanistan, the former Taliban heartland, where I lived for nearly a decade. In the spring of 2009, a delegation of elders came to visit from Shah Wali Kot district, just north of Kandahar. This happened often. I was one of the only foreigners in Kandahar with no guards at my gate. When I asked why, with the Taliban killing people, the villagers don’t fight back, a man retorted, “How can they work with this Government? The Government doesn’t hear them. The Government doesn’t do anything for them. It’s just there to fill its pockets, nothing else. If the Government isn’t fixed, no matter how many soldiers the foreigners bring, the situation won’t improve.”2

A few days later in the border town of Spin Boldak, community leader Hajji Manan Khan concurred, “This Government … no one likes it. Ministers have huge palaces in Kabul, while the people have nothing. The foreigners should announce that the current Government is thieves. They should put the screws in them, call them on the carpet and demand accounts.”3

I heard this refrain again and again. Out of a hundred Taliban, elders would tell me, fewer than a quarter were ‘real’. The rest had taken up arms in disgust with the Government. This assessment was corroborated by interviews with Taliban detainees in international military custody. Explaining their motivations for joining the insurgency, they cited government corruption more often than any strictly religious rationale.

A similar picture emerges from Nigeria. When Boko Haram launched its first large-scale violent attacks in July 2009, police stations were the first targets. By all accounts, the Nigerian police is one of the most venal and abusive in the world (Human Rights Watch 2010).4 And, during a November 2015 conversation in Maiduguri, where Boko Haram first emerged, local residents voiced a sentiment I had heard often: “People were very happy [with those first attacks]. Boko Haram was saying the truth about the violations by government agencies against the people. Finally they could stand up and challenge. They were claiming their rights.”5

Extremism isn’t the only form that backlash against corruption takes. Across the Arab world in 2011, populations took to the streets demanding an end to autocratic governments, the prosecution and imprisonment of corrupt officials, and the return of stolen assets. As the catastrophic situation in today’s Middle East demonstrates, revolutions rarely end peacefully. Some analysts see the expansion of extremism, from Daesh in Syria to a tenacious insurgency in Egypt, as a reaction to the failure of those initially non- violent efforts to break the grip of kleptocratic governing elites (Muasher 2015).

Ukraine seems as culturally and historically different from the Middle East as a country can be, yet its 2014 revolution was fuelled by similar motivations. While anti-Russian sentiment and a cultural affinity with Western Europe were important drivers of the Maidan protests, so was disgust at the corrupt Yanukovich Government. Photos of the deposed president’s pleasure palace went viral after his fall. The sequel to that revolution has been the first major East–West stand-off since the end of the Cold War, complete with the forcible annexation of territory and the displacement of more than a million people.

In these cases and others, corruption has helped generate some of today’s most dire security crises. The difficult question, especially regarding religious violence, is why? What is it about corruption that should drive people to such extremes?

Four elements of corruption in its current form help to provide an explanation: the humiliation inflicted on victims; their lack of recourse; the structure and sophistication of corrupt networks; and the truly colossal sums being stolen. Firstly, what we in the West often underestimate in thinking about corruption is the assault on victims’ human dignity that accompanies it. Recall the example of the judge’s ‘sextortion’, when the only way of gaining a hearing may be to allow a daughter or a sister to be violated.

Abuses of this nature can spark a burning need for retribution. In studies of violence ranging from Palestinian uprisings to gang shootings in the United States, insult or humiliation is found to be a key factor (Longo, Canetti and Hite-Rubin 2014; Black 2011).6

Given the obvious connections between religion and morality, the moral depravity underlying the abuse is frequently understood in religious terms. “Our leaders are bound by religious duty to do the right thing,” Kano’s then Bar Association Chairman Ibrahim Nassarawa told me, “so when they don’t, people hate them.”7 At that point, a religious argument may be persuasive: “If our government were based on the Islamic system,” said Maiduguri residents, summarising Boko Haram’s preaching, “all these things wouldn’t be happening. We would have a fair and just society.”8

Secondly, with government perpetrating the crimes, there is no earthly hope of recourse. As Sardar Muhammad – who cultivates grapes and pomegranates west of Kandahar – put it in defining the word ‘corruption’, “If the district governor takes all the development budget and only gives the people a tiny bit, and I want to complain, and his gunmen keep me from complaining because they are his kept dogs, that’s corruption.”9

