Tag Archives: corruption

On Fela Kuti, And Nigeria

Nigeria goes to the polls this weekend, if the ruling government allows this. As it happens, I have been listening a lot lately to that country’s best known musician, and arguably its best known political activist.

I wonder what Fela Kuti would have made of Nigeria today, Africa’s most populous country and one of its most troubled, in a field not short of competition. Kuti was not exactly sparing in his condemnation of the various regimes foisted on his homeland during his lifetime.

As it happens one candidate, the former general Muhammadu Bihari, was one of them, ruling oppressively between 1983 and 1985. Kuti was jailed by him on a charge of currency smuggling which most neutral observers believe was groundless and motivated by his political activism, expressed through his music. He was released by Bihari’s successor and continued to make politically charged protest music, as many as two dozen albums, perhaps.

Kuti is sometimes lazily described as the Bob Marley of Africa. Both men are dead, and they shared a prodigious appetite for marijuana. Both seem to have taken a fairly relaxed view on the pressures imposed by monogamy  and marriage – Kuti had a dozen or more wives at any time.

His  music was in a style called Afrobeat, a hypnotic, propulsive mix of west African music and influences such as jazz and funk. His band was huge; songs went on for ten, twenty minutes, with long, jazz-derived instrumental sections featuring massed horns, often played out for some stretch of time before the arrival of the  first vocals.

Those vocals featured call and response exchanges between Kuti, who sang in a just about comprehensible pidgin English, and his backing singers. If this sounds less than appealing, it is as a sound hugely powerful – it should come as no shock to anyone who likes, say, Weather Report, Bitches Brew-period Miles Davis or even Brazilian music, some of which it resembles. Not to mention American funk such as Sly and George Clinton – perhaps not surprisingly, given all the above’s shared African roots.

Kuti excoriates those corrupt rulers, the global corporations who colluded with them to loot the  country’s riches – one of his best known songs is called International Thief Thief, a play on the telecoms company ITT – the Nigerian military, and the  lack of water and denial of basic human needs and rights suffered by Nigerians.

Kuti founded in Lagos The Shrine, a nightclub, and a linked commune. His 1977 album, Zombie, which attacked the military in such terms, triggered the inevitable response. Soldiers attacked his commune, it was torched, his studio and instruments were destroyed, he was beaten and his mother suffered fatal injuries.

Kuti’s response was typical. He delivered his mother’s coffin to the barracks where Nigeria’s military ruler then lived. He also marked the occasion the next year by marrying 27 wives.

Kuti died in 1997 of complications related to AIDS. He was probably not a terribly nice person, his attitude to women stank, but he was a man who took up opposition to what needed opposing, and he was never afraid to stand at the head of the Awkward Squad.

I doubt he would have had much more time for the other candidate in this weekend’s election, the incumbent and largely ineffectual Goodluck Johnson, than for his one-time jailor. These are times, however, when Nigeria, and perhaps elsewhere, needs more Fela Kutis.


A Parliament of Robespierres

Maria Miller, the Culture Secretary, has quit.

Let me tell you a story. Many years ago, when I was a trainee reporter, a colleague got into terrible trouble with her expenses. She was taken to one side by a senior editor and told that she would have to amend her ways. Or else. She was claiming too little.

In those days, trainee reporters were paid next to nothing, certainly not enough to live on, a bit like interns today. Their more senior colleagues weren’t paid much either. And this was the days of indecently high taxation.

So everyone claimed on expenses to make up the gap. She was expected to keep up with the rest. Her expenses would be signed off by someone senior, without quibble or receipts. Otherwise one of the money men further up the paper would notice, and wonder why, if she was getting by spending so little, everyone else was spending more.

You will appreciate the parallel.

