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Book review. At the root of the ‘resource curse’

The exploitation of natural resources, from diamond to oil, is among the most debated issues when dealing with Africa.
Scores of news stories, op-eds, documentaries, research papers and even works of fiction have been dedicated to this subject, to the extent that sometimes whoever approaches the matter for the first time finds himself at a loss and in need of a comprehensive account or at least of a thread to follow in the labyrinth. Tom Burgis’s aim is to provide both with his latest book, The looting machine.

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The subheading of the essay that the Financial Times correspondent wrote after nine years of reporting from the Sub-Saharan region, is a wisely crafted summary of the whole content: “warlords, tycoons, smugglers and the systematic theft of Africa’s wealth”. Guiding his reader from Angola to DR Congo, from Nigeria to Zimbabwe and South Africa, from Guinea to Niger, Burgis unveils a scenario in which the relationships between the political and economic élites of three continents and the underworld of middlemen, profiteers and even criminals are closer than the average man would imagine.
Such links, in many cases, know no temporal limits or borders: through the pages of The looting machine many names are recurring. One is that of the powerful Angolan élite grouping around the longtime president José Eduardo dos Santos and known as the ‘Futungo’; another is that of China’s Sam Pa, the Chinese official (and probably intelligence agent) turned businessman, one of the people behind the powerful Queensway Group.

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China’s approach to Africa is regarded in a dual way by Burgis: while acknowledging that the approach of the Asian giant is somehow new and appealing for African countries if compared to that of the former colonial powers, he doesn’t spare criticism of the implications and consequences of Beijng’s approach to the ‘new scramble for Africa’. The same degree of condemnation, however, is applied to people of all origins: Frenchmen such as Frederic Cilins, who played a role in an obscure deal involving Guinea’s Simandou bauxite mine; Israelis such as Beny Steinmetz (who allegedly benefited from the same operation) or Dan Gertler (who holds great interests in eastern DRC) and, obviously, kleptocrats such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and other African rulers. Also international institutions like the World Bank face their share of blame and “some of the world’s biggest companies, among them blue-chip multinationals in which, if you live in the West and have a pension, your money is almost certainly invested”, are not spared. This complex network is what Burgis dubs ‘the looting machine’, a mechanism that can take many faces but – in every corner of the continent – works in the same way: by depleting the territory and, at the same time, depriving local people (except those linked with the ruling class) of their fair share of wealth. Dissecting this mechanism, the book shows the other face of what is often referred to as ‘the resource curse’. Far from being an almost unavoidable disease as its name would suggest, this phenomenon is closely linked to both the role of multinationals and of local politicians, both of whom profit from the over-dependence of a country on its natural wealth.

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Here comes, however, the book’s main weakness: despite being a well-documented systematization of previous research (both by the author and others) it lacks, on the other hand, suggestions on how to address the issues it raises or, in a word, how to counter the voracious machine which is currently devouring Africa. The problem is touched upon just on one occasion, when the author details the efforts of the economist and former Indonesian minister Emil Salim to review the role of the World Bank in supporting the extractive and hydrocarbon industry. Even in this case, nevertheless, Burgis, after detailing the reasons of Salim’s failure, does not go beyond recording the economist’s disappointment.
Finding solutions, indeed, is not a journalist’s job. His duty is to investigate, to collect information and to present it in the clearest and most complete way possible, something the FT correspondent does egregiously. However, in this way, he manages to deconstruct the simplistic narrative of ‘Africa rising’ only by falling into another stereotype: that of the ‘hopeless continent’. This contrasts with Burgis’s conviction that “to mine is not necessarily to loot” and that natural resources can actually be a strong basis for development. A thesis that would have been better demonstrated, for instance, by including in the book some more in-depth considerations on the role civil society can play (and in many cases, already plays) in demanding accountability for the rulers and fighting the ‘looting machine’. (D.M.)

Tom Burgis, The Looting Machine, William Collins, London, 2015, 319 pp.

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