Tom Burgis, The Looting Machine:
Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth
Sub-Saharan Africa today is awash in the critical natural resources that fuel what we term the modern way of life. It is the repository of 15% of the planet’s crude oil reserves, 40% of its gold, and 80% of its platinum, along with the world’s richest diamond mines and significant deposits of uranium, copper, iron ore, and bauxite, the ore that is refined to make aluminum. Yet, the immense wealth that these resources produce is all too often siphoned off at the top of African states, with little positive effect for everyday citizens of those states. The more the country is rich in natural resources, the poorer are its people, or so it seems. This is what Tom Burgis, an investigative journalist for the Financial Times, terms the “resource curse” in his passionately argued indictment of Africa’s ruling elites and their cohorts, The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth.
The resource curse enables rulers of resource dependent states to “govern without recourse to popular consent,” Burgis contends. “Instead of calling their rulers to account, the citizens of resource states are reduced to angling for a share of the loot. This creates an ideal fiscal system for supporting autocrats” (p.73-74). Resource dependent states are thus “hard-wired for corruption. Kleptocracy, or government by thieves, thrives” (p.5). The resource curse is not unique to Africa, Burgis emphasizes, but it is “at its most virulent on the continent that is at once the world’s poorest and, arguably, its richest” (p.5). Once dominated by colonial European powers and subsequently by Cold War superpowers, sub-Saharan Africa today is subject to what Burgis terms a “new form of dominion . . . controlled not by nations but by alliances of unaccountable African rulers governing through shadow states, middlemen who connect them to the global resource economy, and multinational companies from the West and the East that cloak their corruption in corporate secrecy” (p.244).
The resource curse gives rise to what Burgis terms “looting machines.” In a series of case studies, he demonstrates looting machines in action in several African states. He devotes most attention to Angola, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo, but also provides examples of the siphoning of state resources in numerous other African states, including Botswana, Ghana, Guinea, Madagascar, Niger, Sierra Leone, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. Burgis’ case studies delve deeply into the highly complex and often-opaque transactions typical of looting machines across the continent. Some readers may find these portions of his case studies overly detailed and slow going. But the studies also feature warm portraits of individual Africans affected by the continent’s looting machines.
Looting machines can work, Burgis explains, only when they are “plugged into international markets for oil and minerals. For that, Africa’s despots need allies in the resource industry” (p.107). Major Western international corporations still play a significant role in Africa, continuing a presence that often dates back to the colonial period. There is also no shortage of middlemen working to put African rulers and states together with international buyers, including several colorful characters portrayed here. Today’s middlemen often have a relationship to China and Chinese enterprises, now the major source of competition for Western corporations across the continent. Burgis’ insights into how Chinese connections abet the resource curse in Africa are among his most valuable contributions to our understanding of 21st century Africa.
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China has reshaped Africa’s economy through cheap loans to fund infrastructure building in resource dependent states, to be built by Chinese companies and repaid in oil or minerals — “infrastructure without interference,” as Burgis puts it, a “genuinely new bargain” (p.133). China builds roads, ports and refineries “on a scale scarcely countenanced by the European colonizers or the cold warriors. In exchange it [has] sought not allegiance to a creed so much as access to oil, minerals, and markets” (p.133-34). Burgis reveals numerous instances where Chinese firms receive natural resources, whether minerals or petroleum, for far less than the fair market price, often with kickbacks to individual local leaders. Swapping infrastructure and cheap credit for natural resources permits China to buy its way into “established Western companies that have long profited from the continent’s oil and minerals” (p.143).
Burgis begins with a case study of oil rich Angola, to which he returns frequently throughout the book. Africa’s third largest economy, after Nigeria and South Africa, Angola is also the continent’s second largest exporter of oil after Nigeria. Following independence from Portugal in 1975, the country was shattered by Cold War proxy wars between factions sponsored by the Soviet Union and the United States. When the wars ended, political and economic power devolved to the Futungo, a collection of Angola’s most powerful families, which embarked on the “privatization of power,” using Sonangol, Angola’s sate-owned oil company. An Angolan expert termed Sonangol a “shadow government controlled and manipulated by the [Angolan] presidency” (p.11). Sonangol awarded itself stakes in oil ventures operated by foreign companies, using the revenues to “push its tentacles into every corner of the domestic economy: property, health care, banking, aviation” (p.11), even a professional football team.
Burgis uncovered in Angola a pattern that repeats itself in other African resource-dependent states, in which owners of front companies, concealed behind layers of corporate secrecy, are the “very officials who influence or control the granting of rights to oil and mining prospects and who are seeking to turn that influence into a share of the profits” (p.15). In a deal between Sonagol and a Texas-based oil and exploration company, Cobalt International Energy, Sonangol insisted upon including an unknown local company as junior partner, Nazaki Oil and Gáz, ostensibly to help Angolans gain a foothold in an industry that provides almost all the country’s export revenue but accounts for barely one per cent of its jobs. By its own account, Cobalt went ahead with the deal “without knowing the true identify of its partner, a company with no track record in the industry and registered to an address on a Luanda backstreet that [Burgis] found impossible to locate when [he] went looking for it in 2012” (p.17).
