Kleptocracy and Debt: Vulture Funds to the Rescue?

I am currently working on a project on commodities in SSA and have been amazed both by the region’s mineral wealth and how much of it gets stolen by local elites in cahoots with large MNCs. It is one thing to read about corruption from 30,000 feet. Getting an up-close view is another matter. The examples of the two Congos are instructive…

Congo-Brazzaville is one of the top oil producers in Africa. It is also a dirt poor country, with over 70% of its people living below the poverty line. Like in Equatorial Guinea (and other petro-states in the region), the ruling cabal in Brazzaville has turned the country’s oil wealth into private property – the symbol of which is the president’s son’s extravagant expenditures in European capitals (For more details see below).

These details of the sleaze around oil revenues in Congo were unearthed, by among others, Elliot Associates, a “vulture fund.”

Across the river in the other Congo (Congo-Kinshasa aka DRC) another vulture fund is trying to get Kinshasa to pay up. The vulture fund, FG Hemisphere, paid $3.3m for the debt to a Bosnian state-owned company, and then went ahead and sued for $100m in the courts of Jersey to recover the debt. Recently the Privy Council in the UK, the final appeals court, ruled in favor of Kinshasa. For more on this see the Guardian (here, here and here), which has been following this particularly case closely.

The Democratic Republic of Congo has a mineral wealth estimated to be around $24 trillion. It is also one of the least and poorest governed places on the planet. A recent report indicated that as much as 5 billion dollars in revenue from minerals has disappeared from the state coffers in the recent past.

Should Brazzaville and Kinshasa be forced to pay up?

Opinion over the utility of venture funds is divided. There are those that blame them for going after the poorest countries, asking for taxpayers to pay for their rulers’ (sometimes dead and gone, like Mobutu) largesse. But there area also those who contend that the best way of making rulers less willing to steal is by forcing them to pay up their debts – especially considering that debt forgiveness alone cannot end corruption.

Eric Joyce, writing in the Guardian puts it thus:

Campaigners have always maintained that if FGH is unable to collect the debt then the money will go instead to public works in the DRC. This is simply not true. The doctrine of “sovereign immunity” applies across the world and it is therefore not possible for any creditor, “vulture” or otherwise, to access funds that have a sovereign purpose – that is, public expenditure. Creditors can only target cash being used to trade.

With this in mind, perhaps the do-gooders campaigning for debt cancellation and recovery of stolen monies could team up with vulture funds. The latter have both the expertise and financial incentive to go after monies hidden in foreign bank accounts and shell companies registered in tax havens. Just a thought.

Reason for African Petro-Rulers to be Worried

Africa’s petrorulers (heads of state of Angola, Cameroon, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Ghana, Nigeria, South Sudan, and Sudan) may be headed for tough times later this year. According to a piece by (Steve Levine) over at FP, Saudi Arabia – the world’s leading oil producer – is considering flooding the global oil markets with the aim of sticking it to the Russians and Iranians. Saudi action of this nature could lower prices to as low as US $40 a barrel from the current $83.27.

With the exception of Ghana and Cameroon, such a drop in oil prices would almost certainly lead to political unrest in the rest of Africa’s oil producers. Sudan and South Sudan are already facing huge revenue shortfalls due to a dispute over the sharing of oil revenue.

More on “The Coming Oil Crash” here.

South Africa and the AU [Rant and rave alert!!]

As you may already know South African candidate for the AU Commission Chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (ex-wife of president Zuma) failed to get elected. Instead the AU extended Mr. Jean Ping’s term till June. Ms Dlamini-Zuma intends to vie for the seat again in June.

South Africa and its backyard (SADC member states) had lobbied hard for Ms Dlamini-Zuma.

The South African Business Day reports:

Mzukisi Qobo of the University of Pretoria says: “It is clear that this is an intensely divisive campaign, and plays into the hands of those who view SA as harbouring intentions of running roughshod over other countries. Unity in the AU is a facade reinforced by a poorly conceived notion of pan-Africanism.

“Africa’s political elites still think very much in terms of regional groupings — east Africa, north Africa, southern Africa and west Africa — as well as along the colonial lines of Francophone, Lusophone and Anglophone. These are realities that are there.”

SA’s foreign policy stance has been back and forth, which may have caused more divisions with countries like Nigeria and Egypt.

