Looting Africa

The Looting Machine: Warlords, Smugglers and the Systematic Theft of Africa’s Wealth

Tom Burgis

Harper Collins (2017)

Book Review

This book centers around something global economists refer to as the “Dutch curse.” In 1959, the discovery of oil in the Netherlands led to massive unemployment outside the oil industry. A big increase in dollars generated by oil exports caused major inflation in the local currency. This made imports cheaper than locally produced goods, shutting down hundreds of Dutch businesses and putting thousands out of work.

It’s typical of mineral and oil/gas mining everywhere (including here in New Plymouth) that these industries require vast capital investment but employ only small numbers of workers. According to Burgis, it was the “Dutch curse” that resulted in Russian’s oil-fueled criminal oligarchy prior to the rise of Putin. As the continent richest in natural resources, Africa, which has been ruthlessly exploited by multinational corporations, has a severe case of the “Dutch curse.”

Although multinationals pay far less than market value for oil, gas and precious minerals, they pay corrupt puppet dictators enough that they don’t need to tax their citizens. Burgis maintains this absence of taxation results in a lack of accountability to their citizenry. Instead of holding leaders to account for their failure to provide basic infrastructure, citizens of “resource states” are far more likely to angle for their share of the loot. Retaining power becomes a simple matter of maintain elaborate patronage (payoff) systems and harsh military/security networks.

Burgis also refutes the myth that Africa’s multiple civil wars stem from tribal and religious conflict. Most African wars are pure resource wars (often triggered by CIA and French and British intelligence), with the conflict used as a cover for resource smuggling and even lower net cost to multinationals.

The US government has attempted to crack down on its own corporations via stricter enforcement (since 2000) of the 1977 Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and a section of the 2010 Dodd Frank Act that prohibits the the purchase of Coltan* from armed rebel groups. The new law, which has done little to reduce Coltan smuggling, has opened the door to a Chinese monopoly on the Coltan market.

The Looting Machine presents a detailed country by country analysis, as well as an examination of the Chinese company responsible for most private investment in Africa (there’s less publicly available information about investment by state-owned Chinese companies). Both engage in far more infrastructure development than Western agents do.

  • Angola – principle export oil, with 70% of oil ventures owned by Hong Kong billionaire Sam Pa, operating as Queensway Group or Chinese International Fund. Half of Angolan residents get by on less than $1.25/day.
  • Congo – second most important produce of Coltan outside of Australia, also gold, tin, tungsten and diamonds. Residents live on less than $1.00/day.
  • Nigeria – oil and gas. Cotton/textile industry that flourished in 1980s shut down (causing mass unemployment) by continuous flood of smuggled Chinese counterfeit textiles. Sam Pa and the French oil company Total have teamed up to challenge Shell’s longstanding monopoly on Nigerian oil.
  • South Africa – rich gold, diamond and platinum exports financed the creation of the apartheid state, in which a tiny white minority controlled the entire economy. Since the fall of apartheid in 1994, this minority has been joined by a handful of Black entrepreneurs.
  • Botswana – diamonds. Somewhat protected from “Dutch curse” by the creation of value added industries that cut and polish their diamonds prior to export.
  • Guinea – among world’s richest reserves of iron and aluminum. Bought out by Sam Pa as a result of Western sanctions.
  • Niger – rich in uranium and the world’s poorest country. France previously held monopoly on Niger’s uranium industry, being replaced by Queensway group based on agreement to invest in infrastructure development and employ local labor. (In most countries, Chinese investors import Chinese labor.)
  • Ghana – gold. Financed by Chinese Investment Fund after IMF tried to impose structural adjustment conditions** to refinance a World Bank Loan.
  • Zimbabwe – diamonds, platinum, nickel, gold. Mugabe used revenues from export industries to finance particularly brutal security force. Diamond industry bought out by Queensway as direct result of Western sanctions.

*Coltan is a rare precious metal in high demand for cellphones and laptops.

**IMF structural adjustment conditions typically require debtor companies to privatize state owned industries, legislate deep cuts in social services and accept extensive foreign investment as a condition of receiving World Bank loans.

 

 

 

 

The US Military Occupation of Africa

The Shadow War in the Sahara

Al Jazeera (2017)

Film Review

The Shadow War in the Sahara is a thumbnail history of the US military occupation of Africa. The documentary begins with the 1885 Berlin Conference, at which the major European powers divided up all of Saharan Africa to better exploit its rich resources of gas, oil, copper, uranium, coltan and other rare earth minerals.

France initially came out the winner, controlling three-fourths of Saharan Africa until World War II. Even after all their Saharan colonies won independence (1945-62), France continued to maintain a military presence, as well economic dominance over most of its former colonies.

