A continent trashed by treasure seekers

Published by The Observer (1st March, 2015)

The Looting Machine: Warlords, tycoons, smugglers and the systematic theft of Africa’s wealth by Tom Burgis (William Collins)

Augustin Katumba Mwanke was a young banker in South Africa when persuaded to return home to help rebuild the Democratic Republic of Congo by the new government of Laurent Kabila. A year later he got a call from the president, a fellow Katangan, and was stunned to be appointed governor of an area the size of France, with control over some of the world’s most valuable mineral seams.

This marked the start of his rapid rise to power beside the president, placed at the core of a network of Congolese officials, foreign businessmen and organised criminals plundering the nation’s immense wealth. First, they transferred $5bn of state assets into the pockets of private firms with no benefit to the state, then after this was exposed, Katumba created a shadow state to steal funds, buy elections and bribe supporters. One witness says Kabila was being handed at least $4m a week in cash-filled suitcases from mining companies.

The victims, of course, are those millions condemned by the “resource curse” to conflict and poverty in a country that remains among the world’s poorest, despite the huge riches beneath their feet. As this timely book shows, similar shadow states are pillaging Africa’s immense wealth, from Angola to Zimbabwe, while corroding its societies. The result is a nation such as Nigeria, one of the world’s major oil producers, generating half as much electricity as North Korea – only enough to power one toaster for every 44 of its citizens.

After nine years reporting on Africa for the Financial Times, Tom Burgis exposes how the extractive industries have turned into a hideous looting machine, the west guilty of complicity in the raping of a continent. As he says, corruption does not end at the borders; kleptocratic regimes use avaricious allies to sell their commodities and stash illicit cash. “Its proponents include some of the world’s biggest companies, among them blue-chip multinationals in which, if you live in the west and have a pension, your money is almost certainly invested.”

Burgis shows how even the World Bank is linked to this looting, although it would have been good to see recognition of the role of aid propping up awful regimes. But the author makes an important case colourfully, convincingly and at times courageously as he confronts some of those involved in the pillaging. He examines countries cursed in similar style, whether by oil in Angola, coltan in the Congo, iron ore in Guinea, uranium in Niger or diamonds in Zimbabwe. There are lots of dodged questions and unanswered emails, but also surprising admissions, such as the Nigerian governor defending his need to “settle” payments for political survival. ‘If I don’t, I’ve got a big political enemy,’ he says.

South Africa is home to the world’s most valuable mineral resources – yet the gap between rich and poor probably widened since the end of apartheid. This fits a pattern of inequality stemming from the resource curse, argues Burgis, pointing out how some leaders fought against racist regimes only to preside over elites that resemble in structure minority rulers they overthrew. ‘It’s like a virus, transmitted from the colonial regime to the post-independence rulers,’ says one Nigerian critic. ‘And these extractors, they are the opposite of a society that is governed for the public good.’

Then there is the questionable role of China. The author is right to say there is a “distinct whiff of hypocrisy” to western criticism of the nation’s advance into Africa. Yet he grapples with the role played by the secretive Sam Pa. Burgis speculates about links to Chinese intelligence as he details Pa’s steady, lucrative cultivation of top-level contacts. His informative book ends with the words of Nigeria’s impassioned singer Nneka: ‘Don’t think you’re not involved.’

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