There are few more troubling examples of how corruption can both create and sustain violent conflict than the current crisis in Nigeria. As Liz emphasized in a recent post, many observers believe that rampant corruption may have contributed to the rise of Boko Haram, and may also be one of the primary reasons for the Nigerian military’s difficulty in combating the threat posed by this group. While Liz focused on the reasons why it might be particularly difficult to combat corruption in the Nigerian military, I would like to take up a different issue: the ways in which military corruption is currently perceived and addressed by members of the international community.
The dichotomy between the treatment of certain instances of military corruption, and the international community’s perception of the problems posed by this phenomenon, is perhaps best illustrated by the coverage that two different examples of military corruption have received in recent months. First, as mentioned above, coverage of the role that military corruption has played in Nigeria’s ability to ward off Boko Haram and its potential impact upon the surrounding region has been widespread. Second, the Chinese government has released the names of 14 generals in the People’s Liberation Army suspected of corruption – a move that has been seen as part of a broader anticorruption effort by the new regime and that has been justified, at least in part, by the fact that these officials’ corruption has potentially undermined the “military readiness” of Chinese forces. This development has been largely viewed as a purely domestic concern for China and received relatively little news coverage. Yet, while the treatment of these two events by the international community may differ dramatically, the root of both of these problems – military corruption – is the same.
It is not particularly surprising that the problems posed by military corruption in China and Nigeria have been treated differently by outside commentators. After all, the threat posed by Boko Haram is a serious one, with potentially significant import for international security. However the fact that there can be such a swift change between a situation in which rampant military corruption can be categorized best as simply a “local concern” – an absence of military readiness amongst a state’s armed forces or too many supplies gone missing – and instances, such as those in Nigeria, in which military corruption in one state can implicate the security of an entire region suggests, perhaps, that there may be some merit in reframing how we think about the phenomenon of military corruption.
While the significant and damaging impact that corruption, in all its forms, can have upon a country’s residents as well as the surrounding region has been well-documented on this blog and elsewhere, there are some forms of corruption whose effects are perceived to be predominantly “local” (corrupt political elections, perhaps, or the purchasing of a political appointment), whereas others are known to have a significant, tangible effect upon a corrupt state’s neighbors (for example the production and international sale of falsified medicines, as mentioned previously on this blog). This divergence in the perceived effects of different kinds of corruption suggests that different constituencies are likely to be mobilized to address these problems. For example, when corruption in one country may directly impact the interests of other states, those other countries may be willing to exert a greater degree of pressure upon a corrupt actor to change its ways. For more local concerns, civil society and anticorruption NGOs may be more likely to rally around the cause of stamping out corruption. Obviously this distinction should not be overstated, but there is a certain intuitive logic to the notion that, in spite of broad commitments to the project of combating corruption, other states are most likely to become actively involved in urging others to address corruption when it impacts their own well-being.
Yet military corruption, perhaps more so than other forms of corruption, can quite quickly shift from a “local” issue to a regional one. This mutability is problematic. States have little impetus to encourage their neighbors to address military corruption when this corruption is perceived to be a “local” problem – the purchasing of officer commissions, etc. However, when a crisis does occur and a nation’s military effectiveness could impact the interests of surrounding states, other countries have little time or ability to address the underlying malaise that has sapped the strength of a nation’s military. In this situation, states may find themselves in the difficult position of deciding if they will provide aid to a corrupt military (when the resources and supplies provided are likely to be siphoned off by corrupt actors), take on greater responsibility for addressing the crisis than they might wish, or simply refuse to help altogether. Absent a more holistic view of military corruption, however, few possibilities for implementing an anticorruption strategy to address this type of situation present themselves as, due to the immediacy and severity of the types of events that cause military corruption to cross over from a “local” to a “regional” issue, the circumstances that give rise to this phenomenon will almost by definition be the type of crisis that requires a relatively rapid response that may provide little opportunity to undertake anticorruption measures.
It may therefore make sense to think of military corruption in all its forms as a regional or international issue – one with potentially significant import for states located in close proximity to a corrupt actor. Thus, even relatively innocuous or “local” instances of military corruption, such as those that have resulted in the Chinese government’s decision to accuse several of its generals of corruption, should be viewed as a significant concern not only for China itself but for the rest of the international community. While this kind of reframing of our perception of corruption may be awkward at times (one can imagine that other countries’ focus on a state’s military may not be well received), it seems to more accurately capture the potential effects of military corruption. As such it may finally be time for states to strive a little more to become – at least with respect to military corruption – their neighbor’s keeper.