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