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Monday 20 April 2015

Review: Tom Burgis, The Looting Machine

How come Africans are so poor when Africa is so rich in natural resources? Simply because the revenues generated by exploitation of those resources are split between the giant multinationals who operate the mines and oil wells - and the personal bank accounts of government ministers or other racketeers who collect the rent in profit shares, licence fees and bribes. Nobody else gets a look in. It's as simple as that.

Tom Burgis is an investigative journalist and a lot of this book reads like the cut and paste of past investigations, with generous helpings of disclaimers to protect him from English libel laws. So he dutifully records that everyone living who he names denies having done what it is commonly believed they have done. Everyone else is corrupt but not me, they all say. All Cretans are liars.

There are many fascinating - and harrowing tales - scattered through this book, along with many statistics to make you weep. Not much has changed since King Leopold of the Belgians ran his racket in the Congo - size of Europe -  that he personally owned.

If Burgis is right - and the idea of "resource curse" is not novel and is widely held to be at the root of sub-Saharan Africa's tragedy - then the implications are actually worse than he tells us. I will elaborate.

A country, a state is a geographically defined entity which has its borders accepted by the United Nations. The government of that country is any body which the United Nations (and at least as helpfully, the United States) recognises as entitled to make laws, control the borders and decapitate people or put them in the electric chair. The United Nations is fairly broad minded about what qualifies you as a legitimate government. Most any bunch of gangsters will do and the longer they hold on, the more legitimate they become. All the advanced, civilised Western nations exchange Ambassadors with Equatorial Guinea which currently is Number One in the world for an inverse relationship between GDP per capita ($30 000) and individual well-being. New gangsters in the Presidential palace may, initially, have a hard time - but Burgis points out that nowadays China will often enough come to their rescue with immediate up-front cash advances against future deals.

In general, the local labour forces required to exploit mines or oil wells are small. In general, the governments of resource-rich states can both run the country and pocket personal billions just from the money passed to them by the oil companies or the uranium miners. They don't need tax revenues from local people.

And the implication is this: they don't need the local people at all. Maybe they need 10% of the population as a helot class to do manual labour and service jobs. The rest of the population could simply die and there would be no ill-effect. Indeed, it would solve the problem of insurgencies and protest movements. Let Ebola or, more selectively, genocide carry them off. A country free of people would make life much easier for the regimes and the multinationals. And the United Nations would not mind: there is no minimum population you need to get in - Nauru is a full member with a population of under 10 000

This is an information-rich book. If you read it alongside Frank Ledwidge's Losing Small Wars you get an even gloomier picture for prospects in Africa's resource-rich countries.

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