With the discovery of oil in the Gulf of Guinea in the sixties, this began to change – with the covert US support of armed rebellions in Ethiopia and Angola and its failed invasion of Somalia. Over time, most French troops have been replaced by US troops. While this was done in the name of “fighting terrorism,” the real US agenda has always been to secure oil and mineral resources in the face of Chinese domination over African oil.

Instead of employing military force and direct political intervention via the International Monetary Fund and their “structural adjustment”* policies, China has gained a major foothold in Africa in offering debt-free development loans and a policy of non-interference in domestic policy.

The US is the only major power to divide up the entire world into military command and control regions: USNorthcom (North America), USSouthcom (South America), USEUCom (Europe), USCentcom (Middle East and Central Asia), USPACom (Pacific region and Australia) and USAfricom.

Former Libyan ruler Omar Gaddafi successfully blocked the US from locating the USAfricom headquarters in Africa – so the US built it in Germany instead.

Prior to his assassination by US-backed rebels, Gadaffi was a powerful advocate for African unity. His primary goal in founding and bankrolling (from his massive oil revenues) the African Development Bank and an African Monetary Fund was to assist other African countries to resist western colonialism.

In 2009, he was elected chairman of the African Union, and in 2011 he cancelled major contracts with the powerful (US) Bechtel corporation and with France (for millions of dollars of military hardware). The punishment inflicted by the US and France was swift – a NATO bombing campaign in support of CIA-backed rebels charged with overthrowing his government.


*Structural adjustment describes a process by which the US-controlled IMF forces countries to privatize public utilities, cut public services and open third world economies to western investment as a condition of debt refinancing.

 

 

 

Africa’s Hidden History

All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace*

Directed by Adam Curtis

BBC (2011)

Part 3

Film Review

The basic theme of the final video is this series is a bit unclear. Curtis seems to imply, based on flimsy and subjective evidence, that western liberals who provide humanitarian and developmental assistance to third world countries only make their living situation worse.

The main focus of Part 3 is the civil wars in Congo and Rwanda over valuable mineral resources coveted by multinational corporations. There’s a particular emphasis on coltan, a rare earth mineral essential in the manufacture of computers, play stations and smartphones.

The CIA Coup Against Lamumba

The film traces the history of the Congo back to 1960 when it first gained independence from Belgium. In 1961, after the Congo’s first president Patrice Lamumba allied himself with the USSR, the US and Belgium instigated a coup to remove him from power and had him murdered. Fearful that Congo’s rich mineral wealth would fall into Soviet hands, they replaced him with the brutal pro-western dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

The Belgian Role in Rwanda Genocide

Curtis traces Rwandan history from their first episode of genocide, engineered by their Belgian rulers in 1959. Fearful that the Rwandans, like other colonized Africans, would demand independence, the Belgians deliberately instigated ethnic conflict by issuing mandatory race cards and promoting the myth that the Tutsis (which Belgium made colonial administrators) were a superior race that had migrated to Rwanda from ancient Egypt. Meanwhile Belgian aid workers encouraged oppressed Hutus (who comprised 85% of the population) to revolt. After three years of bloody civil war, Belgium granted Rwanda independence in 1962.

In 1994, the Hutus seized control of the Rwandan government and deliberately exterminated nearly a million Tsutsis. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled across the border into Congo, where the UN and western aid agencies set up refugee camps. Curtis maintains it was a mistake to set up refugee camps because there were Hutu assassins hiding among the refugees. Armed conflict between Tsutsis and Hutus spread to rebel armies seeking to overthrow Mobutu. Hoping to win a piece of Congo’s mineral wealth, Zimbabwe, Angola, Chad, Namibia, Uganda and Libya all dispatched troops to support the rebels. Leaving more than five million dead, the civil war would continue until 2003.

I find it a bit puzzling that Curtis blames the UN and humanitarian organizations for fanning the flames of the Congo’s civil war. Surely most, if not all of the blame lies with the multinationals behind Mobotu’s dictatorship.

The Selfish Gene

Curtis interweaves his discussion of Congo and Rwandan history with relevant scientific research that endeavored to prove that humans are complex computer-like machines.

In 1967, population geneticist George Price allegedly proved that human beings were soft machines run by on board computers (i.e. DNA). A corollary of this hypothesis was that human beings commit murder and genocide because of a “selfish gene” which genetically programs us to hate a kill people who are genetically unrelated to us.

Price worked closely with evolutionary biologist Bill Hamilton who, based on his research, argued against providing medical treatment when people get sick because this causes genetically inferior people to survive and reproduce.

Dian Fossey’s Mountain Gorillas

A third narrative describes the work of primate ethnologist Dian Fossey who was studying Congo’s mountain gorillas during the decade-long civil war. My favorite scene depicts British naturalist David Attenborough stretched out on top of one of Fossey’s gorillas as they share a moment of relaxed contemplation.

*Title of 1967 monograph distributed free by California cybernetics enthusiast Richard Brautigan. Available for $400 from Abe Books