 But political analyst Steven Friedman does not think policy “flip-flopping” was the reason Ms Dlamini-Zuma did not get the post. With its economic infrastructure strength, other countries feared that SA would dominate Africa politically if given a chance, he says.

To which I say, why not?

What would be so wrong with a reasonably stable and important regional player taking charge of the rudderless dictators’ club institution that is the AU? The organization’s failures in the recent past – including in Libya, Sudan, Cote d’Ivoire, Somalia, Zimbabwe, DRC, Central African Republic, etc – have been partly because no single country has managed to emerge as its de facto leader and ultimate guarantor (forget the delusional late King of Kings, he was a clown on steroids).

Instead of having a strong leadership – whether by a single country or by a group of regional representatives – the AU has opted to have weak leadership in the form of a Commission headed by nondescript individuals political lightweights unable to rally the member countries to any respectable cause. The only time the club’s dictators are ever united is when they dump on the ICC and all other manner of foreign infringement on their “sovereignty” (which to them means the right to starve, jail or murder their citizens). The existing post of a rotating presidency has also been a complete sham.

Obiang was the latest one to occupy the post. Yes, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea. This guy.

May be this episode will end Pretoria’s navel-gazing and encourage it to focus on having a coherent Africa policy that will provide strong leadership for the AU.

A leaderless organization of 54 states, new $200m headquarters or not, is a useless organization.

For more on this see here and here.

Also, check out this thought-provoking piece on the symbolism of the new AU headquarters.

Quick Hits

Teodorin Obiang’s free ride is over. The son of the Equatorian dictator has had some of his wealth seized by the US government on suspicion of money laundering. For more on Equatorial Guinea read Ian Birrell‘s piece at the Guardian here.

Check out the Peter Gastrow Report on Transnational Organized Crime and State Erosion in Kenya. The juicy bits are between pages 47-50. The thick and thin of it is that very senior Kenyan politicians are implicated. For a related earlier post on drug trafficking click here.

Smith at African Confidential discusses the Kenyan involvement in Somalia, with an added section on the complexity of the intervention. He also raises questions about the link between al-Shabab and piracy and touches a bit on why the organization could yet find a fertile ground for recruitment on the Kenyan coast.

Rants and Raves / Thoughts on the African Union

The African Union (AU) has had a rough few months. The diplomatic failures in Zimbabwe, Cote d’Ivoire, and Madagascar exposed the organization’s incompetence. The misguided anti-ICC crusade continues to cement the image of the organization as nothing more than a club of out-of-date and tone deaf autocrats. To many observers, calls for “African  Solutions to African Problems” amid all this failure has been seen as a cover of impunity and mediocre leadership on the African continent.

It says a lot that the current chairman of AU is President Theodore Obiang’ of Equatorial Guinea; a man who leads an oil-rich country of under 0.7 million people, with a per capita income of more than 30,000; but with more than 70% of its population living on less than $2 a day.

The epitome of the organization’s woes was the total snub it got from NATO before the military campaign against Libya’s Gaddafi, one of the AU’s main patrons. The AU was created by the Sirte Declaration, in Libya. Mr. Gaddafi’s influence ranged from his “African Kings” caucus (in which he was the King of Kings) to investments from Libya’s Sovereign wealth fund. I bet Gaddafi had a hand in the organization’s green flag.

So what ails the African Union?

The AU’s problems are legion. In my view, the following are some of the key ones.

  1. Lack of a regional hegemon(s): The AU faces massive collective action problems. With no regional hegemon(s) to act as the rudder of the organization, most of the organization’s resolutions are not worth the paper they get written on. The rotating chairmanship is a distraction from the real leadership needed in the organization. For instance, I had to google it to find out who’s currently in charge of the presidency of the EU (Poland). Everybody knows that France and Germany run the EU. Their word has gravitas in the Union. In the AU on the other hand, there is no leader. Could it be Navel-gaving South Africa or serially under-performing Nigeria?
  2. Too much political control: Most successful international organizations, despite having political principals, tend to have technical agents that are to some extent shielded from the principals. The AU is political through and through. The key decision-making body is the assembly of heads of state. The council of ministers does nothing. And the commission is all bark and no bite. Cronies of dictators staff most of the key positions in the organization.
  3. Disconnect from the masses: Most Africans have no idea what exactly the AU does. What is the point of the organization? Is it to preserve Africa’s borders? Is it to defend the likes of Gaddafi when the ICC’s Mr. Ocampo comes calling? Giving the people a voice in the Union might force the organization to do the people’s bidding, instead of being a protector of impunity in the name of African sovereignty.

