“Great Britain is the most corrupt state in the world” — An open letter to Europe by Ilija Trojanow

Dear Europeans, dear accomplices, dear fellow victims,

I recently received a mail from Aisha al-Gaddafi, the only daughter of Libya’s former dictator. We didn’t know each other, and yet Mrs Gaddafi wrote very confidently that she would entrust $27.5 million to me if I’d help her to invest the money in my country. She would reward me with a handsome commission of thirty per cent of this sum. She requested that I get in touch with her as a matter of urgency.

I didn’t believe that Mrs Gaddafi personally had written to me, of course. It wasn’t the first time I’d been contacted like this, after all. You’ve probably received a similar missive at least once in your life – in the past as a letter, for a brief time by fax, and for some time now by email. It’s the set-up for a con.

Nigerians call this a “419” after the relevant paragraph of their country’s criminal code. Someone writes to you, claiming to have access to gigantic sums of (misappropriated) money. That someone would like you to help him or her to get this cash out of Nigeria (or Russia or Brazil or some other country). Enterprising Nigerians send out millions of these mails, and if a recipient falls for their trick, they ask for some modest administrative payments to grease the wheels for the big windfall. Agree to a face-to-face meeting with one of these shysters and they’ll lead you a merry dance.

Europeans usually talk or write about 419 cases as an example of the tremendous corruption in countries such as Nigeria, expressing a mixture of indignation and amusement. Less frequently mentioned is the behaviour of the con’s targets, who are generally regarded as victims despite in fact being accomplices. How do the senders of these mails come up with the seemingly fanciful idea of enticing someone in Europe with absurd tales of gold and gemstones? The sting works only because it’s clear to both parties that Nigerians, Libyans or Iraqis are handing over their dirty money to a “whiter-than-white” European to look after and launder. No one is surprised by how obvious it seems that Europeans are blindly trusted to guard the grubbed millions.

This is clearly one of our jobs under the global division of labour. Other people steal, we fence; one dollar washes the other. Every 419 email is a sign that corruption in the global South is only possible because the stolen money eventually ends up somewhere here, be it London or Zurich, Cyprus or Liechtenstein.

And yet we’re appalled by the scale of corruption in the South. Around $50 billion is embezzled every year in the world’s poorest countries. Capital flees to the North. It isn’t quite as easy to designate who’s responsible for the basic tone of globalized capitalism as many of us would like to think. Transparency International, for example, thinks that Somalia is the most corrupt country on earth, whereas the renowned Italian journalist Roberto Saviano, who has been studying mafia-style organizations for decades, is of the opinion that Great Britain is the most corrupt state in the world (London has degenerated into a playground for international crooks).

Transparency and Saviano are both right, but as citizens of Europe, we need to take a look at our own schizophrenia. We demand good governance and launder dirty money – both at once, with our hearts in the sky and our fat arses on the couch of complacency.

In late eighteenth century Edinburgh there lived a man named William Brodie, an elegant gentleman who ran a cabinetmaker’s shop and was respected by his fellow citizens. By day he served on the city council and reliably fulfilled his clients’ orders; by night he would break into his customers’ houses and rob them , until one day he was arrested and executed.

William Brodie would be long forgotten if Robert Louis Stevenson hadn’t seen in him an extreme symbol of a disturbing human trait – the split personality. Stevenson wrote about Brodie three times. His first two attempts were plays that flopped, the third – a fast-paced novella called The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – became a bestseller.

“I was born in the year 18— to a large fortune, endowed besides with excellent parts, inclined by nature to industry, fond of the respect of the wise and good among my fellow-men, and thus, as might have been supposed, with every guarantee of an honourable and distinguished future.” Thus begins Dr Jekyll’s confession in the final chapter of the book. He is an eminent doctor – a man who heals people, who prizes education and knowledge, and a prominent member of society.

At the same time, however, he is the callous and brutal epitome of blind greed, a man by the name of Mr Hyde.

There is no Dr Jekyll on the one hand and Mr Hyde on the other, but a creature that was “committed to a profound duplicity of life.” Also: “I saw that of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both.”

Dr Jekyll is neither innocent nor naïve nor blind. He recognizes the enemy within, and he would dearly love to vanquish him. Eventually, though, he gives up the fight.