Burgis’ own investigation revealed that three of Angola’s most powerful men held concealed stakes in Nazaki, including Sonagol’s CEO and the head of the president’s security detail. Nazaki’s involvement, an Angolan anti-corruption activist found, revealed a system of plunder in which the “spoils of power in Angola are shared by the few, while the many remain poor” (p.16). An audit of Angola’s national accounts conducted by the International Monetary Fund in 2011 estimated that between 2007 and 2010, $32 billion in Sonangol’s oil revenues should have gone to the state treasury but instead had “gone missing” (p.12), most of which could be traced to Sonangol’s off-the-books spending.
Nigeria, the continent’s most populous state, is also its largest oil producer and perhaps its most corrupt, although there are plenty of candidates for that distinction. Nigeria has been “hallowed out by corruption that has fattened a ruling class of stupendous wealth while most of the rest lack the means to fill their stomachs, treat their ailments, or educate their children” (p.63), Burgis contends. He uses Nigeria to illustrate “Dutch Disease,” a term which The Economist coined in 1977 to describe the after effects in the northern Netherlands when Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon discovered Europe’s largest national gas field. A gas bonanza followed, but people outside the energy industry began losing their jobs and other sectors of the economy slumped. Although the Netherlands had strong institutions that enabled it to withstand Dutch Disease, throughout Africa the disease has been a “pandemic,” with symptoms that “include poverty and oppression” (p.70).
Dutch Disease “enters a country through its currency,” Burgis explains. The dollars that pay for petroleum, minerals, ores or gems “push up the value of the local currency. Imports become cheaper relative to locally made products, undercutting homegrown enterprises. Arable land lies fallow as local farmers find that imported fare has displaced their produce” (p.70). Dutch disease stymies the possibility of industrialization within the country. As oil and minerals leave, their value accrues elsewhere and a cycle of “economic addiction” sets in: opportunity becomes “confined to the resource business, but only for the few . . . Instead of broad economies with an industrial base to provide mass employment, poverty breeds and the resource sector becomes an enclave of plenty for those who control it” (p.70). Northern Nigeria’s once thriving textile industry has now all but disappeared, creating new demand for imported clothes and fabrics. The omnipresence of Chinese goods at public markets testifies to Nigeria’s “near-total failure to develop a strong manufacturing sector of its own” (p.72).
Today, an immense network of political patronage sustains Nigeria’s petro-kleptocracy. That network propelled a once-obscure geologist, Goodluck Jonathan, to the presidency. Jonathan became governor of his home state of Baylsea, then vice-president under President Umaru Yar’Adua. After Yar’Adua died in office in 2010, Jonathan acceded to the presidency. When he sought the People’s Democratic Party’s nomination for president in his own right in 2011, party leaders beat back a challenger with $7000 payments to a sufficient number of the party’s 3,400 delegates to assure Jonathan’s nomination. $7000 represents roughly five times the average Nigerian’s annual income, Burgis points out. Jonathan served as president from 2011 to 2015 when, in a campaign where state corruption was a major issue, he became the first Nigerian president to be voted out of office.
On Jonathan’s watch, “jaw dropping” quantities (p.205) of approximately $60 billion in annual Nigerian oil revenue were unaccounted for each year. Meanwhile, the visibility of the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram increased, including its kidnapping of nearly 300 school girls. For Boko Haram, the corruption of Nigeria’s ruling class and the lack of economic opportunities in the country serve as “recruiting sergeants” (p.79). Oil has “sickened Nigeria’s heart” (p.71), Burgis plaintively concludes, turning a country of immense potential into a “sorry mess” (p.75).
Whereas the Angolan and Nigerian economies turn around oil, a mind-boggling array of mineral resources may be found in the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC. Its untapped deposits of raw minerals are estimated to be worth in excess of $24 trillion. The DRC has 70% of the world’s coltan, a third of its cobalt, more than 30% of its diamond reserves, and a tenth of its copper. Coltan is critical to the manufacture of a wide variety of electronics products, such as mobile phones and laptop computers. Cobalt, a by-product of copper, is used to make the ultra strong alloys that are integral to turbines and jet engines. Such richesse in Burgis’ view gives Congo the dubious distinction of being the world’s richest resource country with the planet’s poorest people, “significantly worse off than other destitute Africans” (p.30). Civil wars over control of Congo’s minerals continue to this day.
Congo’s current president, Joseph Kabila, is the son of Laurent Kabila, who was installed as president in 1997 with assistance from Tutsi génocidaires in a spill over from neighboring Rwanda’s ethnic wars. After a bodyguard shot his father in 2001, the younger Kabila became president in the midst of Congo’s civil wars. Burgis documents how middleman Dan Gertler, an Israeli national whose grandfather was a founder of Israel’s diamond exchange, played a key role in securing Kabila’s hold on power. In exchange for a monopoly contract to all diamonds mined in the Congo, Gertler provided Kabila with $20 million to fund his defense in its civil wars. When international pressure prompted the cancellation of his monopoly diamond contract, Gertler turned to Congo’s cooper and cobalt production, helping build a “tangled corporate web through which companies linked to him have made sensational profits through sell-offs of some of Congo’s most valuable mining assets” (p.49).
