African Studies Quarterly

THE CRIMINALIZATION OF THE STATE IN AFRICA. Jean-François Bayart, Stephen Ellis, and Béatrice Hibou. Oxford, Bloomington & Indianapolis: James Currey & Indiana University Press, 1999. 126 pp. cloth $ 39.95. paper $ 18.95.


The study of corruption and various forms of criminal activities in Africa is not new. Since the early days of independence, the subject of criminology (including corruption, smuggling, the plundering of national resources, kleptomania, money laundering, etc.) has been the focus of fierce debates in many academic circles. As many sought to provide a comprehensive explanation for the origin and operation of various forms of infractions in Africa, explanations tended to remain as controversial as they were doctrinaire. At the end of the twentieth-century, these problems have been magnified, transcending national territorial boundaries and assuming an international dimension.

Consequently, the study of various criminal activities in Africa has shifted from analyzing the individuals' roles to group responsibility. Thus, the subject has been approached and observed from various dimensions. Jean-François Bayart, for instance, gave a fascinating account of group responsibility for this problem in his 1989 book, L'État en Afrique: La politique du ventre [The State in Africa: Politics of the Belly].

In The Criminalization of the State in Africa, Jean-Francois Bayart, Stephen Ellis, and Béatrice Hibou expand the study of corruption to include the most recent incidents of state-supported criminal activities in Africa. Whereas many studies on corruption in Africa often reveal individual responsibilities, these scholars include the role played by the state in aiding and abetting corrupt practices. It is this process that they call the "criminalization" of the state.

The Criminalization of the State in Africa chronicles in fascinating detail the totality of state-supported criminal activities. The book analyzes the impact of criminal activities on African nations. It examines the future of public life in Africa, and reveals how African states have become vehicles for organized crimes. It addresses the manner in which African states, through criminal means, cover up the corrupt practices of those in power. The book exposes the linkages between government and institutionalized fraud: smuggling, the plundering of natural resources, the growth of private armies, the privatization of state institutions, and the development of "economies of plunder." The result is an incisive and authoritative exposure of Africa's entanglement in a web of internal and international crimes. More innovative than anything else is the analysis of the internationalization of crime in Africa from two fronts. First, the study deals with criminal activities initiated in Africa by corporate officials, employees of parastatal organizations, and government officials at both the national and continental levels. Secondly, the book examines Africa's role in the internationalization of certain criminal activities involving non-Africans, but supported by African entrepreneurs and policy-makers.

Although originally written in French, the book's scope is not limited to francophone Africa. It dwells on the involvement of all African nation-states, south of the Sahara, in the international drug trafficking, money-laundering, currency counterfeiting, credit card fraud, conversion of cash of dubious origin into legal goods, and theft of international food aid, just to mention a few. Throughout the book, the authors contend that "politics in Africa is becoming markedly interconnected with crime" (p. 25). They examined six main indicators of the criminalization of African politics (pp. 25-26) and, interestingly, conclude that "only Equatorial Guinea, the Comoros and Seychelles could be correctly classified as criminal states at the moment." The majority of other African states, write the authors, exhibit classical symptoms of what Bayart calls "la politique du ventre," a Cameroonian popular adage that means [loosely translated], a goat eats where it is littered.

On the whole, the book is a beautifully conceived, richly textured work. Powerful, intriguing, and essentially transcending national territorial boundaries, it offers an important analysis of state-supported corrupt practices in contemporary Africa. The authors might have further explored the varied levels of democratization in specific African nations, and discussed how the leadership of those nations either promoted or discouraged state-supported criminality. Such an exercise would likely reveal the emergence of a "moi je m'enfou" (colloquially translated as "I don't give a damn") attitude among some African leaders. It is this "moi je m'enfou" attitude, resulting from the gross lack of accountability in the performance of government duties, that weakened rigid press censorship imposed by totalitarian governments and now gives a false sense of democratization. Regardless, each chapter pulls the reader deep into the innermost circles of corruption, kleptomania, criminal actions by governments in power, and the resultant destitution of independent Africa.

Fuabeh P. Fonge
Department of History
North Carolina A&T State University