BY ALEXANDER MATTHEWS
The Looting Machine provides indispensable insights into why Africa’s astonishing oil and mineral wealth fails to translate into the enrichment of its people — and only benefits a small coterie of rulers, as well as middlemen and foreign companies. It exposes how weak governance allows political elites to act with impunity.
Tom Burgis, who was previously based in Johannesburg and Lagos for the Financial Times (and today is its investigations correspondent in London) has certainly done his homework – showing courage and tenacity as he takes readers across the continent — from Angola to Mali and Nigeria, to Congo, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Colourful details, stats and interviews (with tycoons, with ordinary folk, with politicians and politicians-turned-businessmen) sprinkle this eloquent and utterly engrossing read.
Burgis shines a piercing light on the murky world of the “shadow state”, where individuals and private companies with connections to politicians do deals — either with the world’s major resource companies or go-betweens that sell their rights at an eyewatering profit.
He shows that, in many cases, bountiful resources are a curse, not a boon, hampering progress (there is evidence to suggest that the economies of resource-rich African countries actually grow more slowly than those that have less).
Some of the organisations that appear in this book are well-known — petro-giants like Shell, or the French nuclear titan Areva (which, incidentally pays Niger a pittance for the uranium it carves out of the country’s earth). Then there are the colourful characters you might have heard of — such as diamond dealer Dan Gertler. But it is unlikely you’ve encountered the likes of the mysterious 88 Queensway Group. A significant chunk of the book is devoted to untangling the operations of this assortment of private companies. Thanks in large part to its connections to powerful Chinese politicians, it has succeeded in inking resource deals in a whole host of African countries (starting in Angola). The group specialises in providing quick cash to regimes (some of them bloodthirsty; all of them corrupt) who need of it urgently — in return for bargain-priced mineral concessions.
(Incidentally, the man at the centre of Queensway, Sam Pa – who appears throughout the book – was arrested in China last year not long after the book’s publication, a sign of how quickly political fortunes can change in the world’s second largest economy.)
The Looting Machine is a vital contribution towards understanding Africa’s politics, its economies and the often toxic intermingling of the two. If we want to know what’s holding the continent back, what is stymieing its potential: here it is. If we want to understand what really fuels supposedly ethnic or religious motivated conflict, whether in the eastern Congo or Nigeria, here it is. The great, ugly tussle for wealth, at the expense of the ordinary.
Will the plundering stop? Will the resource curse become a gift? Although Burgis does not attempt to answer that, it does not seem like things are unlikely to change dramatically anytime soon. Unless there are dramatic changes to the way business is being done, for the next while at least, Africa’s rich will carry on getting rich. Most of its poor will remain poor.
And all of us — thanks to the precious metals in our phones and the petrol in our cars and the sparkling gems on our fingers— are too blame.
The Looting Machine is published by William Collins.