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July 25, 2021
Analysis Cover

Plunder and Theft: Ways of the African Oligarchs

  How kleptocrat rulers in African countries sell out their resources to international partners, deprive citizens and enrich themselves
  June 25, 2021
By Zam Magazine
While displaced families in refugee camps were exposed to TB, pneumonia and a range of other respiratory diseases – which could be COVID but no one knew because there were no tests available –, the pandemic meant good times for quite a different group of people in northern Mozambique. From dollar budgets made available by international development partners to the exploited and conflict-ridden province of Cabo Delgado, the province’s ruling party leaders helped themselves to stays in beach hotels, lavish catering, supermarket goods and ‘COVID awareness’ dance music. A list of provincial expenses, obtained by the ZAM Kleptocracy Project, shows that donor-funded COVID 19 money went straight to such ‘official events’ for the province’s elite, while practically none of it was used to buy tests or treatment for the sick.
A good share of it likely went into local leaders’ pockets, too, for instance when the Hotel Sarima in Cabo Delgado’s capital, Pemba, was issued a budget of US$ 171,000 for three ‘COVID workshops’ formally costed at five hundred dollars each, but pocketed ‘only’ US$ 29,000 from the provincial authorities. ‘The rest is still with the province’, in the words of the hotel manager, Anifa Gonzaque. What ‘with the province’ meant was a question that could only be answered by provincial health director Anastacia Lidimba, who had signed the Hotel Sarima contract, but, even after the question was put to her four times via different channels, including personal Whatsapp and the provincial press spokesperson, Anastacia Lidimba refused to answer it.

Diamonds and supercars

There were more such instances in Cabo Delgado. And in the rest of Mozambique. And in Mali, where a former minister in charge of COVID funds suddenly said the fund had disappeared and just as suddenly appeared to have loads of cash for a new election campaign, while refusing to comment on any link between the two. And in South Africa, where an amount of US$ 800 million, more than double the entire IMF COVID emergency support grant of US$ 310 million to that country, is now under investigation by an anti-corruption unit.
With regard to other public expenditure, separately from COVID funds, similar theft and wastage of taxpayers money and aid dollars plague Nigeria, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Liberia. The ZAM Kleptocracy Project, a soon to be published new series of investigations by investigative journalists in nine African countries, exposes how political elites line their own pockets by selling out their countries. To do this, the kleptocrat rulers use the state systems that were once established by colonial regimes in their countries, literally carrying on the same resource extracting and plunder practices of their colonialist predecessors. Investigations from Uganda and Nigeria show that top politicians and bureaucrats even steal from own citizens in schemes that siphon off money: from civil servants’ salaries to payments for public services such as marriage certificates.
Other self-enrichment by kleptocrat elites ranges from the pocketing of COVID and other development grants to foreign loans and from diamond proceeds and social welfare budgets to inflated visa and passport costs billed to citizens.
In Zambia, journalists Charles Mafa and John Mukela found that politicians, top bureaucrats and ruling party officials benefit from expensive foreign loans for agricultural projects, while the repayment and interest on the loans is carried by poor farmers. In Nigeria, investigative editor Theophilus Abbah uncovered how visa and passport contracts with international tech companies create wealth for those on top of the deals, while the country loses out. His colleague Taiwo Adebulu unearthed a network in the same Ministry of Interior that extorts citizens who need marriage papers. In Uganda, in an investigation done by John Masaba, teachers often don’t even receive payslips for their salaries, which means that, when these salaries are stolen by bureaucrats higher up, they have no paper trail to track their money. Liberian citizens, likewise, watch politicians flaunt their mansions and supercars on social media, while, as Bettie Johnson Mbayo notes, the local anti corruption commission states that they simply have no way to track the origins of these assets.

Engineered to plunder

The series, which will be published by ZAM over an eight-week period and kicks off with a ‘follow-the-money’ exercise that focuses on COVID aid funds in Mozambique, Mali and South Africa, underlines that not merely individuals, but entire systems, are corrupt. In the case of the COVID investigation, this can even include, as David Dembélé in Mali shows, an entire circus of banners, posters and workshops, organised by the kleptocrat state to make donors think that the country is taking the COVID 19 threat seriously.
All the while, the bulk of aid and tax moneys made available to the kleptocratic states simply fattens and empowers those in charge. In the three countries of focus for the COVID 19 emergency funds investigation, only a fraction was spent on actual medicines, treatment facilities and health workers’ needs while in Mozambique, several millions of the aid money went to arms purchases. In Mali, likewise, the bolstered regime heightened its surveillance of health workers to prevent critical voices exposing ‘the deaths in tents in the sand.’ Meanwhile, the former deputy boss of the Nigerian Immigration Service, Daniel Makolo, lost both his job and his house after writing a memo about the siphoning off of state funds by a partnership of foreign companies and top bureaucrats.
The investigations raise questions about ‘anti corruption’ measures that have been taken in African countries in the past. It appears as if countless ‘good governance’ commissions and speeches, like in Liberia, stay mainly where they originate, that is, on paper. In Uganda, even ministers seem reluctant to take action to clean up their offices. ‘There are these corrupt people in my department,’ in the words of the Ugandan minister of Public Service. ‘But we try to train and reorientate them’. In the same country, as in Nigeria, online fixes – a digital payroll, a digital public service appointment service- have turned out to be just as cosmetic as long as the corrupt stay in charge of the computers.
In Mali, no ministry even answers the phone while the Mozambican Finance Ministry spokesperson, Alfredo Mutombene, states in response to Estacio Valoi’s questions that he ‘will only be able to find misuse of funds after all the state’s auditing mechanisms will have been deployed.’ In all countries of focus such auditing reports are issued year after year, mostly without anything changing or any culprits held accountable.

