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The Looting Machine:

Warlords, Tycoons, Smugglers and the Systematic Theft of Africa's Wealth

by Tom Burgis

(London Times)

WHEN the crude-oil price was riding high, it became fashionable to suggest that Africa was finally enjoying the economic rewards that it deserved. Angola was propping up the banks of its former master Portugal; rich Nigerians seemed to clog up every expensive restaurant in London.

The oil-price crash last year inconvenienced this new global elite, but it has not affected them nearly as badly as the populations of the petrostates of west Africa. Tom Burgis, a Financial Times journalist formerly based in west and southern Africa, has written a revealing account of how this new ruling class routinely and ruthlessly loot their nations' wealth. The 'resource curse' is not new, but Burgis explains lucidly how the oil and mineral bonanza subverts societies and corrupts western multinational companies trying to cash in.

Resources amount to 11% of Europe's exports, 12% of Asia's, but two-thirds of Africa's. For some states, the dependence on what can be dug or pumped from the ground is even more extreme: 97% of Nigeria's and Angola's exports are oil and gas, with most of the balance made up by diamonds.

This means that these countries are at the mercy of commodity-price fluctuations, but worse still, that all other economic activity is snuffed out. This has been the case for decades in much of the Arab world, where the work is done by immigrants while the lucky elite race their Ferraris around Knightsbridge. Now the malady has spread to Africa. Nigeria used to have a vast textile industry, with 175 mills employing 350,000 people. Officially, textile imports are banned to protect the indigenous workforce, yet still the industry has been effectively wiped out. The vast bulk of the tribal robes that Nigerian women wear, for instance, are run up in Chinese sweatshops, then smuggled from Niger. Nigeria exports billions of pounds of oil every year, yet its civil society is so corrupt it cannot generate sufficient electricity to keep factories going. And the politicians, enriched by oil money, turn a blind eye to the illegal garment trade.

Burgis is particularly acute in analysing how multinationals connive in this institutionalised theft. It used to be that the American and European oil 'majors' led the way, but now the Chinese are muscling in. He chronicles how a web of shell companies (theoretically based at a former British Army barracks in Hong Kong) controls this trade through Moscow, London, New York, North Korea and China. He presents vivid portraits of the fixers who grease the wheels and allow this multi-billion-pound business to churn the petrodollars into numbered bank accounts. The victims are the ordinary west Africans whose politicians are suborned and whose rivers are polluted by extraction practices that would never be tolerated in Europe or America.

Burgis's most telling revelation is that the ethnic conflicts in west Africa are largely the by-product of economic rivalries over oil rights. In Britain we hear about Boko Haram committing all sorts of atrocities in the name of Islam, but Burgis suggests that at root it is all about the distribution of oil profits between western and Chinese multinationals.

He talks to a Catholic priest who oversees his benighted flock in a region where the oil money flows without benefit to the local people. The priest says that any aggrieved politician who has missed out on a bribe establishes a religious grievance that has power with the indigenous population. 'If he doesn't win a contract or a position, he will say it is because I am a Christian or a Muslim. It is religion politicised and used as a weapon.' This intelligent book should give us all pause for thought when we fill our cars with petrol.

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