Out of Africa

| September 27, 2015 | 0 Comments
Lagos, Nigeria: Most of Nigeria's 170 million people are extremely poor, though exports of crude oil generate billions of dollars in revenue every year, writes author Tom Burgis. (Photo: © Igorspb | Dreamstime.com)

Lagos, Nigeria: Most of Nigeria’s 170 million people are extremely poor, though exports of crude oil generate billions of dollars in revenue every year, writes author Tom Burgis. (Photo: © Igorspb | Dreamstime.com)

In 2008, a British journalist named Tom Burgis, who helped cover Africa for the Financial Times, witnessed the mass murder of men, women and children at a place called Jos, along the invisible boundary that separates Nigeria’s Muslim north from its mostly Christian south. But the full effect of what he saw there didn’t strike him until 2010 when the “ghosts of Jos appeared at the edge of my hospital bed” once he had begun exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. “The fact that I was alive became an unpayable debt to the dead,” he writes in the opening of his book, The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth (Publishers Group Canada, $35). “I had reported that ‘ethnic rivalries’ had triggered the massacres at Jos, as indeed they had. But rivalries over what? Nigeria’s 170 million people are mostly extremely poor, but their nation is, in one respect at least, fabulously wealthy: Exports of Nigerian crude oil generate revenues of tens of billions of dollars each year.”
Although he takes us to half a dozen African nations, Burgis keeps returning to Nigeria, for good reason. Royal Dutch Shell began drilling for oil there in 1956, a few years before the country won its independence from Britain. Emboldened by its success, Shell then went into partnership with Exxon, one of its American competitors, to drill in the Netherlands. What they found, however, wasn’t oil, but rather the biggest field of natural gas in Europe. Money came roaring into the Dutch treasury, but did almost no good for the economy of ordinary citizens. In 1977, The Economist christened this phenomenon “the Dutch disease.” This chronic ailment is the subject of Burgis’s book, though this may not be uniformly obvious, given that the work is a loosely organized patchwork that jumps around a good deal.

Patrice Lumumba, the Congo’s first democratically elected leader, raises his hands, injured by shackles, after being released from prison. He was later assassinated. (Photo: Nationaal Archief Fotocollectie Anefo)

Patrice Lumumba, the Congo’s first democratically elected leader, raises his hands, injured by shackles, after being released from prison. He was later assassinated. (Photo: Nationaal Archief Fotocollectie Anefo)

Burgis speaks of the problem in question as “a pandemic whose symptoms in many cases include poverty and oppression. The disease enters a country through its currency. The dollars that pay for exported hydrocarbons, minerals, ores and gems push up the value of the local currency. Imports become cheaper relative to locally made products, undercutting homegrown enterprises.”
His statistics are shocking. The International Monetary Fund calculates that a country’s economy is dominated by energy and minerals if these account for more than one-fifth of economic activity. In the African nations where this is the case, 69 percent of the people live in poverty, as compared with, say, .07 percent in Mexico or 0.1 percent in Poland. Africa is home to almost a quarter of the world’s population, has 15 percent of the world’s oil, 40 percent of its gold and 80 percent of its platinum, but an appallingly large number of people are getting by on US$1.25 a day. For residents of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where one’s 50th birthday means that one has lived a full life, the figure is less than a dollar.
So where does the money go? We needn’t be surprised at the answer. The concessions sold to foreign companies to extract wealth from the ground for sale on world markets put a great deal of cash “at the disposal of those who control the state. At extreme levels, the social contract between rulers and the ruled breaks down because the ruling class doesn’t need to tax people to fund the government — so it has no need of their consent.” Politicians and elites made rich by international deals tend to spend on perpetuating their power and warring with their ethnic enemies rather than on health care or education. Burgis writes: “As I travelled in the Niger Delta, the crude-slicked home of Nigeria’s oil industry, or the mineral-rich battlefields of eastern Congo, I came to believe that Africa’s troves of natural resources were not going to be its salvation; instead they were its curse.” This observation may have become a cliché, but it remains a useful reminder of an important truth.