Uncancellable contracts

The ZAM ‘anatomy of kleptocracy’ project begins to lift a veil of the mechanisms and processes in African state machineries that enable and reproduce continuous corruption. It portrays plunder systems so entrenched that nothing changes, even when individual ‘rotten apples’ are arrested. In Zambia, the judicial system has seen two ministers who amassed ill-gotten wealth for all to see, in court for corruption recently. Both were left off the hook; and one is still even a minister. In Nigeria, neither a parliamentary investigation nor a series of court cases could reverse a situation where taxpayers money was funnelled off to international companies in which top bureaucrats had a stake; this is still happening today. Though the fraudulent bureaucrats in question were criticised and their prosecution was called for by parliament, nothing happened; even the parasitical ‘uncancellable’ contracts, whereby money from citizens for passports lands in private pockets, still stay in place today.

STREAMER Citizens are targeted with anger and victimisation

All the above is paired with callous exploitation and deprivation of own citizens, as well as with equally systemic oppression of these citizens’ complaints and protests. In Uganda, according to a parliamentary commission report unearthed by John Masaba, corrupt bureaucrats are so powerful that they are able to doubly victimise teachers who complain about salary theft. In Nigeria, engaged couples who try to book their marriages by using the proper online appointment procedure, are met with anger and repercussions, with bureaucrats withholding their certificates until they do pay the bribes and go away.

While good civil servants who genuinely try to do their jobs are often silenced and victimised, like in the Nigerian case of Daniel Makolo, those lacking ethics have solid careers.This is shown most starkly in the same Nigerian case, where a private tech company in the passport fees fraud took the country to court to force it to pay even more taxpayers money into the scheme. During that court case, bureaucrats with a stake in the corruption testified against their own country, enabling the ‘damages’ claim, with no repercussions befalling them afterwards.

Poisonous partnerships

Dissecting and analysing the corrupt and exploitative state mechanisms encountered by the journalists, the investigations unearth several categories of what they call ‘poisonous partnerships’ between kleptocrat regimes and their global ‘associates’. First among these are the appropriation and sell-out of natural resources, – which is after all an activity for which these state systems were set up by colonisers in the first place-, now under the control of ruling parties or military. Secondly, there is the literal selling out of countries into indebtedness, with the bill to be paid by citizens: in Zambia, ruling politicians now take loan after loan to -inter alia- fund overpriced and top heavy agricultural projects, with the proviso that these loans must be paid back by poor farmers, while the project bosses who asked for the deals are seen building mansions for themselves.
The klepto states also invariably also invite criminal syndicates to enter through the large loopholes on all levels in the system, in a dance of collusion with the officials ‘inside.’ The journalists cite examples that range from Zimbabwe’s diamonds to the COVID support grants in South Africa, reported on by Nazlee Arbee.
The poisonous partners, – ranging from financial donors to tech companies and from outright criminals to diamond-, wood- and other natural resources buyers,- support the regimes in question, but don’t contribute to actual development of a state that can deliver services like health care to its citizens. Charity -real or perceived-, the enrichment of a political elite, plunder of resources, exploitation of citizens and continued underdevelopment are factors in all the investigations. The most poignant example of this is perhaps the Nigerian passports and visa scheme, where both the state budget and citizens pay double fees into a constitutionally illegal ‘public-private’ partnership, while in the end, the job of protecting the borders is not even done. In Nigeria, armed militias and bandits still leave and enter the territory as they please.

Aid and underdevelopment

Questions raised by the Kleptocracy Project range from the possible failure of previous anti corruption fixes to the reasons why measures like management controls – firing directors who don’t supervise the work of subordinates, for example- , or abdicating as a minister, seem to be out of the question, while financial scrutiny is limited to reporting after the fact. How do these states function and how, if at all, can they be transformed to a real public service? What is the actual role of international partners vis a vis the postcolonial regimes in Africa? Are money streams to those states, in either loans or charity, still to be pursued? Does aid help development or does it entrench the status quo, as Kenyan activist Nanjala Nyabola said recently when she tweeted that vaccine donations to ‘Africa’ presented an ‘active study in how aid causes underdevelopment’ and that donations make it difficult to ‘pressure our governments to prioritise health’?
Nyabola’s observation is supported by the project’s findings in Mozambique, where politicians were quite happy to party with aid money because, as a state spokesperson put it, ‘our partners take care of our health needs anyway’ and in South Africa, where president Ramaphosa protested against ‘vaccine hoarding’ by the west, while budgets that could have bought vaccines last year had disappeared. In coming months ZAM will be following up on these observations and questions. What do the Kenyans who recently protested against extra IMF loans to their ‘pocket filling’ leaders, have to say on the subject? How can solidarity with Ugandan activists, who are arrested with police vehicles funded with Dutch development aid money, take shape?

Investigative journalism

On the bright side, the increasing practice of investigative journalism in Africa already seems to be making a difference. Though authorities in many African countries habitually do not respond to calls for comment, the incessant questioning during this project has started causing what might be called a remote response. After Taiwo Adebulu’s requests for comment, a high-ranking official at the Ministry of Interior announced that it ‘would penalise any official of the federal marriage registries found culpable of corruption’ while in South Africa, the head of the social welfare institution SASSA publicly described the challenges in her department in a weekly newspaper after Nazlee Arbee had bombarded the same department with questions. In Uganda, the parliamentary committee on education announced an investigation into the disappearance of civil servants’ salaries and the imminent arrests of thieves in the education department.
While similar measures and investigations have been announced time and time again, with no tangible results, the jittery reactions to journalists’ queries may indicate an incipient awareness among the powerful in the respective countries that demands for change and accountability are not likely to go away any time soon.

Source: The Elephant

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