A direct line can be drawn between this story and the present. What is true of individuals can also hold for societies as a whole. Europe – or, to be more precise, the European Union – is Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

In 2017 the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, expressed horror at the state of refugee camps in Libya. “I can’t sleep easy when I think about what’s happening to those people who went to Libya to try and improve their lives, only to find themselves in hell.” Europe must not “be silent in the face of this outrageous problem, which dates back to another century”. He was “very shocked” by reports that refugees in Libya were being sold as slaves. “I didn’t know until two months ago the full extent of the problem. It’s become a constant, urgent situation.”

It’s easy to understand Juncker’s horror. In Libya thirty refugees or so are packed into cells measuring less than five square metres, and they’re starving because they’re only fed every three days. According to a report by the NGO Doctors without Borders, their living conditions have been getting steadily worse. Almost a quarter of the inmates in Sabaa prison in Tripoli, the capital, are apparently undernourished, many of them children.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that there are currently around 670,000 refugees in Libya. The German embassy in Niger wrote to the German Chancellery back in 2017, describing what happened to refugees who were sent back across the Mediterranean: “Executions of migrants who cannot pay, torture, rape, blackmail and abandonment in the desert are a daily occurrence. Eye witnesses spoke of five shootings per week in one of the prisons – these were pre-announced and always took place on Friday to free up space for newcomers.”

A study by the Women’s Refugee Commission concludes that virtually every woman who flees via Libya falls victim to sexual violence. Survivors report being raped with sticks, genitals being burnt, penises cut off, and men forced to rape their sisters. Unimaginable atrocities, and all within the past two years.

So what has Juncker done to bring an end to such dreadful circumstances?


What could he have done?

Many things.

That’s because what’s happening in Libya is taking place not only with the EU’s acquiescence but even with direct funding from the bloc, since Libyan border guards are meant to use all available means to prevent refugees from escaping. If refugees endure terrible conditions and die in Libya, this is a direct consequence of a targeted EU policy.

However, it would be wrong to accuse advocates of this policy, like Jean-Claude Juncker, of hypocrisy. His outrage was undoubtedly sincere. He is an heir to the European tradition that has promulgated universal ideals of solidarity around the world since the French Revolution, abolished slavery and played a decisive role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Dr Jekyll puts his finger on this conundrum: “Though so profound a double-dealer, I was in no sense a hypocrite; both sides of me were in dead earnest; I was no more myself when I laid aside restraint and plunged in shame, than when I laboured, in the eye of day, at the furtherance of knowledge or the relief of sorrow and suffering.”

The EU declares that it “supports national authorities to improve their capacity to fight traffickers”. In actual fact, though, the distinction between the Libyan authorities and the gangs of people smugglers is somewhat blurred.

“European governments and institutions keep saying that they advocate the end of arbitrary detention of refugees and migrants, but they have not taken any decisive action to ensure this would happen,” said Matteo De Bellis of Amnesty International.

European politicians talk like Dr Jekyll and act like Mr Hyde. The German international development minister, Gerd Müller, drafts repeated plans for saving the world, but little good has come about during his time in in office.

The minister would like western societies to fundamentally change their lifestyles. “We should no longer derive our prosperity from slave and child labour and exploiting our environment.” In his book Unfair he writes: “We must reach a state that allows every person on the planet to live in dignity. The goal is to satisfy everyone’s basic needs of food, water, shelter and work at last, and for the industrialized countries, which have already acquired these material goods, this means we must learn to share. In the long term there must not and will not be any further growth at the expense of others.”

In a speech in honour of the Catholic aid agency Misereor a year ago, he declared: “Instead of ‘I take pity’ we should now say, “I take responsibility” for those things that are in my power. And we have power! As consumers. As businesses producing around the world. As policymakers of great economic powers.”

He went on to quote Cardinal Frings’s challenge to appeal to the consciences of those who shape political, economic and social conditions. That is all very honourable: Minister Jekyll is formulating a clear ethical mission, which every single one of us senses in defining moments. My daughter learned at school that a prosperous Swiss citizen uses as many resources as a whole African village. If we were on a raft, such parasitic and anti-social behaviour would not be tolerated.

