Book review: The Looting Machine - how Africa was robbed

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 March, 2015, 10:41pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 March, 2015, 10:41pm


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 he was 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, also from Katanga province, and was made governor of an area the size of France, with control over some of the world's most valuable mineral deposits.

This marked the start of his rapid rise to power beside the president, at the core of a network of Congolese officials, foreign businessmen and organised criminals plundering the nation's immense wealth.

First, they transferred US$5 billion of state assets into the pockets of private firms with no benefit to the state. After this was exposed, Katumba created a shadow state to steal funds, buy elections and bribe supporters. One witness said Kabila was handed at least US$4 million a week in cash-filled suitcases from mining companies.

The victims, of course, are those millions of people 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 - enough to power only 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. Corruption does not end at the borders, Burgis says: 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 Congo, iron ore in Guinea, uranium in Niger or diamonds in Zimbabwe.

There are many 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, Burgis writes, pointing out how some leaders fought against racist regimes only to preside over elite that resemble in structure the minority rulers that they overthrew.

"It's like a virus, transmitted from the colonial regime to the post-independence rulers," a Nigerian critic says. "And these extractors, they are the opposite of a society that's governed for the public good."

Then there is the questionable role of China. Burgis 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 secretive Chinese middleman 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 Lucia Egbuna: "Don't think you're not involved."

The Guardian