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A Tale of Two Emirs: Colonialism and Bureaucratizing Emirates, 1900–1948

Before the start of the colonial period, reciprocal gift giving was a central aspect of statecraft in the Sokoto caliphate. The reorganization of government institutions during the early colonial period criminalized well-established practices even while undermining officials’ incomes and providing them with new means of improper enrichment. In this context, accusations of “corruption” were used as a way for British officials to condemn Nigerians, but only sometimes. During the earliest years of colonial rule, these malpractices could be characterized in this way, but more commonly officials’ crimes were disaggregated and called other things: embezzlement, peculation, slave dealing. The innovation was that the colonial government formulated the problem as one of official malfeasance, as a particular officeholder’s deviation from the norms of the office he was supposed to uphold. The legacy of this period was that the charge of corruption emerged as a political strategy and undergirded a new form of politics.

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After the civil war, oil production radically expanded and federal revenues no longer depended on the productive activities of Nigeria’s citizenry. Nigeria became an oil state, and in theory became wealthy. Political spending cut off from domestic economic activity removed one of the last mechanisms through which popular pressure could contain the activities of the political elite. At the same time, it deepened Nigeria’s vulnerability to fluctuations in commodity prices. The decline in the price of oil in 1981 touched off a recurrent fiscal crisis. For a time, oil money had allowed the federal government to pay off ethnic constituencies, but during the 1980s decreased amounts of oil revenues led to deepening authoritarianism and a normalization of corruption in the military. Nigeria became internationally notorious during the 1970s, when stories of vast sums squandered circled the globe, and this notoriety ultimately enabled the 419 e-mails that continue Nigeria’s international humiliation.

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