Dash (Nigeria)

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Dash
Location: Nigeria
Nigeria map.png
Author: Daniel Jordan Smith
Affiliation: Department of Anthropology, Brown University

Original text: Daniel Jordan Smith, Department of Anthropology, Brown University

One of the most common informal transactions in Nigeria is the ‘dash.’ A dash, as it is called in Nigerian English and Pidgin English, may be a gift or a bribe; indeed its ambiguity is part of its function. The wide spectrum of circumstances in which it occurs and the range of meanings associated with it attest to the complexity of the social work it does. In its most benign occurrence, to give someone a dash is to offer a present, with no strings attached. In this form, a dash is even more generous than a gift, because it is given with no expectation of reciprocity. Most gifts, as Marcel Mauss (1925) [1]famously showed, come with obligations. The giver creates a social relationship with the recipient that is not easily forsaken. In contrast, in some cases when Nigerians speak of a dash, they refer to a present given freely. A passerby might dash money to a beggar; a man might dash children a soccer ball. Because so many gifts come with obligations, a dash of this sort is especially welcome.

However, in many instances in Nigeria a dash is a cover and a euphemism for a bribe, or a levy. When a police officer stops a motorist and demands ‘a dash’ to buy cigarettes, for example, the driver will experience the request as something close to extortion. If the dash is not given, the policeman will demand documents, open the car’s bonnet to look for the engine number, and most likely invent some infraction to delay the journey until something is paid. In this case, the dash is even more resented than a bribe, because nothing is gained by paying except freedom from harassment. More typically, when state officials request a dash—or citizen service-seekers offer one—it is expected that the dash-as-bribe will produce a favourable outcome for the giver.

Somewhere in between the dash as a present with no strings attached and the dash as a levy or bribe sits a whole range of dashes that look more like gifts in that they come with some anticipation of reciprocity, whether it involves a specific return gift or action, or a more generalised expectation of future mutual generosity.

Despite the diverse set of transactions and the variety of motivations and expectations associated with them, almost all dashes are characterised by the way in which they socialise or make personal forms of transaction that could otherwise be interpreted in more anonymous, impersonal terms. As noted, in its most positive valence a dash signals a pro-social, freely undertaken act of generosity. Somewhat paradoxically, this more positive aspect is closely connected to the role dashes play in euphemising and enabling transactions that might be—and often are—interpreted by Nigerians as corruption. Situating the dash in relation to corruption provides a revealing perspective both on the range of semiotic interpretations of the behaviour and on the nuances of how Nigerians understand and navigate so-called corruption.

On the one hand, Nigerians are commonly frustrated and express considerable discontent over the fact that state officials expect a dash to provide services that ought to be a routine part of their job. In many instances, ordinary Nigerians feel aggrieved that civil servants expect a dash to issue a driver’s licence, release a pension payment, or pass along one’s job application to someone higher up. The fact that the requested (or at least implicitly expected) dash is really just a bribe couched in more pro-social terminology rankles. Nigerian citizens resent having to pay bribes and recognise that the euphemism of a dash protects corrupt officials and corruption itself. To ask for or to offer a dash invokes moral rules different from those that supposedly govern the bureaucracy. Nigerians understand both sets of rules, but they also recognise the ruse.

On the other hand, despite their awareness of the ruse and the frequent anger it generates, ordinary citizens are often agents in deploying the dash as a means to personalise (and, one might argue, corrupt) an otherwise formal and official transaction. If Nigerians are in hurry, if they seek an outcome that the official rules would not easily accommodate, or if it simply appears that formal procedures will stymie their goals because officials always expect something ‘on top,’ Nigerians commonly take the initiative to personalise the transaction by offering a dash. To the extent that a dash symbolises and enables a more personal and informal interaction with the state, it is often as much welcomed as it is resented.

Based on a comparative study of corruption in three other West African countries, Giorgio Blundo and Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan (2001a) [2]developed a useful typology of forms of corruption that maps reasonably well onto the Nigerian scene. The seven basic forms they identify are (1) commission for illicit services, (2) unwarranted payment for public services, (3) gratuities, (4) string pulling, (5) levies and tolls, (6) sidelining and (7) misappropriation. In Nigeria, all but sidelining and misappropriation are instances in which a dash might occur, and the spectrum of corrupt behaviours illustrates well the social work that dashes accomplish in their more nefarious incarnations. Briefly, commission for illicit services refers to the payment by users to officials who then grant access to unwarranted advantages. For example, a contractor might provide money to a government official to ensure that he receives a job in a process supposedly based on competitive bids, or an importer might pay a customs official to underestimate the value of his goods in order to reduce a tariff. Unwarranted payment for public services involves an official forcing a user to pay for a service that is ostensibly provided for free, or inflating the cost of a routine job. In Nigeria, people commonly pay extra money for basic services such as the issuance of passports and birth certificates. A gratuity is also a kind of payment for services, but usually after the fact, and is commonly couched in the idiom of a ‘thank you.’ Nigerians typically call such a gratuity a ‘dash,’ and do not always think of it in the same terms as a bribe. String-pulling on one’s behalf would also typically be followed up (or preceded) by a dash. As noted above, levies extorted by police or other officials are frequently euphemised as dashes. But, as Blundo and Olivier de Sardan (2001a)[3] point out, a dash makes sense only in an environment where officials diligently doing their jobs without the demand for a bribe are the exception and deserve a reward.

Understanding the dash helps elucidate the nuances and complexity of official corruption in Nigeria. A dash is the lubricant that enables actors to make the mechanisms of bureaucracy more personal, not only in actual relationships between officeholders and their clients, but also by building on and reinforcing a moral economy that facilitates corruption, even in situations where citizen and bureaucrat are, in fact, complete strangers (Joseph 1987; Chabal and Daloz 1999; Olivier de Sardan 1999; Blundo and Olivier de Sardan 2001b; Pierce 2016)[4][5][6][7][8]. Actors on both sides of the exchange are frequently more comfortable operating in an informal idiom of accountability that humanises the transaction between citizen and state. As much as Nigerians sometimes lament the system that makes the dash so ubiquitous, many will admit that they would also feel lost without it.

Notes

  1. Mauss, M. 1925. The Gift, translated by I. Cunnison. London: Cohen & West Olivier de Sardan, J.-P. 1999. ‘A Moral Economy of Corruption in Africa?’ The Journal of Modern African Studies 37 (1): 25-52
  2. Blundo, G. and Olivier de Sardan, J.-P. 2001a. ‘La Corruption Quotidienne en Afrique de l'Ouest,’ Politique Africaine (3) 83: 8-37
  3. Blundo, G. and Olivier de Sardan, J.-P. 2001a. ‘La Corruption Quotidienne en Afrique de l'Ouest,’ Politique Africaine (3) 83: 8-37
  4. Joseph, R. 1987. Democracy and Prebendal Politics in Nigeria: The Rise and Fall of the Second Republic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  5. Chabal, P. and Daloz, J.-P. 1999. Africa Works: Disorder as Political Instrument. Bloomington: Indiana University Press
  6. Olivier de Sardan, J.-P. 1999. ‘A Moral Economy of Corruption in Africa?’ The Journal of Modern African Studies 37 (1): 25-52
  7. Blundo, G. and Olivier de Sardan, J.-P. 2001b. ‘Sémiologie Populaire de la Corruption,’ Politique Africaine (3) 83: 98-114
  8. Pierce, S. 2016. Moral Economies of Corruption: State Formation and Political Culture in Nigeria. Durham, NC: Duke University Press