It is becoming increasingly obvious to all thoughtful people that the African continent and the African nations within it are going to play a most decisive part in the immediate future of world history,” Trevor Masasi wrote in the introduction to a 1958 anthology of African writing, “Indeed, already the importance of Africa is becoming evident.”

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Cover of The Looting Machine

That sentiment may sound mildly patronising today, but it remains essentially correct. Considering the book to which he appended his remarks, Masasi was perhaps focused on African literature. Yet he could also be talking about natural resources. The note after all was written in the fifties—that period of the independence clamour was also the decade of the discovery of commercial quantities of crude oil in Nigeria, the continent’s most populous nation.

Nigeria has since come to supply crude to the world, fuelling industries, moving people. Elsewhere on the continent, the Congo sits atop coltan, a substance used in the making of video games. Zimbabwe has its diamonds.

Taken together, these contributions mean that Africa is necessary for both the world’s profit and its pastime. If these were the only pieces of information available, one could surmise that the continent should be well-off. Why isn’t this the case? Tom Burgis, former correspondent of the Financial Times has a three-word answer: the looting machine.

In his book The Looting Machine (with its spoiler of a subtitle: Warlords, tycoons, smugglers and the systematic theft of Africa’s wealth) Burgis traverses the continent unearthing a vast network of greed, violence and the more egregious forms of capitalism—how these three are engineered by an intricate network that stretches across the continent all the way to the US and China and Hong Kong.

As expected with such a vast network and a book covering it, the cast is inundating; there are countries and companies and girlfriends and despots and rebels. The sheer number of people in the book renders it difficult to follow linearly. The reader needs to go back to recall not just the why but who is who. Burgis never probes the why, the psychology of his thieving subjects—he’s a reporter after all—but there’s perhaps something atavistic beneath the grab, grab, grab impulse of the individuals running the looting machine. (It may be paranoia as well. An anti-corruption officer once recommended a medical test for public fund thieves.)

Conflict is the book’s framing device and villains dot the landscape. Supreme among these villains is the Queensway Group, a rather anecdotal name impressed on a string of companies that “do not use the term themselves’ and ‘an informal shorthand for a corporate network.”

Representing this Group is a man called Sam Pa, who is more shadow than man and has an affinity for countries torn by civil war. The Queensway format is the same as the US employed in the early days of African independence: support a group, help it win by providing funds and arms to this faction, return to collect. As China elbows its way through Africa past a west that has recently, at least publicly, developed a conscience, questions arise about the motives of a journalist for a publication like the Financial Times. Burgis, though, is at pains to tell his readers that this work is different from his regular journalism. “This book is my own endeavour, separate from my work for the FT,” he writes.

It is easy to believe Burgis hands-up-no-agenda plea not merely for the rigour of his journalism but for his literary skill. His tone. Although directed at the western audience, the book combines knowing and researching with an even-handedness mostly absent from reportage on Africa to the people of the west. (There is enough poverty and strife to win several Caine prizes in the Looting Machine but it is unavoidable.)

With the amount of information to be accessed and conveyed, a less skilled reporter would resort to information dumping. But for Burgis, facts and prose are partners. The weight of his subject means he never totally escapes info dump within chapters, but he’s unafraid to use prose with some poetry, an approach that succeeds because his sentences skirt poeticism:

“The valleys are a higher order of green, dense with generous, curving leaves of banana plants and the smaller, jagged one of cassava shrubs. The hillsides are a vertiginous patchwork of plots. Just before dusk each day the valleys fill with a spectral mist, as though Earth itself had exhaled.”

That scene is from the Congo. Burgis has found beauty sequestered in the hills of the Congo. Often he finds a detail that sums up a scene. For example, in a village sacked by violence, where most lay dead and others are in flight or have turned undertakers, he writes: “Clothes, long since dry, fluttered uncollected on a washing line.”

His work is connected to Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, those proponents of New Journalism, back when the coinage could be said to be new. Elsewhere Burgis deftly recreates a scene from court transcripts:

“‘Let’s sit down, grab a bite,’ he said to the woman who emerged from a taxi to meet him at Jacksonville International Airport in Florida…They made small talk for a few moments, speaking in French…

“Almost immediately the conversation turned to money. ‘I need cash, now,’ Toure said…She started to haggle. A waitress came over. Cillins switched to English to order a chicken sandwich for Toure and a Caesar salad for himself…Hadn’t Cillins said he would give her $50,000 upfront, not $20,000?

II

As important a document on the fortunes of a continent as his book is, Burgis is an outsider conveying information to people who are even more of outsiders. This is what it is to be a reporter. His status means that there are a number of things he doesn’t understand. As when reporting on the collapsed textile industry of northern Nigeria, a trader dealing in smuggled garments says, “It is a pitiable situation”. Burgis writes in response, “…apparently oblivious to his and his colleagues’ role in their compatriots downfall.”

But he doesn’t understand that the stimulus is not obliviousness. It is survival—the tent under which a large number of citizens on the continent dwell. It is a detail easily missed by anyone who has not led that life. There are, in the end, limits to reporting.