What would reforming the AU entail?

  1. Radical restructuring: Like all inter-state organizations, the AU’s leadership should reflect regional power differences. The current assembly – in which Chad has the same power as Nigeria – makes no sense. There should be a smaller assembly of sub-regional representatives (West – Nigeria; East-Ethiopia; North – Egypt; and South-South Africa) with veto power and the mandate to implement the organization’s resolutions.
  2. Competent staffing: The practice of presidents appointing their sisters-in-law as AU representatives should go. An injection of competent expertise into the organization would go a long way in making it appear to be a more politically independent, competent and respectable organization.
  3. Direct elections to the AU parliament or no parliament at all: Instead of having the members’ parliaments elect representatives to the AU parliament, there should be direct elections. If that cannot happen then the parliament should be scrapped all together. A toothless and unrepresentative parliament is a waste of resources.
  4. Constructive and focused engagement with the rest of the world: Who is the AU chief foreign policy person? Are there permanent representatives in Beijing, Brussels, Brasilia, New Delhi and Washington? Why aren’t they trying to initiate a collective bargaining approach when dealing with these global powers (even if it is at the sub-regional level)? And what with the siege mentality? Not every condemnation of African leaders’ incompetence and mediocrity is a neo-colonial conspiracy, you know. For instance, instead of whining against the ICC’s Africa bias, the AU should clean up its own house. It doesn’t matter that George Bush is not being tried for crimes against Iraqis. The last time I checked none of the leaders of Switzerland was being tried for crimes committed in the German cantons.
  5. A more consistent commitment to progressive ideals: The AU is the only organization in the world that includes in its charter the provision to intervene in its member countries under the principle of responsibility to protect. If the AU were slightly more serious, the disasters in Zimbabwe, Cote Ivoire and Madagascar could have been nipped in the bud. As things stand it is only tiny Botswana that keeps shouting about the organization’s commitment to proper governance and responsibility to protect.

I am not a fan of the idea of the United States of Africa. That said, I believe that a regional organization like the AU can be a force for good. But in order for it to fulfill its purpose, it has to change. The change must reflect the regional power balance; it must increase the competence quotient in the AU and it must increase the voice of the average African within the organization.

Briefing from Malabo

The club of African autocrats African Union has its biannual summit in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea this week (This guy is the current AU Chairman, no joke).

The struggling AU has a lot on its plate at the moment (subject of an upcoming blog post). It is in the middle of trying to put out new fires in Sudan and Libya, while ignoring/recovering from the humiliation of its failures in Somalia, Cote d’Ivoire, and Zimbabwe – not to mention the region’s other problems.

All this while insisting on “African Solutions to African Problems,” despite the organization’s infamous reputation for incompetence.

Top on the agenda at the summit has been the ongoing hostilities (Obama might disagree) in Libya. According to the Oman Daily Observer, the AU has come up with a plan that

“envisages a ceasefire, humanitarian aid, a transition period, reforms towards democracy and elections, but the position on the future of Gaddafi has not been made clear.”

In other words the heads of state in Malabo, led by their Chairman Obiang, are hoping to do a Zimbabwe: Have Gaddafi in charge of the same reform process that is supposed to phase out his 42-year rule. I need not elaborate how this story ends.

double standards

The Times has a nice story on Obiang’s Equatorial Guinea that is worth reading:

Officially and unofficially, Americans do business with one of the undisputed human rights global bad boys, Equatorial Guinea, Africa’s fourth biggest oil exporter. Its widely criticized record on basic freedoms has offered little barrier to broad engagement by the United States, commercially or diplomatically.

American oil companies have billions of dollars invested here. One American diplomat, using language that makes human rights advocates fume, praised the “mellowing, benign leadership” of the dictator in power for more than 30 years, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, in 2009 cables released by WikiLeaks. And a leading American military contractor with strong Pentagon ties has a multimillion-dollar contract to protect his shores and help train his forces.

You may recall that Obiang’s son was recently reported to have ordered a $380M luxury yacht. The Obiang’s and their backers continue to run the central African country like a personal possession.

