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Conduct Unbecoming


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Title: Conduct Unbecoming
Author: T.M.Aluko
Genre: Novel
Written: 1993
Length: 165 pages
Availability: Conduct Unbecoming - US
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Our Assessment:

B : fine if unremarkable novel about the shades and consequences of corruption

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Conduct Unbecoming is set in Equatoria, an imaginary African country "where the standard of public morality is always low." Cabinet Secretary William Laja is among the few public officials who appears not to be corrupt -- "the ideal civil servant" --, and it is Laja who tells the story.
       The book begins with the funeral of an emphatically corrupt Minister, Sylvester Domingo. Laja is more than happy to see him dead, not only because he was corrupt through and through, but also because Domingo knew of two skeletons in his otherwise relatively clean cupboard. (And there is also the matter of Domingo's attractive and now accessible widow, Dora .....)
       Laja tries his best not to get sucked into the bribe taking (and giving) culture that seems to pervade all aspects of Equatorian life. Unfortunately, he finds that corruption and the appearance of corruption are often hard to avoid. Though he has always acted in a manner above reproach, he has gotten involved in two building deals that suggest some possible improprieties. For one, the property is "of a value clearly above my earnings".
       Laja's deals involve a common practice: builders and/or tenants paying for the price of construction, and then living rent-free until the construction costs have essentially been recouped. It is also an arrangement that allows foreign firms access to desirable properties, since a law was recently passed denying them outright ownership of any property in Equatoria.
       Laja's problems get worse when it turns out that his construction company has altered the officially approved building plans without getting official permission to do so. In such cases, demolition of the offending property is called for -- and eventually a gang shows up to do just that (or at least to get paid off not to do it). Laja hurries to the property to sort this mess out, but before he can resolve the problem hired goons descend on the authorized demolition workers and chase them away. It certainly looks like Laja (ab)used his power and influence to achieve this.
       Matters are not helped by Laja's wife, Beatrice, who is a businesswoman of sorts, and especially her too-close relationship to Stefan Tangalakis. The white man's family has lived in Equatoria for more than a generation, but he is still looked upon with suspicion, especially since he is a successful businessman. The City Council now want to take over his bus transport service -- though all the politicians know that the municipal government will never be as successful at it as Tangalakis is.
       Laja is suspended from his post, and an inquiry is launched. "I had fallen from grace to grass", he laments.
       Even the tribunal that has been set up can't be taken entirely seriously (and one of the Commissioners immediately falls asleep). Offenders who have done worse than Laja do get away with what is essentially a slap on the wrist. Laja, too, acquits himself well -- but he has learned his lesson. He becomes considerably more philosophical (and tolerant) about the problems of corruption in his country.

       Aluko steers clear of making everything black and white. As Laja learns, things -- especially moral issues -- are considerably more murky. Private relationships, the public good, and professional obligations make it difficult to act completely beyond reproach. There is some cynicism -- especially about the wild electioneering promises that no one then follows through with -- but on the whole Aluko still sees some hope here.
       The characters and relationships are a bit too easily drawn, and the novel would have benefitted if they had been fleshed out more. The tribunal hearings, on the other hand, get a bit bogged down in details. Aluko writes solidly, however, and Laja certainly comes across quite well.
       Conduct Unbecoming is a reasonably entertaining novel about some of the problems of African life and governance. An interesting work, by someone who (as a sometime civil servant) is all too aware of the many complex issues.

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Other books by T.M.Aluko under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • Index of books relating to Africa

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About the Author:

       Nigerian author Timothy Mofolorunso Aluko was born 14 June 1918. He studied at the universities of Lagos and London, and held numerous administrative positions in Nigeria. He has written several novels.

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