Deprived of any peaceful means of redress against an abusive government, even the founders of our own Western democracies rebelled. The 16th-century Dutch Revolt, the English Civil War and the American and French revolutions were all bloody affairs. Period documents from these milestones in democratic development indicate that in none of them did protagonists and ordinary citizens turn to violence gladly, but felt compelled to it after exhausting every other avenue and obtaining not the slightest concession (Robertson 2006).10

The unassailable impunity that Sardar Muhammad was lamenting derives from the third important feature of corruption as it currently exists in dozens of countries – how deeply it is embedded in state machinery. It’s not the work of a few venal officials, who might be rooted out or challenged in court. The kind of severe corruption that is common today is systemic. It is the practice of sophisticated networks armed with all the instruments of state function. They use those instruments to serve their aims – which largely boil down to personal enrichment. In many cases, these entities should not be thought of as governments at all, much less fragile or failing ones, but rather as savvy and successful criminal organisations.

Weaknesses in state function examined in this light may prove to be deliberate, especially in agencies with autonomous power. Judges or specialised prosecutors are underpaid. Armies are hollowed out to reduce the likelihood of a coup and because defence budgets and military assistance are juicy revenue streams. The results of this latter trend were on vivid display in 2014 as the cannibalised militaries of Iraq and Nigeria collapsed at the first sign of a challenge.

In other cases, apparently innocuous state agencies such as tax authorities or water departments are fashioned into bludgeons to force compliance. A Tunisian tax collector explained to me how, under the regime of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, certain people were accorded a tax holiday as long as they cut members of the ruling clique into their action. But “assessors would rarely make someone’s file go away completely. The permissiveness could always be revoked.” Taxes, he said, could be used “to punish someone who was too independent.”11

A trade union representative in Uzbekistan described a similar system to me in 2014: “There are so many taxes it is impossible to pay them all. So people make a connection in the tax office to pay less. But then you’ve broken the law and they know it, and you are afraid of the Government. The whole Government is set up that way, to make you do wrong, so then they have you on the hook.”12

These kleptocratic networks are horizontally integrated. They comprise government officials, businesses such as banks or construction companies, and so-called non- governmental organisations (NGOs) and implementers of aid – which may in fact be owned by relatives of government officials. But they also include outright criminals such as smugglers, drug-traffickers and even terrorists. Some within the government service in Algeria in the 1990s, and also officials in Pakistan today, are believed to have maintained operational links with extremists (Waldman 2010; Garçon 2003).13

For foreign governments, charities or businesses seeking to operate in such environments, this horizontal integration makes for particularly difficult navigating. The familiar distinctions between public and private sectors, licit and illicit actors, simply do not apply.

Finally, the amounts of money in play are truly obscene. Former FBI special agent Debra Laprevotte, who worked kleptocracy cases for years, says that the increase has been palpable: “For the longest time, we had a single billion-dollar case. Now there are at least five billion-dollar investigations underway.”14

According to two separate biannual surveys, ‘petty bribery’ in Afghanistan rakes in between £1.3 billion and £2.6 billion per year (UNODC 2012; Integrity Watch Afghanistan 2014).

This is in a country whose licit government revenue is barely estimated to top £1 billion (SIGAR 2015).

The development implications of such sums are obvious. Imagine if even a fraction were devoted to a country’s healthcare or water and sewage system, or to building a reliable and affordable public transport network in a burgeoning megacity, or to paying teachers a living wage. Imagine the impact on sustainable economic growth.

But when obtained through practices this corrupt, vast wealth in a sea of poverty also has a moral component – hence the easy link to religion. In the midst of the 16th- century Protestant revolt against the Habsburg ‘Divine Right’ monarchy, an anonymous Dutch pamphleteer complained, “They put robes of silk on their idols made of old wood, leaving us brethren of Christ naked and starving” (Arnade 2008, p. 99).

Then, as now, militant puritanical religion, imposed if necessary by force, was seen by some as the only remedy.

The picture painted here is a sobering one, particularly for governments, investors and humanitarian organisations that cannot avoid working in such countries. And especially when security concerns are so severe as to trump other considerations. Still, even in a world in which trade-offs are real and cannot simply be wished away, there are some important lessons to be considered.

Governments that ostensibly fight against terror may actually be generating more terrorism than they curb. The international community must do a better job of weighing up the pluses and minuses of partnering with acutely corrupt governments, and thus reinforcing them and facilitating their practices.

If alliances are too close, or pay too little attention to the corruption of host governments, the abused populations may come to associate the international community with the misdeeds of their own rulers. As 14th-century churchman William of Pagula admonished King Edward III, “He takes on the guilt of the perpetrator who neglects to fix what he can correct” (Nederman 2002, p. 82).