Gertler set up what Burgis terms a series of “fiendishly complicated” transactions, involving “multiple interlinked sales conducted through offshore vehicles registered in tax havens where all but the most basic company information is secret” (p.50). Most commonly, a cooper or cobalt mine owned by the Congolese state or rights to a virgin deposit is sold, “sometimes in complete secrecy, to a company controlled by or linked to Gertler’s offshore network for a price far below what it is worth” (p.50). Then all or part of that asset is sold at a profit to foreign mining companies, among them some of the biggest groups on the London Stock Exchange. Even by the mining industry’s bewildering standards, Burgis contends, the structure of Gertler’s Congo deals is “labyrinthine” (p.50).
In one case, the Congolese state sold rights to a “juicy copper prospect” (p.51) for $15 million to a private company, which immediately sold the same rights for $75 million – a $60 million loss for the state and a $60 million profit for Gertler. Former UN General Secretary Kofi Anan’s Africa Progress Panel estimated that the Congolese state lost $1.36 billion between 2000 and 2012 from this and related deals. Yet, Burgis cautions, “[s]o porous is Congo’s treasury that there is no guarantee that, had they ended up there, these revenues would have been spent on schools and hospitals and other worthwhile endeavors; indeed, government income from resource rent has a tendency to add to misrule, absolving rulers of the need to convince electorates to pay taxes” (p.52-53). In the absence in Congo of “anything resembling a functioning state,” Burgis concludes woefully, an “ever-shifting array of armed groups continues to profit from lawlessness, burrowing for minerals and preying on a population that. . . is condemned to suffer in the midst of plenty” (p.34).
Overshadowing Gertler as a middleman and dealmaker throughout Burgis’ case studies is the ubiquitous Chinese national Sam Pa, a mysterious man whose work is associated with the Queensway Group. Queensway, a shadowy organization based in Hong Kong, is a loose confederation of groups, most prominent among the infrastructure building organization China International Fund or CIF. Seemingly independent of the Chinese government, CIF is closely linked to major Chinese construction firms. Across Africa, Pa, Queensway and CIF offered “pariah governments” a “ready-made technique for turning their countries’ natural resources into cash when few others are prepared to do business with them” (p.146-47).
After Guinea’s ruling junta had ruthlessly stamped out an opposition political rally and faced “financial asphyxiation through the [international] sanctions that followed the massacre,” Pa and CIF threw a “lifeline” to the junta by funding $7 billion in mining, energy and infrastructure projects (p.119). Pa and CIF supported coups in Madagascar and Niger with multi-million dollar loans, and may have paid as much as $100 million to Robert Mugabe’s notoriously brutal security forces in Zimbabwe in exchange for diamond mining rights. Pa and CIF also maintained extensive links to Angola’s Futungo and Sonangol. As Burgis’ story ends, Pa mysteriously disappeared, apparently abducted at a Beijing hotel by communist party operatives, with the future of Queensway and CIF appearing uncertain.
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Like many exposés, Burgis’ book is longer on highlighting a problem than on providing solutions. But kleptocracy has been the subject of increasing international attention, with measures available to counter some of its manifestations. The United States has used the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) to prosecute some forms of kleptocracy and siphoning of natural resources. This statute makes it a crime for a company with connections to the United States to pay or offer money or anything else of value to foreign officials to win business. The Texas firm Cobalt International Energy, which contracted with Sonangol in Angola, was investigated by US authorities under the FCPA. Money laundering prosecutions and asset forfeiture procedures also provide potential tools to mitigate some of the effects of kleptocracy.
The United Nations and the World Bank support the “Stolen Assets Recovery Initaitive” (StAR), an international network to facilitate recovery of stolen assets and the laundering of the proceeds generated by Africa’s looting machines. The United States government has also launched its own Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative to support recovery of assets within the United States that are the result of illegal conduct overseas. Of course, many of the deals that Burgis describes, while siphoning a country’s resources, are nonetheless legal under that country’s laws. Further, international donors, including the World Bank and my former office at the US Department of Justice, provide anti-corruption assistance to individual countries to create or strengthen internal anti-corruption institutions and build capacity to prosecute and adjudicate corruption cases. To be effective, such assistance requires “political will,” the support of the host country, a quality likely to be lacking in the cases Burgis treats.
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Burgis reminds readers in his conclusion that those who fuel Africa’s looting machines – warlords, oligarchs, corporations and smugglers — all “profit from the natural wealth whose curse sickens the lives of hundreds of millions of Africans” (p.244). More than a searing indictment of African leaders and their cohorts, Burgis’ work is also a heartfelt plea on behalf of average African citizens, the victims of the continent’s resource curse.
Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
December 13, 2016