Thinking Aloud: “The Looting Machine,” The Book

May 31, 2015 by Darius 

Africa’s mineral resources are arguably unmatched anywhere in the world: it holds 15% of the world’s crude oil reserves, 40% of its gold, 80% of its platinum, the world’s richest diamond mines, and massive deposits of everything from uranium to copper.  Yet despite these enormous treasures, Africa is by far the world’s poorest continent.  Why?  In The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth, British journalist Tom Burgis exposes, chapter by chapter and page by page, the network of local warlords, corrupt governments, and international corporations that are responsible for stealing billions from Africa and poisoning lives across the continent.  The Looting Machine is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Burgis begins his journey in Angola, where he lays out in painful detail the ways in which Angola’s ruling elite, known as the Futungo, pillage the country’s oil reserves through the state-owned oil company and a host of secret subsidiaries.  From Angola, Burgis takes us next into eastern Congo, where an alliance of international mining magnates and warring factions fuels both the international economy and the unending bloody civil war in Congo itself.  A chapter on Nigeria brilliantly tells the scathing story of how a dynamic country can be ruined by the resource curse; it should be required reading for everyone.   Ultimately, The Looting Machine covers Africa from Guinea and Ghana to Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Along the way, Burgis introduces the latest power player in the looting machine: a network of Chinese companies known as the Queensway Group (from its original Hong Kong street address).  Little is known about the Queensway Group’s senior members.  Its founder, known as Sam Pa (his real name is unknown, though “Sam Pa” and six of his other aliases are on US Treasury Department sanctions lists) has developed deep, long-term personal connections with the Futungo in Angola, helping Angola’s government extend its own looting machine beyond the borders of Angola itself.  Among the many unknowns about the Queensway Group, one thing is known: the Queensway Group enjoys the support and often outright protection of the Chinese government.

In addition to the simple economics of the looting machine, Burgis covers the disaster the looting machine has inflicted on Africa.  As Burgis writes, it is no coincidence that the world’s four longest-serving rulers are all presidents of African states whose economies are dominated by a single resource.  The four leaders are Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea (oil), José Eduardo Dos Santos of Angola (oil), Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe (diamonds), and Paul Biya of Cameroon (oil).  Between them, they have ruled for 136 years.  In Nigeria, between 1999 and 2012, at least 18,000 people died in ethnic and political violence, not counting Boko Haram’s deadly insurgency in the north.  The overwhelming cause of this violence: the struggle to control lucrative patronage networks and gain a seat at the table carving up Nigeria’s massive oil wealth.  In Zimbabwe, diamonds have fueled Robert Mugabe’s absolute power for decades, and in Guinea, a last-minute deal with the Queensway Group over iron ore reserves provided the influx of cash Guinea’s junta needed to ride out international sanctions after the presidential guard raped and murdered hundreds of peaceful protesters in the national soccer stadium.

The Looting Machine is perhaps the most depressing book I’ve read this year as well.  For all the talk of aid lifting Africa out of poverty, the most integral parts of the looting machine are multinational corporations.  Africa is pillaged with the world’s implicit consent.  As a Nigerian rapper said in a country where music is one of the few channels available to criticize the government and oil companies, “Don’t think you’re not involved.”

For other posts on The Looting Machine, see


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