The unspeakable and largely unspoken truth is that a salary of about £65,000 is not enough to live on if you aspire to the sort of lifestyle that MPs can reasonably expect, and if we are to attract applicants of the calibre that can do the job. A home in their constituency for their families, somewhere within reach of Parliament to vote. Or a home in London, should they represent a constituency there, likewise sufficient for a reasonable family life

It can’t be done on £65,000. It can’t. But this sounds like a king’s ransom in some of the more benighted parts of the UK, economically, where the minimum wage is what you get. If you are lucky enough to have a job.

So the convention grew up that senior MPs would take their newly-arrived colleagues to one side and explain how to make up the gap. This little fiddle, this little break. The trouble with institutionalising corruption is that it is not easy to see how far the boundaries of what is acceptable should extend. This way lies duck houses.

The game is up. They will have to get by on £65,000 plus whatever they can legally claim.

What MPs need, to attract the right sort who can cope with the complexities of new legislation and the rest of what is a fairly pressured job if you are doing it well, is… ooh, £130,000. To pluck a figure out of the air. This will not play well in those economically benighted constituencies. And you can imagine the reaction of certain sections of the press if MPs voted to double their salaries.

So it won’t happen. The concern is that you will end up with a Parliament of Robespierres. Single issue fanatics. People prepared to give up any expectation of a normal family life in exchange for the sheer joy of ordering the country around. (There are a few of those in Parliament now.) And idiots and incompetents unable to find a job at that salary anywhere else.

(Robespierre was one of the leaders of the French Revolution, a demagogue known for his incorruptibility, his fanaticism, a fondness for power and a willingness to do anything in its furtherance. It did not end well. Not for him either.)

We are a fair way down that road already.

Banks 2, Regulators nil

This has been another bad week for the reputation of our banking sector. Some may wonder, given the moral cesspit they now occupy, how much further they can fall. Watch this space. There is more to come, I suspect

An industry that was once a by-word for being dull, sometimes pompous, fuddy-duddy but deeply moral – think Captain Mainwaring, or Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life” – has been taken over by spivs, get rich quick merchants and hucksters. You have to be a certain age to find this worthy of note.

Royal Bank of Scotland has been fined $100 million for cheating on US sanctions and supporting some pretty evil regimes, like Iran and Libya. For money, pure and simple. Blood money, given some of those regimes’ fondness for killing their own citizens and citizens of other countries of which they disapproved.

Lloyds Banking Group has been fined £28 million, a record, by the UK regulator for a strategy of utter dishonesty whereby staff were rewarded if they sold customers who had placed their trust in the bank, thinking it to have their best interests at heart, policies they did not need. Staff were penalised if they refused to do so. It does not get any worse, except that somehow, somewhere, I suspect it will.

Fining Lloyds £28 million is a bit like thrashing the car, Basil Fawlty-style, for breaking down. It might make you feel better, but it does not punish those at fault.

To put it another way, fining Lloyds £28 million, a miniscule sum given its worth, is a bit like fining you and me a fiver – with the proviso that we can ask our employer to make the sum up. The money will come out of shareholders’ funds or loaded onto customers’ bills. In this case, you and I pick up part of the fine, because we, as the state, are shareholders in Lloyds.

One of the weaknesses of UK law, and the Americans are a bit ahead of us on this one, is that you can hold a corporate responsible for some breach of the law. This applies in cases such as corporate manslaughter, after those accidents on the railways at the turn of the last decade. This is the equivalent, as I said, to beating the furniture.

It is extremely hard to hold to account those who run that corporate. Offences take years to come to light and be investigated. By then, the perpetrators have long gone, and cashed in their bonuses.

It must be possible, and I speak as one with some training in the law, to hold such people to account ex post facto, that is, after the event, and exact an appropriate financial penalty.

Suggest such a thing and the business pressure groups such as the CBI and the Institute of Directors will whine about a “constraint on entrepreneurs’ efforts” or a “tax on business”. So will their lickspittles among the press.

But I rather suspect that any political party that suggest such condign punishment of those actually responsible for such outrages might find itself all of a sudden rather popular with the voting public.