There are errors too. Readers from other countries may find their own errors. But for the Nigerian, there is the curious assertion that the country has four major ethnic groups. Burgis, perhaps due to an allegiance to English syntax, gives the jocular meaning of NEPA as Never Expect Power Anytime—same meaning, better syntax but shows the writer has taken a tin ear to the lyricism of Nigerian speech. Also, maybe as a corrective to the Swedish Academy, the reporter calls the late, great Chinua Achebe a Nobel laureate. The only Nigerian decorated by the Swedish Academy is Wole Soyinka but it’s an error the aggrieved section of the Nigerian literati will appreciate.

Are these quibbles? Possibly. But with such errors as these, everything else can be called into question. What else has Burgis misstated—or worse, misrepresented?

**

No country covered comes out well. Not even the comparatively peaceable Ghana. Through it Burgis mocks western perception: “Inherent in the praise that is heaped on Ghana is a troubling undertone that mitigated penury is the best that Africans can aim for.” Ghana’s Anglophone neighbour Nigeria receives two chapters and the country’s leaders are well lashed. Former governor of Plateau state Joshua Dariye is called an “ethnic entrepreneur”, his successor Jonah Jang is said to be “less clownish” than Dariye. But these are minor compared to President Jonathan’ characterisation. Said to be “an obscure zoologist in a backwater of the Delta” and “a political minnow”, he is branded as a man who became king because of his “fedora hat and his Ijaw blood.” Later, his tenure is decimated by a description supported by many local pundits:

But Jonathan had little charisma. He lacked Yar’Adua’s depth of thought and the natural authority that Obasanjo possessed as a war hero and master tactician. The only way to maintain his grip on power was to open the sluice gates of the looting machine. Jonathan presided over a binge of corruption and embezzlement that was dizzying even by Nigerian standards.

At least one comedian has since taken a dig at the extravagance of the Jonathan presidency compared to the austere outlook of President Buhari’s. Banished to the same obscurity from which he came, Jonathan’s defence can only be made by the man himself. In other words, the former president needs an autobiography. It would serve him well to avoid donning a fedora hat for the author photo.

Burgis isn’t quite as astute when he attempts to pass off South Africa’s Apartheid, and the Marikana massacre as that country’s manifestation of the resource curse. In broad terms our reporter may have a point—but it is important that the small but relevant picture of those poor miners be shown. Instead they are sacrificed for Big Issues. It is possible to forget the little but pertinent matter of people insisting on better wages because Burgis wants to tie up loose ends nicely. For a better understanding of that conflict, the reader should see the 2014 documentary by Rehad Desai, Miners Shot Down. The difference in portrayal between book and film is not merely a question of form. It is one of feeling. Desai, South African and son of an anti-Apartheid crusader, is an insider in a way that Burgis can never be. And how it shows.

III

Although Nigeria receives two chapters, Burgis’s book presents a country per chapter. And the link between the happenings in these countries are so tenuous on occasion that The Looting Machine can be read as a collection of reportage on countries bound by geography and corruption. Cleverly, these pieces of reportage are forced together under that ‘Warlords, tycoons, smugglers and the systematic theft’ subtitle. This sleight-of-hand enables our reporter to put the countries, not just in a book, but in a box. It is Burgis’s fate—and perhaps the continent’s—that in spite of his apparently good intentions, Africa looks the more like a country. Only this time it is a country created by the proclivities of western publishing.

Indeed, it is a book for the western reader. It is addressed to her. To let her know that those diamonds and pearls, those video games, those smartphones are from bloody sources. Burgis hasn’t arrived at this first. The liberal west takes turns, and succour, in sharing the guilt. There have been films about the subject, notably the Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle Blood Diamonds. And ten years ago, in a song called Diamonds from Sierra Leone Kanye West uttered these lines: “Though it’s thousands of miles away Sierra Leone connects to what we go through today… How can something so wrong make me feel so right?”

(In the song’s black and white video, a woman’s bejewelled hand suddenly becomes fluid with blood. True to the black and white aesthetic of the video, the flowing blood is indistinguishable from black gold.)

There is, however, another reason the book is addressed to the west: The world appears to agree that Africans can’t quite find a solution by themselves. Evidence abounds. Africa’s freedom fighters become tyrants clinging to power. African dissenters close the activism shop and embrace employment by immoral regimes. African leaders turn to the west for funds and attention, forgetting the west destroyed the continent’s economy through the IMF-sponsored Structural Adjustment Programme.

The Chinese may take up chunks of the continent for cheap, but it is the African people who sit docile, scrounging for survival and stomach infrastructure. Practical as may be, it is those same people that implore a new appointee to high political office to spread the loot. The West, the Chinese, African leaders, African citizens—everyone contributes what they can to the working of the looting machine.

Little wonder then that Burgis’s book ends with a chapter titled Complicity. In it Burgis recounts listening to Nneka. As he tells it, the guitar-wielding singer from the Niger Delta is just about to play a venue in London. Before she begins, she tells her audience what Burgis is telling his readers: ‘Don’t think you’re not involved.’

It is fitting that those are the book’s last words.

This review first appeared in a booklet for the Lagos Book and Art Festival

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