Neo-post-colonial colonialism
Burgis pays surprisingly little attention to the way France keeps interfering militarily in the affairs of its former African colonies, as though the old days had never ended, but he says a great deal in a few words when he describes Guinea — a rich source of the so-called conflict diamonds prized by despots and gunrunners — just “another benighted state in francophone Africa.” He concentrates instead on corporations, whether private or state-owned, and individual entrepreneurs, such as a certain Israeli mining tycoon with interests in Congo, a place that is in the enviable and unenviable position of having the world’s second-biggest deposits of tantalum, an element used in computers and other electronic devices.
He puts great emphasis on China, as indeed he must. That country invests heavily (a stronger adverb is needed!) in Africa’s resources. He casts an especially skeptical eye on Angola. In its capital, Luanda, there is a gleaming 25-storey building that flies “the ensigns of a new kind of empire”: the flags of Angola, China and the China International Fund. The CIF is a state-owned company, based in Hong Kong, that partners with American oil giants and Swiss moneymen to form a complex web of corporations and “secretive offshore vehicles” with interests from Moscow to Manhattan — but most of all in Africa.
The Chinese profit in Africa not only by buying up resources, but also, of course, by unloading Chinese-made products. In the 1980s, Nigeria had 175 textile mills employing 350,000 people. It now has 25 mills with 25,000 workers, the result of Chinese-made textiles flooding into the country. Many of these goods are contraband. Crossing from Nigeria to Niger, Burgis notes people on both sides of the border “speak Hausa, a tongue in which the word for smuggling, sumoga, strikes a less pejorative note than its English equivalent.” He tries to explain the importance of the Mandarin word guanxi, which can be only roughly translated as the complex interlocking relationships and connections that make China’s international relations function. He calls it “an intangible commodity that is highly prized in China.”
The reader (or this one at least) comes away feeling sorriest for Congo, a place to which generations of western authors (Joseph Conrad, André Gide, Graham Greene and many others) have gone in order to write books showing how they survived its terrors. Congo: The Epic History of a People by David Van Reybrouck (HarperCollins Canada, $24.95 paper) is a careful, thoughtful and sympathetic corrective to much of the past’s macho posturing. Some of us can recall the world’s shock when, in 1961, president Patrice Lumumba, the country’s first democratically elected leader, was assassinated. Conspiracy theorists have long suspected his death was the work of the CIA or the Deuxième Bureau in Paris or their Belgian equivalent, known both as the Sûreté de l’État and the Staatsveiligheid. Or else, of course, the handiwork of his numerous political rivals. No one knows for certain, but Emmanuel Gerard and Bruce Kuklick calmly scrutinize and assess Lumumba and his short reign, lasting only six months, in Death in the Congo (Harvard University Press, US$29.95).

Soldiers for hire

In those days, Africa was rapidly disconnecting itself from British, French, Belgian and Portuguese colonial rule, with the result that “a black market for mercenaries thrived.” Despite the boom, it wasn’t until the 1970s, however, “that the laws of war noticed mercenaries [and] prompted the society of states to formally proscribe mercenaries in the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions” — meaning that they would not be considered real soldiers, entitled to the minimal rights granted prisoners of war. So writes Sean McFate, himself a former private soldier in Africa, in his information-rich book The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order (Oxford University Press, $29.95)
These days, McFate, who teaches American national security policy at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., has become, on balance, a worried critic of the mercenary industry — er, make that the security contracting sector. On the one hand, South African mercenaries calling themselves the Koevoet (“crowbar”) fought to save apartheid in the 1980s, but today are helping the Nigerian government track down Boko Haram fighters. Similarly, nearly 200 mercenaries from 35 countries have largely solved the piracy problem off the coast of Somalia at a small fraction of what it would have cost European governments using regular troops and naval forces. On the other hand, the end of the Cold War, and then the U.S. actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, have combined to perpetuate the bad reputation that mercenary forces have enjoyed since the Middle Ages, and deservedly so.
Executive Outcomes, another South African group that fought fiercely in support of apartheid, later submitted a bid to help stop the Rwandan genocide. But when their offer was rejected by United Nations, they turned to other African hot-spots where there was money to be made. South Africa’s post-apartheid government finally declared mercenary activities illegal in 1998.
Whereas most countries that hire mercenaries prefer foreign ones — it makes the hands look cleaner — the United States likes doing such business with its own kind. The most notorious of many “independent contractors” was the American firm, Blackwater. Four of its employees were finally convicted earlier this year in connection with a 2007 massacre in Baghdad in which 14 Iraqi civilians were murdered and 17 others wounded. One Blackwater defendant was given life in prison while the others received sentences of 30 years each. Since the killings, the company has changed its name twice.

