I am going to have to go back quite a few yesterdays to write this post. Right back to the nineteenth century in fact, when on this day, 179 years ago, an English court sentenced one John Hammond to a 7 year transportation to Australia for stealing a purse and lace. William James got a similar sentence for stealing an umbrella. Today, British courts will hardly jail a person that long for killing his fellow man.
Yes, morality has a way of adjusting to the times, and penal systems have a way of morphing to accommodate economic imperatives.
Our developmental crises today require that Corporate Capital Punishment should be introduced right across the African board. We need to start talking up this concept, weighing it up, and dressing it up for its season of empowerment.
The joint Stock company was a great human invention. As a profit-making unit, the human being – or family – or dynasty – is hopelessly inefficient. A few reasons:
Most people are no good at making money for the first – and last – twenty or thirty years of their lives. The company on the other hand, is never too young and it will never grow senile…
In the race to accumulate capital, the human being is born ignorant, on the other hand, companies can be registered with Nobel Scientists on their payroll, and
however rich the man (or woman), his capital will be dissipated between state (death duty) and (potentially wastrel) heirs when he dies. A company’s capital need never suffer this fate. It can squat in a low-tax shelter while doing business in a hundred countries.
And of course the company need never die.
Today’s map of Africa owes much to corporate enterprise. Think Goldie’s Royal Niger Company, Mackinnon’s Imperial British East Africa Company, and Rhodes’ British South Africa Company: these were colonial engines bringing trade, development, and exploitation into the heart of the continent. Those companies laid the foundations for today’s African reality. Of course, like today’s BAE Systems (think Saudi Al Yamamah deals, Kuwaiti/Jersey Trusts ) such economic engines enjoyed the staunch support of their home governments. In the early days of empire, the companies did the business, calling out the army when the natives proved too recalcitrant (if you think this formula outdated, think again, and remember the US/Halliburton synergies in Iraq.).
A lot has changed since George Taubman’s days, and a lot is still the same. ‘Africans’ now sit in government houses from Cape to Cairo. The UACN, ‘successor’ of the Royal Niger Company, is now quoted on the Nigerian Stock Exchange rather than chartered by the British queen. The laws are written in African Parliaments, administered out of African courts, but if the African states have grown stronger, the Joint Stock / Chartered companies of Taubman’s era have also metastasized into these megalithic multinational parabeings with stronger internal economies that most of the quisling states they do business in. Companies that think nothing of handing out $14million bribes to pervert justice. In that sense, the parallel comparisons remain valid, of an Imperial East African Company trading with small, malleable, communal cooperatives – in an 1890 Mombasa for instance.
This is where we need a paradigm shift in our morality. Companies that do business by the book are welcome as ever. Development and growth depend on strong economies, and the corporation is at the heart of that mix. Yet, the Company is to Economic Intelligence what the Computer is to Artificial Intelligence: the very distillation of single-minded rapacity in the achievement of the sole purpose for which it exists. Being completely amoral, it has to be appropriately programmed to ensure that its human managers run it according to the right book.
African political and legal institutions – where they exist at all – are still nascent in comparative terms, too easily subverted. When things go wrong, as they will, the machinery of justice lacks the traction, the inexorable weight, to bear down on the malefactors. The profits that attend subversion are so great that companies that may be the acme of propriety and legality in their Western bases become the very distillation of corruption and excess in their African multinational incarnations – and Elf is a case in point, for the latter, if not the former.
As long as the Halliburtons of the world can pay Nigerians officials bribes of $180 million and get away with synthetic repriminds mediated by their Presidential cover, repriminds that do not even amount to a hiccup when extrapolated to their annual dividends, then let us make no mistake about it: the Scramble for Africa, the pernicious looting of Africa, continues under our watch.
So let us draw the line. It is the blooded-human who is the citizen of this world. Although an artificial person, the corporation does not vote in national elections. Even if we have qualms concerning the execution of axe murderers, we should at least clear-sightedly debate the execution of corporations whose callous illegal drug tests on the innocent lead to avoidable deaths. The clear message should be: scramble and loot by all means, but at your own peril. Enter the Corporate Capital Penalty Clause. This should be installed in the legislative toolkit of every African nation: Every company guilty of serious economic crime should be liquidated, with its assets forfeited to any of a hundred (charity/restitution/environment/state/etc) potential permutations. There are no easy answers, but we must start the debate now: to define the seriousness of economic crime that will trigger the liquidation sanction, to debate the nature of the liquidation, the extent of appropriation, the destination of restitution, and the fate of employees and ‘innocent’ investors: we must devise a language that communicates to the heart of the corporation – the stockholder.
Because when dealing with Economic Intelligence it is essential to speak intelligent economics.