According to the Guardian:

President Obiang, who has ruled since seizing power in 1979, has decreed that the management of his country’s $3bn a year in oil revenues is a state secret. That is why it is difficult to say for sure exactly how he comes to have about $700m in US bank accounts. But the president’s son gave an insight into his salary in an affidavit filed with the Cape high court in South Africa in August, as part of a lawsuit against him over a commercial debt.

On paper Equatorial Guinea is richer than most middle income countries. In reality, however, most of the 676,000 Equatorial Guineans live in poverty. The story of Equatorial Guinea is almost personal. Every time I post on Obiang’s inept rule I can’t stop wondering: How hard can it be to run a country of only 676,000 with over 3 billion in annual revenue?

Like the Times article points out, outsiders like the US government and foreign oil companies deserve to be called out over the goings on in Equatorial Guinea.

That said, the lion’s share of the blame is on Obiang’ and his backers. As far as I know none of the foreigners involved in the country held a gun to his head and asked him to siphon off billions of his country’s revenue to foreign bank accounts.

More on the Times story here.

 

the political economy of violence

The Economist reports:

YESTERDAY it was Afghanistan and Congo. Today it is Côte d’Ivoire and Libya. Violence, it seems, is always with us, like poverty. And that might seem all there is to be said: violence is bad, it is worse in poor countries and it makes them poorer.

But this year’s World Development Report, the flagship publication of the World Bank, suggests there is a lot more to say. Violence, the authors argue, is not just one cause of poverty among many: it is becoming the primary cause. Countries that are prey to violence are often trapped in it. Those that are not are escaping poverty. This has profound implications both for poor countries trying to pull themselves together and for rich ones trying to help.

Many think that development is mainly hampered by what is known as a “poverty trap”. Farmers do not buy fertiliser even though they know it will produce a better harvest. If there is no road, they reason, their bumper crop will just rot in the field. The way out of such a trap is to build a road. And if poor countries cannot build it themselves, rich donors should step in.

Yet the World Development Report suggests that the main constraint on development these days may not be a poverty trap but a violence trap. Peaceful countries are managing to escape poverty—which is becoming concentrated in countries riven by civil war, ethnic conflict and organised crime. Violence and bad government prevent them from escaping the trap.

Interesting piece. It is particularly important to note that violence affects everyone’s investment decisions, whether rich or poor.

The thing about poor places is that everyone is poor, elite or not.

No matter that Theodore Obiang’s son is buying the second most expensive boat in the world. If he has to hop on a plane to LA to have fun – instead of say, creating Africa’s Dubai in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea – he and his father remain tin pot dictators. The same applies for Idris Deby of Chad, Biya of Cameroon and many others. These dictators may have property abroad but the fact that they cannot accumulate property at home because of structural insecurity of their property rights (a coup is always a crazy junior officer away) continues to confine their countries to penury.

What do you do when even the dictator does not have stable property rights? How can you develop when no one is secure enough to invest in factories?

the au, without a regional hegemon, is toothless

On March 10th, 2011 the African Union (AU) declared Alassane Ouattara as the legitimately elected president of Ivory Coast. Outgoing president Laurent Gbagbo (who insists he won the poll) responded by ordering his soldiers to kill supporters of Mr. Ouattara.

Now the ball is back in the AU’s court. So far the regional body appears to be at sixes and sevens, unsure of how to react. Lacking a regional hegemonic benefactor, the AU has over the years been mostly bark and no bite. Its leadership reflects the confusion and ineptitude that characterize the Continental body. One of its recent leaders is Muamar Gaddafi. Presently it is led by Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, dictator of Equatorial Guinea and this idiot’s guy’s dad.

Mr. Gbagbo has refused to step down or be part of a unity government led by Mr. Ouattara, as demanded by the AU. Increasingly isolated, he has nationalized the cocoa industry in a desperate attempt to get some cash to pay his loyalists. Cote d’Ivoire produces 40% of the world’s cocoa. He is also reported to be receiving help from Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Angola’s Jose Edwardo do Santos.

In an ideal world South Africa or Nigeria or even Ethiopia would have provided leadership and force whenever needed to ensure that AU resolutions are enforced. But Pretoria has a president in Zuma who shows no interest in foreign policy; his handling of the Zimbabwe crisis speaks volumes. Abuja is a mess, period and Ethiopia has first to eradicate famine before it can venture anywhere beyond Somalia.

Without an enforcement mechanism and a regional hegemonic benefactor, the AU’s resolutions will continue to be nothing but hot air.