Legions of foreigners
DIPLOMAT_9-22-2015_0064While the United States is scaling back its standing military as a whole, it is also greatly increasing its dependence on small groups of special forces, thus enlarging the pool of special-ops figures from which mercenary groups are customarily drawn. As for Canada, by abandoning our role as peacekeepers, we have probably created some new opportunities for soldiers of fortune. One part of this issue has to do with ethics, another part with loyalty. As everybody who’s read a lot about the Renaissance knows, mercenaries have not been terribly picky about whom they work for — and they tend to turn on their employers if, so to speak, the cheques start bouncing, the contract gets cancelled or that golden ducat turns out to be made of brass after all. And then there is also a whole diplomatic facet to this mercenary question. With the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War now behind us, and the huge recent controversy about the Confederate battle flag still fresh, it’s useful to look at one new book that plunges deeply into the subject and a second that confronts it more obliquely.
In The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War (Publishers Group Canada $34.50), Don H. Doyle tells an anecdote about Gen. George McClellan, the overall Union commander in the first phase of the war. McClellan was returning to camp one evening when several pickets [soldiers on watch], none of them a native-born American, challenged him to identify himself. “I tried English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Indian, a little Russian and Turkish,” but to no avail. Doyle suggests that McClellan “most likely inflated the communication problem (and his language skills), but the polyglot nature of the army he led was no exaggeration. McClellan had toured Europe during the Crimean War and was quite familiar with the concept of foreign legions serving with national armies.”
American diplomatic posts throughout Europe and elsewhere “were inundated with volunteers, many of them professional soldiers asking for commissions, others expecting enlistment bounties [today we’d say “signing bonuses”] and free passage across the ocean. Italian veterans who had helped Giuseppe Garibaldi unify the Italian states were particularly eager not to see the U.S. break up. Immigrants and their immediate offspring — two thirds of them Germans and Irish — made up more than 40 percent of the Union armies. Next in descending numerical order came British, Canadians, Frenchmen, Swedes, Norse, Hungarians, Poles, the aforesaid Italians and assorted Latin Americans. There was at least one volunteer from China (he was killed at Gettysburg).
By comparison, there were only a few thousand who fought with the Confederacy. This was largely because such foreigners held no brief for slavery, but also because those who did, in fact, enlist were generally to be found in New Orleans, Nashville and Memphis, cities soon occupied by northern troops. In any event, the foreign-born volunteers were “disparaged by their fellow Unionists as well as Southern detractors, who called them ‘mercenaries’ and ‘soldiers of fortune’” — which of course many of them indeed must have been.
Another new book adds a grace note to the problem of what, in the 19th Century were called filibusters, (in Spanish, filibusteros; in French, filibustiers — literally, “pirates”). These were the American freebooters and adventurers, often based in New Orleans, who made a profession of overthrowing Caribbean and Latin American governments, or trying to. In Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South (Penguin Random House, $32) Christopher Dickey looks at this other side of the coin, but he doesn’t draw attention to what such adventurism has become in our time. He doesn’t have to.

Collectors and plunderers
One can scarcely go a week or two these days without reading about the destruction, or at least the threatened destruction, of irreplaceable antiquities by ISIS and other radical Islamic groups.
In times of chaos, poor countries with rich cultures are always at risk of being plundered, whether for profit or for politics or simply to satisfy some foreigners’ love of collecting. China was particularly vulnerable in this regard for the past couple of centuries, when scholarship and connoisseurship were often mixed up with thievery. This is the subject of The China Collectors: America’s Century-Long Hunt for Asian Art Treasures by Karl Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac (Raincoast Books, $34.50), a wonderfully enlightening and endearing book full of colourful characters. Two in particular stand out in high relief.
George N. Kates (1895–1990), whose memoir The Years That Were Fat: Peking, 1933–1940 is on many people’s list of desert-island books, was a highly educated ne’er-do-well and self-taught “Sinologue” who worked in Hollywood as a sort of historical adviser on films with exotic settings. Later, in China, he “settled down, with two polite but eccentric servants, in a rented courtyard home of a former palace eunuch, a few minutes’ walk from the Forbidden City and the imperial lakes.” He showed great taste in collecting Chinese art and furniture, but lost all his treasures to the Japanese invaders, then worked in American wartime intelligence in Sichuan, which left him open to charges by Joe McCarthy and others that he was one of the China hands who “lost China” to the communists. The other figure is a Torontonian, William Charles White (1873–1960), the Anglican bishop of Honan province who dealt with professional tomb-robbers to help assemble the Royal Ontario Museum’s justly famous Chinese collections.
Meyer and Brysac, both American journalists, do their best to understand the Canadian part of the story, though at one point they speak of “Ontario’s prairies” and they don’t seem to have come across, for example, Charles Taylor’s book, Six Journeys, with its delightful insights into White.

George Fetherling is a novelist and cultural commentator.

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George Fetherling is a novelist, poet and cultural commentator

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