Real-life politics is different, though. Every international body prevents indispensable reforms to the global economic and financial system. There have been attempts at various administrative levels of the United Nations over the past four decades to link economic conduct and human rights, and approve binding rules. Most recently, the Intergovernmental Working Group (IGWG) on transnational corporations and human rights published a draft agreement on business and human rights a year ago. This “zero draft” – so-called to show that it is provisional and amendable – was the result of years of haggling between the participants. It will now be “discussed” – a euphemism for the neutering of any strict and legally binding restrictions on the often brutal, and almost always exploitative, actions of international companies in poorer countries.

In parallel, the efforts of the global South to be admitted to the OECD-dominated international tax policy committee were vetoed by the North including Germany. That would have been “to increase the fiscal opportunities of poorer countries to determine international regulatory measures, e.g. shutting down tax havens, fighting tax evasion and combating competition for tax dumping.”
As recently as two decades ago, debt relief for the poorest countries was a high-profile political issue. All that stood in the way of writing off developing countries’ debts was the greed and selfishness of industrialized countries. Nowadays, these countries tooth and nail to defend their advantages. When Cyclone Idai recently devastated parts of Mozambique, the heart-rending appeals for debt relief fell on deaf ears. According to IMF statistics, Mozambique is one of the thirty-five states that find themselves in an existential debt crisis. The country is behind with its payments and incapable of servicing its outstanding debts.

Whenever money is involved or “our” prosperity under threat, Mr Hyde rears his ugly head and sabotages the struggle for human dignity and a good life for all.

Instead of binding rules, the EU and the German government (including Minister Müller) opt for voluntary schemes for environmental and social standards.

A year ago I drove for two hours solid through the north of Borneo and as far as the eye could see on either side of the road there was nothing but oil palms where jungle flourished only a generation ago. The view: chemically fuelled monoculture, and growth that leads to death (after two decades the soils are completely exhausted). The Amsterdam Declarations now encourage traders, agricultural companies and food businesses that have contributed to the unique destruction of nature over several decades to voluntarily commit to more stringent standards as part of multi-stakeholder platforms, and to put their business models on a more sustainable footing. There is only one drawback to this old idea – it doesn’t work.

Mr Hyde is particularly rampant in agriculture. Although the latest World Agriculture Report appeals for a radical change in global farming, the EU and its most powerful member states continue to push for the expansion of industrial agriculture complete with intensive use of fertilizers, pesticides and patented seeds. This principally serves the interests and profits of the agricultural corporations involved, while sustainable agro-ecological farming methods barely get a look in.

One could tear one’s hair out over this deep-rooted schizophrenia, but there are also signs of hope. Slavery was as much a fact of late-eighteenth-century life as container ships are today. When small groups in Britain began to question its legitimacy, their ethical beliefs were dismissed because the transatlantic slave trade was immensely profitable for the United Kingdom. It provided jobs, it allowed fortunes to be made and it guaranteed the flow of consumer goods. This was sufficient justification. It’s the same situation today regarding glaring social inequalities and environmental destruction. Mr Hyde’s arguments die hard. And yet fifty years of political struggle finally resulted in the abolition of slavery in Europe.


That too is part of the European tradition. In Crisis in Civilisation, Rabindranath Tagore’s forceful indictment of British rule in India, the poet endeavours to distinguish between resistance to imperialism and a rejection of western civilisation. On the one hand, India was “smothered under the dead weight of British administration”; on the other hand, it should never forget what the country had gained through Shakespeare’s drama and Byron’s poetry and above all “the large-hearted liberalism of the nineteenth-century English politics”. The tragic aspect, however, was that “that which was truly best in their own civilisations, the upholding of the dignity of human relationships, has no place in the British administration of this country”.

It is no secret that the tale of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde ends badly. Robert Louis Stevenson, that well-travelled Scot, encapsulated Europe’s dual nature with remarkable prescience: “Henry Jekyll stood at times aghast before the acts of Edward Hyde; but the situation was apart from ordinary laws, and insidiously relaxed the grasp of conscience. It was Hyde, after all, and Hyde alone, that was guilty. Jekyll was no worse; he woke again to his good qualities seemingly unimpaired; he would even make haste, where it was possible, to undo the evil done by Hyde. And thus his conscience slumbered.”


Ilija Trojanow
Ilija Trojanow – Photo by Thomas Dorn