Why isn’t British ‘sleaze’ called what it really is?

British politicians do what African politicians do. Yet they insist on calling it something else.

[Patrick Gathara/Al Jazeera]

Corruption in the United Kingdom is once again in the news. Conservative Party MPs have been caught with their hands in the till, abusing their positions to pad their bank accounts. The regime of Prime Minister Boris Johnson has attempted a cover-up – trying to use its majority in the lower house to pass laws muzzling the anti-graft watchdog, who in turn has reportedly received death threats.

Newspaper editorials are decrying “sleaze” – a catchall phrase for questionable and scandalous conduct – in the oil-rich kingdom where, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and despite the huge conflicts of interest, a third of MPs have pocketed nearly $7m in payments for moonlighting with private firms, including those bidding for contracts related to pandemic measures. Further, the ruling party has also been accused of selling seats in the upper chamber of parliament, the House of Lords, to donors for up to $4m.

It is not the first time the public in the ethnically divided country, which is plagued by tribal separatist movements in the regions of Scotland and Northern Ireland, is being fleeced by its politicians. According to a report published by the National Audit Office, just over 1 percent of COVID-19 contracts worth $24bn awarded to suppliers between March and July last year, were awarded using a competitive process.

The process was shrouded in secrecy, with a local court ruling that the then-health minister, Matt Hancock, had broken the law by failing to publish details of contracts within the required 30 days. In fact, the government introduced a “high-priority lane” which gave special treatment to suppliers recommended by ministers, government officials and MPs, which the opposition shadow cabinet office minister would describe as “an unedifying gold rush of chums and chancers”.

Corruption in the high echelons of British power has not been reserved to the pandemic era. A decade ago, for example, parliamentarians in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords were caught up in a scheme involving widespread abuse of claims for allowances and expenses worth at least $2m, for which several were forced to resign and others sent to jail.

The pursuit of illicit gains is also not just a frequent practice of the ruling elite. The whole country has been identified as an international hub for tax evasion and money laundering as well as a major destination for illicit financial flows from across the globe. It controls a “spider’s web” of territories and dependencies (where the British government has full powers to impose or veto lawmaking) which, according to the Tax Justice Network, “operates as a global web of tax havens laundering and shifting money into and out of the City of London” making it a top abettor of theft and corruption.

Yet it is interesting that when discussing corruption in the kingdom, where, according to the humanitarian agency FareShare, one in every eight people struggles to afford enough to eat, few ever describe it as a cultural problem in the same way corruption is described when encountered in Africa.

“The African is corrupt through and through … They are all corrupt. The fact that over countless centuries the African has been a victim of the worst climate in the world of every imaginable diseases. Hardly his fault. But he has been sapped mentally and physically. We brought him Western education. But what use is it to him?” says Mr Green, the white senior civil servant in Chinua Achebe’s novel, No Longer at Ease. While many may be averse to openly expressing such sentiment in today’s post-#BlackLivesMatter days, a glance at newspaper reports, both on and off the continent, would reveal that the intrinsic corruption of the African is nonetheless a widely held belief.

In his article, Corruption and the post-colonial state: how the west invented African corruption, racism scholar Gabriel Apata notes, that while corruption is universal, “when it comes to Africa, [corruption] has remained a permanent black mark that will not shift, an idea that encapsulates the African predicament in all its various shades and manifestations”. He shows how media descriptions of it often present it as a form of pathology: “a cancer, virus, epidemic, cankerworm and so forth, these descriptions evoke images of disease, like Ebola and HIV-AIDS whose origins lie in Africa … Nowhere else or about no other continent is corruption described in these terms.”

This is despite the fact that African scholars have long traced the roots of corruption to colonialism. As Kenyan author Joe Khamisi notes in his book Looters and Grabbers: 54 Years of Corruption and Plunder by the Elite 1963-2017, the role of colonialism in establishing corruption practices has not stopped attempts to portray them as a legacy of the pre-colonial past – including as a consequence of a wholly imagined “African tradition” of handing out gifts to “chiefs” who, ironically, are themselves another colonial invention.

Such attempts to indigenise graft follow the path of other invented and supposedly “African” realities such as the “tribe”. As Apata points out, the corruption prototype “emerged out of Western neo-liberal capitalist tradition and its exploitative tendencies, a system that was exported to Africa and which in turn became Africanised”.

In this sense, the corruption found especially in “Black Africa” is presented as something unique and exotic, quite different from the enlightened practices of the “developed” West. So while they may both have corrupt officials who abuse their power to rip off their citizens, the corrupt European politician is presented as a societal aberration, a negation of its wholesome values, while the corrupt African official is taken as the embodiment of African values.

This racialised approach is also reflected in the different language used to describe practices that look very similar. MPs in the UK are paid by companies to “lobby” for public contracts which are then placed in a “high-priority lane”. When much the same thing happens in Kenya, MPs are said to have received “bribes” and money is “funnelled” into the pockets of their corrupt benefactors in the private sector.

When public officials steal money from Africans, their countries quickly earn themselves the unhappy distinction of being “corrupt”. Yet when the same money is hidden, as revealed by the Pandora Papers, in Western tax havens, with the help of Western consultants, firms and institutions, those countries are not similarly branded.

“It has caused me the greatest trouble, and forever causes me the greatest trouble, to perceive that unspeakably more depends upon what things are called, than on what they are,” wrote German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. This is undoubtedly true of the Western worldview regarding corruption.

The attempt to essentialise and exoticise “African corruption” only serves to obscure its real roots and to sanitise the same behaviour in the West. And as Nietzsche went on to note, “the appearance at the very beginning becomes almost always the essence in the end, and operates as the essence”.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.