A more precise understanding of network structures and real dynamics of power must inform planning processes ahead of engagement. It is costly in human and other resources, not to mention politically uncomfortable, to draw up network diagrams – like the ones intelligence or police agencies regularly develop in their study of terrorists or criminals – that map members of ostensibly friendly governments and their cut-outs in business or the criminal world. But these costs should be weighed against the proven and often disastrous price of blind engagement in such complex environments.

A new, broader understanding of ‘corporate social responsibility’ is required. Across sectors, companies whose business models actually depend on servicing kleptocratic officials – such as some banks, lawyers, estate agents, registered agents, various extractive and other resource- based businesses, and international construction contractors – are contributing to significant security threats in their own countries.

It is in this light that they should consider their ‘corporate social responsibility’ – rather than as a synonym for donations to localised humanitarian work. Should their public-spiritedness remain wanting, then sanctions applied to them for colluding with illegal corrupt practices should be stiffened, commensurate with the harm they are doing.

Western citizens should begin pressurising such businesses. And above all, Western governments should cease viewing corrupt money flows, or good trade deals extracted from kleptocrats at the expense of their populations, as a necessary component of their nations’ economies.

Notes

1. Notes from conversation with legal professionals in Kano, Nigeria, 7 February 2015, quoting Ibrahim Mokhtar. 

2. Notes from conversation with tribal elders from Shah Wali Kot District, Kandahar, Afghanistan, 24 May 2009; names withheld for security reasons. 

3. Notes from trip to Spin Boldak, Afghanistan, 25 May 2009. 

4. Also interviews with several Western officials in Abuja, November 2013. 

5. Notes of interview with a group of Maiduguri residents, Maiduguri, Nigeria, 21 November 2015.

6. Longo, Canetti and Hite-Rubin reference the Second Intifada from 2000 to 2005, and the wider violent unrest on the West Bank. 

7. Ibid., notes Kano, Nigeria. 

8. Ibid., notes Maiduguri, Nigeria. 

9. Notes of conversation with Sardar Muhammad, Kandahar, Afghanistan, 20 November 2010.

10. See also numerous Dutch petitions to King Phillip II of Spain 1550–1580. 

11. Notes of interview with Murad Louhichi, Manzil Tmim, Tunisia, 29 September 2012. 

12. Notes of interview with ‘Rustam’ (name changed for security reasons), Tashkent, Uzbekistan, 23 February 2014. 

13. This is a view I encountered frequently when covering the Algerian civil war for National Public Radio in the late 1990s. 

14. Conversation with Debra Laprevotte, 15 September 2015

References

Arnade, P. 2008. Beggars, Iconoclasts and Civic Patriots: The Political Culture of the Dutch Revolt. Ithica: Cornell University Press.

Black, D. 2011. Moral Time. New York: Oxford University Press, p.73.

Chayes, S. 2015. Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security. New York: W.W. Norton.

Garçon, J. 15 November 2003. Les GIA sont une creation des services de securite algeriens. Liberation. Available online.

Human Rights Watch. 17 August 2010. Everyone’s in on the Game: corruption and human rights abuses by the Nigeria Police Force. Available online.

Integrity Watch. 28 May 2014. Afghanistan, National Corruption Survey. Availableonline.

Longo, M., Canetti, D. and Hite-Rubin N. 2014. A Checkpoint Effect? Evidence from a natural experiment on travel restrictions in the West Bank. American Journal of Political Science, 58(4), pp. 1006–1023.

Muasher, M. 2015. Thalatha Safarat Indhar Lam Yasma’ha Ahad. Alghad (Afkar wa Mawaqaf). Available online.

Nederman, C. ed. and trans. 2002. Political Thought in Early Fourteenth Century England: Treatises by Walter of Milemete, William of Pagula and William of Ockham. Of Pagula, W., The Mirror of Edward III. Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, p. 82.

Robertson, G. 2006. The Tyrannicide Brief: The Story of the Man Who Sent Charles I to the Scaffold. New York: Pantheon.

Sky, E. 2015. The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq. London: Atlantic Books. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). 5 March 2015. Letter to Generals Lloyd Austin, John Campbell and Todd Semonite. Available online.

United Nations – Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). December 2012. Corruption in Afghanistan: Recent Patterns and Trends. Vienna: UNODC. Available online.

Waldman, M. 2010. The Sun in the Sky: The Relationship Between Pakistan’s ISI and Afghan Insurgents. London School of Economics, Crisis States Working Group Paper, 2(18).

This article was originally published by the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister’s Office.