At a first glance they don't seem to have a lot in common, the rioting youngsters in the British cities and Nigerian internet scammers. Yet there are similarities. The corruption of the political elite resonates in the lawless behaviour. Why would the people on the street obey the law if the rulers themselves are trampling justice underfoot? In an op ed piece in Dutch national newspaper nrc.next
I argue that nothing is as threatening to the constitutional state as a crooked elite. That's what England is experiencing these days, but it is a phenomenon to which all of Europe will prove to be equally vulnerable. Click on 'more' to read the article.
Political corruption poisons the streets
Why obey the law when the elite themselves are trampling justice underfoot?
By Femke van Zeijl (c)
A lot has been said about the possible causes of the riots in the United Kingdom. One aspect I haven't heard mentioned frequently, is the devastating effect of political corruption on the sense of justice of civilians. It is an effect that is most perceptible in the least privileged parts of society, where experienced powerlessness towards the political and judicial system is most widely spread. It is a development that demolishes society at its roots, a development I saw from up close in many an African country and to which Europe will prove to be equally vulnerable.
The fatalism with which the rioters in Great Britain seem to engage in the violence: 'This is our justice', reminds me of the attitude of the people involved in the looting and violence in Kenya after the last parliamentary elections, in South-Africa during the eruptions of xenophobia in 2008 or last year in Mozambique when the government intended to double the price of bread. Apart from the immediate causes of the violence, the profile of its participants is similar: a vast supply of youths without any prospects in life and with nothing better to do, combined with people with families,small jobs or their own companies who act as if they have nothing to lose anyway.
The past years I have lived in six different cities in six different African countries, to describe urban daily life. Amongst others I spoke with family men and small time crooks. Strikingly their opinions about the law were very much alike: why would one respect the law when even the president doesn't? Referring to the ubiquitous corruption in all sections of power they legitimised their own misdemeanours and even crimes.
Amadinho, a mobile phone thief in Maputo, admitted the phones he traded had been stolen in South-Africa. But they crossed the Mozambican border, stamped by a bribed customhouse officer. Thus his merchandise had been legalised and according to his opinion Amadinho did not do anything illegal. A street dealer in that same city also figured he wasn't to blame: his petty heroin trade was of no comparison to the humongous hard drug trafficking through the southern African country under the aegis of the ruling political party. And the Yahoo-Yahoo guys in Nigerian cybercafé's shrugged when I suggested they broke the law with their internet scams: after all the political elite did so every day with impunity.
Might the rioters in England not also place the current indignation of British members of Parliament about their criminal behaviour in this perspective? The youths in the street surely haven't forgotten that in 2009 those MP's turned out to have embezzled hundreds of thousands of British pounds, tax payer's money, with fraudulent expense accounts. And those politicians of all people think they can scold them?
These last years Great Britain has been gradually dropping from the top of least corrupt countries in Transparency International's Corruption Index. Scandal piled upon scandal. This July Prime Minister David Cameron had to break off a trip to Africa - mind you - to cope with the widespread corruption entailed in Rupert Murdoch's media empire, a scandal also involving chiefs of police and the Prime Minister's former media spokesman.
The index of Transparency International measures the perception of corruption in a given country: how civilians experience the level of corruption. In that sense the index paints a rosy picture. Had only the people on the lower end of society been polled, many a country would have come off a lot worse. And exactly these parts of the community can turn out to be the ignition source of public explosion.
My argument is that corruption is by far the most threatening phenomenon to the constitutional state and that this is showing these days in Great Britain. Nothing tears to threads social texture as thoroughly as a crooked elite. Their behaviour trickles down to all layers of society right onto the street and poisons social relationships to the core.
How can the political elite demand compliance with the law when they themselves are trampling justice underfoot? That is a question not only relevant in Africa or in England. The Netherlands have been comfortably placed at around the sixth position from the top of the index for years. Still that is not a reason to sit back and do nothing.
Ever more often the executive, legislative and judicial branches of power in this country turn out to be entangled in corruption scandals. Aldermen being fêted by the building industry, diplomats putting in a good word for a subsidy application of all too close a friend, judges having to resign under the suspicion of favouritism and perjury, a police officer bribed to recommend a new duty weapon and a widespread black market trading army material; these are only a few recent Dutch examples.
The integrity of public office is the only argument able to enforce public order. The public is very much aware of that.
nrc.next, August 16 2011
Femke van Zeijl is a Dutch writer and cross media journalist who focuses on Sub-Saharan Africa. Recently she published her second book Gin-tonic & Cholera, on urban life in Africa.