Like many well- beloved children, this book was an accident. It came about
as I moved between two big research projects, one on the history of land law,
the other on the politics of criminal law. Indeed, the research that has gone
into it was originally planned (and funded) for those ends. As I worked on
the two projects, my mind kept drifting back to my many conversations with
a remarkable man, Malam Isa Muhammad. In many ways, Malam Isa was an
ordinary talaka, commoner; he was a farmer, and he was very poor. He was
distinguished, however, by a razor- sharp intellect and a biting wit, and he had
enjoyed a career as an activist in the Northern Elements Progressive Union
and People’s Redemption Party, left- wing parties during Nigeria’s First and
Second Republics, respectively. Spectacularly knowledgeable about the po liti-
cal history of his town, and about the travails of its poorer residents, Malam Isa
was also gifted at sensing when I did not understand concepts to his satisfac-
tion. His patience and generosity made all the difference to me in some trying
times. And his insistence on telling me about his comrades’ problems in his
own terms is what ultimately led to this book.
While I was finishing my first book, Jim Brennan invited me to the Afri-
can history seminar at the School of Oriental and African Studies (soas) at
the University of London, which I took as an opportunity to revisit a point
Malam Isa had pressed, and which I had not resolved to his satisfaction or
mine. Among Hausa- speaking people in northern Nigeria, there seemed to
be several different ways of talking about corruption, only one of which ac-
corded with my own understanding of what the word entailed, and I presented
a paper laying out the concepts and the problems they highlighted. The audi-
ence pushed me hard, helping me to think through the problem sufficiently to
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