In the BBC News Letter from Africa series, Nigerian writer and novelist Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani analyzes a nexus between politics, culture, and corruption. She shows that political office confers “a knife with which to cut the national cake.” But, an office holder in Nigeria is under obligation to share his good fortune with his kith and kin—“preferably through contracts, appointments, and jobs.”
Failure to do so means ostracism that persists long after he leaves office, indeed, “long after his funeral, the bitter tongues will continue wagging.” As she says, “in many parts of the world, it requires years of steady progress for one’s economic circumstances to radically transform. Here, in Nigeria, all it takes is an election, and a new political appointment.” She concludes that “voracious kith and kin are the main force behind Nigeria’s corruption problem.”
I would add that the social realities Nwaubani so clearly and succinctly describes also contributes to Nigeria’s “winner-take-all” political culture, which in turn can foster violence. They also show how what “corruption” means in Nigeria (and elsewhere) is very different from what it means in the United States. As a Nigerian friend said to me once, if as a holder of political office he fails to get his brother a government job, he is a failure to his family and to the larger society of which he is a part. In the U.S. government, if an official gets his brother a government job, he is liable to go to jail for corruption.
Plenty of Nigerians have the same view of corruption as Americans do, and they understand well how the traditional network of obligations to kith and kin can be a brake on development and good governance. But, changing the way family obligations are perceived and practiced can take a long time.