On June 23, 2020 and in the wake of the brutal vigilante and police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and other Black Americans, Anheuser-Busch InBev, a multinational beverage and brewing company based in Belgium, declared their “commit[ment] to [their] purpose of bringing people together for a better world—regardless of race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, gender, or any other difference.” Anheuser-Busch InBev went on to affirm their commitment to “take action in our value chain and in the communities in which we live and work.” The 600-word statement constitutes a familiar corporate tool: corporate social responsibility, a variety of commitments a corporation makes to the communities in which it operates. These commitments can include financing for education programs, hospitals and clinics, pledging to significantly reduce the firm’s carbon footprint, or increasing diversity in the firm through DEI initiatives.
Though seemingly benevolent, it is important to critically consider the role of corporate social responsibility commitments like Anheuser-Busch’s. This is especially true in an age of neoliberalism, where the role of the state in public affairs has diminished while corporate power has increased tremendously—especially in the global periphery, where states are handicapped by liberalization conditions that come with loans from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The seemingly charitable contributions of corporations to the communities in which their enterprises function contribute to the stories these firms curate about themselves, which often distort the realities of their value chains, productive processes, and labor regimes. Through the corporate social responsibility framework, corporations can build private hospitals and clinics while marketing a sugary soda with no nutritional value to poor communities, as is the case of Coca-Cola in Papua New Guinea. The framework does not regulate the firm or impose publicly-derived demands on corporate practices, but allows the firm to co-opt social problems and align them with its corporate objectives, conveniently ignoring the ways it contributes to the problems it hopes to solve.
The case of Hero Lager, a subsidiary brewery of Anheuser-Busch InBev in Southeastern Nigeria, provides an example of the hypocrisy behind performative corporate social responsibility statements. Anheuser-Busch InBev noted their ambition to “represent [their] consumer base and reflect the diverse nature of the populations in the markets [they] operate [in].” They also “recognize the powerful role brands can play in influencing cultural and social norms.” However, their actions reveal a different motivation: the Hero brand exploits ethnic tension and secessionist political sentiments among Nigeria’s Igbo people to make exorbitant profits.
The Hero name refers to the leader of the Biafran secessionist state and Igbo cultural hero, Lieutenant Colonel Chukuemeka Odumegwu-Ojuku. The bottle features the 11-pointed sun brandished on the Biafran flag and a red bottle cap, which is a nod to the iconic red caps worn by titled men in Igbo culture. The beer enjoys widespread brand loyalty among Igbo people, who see indulging in Hero beers as an expression of Biafran nationalism. Anheuser-Busch InBev has used their efforts pursuing diversity and inclusion in South Africa and the United States, and their financial contributions to the Nigerian Professional Football League, to obfuscate the immense profits they make in fanning the flames of ethnic violence and civil war in Nigeria. The Nigerian Civil War that took place from July 6, 1967, to January 15, 1970, claimed over 2 million lives and displaced over 2 million more; secession comes with devastating consequences.
It is important to note that Hero beer is not singularly to blame for the resurgence of Nigerian nationalism. The desire for an independent Igbo nation separate from Nigeria never died, though the national project faded after the civil war. The dream of Biafra is the product of generations of compounding disappointment in the efficacy of the Nigerian state, which has failed to defeat the Islamic insurgent group Boko Haram, to quell the violent clashes between Fulani herders and Igbo farmers, and to diversify the economy to create opportunities for the nation’s young people. However, the shortcomings of the Nigerian state are experienced across ethnic geographies and for the most part, are not concentrated in the Southeast. On the whole, the Nigerian clientelist state serves only the politicians and businessmen that are well-integrated into its extensive patronage network, excluding large swathes of the Nigerian population.
Though Hero beer is not solely to blame, they are complicit not only in fanning the flames of secession but also in benefiting from the Nigerian state’s corrupt patronage system. Acknowledging the extreme profitability of the beer company, the former Governor of Anambra State, Peter Obi, who is an Igbo man and a long-time member of Nigeria’s clientelist political apparatus, invested state funds in the company for a 10 percent private stake. For Obi and other political leaders, Hero beer is a profitable investment destination rather than a threat to the cohesiveness of the Nigerian state because of the Nigerian military’s status as one of the most formidable on the African continent. The Nigerian military receives significant investment from the United States Department of Defense and capacity-building assistance from the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) to fight insurgents and quell civil unrest that may compromise the stability of the state, especially ongoing oil extraction ventures from which American-based multinational oil companies benefit immensely.
Despite the fact that insurgents claiming to be Igbo nationalists extort and terrorize communities in the Southeast—even asking the relatives of the civilians they kidnap to pay for the return of their loved ones with thousands of naira (the Nigerian currency) and Hero beers—the Nigerian state and its clients know that the nation’s major commercial hubs and administrative capitals will never be compromised. The symbiotic relationship between the state and Hero beer, or what Leigh Campoamor, the author of There’s an App for That: Telecom, Children’s Rights, and the Conflicting Logics of Corporate Social Responsibility, terms the “corporate-state nexus,” provides Hero with legal and extralegal investment from the state. In exchange, the state receives taxes, and politicians with private stakes in the firm receive dividends from the sale of Hero beer. This relationship reinforces the power of the state and increases the material wealth of the state’s clients like Governor Peter Obi, local executives at Hero, and international executives at Anheuser-Busch InBev. Meanwhile, the military and police capacity of the Nigerian state ensures that even when insurgent groups engage in secessionist politics, they remain on the fringes of Nigerian society.
Corporate social responsibility commitments function to paint as ethical firms whose corporate practices are irredeemable. They allow the corporation to pick which problems it solves and how, leaving their most profitable and destructive corporate practices unhindered. The case of Anheuser-Busch InBev’s subsidiary brewery, Hero Lager Beers, openly violates the multi-national brewery’s commitments to global diversity and community-building; it fractures social cohesion in Nigeria by contributing to secessionist sentiments and benefits from the corrupt patronage networks that cause widespread bitterness and hostility toward the Nigerian state.
The image featured in this article was placed in the public domain under the Creative Commons CCO 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. It has not been altered from the original photograph, which was taken by Peter Williams and can be found here.