Many foreign companies dey Africa carry all our money go
Them go write big English for newspaper, dabaru we Africans
Fela Kuti, International Thief Thief
As I write, Julian Assange is in a secure wing of Wandsworth prison, secluded from his fellow inmates in a part of the complex usually reserved for sex offenders. The irony is almost too much to bear. It’s hard to see the extradition pressure from Sweden as anything other than a conduit for a pressure that originated elsewhere – perhaps a valve inside Joe Lieberman’s head. Everything else was merely a concoction in between. Or are we really to believe that Assange, the meticulous planner and anticipator, would throw a career’s caution to the wind when confronted by Scandinavian totty?
There’s a powerful political theory at work behind Wikileaks, which Assange has alluded to in various comments in the past few days. The theory goes something like this: freedom of speech no longer has political traction in the west, in contrast to other parts of the world. It doesn’t really matter what is said in America in the press or elsewhere; it has little consequence for a system that is buried from view, circulating via diplomatic cables and a (mostly) secure corporate communications infrastructure. In contrast, freedom of speech remains a matter of life and death for hundreds of millions of other people, where the communications infrastructure is less sophisticated and inconvenient truths are harder to hide.
The trick is to realise that the two versions of freedom of speech are intimately related: what cannot be said in one part of the world is often conditioned by the interests at work in another. The raison d’etre of Wikileaks is to bring this occluded connection to light. In the process, we are made to realise that the freedoms of speech we thought we had were scratches on the surface of a set of material interests that carry on regardless. On one level we act surprised – that so much manipulation is at work in the world between powers via their corporate proxies – and another level we realise we knew it all before. What the Wikileaks diplomatic cables reveal is in fact an old secret: the military-industrial complex determining that a nation state’s interests count for everything. The beast must be fed and the beast must be protected. In the process, the cables remind us that no matter what we might know, we are apparently powerless to stop it. The odd thing is: in the act of us realising this, everything now changes. A weakening and a dilution of power is now at work. For the first time, we see formations of resistance that emerge from within the information system itself: Anonymous DDOS as a cancer upon the corporation’s circulation system.
From a Nigerian perspective, we find little we didn’t already know, save for details that add some fiscal spice to the talk in the beer parlour: the actual amounts a smuggler-thug kingpin charges for allowing uninterrupted passage of a container from Niger into Katsina; the price of a former (now disgraced) Attorney General’s ink. The bigger picture remains unchanged and is known to all. The history of post-independence Nigeria is intimately connected with Shell. Nigeria and Shell are twins someone forgot to separate at birth. No one is at all shocked to hear of the former head of Sub-Saharan operations Ann Pickard’s boast that the company has infiltrated government to the core. There’s little point Shell trying to deny it at this stage. It might be better to go legit and create a Ministry of Shell Affairs. All other multinationals are at least one tier below Shell in terms of their complicity with official misappropriation: Julius Berger, Pfizer, Halliburton, Siemens and so on. Again, the diplomatic cables do little more than reassure and refine our cynicism. Quite how Berger has escaped the diplo-gossip relatively unblemished so far is a minor miracle. Perhaps in the next few days of releases another national laptop recall will be circulated.
The lesson for those looking in at Wikileaks from a Nigeria perspective is clear. Those that dismiss Nigeria as the home of 419 and the submarine vent of originary corruption with a tired flick of the hand fail to see the enduring handiwork of the transational corporation, attacking a fragile state like an opportunistic virus against a weakened immune system. The dismissive ones have yet to listen to Fela and allow his words to make sense in their heads. As it was in the 1960s and 1970s, so it is today, it seems.
But there is a crucial difference: the genie is out of the bottle. It no longer matters what happens to Assange. Westerners can no longer believe in the seductive entitlement of the First Amendment (now that we know how easily compromised it can be), at the very time when information has never been so disaggregated and available. The way the tension between the two (the limits of the freedom of speech vs the unlimited power of disaggregated information) plays out will have consequences for the global order we cannot yet anticipate. No matter what newly produced official secrets may stay secret from now on, the West’s handmaiden in corruption, the transnational corporation, will itself be under surveillance. Anonymous is here to stay.