On May 29th, a certified drug dealer and the head of the mafia that has held Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, in a suffocating grip, will be inaugurated as President of Nigeria. It is a pity the late Africanist, Stephen Ellis, who has devoted so much time to researching and writing about the unholy alliance between state actors and criminal gangs in both South Africa and Nigeria won’t be alive to witness the entire criminal takeover of the state itself. In the 1990s, Ellis systematically showed how all state actors in South Africa got entangled with, legitimized, armed, and collaborated with various criminal, drug smuggling, and illicit trade gangs to get the upper hand in the heydays of apartheid. He showed how both the Apartheid National Party government and the combined forces of the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) recruited, armed, and actively encouraged and collaborated with various criminal gangs in a bid to come out on top. This led to the complete criminalization of the South African state such that even after the end of apartheid and a democratic election in 1994, South Africa remained gripped in the vortex of crime, murder, and illegal trade and trafficking to this day.
Ellis also did a lot of work on the activities of criminal gangs in Nigeria. At the end of his life, he undertook a gigantic project of trying to understand the history and dynamics of organized crime in Nigeria. Although he died before the book was published, This Present Darkness: A History of Nigerian Organized Crime traces the history of organized crime in Nigeria to historical colonial constitutions, clashing cultures and attempts at cultural integration, various political engineering, and to various economic opportunities in Nigeria. In the dying days of colonialism when regional governments were handed to the local elite, the need to raise funds for political parties and party campaigns led to the phenomenon of kickbacks in contract awards, where contractors gave back a percentage of the contract sum to the party or official. This innocuous practice soon assumed a life of its own, metastasizing into the pervasive government corruption being witnessed since independence, helped no doubt by the oil boom and a culture of entitlement to the riches of the state. As the oil boom came to an end, Nigerian youth and university graduates ventured into other crimes since they could no longer benefit from the famed oil boom. That began the rise of organized crime, drug trafficking, cybercrimes, and various fraudulent activities for which Nigeria has become quite famous.
The return to democracy in 1999 saw attempts by members of many criminal gangs and solo criminals to legitimate their wealth by entering politics. While some were easily discovered and expelled, others like James Ibori, a petty criminal in the UK, and Bola Tinubu, a Chicago drug kingpin, had immunity from prosecution because of the office they occupied. Naturally, they employ the tactics they used in the criminal world, to buy and ensure loyalty such that they develop a huge following and influence that they become indispensable in the political arena. This can be seen in the influence and control James Ibori wields in Delta state such that even after his arrest, conviction, and jailing in the United Kingdom, he still controls the politics of Delta state and absolutely no one can challenge his hold on the state.
The criminals became so powerful that they began to threaten to take over the Nigerian state in its entirety. In 2012, the British Broadcasting Corporation, BBC, ran the story: “James Ibori: How a thief almost became Nigeria’s President”. The story detailed his enormous political influence and only Obasanjo personally prevented him from becoming Yar’Adua’s vice president. Had he, he would naturally take over power upon the death of Yar’Adua.
While the BBC and many Nigerians heaved a sigh of relief that Nigeria dodged a bullet in 2011, another of Ibori’s co-traveler in Lagos, in typical mafioso style, quietly went about building his own political empire by first dismantling the region’s gerontocratic system, which places emphasis on elders for political direction, and the displacement of the region’s elite. Using Lagos’ huge economic wealth and potential, he succeeded in building a formidable political structure from scratch and quietly and incrementally extend his influence to other states. To date, only he – and maybe Ibori in Delta state – have been able to keep all successive governors of their states and appointed officials on a leash and permanently answerable to them.
Interestingly, what Ibori was not able to achieve in 2007 and 2010, Tinubu has been able to accomplish in 2023 through strategic alliances, patience, subterfuge, insane wealth accumulation, and deployment of money to buy up political patronage, votes, election officials, neutralize all vestiges of opposition, and bypass every institutional challenge. Long before his winning the presidential election, he enabled and normalized a system or pipeline of crime to power in Nigeria. Thanks to him, many ex-convicts in the United States now hold strategic positions of authority in Nigeria – from the Lagos and Ogun state governors to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, deputy Senate President and many others.