My anthropological research often takes me to Harlem in New York City, where I visit West African merchant friends who sell a variety of goods at the wonderful Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market. When you spend time among West Africans you understand quickly that the art of conversation remains highly appreciated. So, when I sit down with my friends in New York, I expect engaged conversations: numerous stories of relatives in Niger and Mali and detailed discussions of economic conditions in West Africa, Europe and North America. By the time food appears, our conversation usually turns to politics. My West African friends are political junkies who listen incessantly to the latest news on the radio -- in French and English.
Our recent conversations have turned to American presidential politics.
Moussa, who sells jewelry asked: "Why would anybody vote for Mitt Romney?"
"A lot of people like his ideas," I said. "They think he knows a lot about business and that he can solve America's economic problems."
Adamu, who sells handbags, wondered: "How can he do that? He just likes to criticize Obama. He has no plan." Adamu grinned. "The guy won't even make his tax returns public. What is he hiding? How can you Americans elect as president, a man who hides his money in Switzerland?"
"Well," I retorted, "he has a lot of money to spend. He could win."
"You know," Moussa chimed in, "this Mitt Romney reminds me of some of our African politicians. They have no plan -- other than to grab and hold onto power and hide their money."
"That's right" Adamu stated, shaking his head. "Some of our politicians grow fat on the money they steal and then hide."
This statement compelled Moussa to talk about corrupt political regimes in West Africa. He claimed that the regime of Niger's first president, Hamani Diori was extremely corrupt. In its obituary of Diori, the New York Times wrote about the regime's mismanagement of funds.
Corruption also flourished. During a pervasive drought that gripped Africa in the late 1960's and early 1970's, officials of his Government were accused of siphoning off relief supplies and selling them at inflated prices.
Like most specialists on Niger, I would suggest that it was this widespread corruption that triggered the coup that ended the Diori Regime. Stripped of power, Diori spent six years under house arrest.
Talk of the widespread corruption during the Diori regime compelled Adamu to recount the story of Felix Houphouet-Boigny, the first president of Cote d'Ivoire. People in Cote d'Ivoire called their first president "Le Vieux " ("The Old Man"). Like his many of his counterparts, Le Vieux, according to Adamu, kept much of his considerable fortune in Swiss bank accounts.
In an article on African corruption in the journal Current History Stephen Ellis underscored Adamu's claim. "Houphouët-Boigny," he wrote, "also diverted state resources on a huge scale, using them, for example, to build an imitation of the Vatican's St. Peter's basilica in his home village."
On occasion Le Vieux boasted about his Swiss bank accounts. In an April 1983 television interview, cited by Shannon Martin and David Copeland in their book, The Function of Newspapers in Society, Le Vieux acknowledged that he kept billions in Swiss bank accounts. He said: "I have money overseas. But it is not money of Cote d'Ivoire. What serious man in world would not place a part of his money in Switzerland? It's the bank of the world."
Talk of Le Vieux inspired Adamu to provide more details about Houphouet-Boigny's most famous and notorious project: the construction of the aforementioned $300 million Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, which, when completed in 1989, turned out to be the largest church in the world. It is a structure that massively overshadows all the other buildings in Houphouet-Boigny's relatively remote home village -- a "gift" to the Church that has also enshrined the Le Vieux's "Big Man" legacy.
In due time, Adamu moved on to finish his story, which, like much folklore, is probably a tale that is in some degree embellished. He concluded that when Houphouet-Boigny was asked where he had gotten the funds to build his church, Le Vieux reportedly said: 'Out of my own pocket.'"
in appreciation of a story well told, we all laughed loudly.
"When it comes to money," Moussa said, "Romney and Le Vieux are brothers."
Adamu said: "If you mean that they would do anything and say anything to protect their money, then yes, they are brothers."
Moussa said: "You can't trust a person who has so much to hide."
Adamu nodded in agreement.
Moussa turned to me, the only American in our group, and asked: "Do you really think the Americans could elect a man who hides money in so many places?"
"Time will tell, my friends. Time will tell."