Pity the financiers in the heart of darkness

It's the people of Africa who are being ripped off.

There is a deep rooted and pernicious view, amongst those claiming to want to "help" Africa that proves difficult to shake. It says that Africa's impoverishment can be laid primarily at the door of a group of corrupt leaders. The solution, it says, is not to stop giving aid – after all we Europeans have a mission to help those less fortunate, whether their fault or not – but to impose heavy conditions on any aid we provide and any debt we cancel. The implication is that Africans are unable to govern themselves, and that we, who have centuries more experience of running things to a certain standard, need to save them from themselves.

This is the basic argument put forward by Eric Joyce MP ("Congo's victory against a 'vulture fund' is hollow", The Guardian, 19 July). Joyce is right that vulture funds form part of a much bigger picture of looting. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth stopping shady hedge funds profiteering from the odious debts of Congo on the grounds that Congo's leaders will be unable to use that money properly anyway. Congo's problems do not, according to Joyce, arise from decades – centuries – of the most horrible exploitation the world has ever witnessed, but from greedy national leaders who actually need to do more to encourage Western financiers into the country to help them use their resources more efficiently.

Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has certainly not had the governments it deserves. But we do not have to go back even to one of the most brutal colonial regimes of the nineteenth century to discover why. In 1960 Congo's first democratic Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba was assassinated with the help of the American and Belgian secret services. Brought to power was one of the most corrupt leaders Africa has ever seen – Mobutu Sese Seko.

Mobutu's corruption was actively supported by his paymasters in the West. When an International Monetary Fund mission to Congo (then Zaire) in 1982 documented the extent of Mobutu's corruption, telling creditors there was 'no chance of getting their money back', they proceeded to increase lending to the autocrat. Little wonder that Mobutu left a mountain of debt to his country. This is the debt that Joyce believes we – who lent the money and fuelled the corruption – should hold against the country now. Where he thinks the moral legitimacy to do this comes from is unclear.

This debt has cost DRC very dearly. Some of it was cancelled two years ago – but only after DRC spent 8 years jumping through hoops and spending $2 billion. But even this pales into significance compared to the taxes lost to DRC as multinational corporations have plundered the country of resources, paying laughable amounts of tax on their profits (Heather Stewart, "£13tn: hoard hidden from taxman by global elite", 22 July).

The idea that these companies are put off operating in DRC by the levels of corruption in the government only serves to highlight the double standards in Joyce's arguments. After all corruption takes two. It is not simply that members of Congo's elite benefit from corrupt mining deals, so do those offering the bribes and escaping their taxes. Joyce is right we should look at both sides of corruption - as we’ve done in the recent case of British development funds in the James Ibori trial in Niger delta. But it has to be seen in a wider context.

Joyce does have praise for one African government – a genuine case of the "deserving poor". One government has been good enough to deserve the generosity of the British public. That government is Rwanda, which has developed beyond all expectations since the horrendous genocide it experienced in 1994.

Certainly Rwanda has used a development technique familiar to the corporate interests Joyce appears to applaud: plunder. Rwanda has benefited hugely from plunder of Congo's resources and the continued destabilisation of DRC. It's ongoing role in DRC is a key reason for the succession of venal governments and ongoing war which DRC's people continue to suffer. As time has gone by, Rwanda's government itself has become more and more autocratic. Perhaps it is extraordinary, perhaps it is perfectly explicable that this country has become a poster child of Western "aid".

Joyce is quite right that defeating one vulture fund is going to make little difference to the people of DRC. The issues at stake are far bigger. Vultures are really just a symbol of the forces tearing at Africa's resources – the financiers and businessmen who are not, as Joyce would contend, being "ripped off" but are themselves ripping off a people who has suffered at the hands of the West for a very long time.

Nick Dearden is the director of the Jubilee Debt Campaign

Congolese women walk with their belongings to the border. Photograph: Getty Images

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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