Patronage Society in Nigeria

Every Day Is for the Thief, by Teju Cole (Random House), on sale 3/15/14.

Teju Cole’s Every Day Is for the Thief is a quick read with a lingering impact. Set in present day Nigeria, the novel recounts an expatriate’s visit home. The narrator’s focus is corruption, specifically bribery and small-scale extortion: “I have taken into myself some of the assumptions of life in a Western democracy—certain ideas about legality, for instance, certain expectations of due process—and in that sense I have returned a stranger. What the trip back from the airport makes me think, and what is confirmed over the course of the following days, is the extent to which Lagos has become a patronage society.”

Within forty-five minutes of leaving the airport, the narrator experiences three attempts by officials to collect bribes. This ritual of extra-legal payment exists on all levels of the society. When traffic is congested, drivers are threatened with violence from groups of men working the busy roadways—pay now or you may not be able to drive away when the congestion dies down. Police collect unofficial tolls along roadways. Almost everyone seems to demand a little extra something.

The narrator’s attitude toward this corruption is mixed. He views it ironically, noting how often requests for payment occur alongside official posters or billboards decrying bribery. He resents it and tries to avoid making payments when he can. He also understands its necessity: it is often the only way to turn an inadequate salary into a living wage.

This novel is not so much story as meditation: meditation on the origins of patronage societies and the impossibility of establishing new economic models once that system is in place. Government, the U.N., NGOs, multinational corporations—all seem powerless to do more than give token objection to the system. When you finish the book, you’ll be left with a bundle of unanswered questions: about governance, about development, about commerce, and about individual survival.

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