Book Review: The raiders of Africa's riches

23 June 2015 - 02:01 By Kevin Bloom

About 40 pages into The Looting Machine, soon after its author has introduced us to the Hong Kong headquarters of the mysterious Queensway Group and acted as tour guide through the dirtiest oil deals in Angola's post-civil war history, we are treated to this quote: "Formally the groups are all enemies. But when it comes to making money and mining, they cooperate pretty well. War changes, but business goes on."The man who utters these words is an unnamed source from the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, an insider who has worked in that country's mining and intelligence communities. He wants Tom Burgis, the book's author, to understand that the Second Congo War, which began in 1998 and officially ended in 2003, is still ongoing - mostly because the conflict "has its own economy", fuelled by the weapons trade and the illegal smuggling of minerals.As investigations correspondent at the Financial Times and therefore a journalist who decodes this continent for non-African audiences, Burgis is no doubt correct in his implicit assumption that the above is something his target market isn't familiar with. In terms of its attention to detail, not to mention its impressive scope, The Looting Machine is as important an overview of the African situation as any that has been offered to the international lay reader in the last five years. But is the book of equal value to the informed African reader? The answer, albeit with a couple of reservations, has got to be "yes".The best reason to put this book on the shelf alongside Martin Meredith's mainstays is that it expertly names the names - if the purpose of investigative journalism is to out the people who are living large off the fat of the land, Burgis is an accomplished revealer."Like karma or air miles, guanxi is accumulated," he writes of the untranslatable Mandarin word that explains the secret behind the Queensway Group's Sam Pa."When applied to politics and business guanxi can become indistinguishable from corruption or nepotism."Pa, who has a host of aliases and whose story tops the bucket list of just about every newsman north of the Limpopo, is the epitome of the modern African mining kingpin - enigmatic, elusive, unaccountable and filthy rich. Men like Pa are also ubiquitous, and Burgis tracks his scent from Angola to Guinea, from Nigeria to Zimbabwe. In The Looting Machine, though he acknowledges that many of his leads are unverifiable, the London-based reporter comes closer than anyone has yet to a complete portrait of Pa. "It's Rhodes all over again ... a huge mafia," a source tells him in the Zimbabwe chapter, the last before the book's epilogue.In between we are offered character sketches, less comprehensive but just as carefully researched, of some of the continent's other contemporary plunderers - the Israelis Dan Gertler, Beny Steinmetz and Lev Leviev foremost among them.We meet opportunist African strongmen like Guinea's deposed head of state Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, the DRC's late mining czar Augustin Katumba Mwanke, and Nigeria's "oil-jacked" former president Umaru Yar'Adua. We proceed, especially in the book's sagging middle, from one rotten deal to the next.This is the first of the aforementioned "reservations" . There are only so many ways you can write about men who offer Africa's "pariah governments a ready-made technique for turning their countries' natural resources into cash", and by page 146 Burgis appears to have made use of all of them. Then there are the unfortunate clichés - the lolloping camels, the bloated bellies, the toddlers teetering on the road's verge.But that doesn't mean this book is the equivalent of Bono or Bob Geldof in print. Burgis, unlike South Africa's Riaan Manser, say, has not visited the continent's conflict zones for his own self-glorification. The Looting Machine is not one man's adventure story; it is the story of the ravages of global mining capital in which all of us are complicit."The Looting Machine" by Tom Burgis, published by HarperCollins, R285..

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