The problem of writing about Africa is one of size. The continent could swallow Europe, the US, China and India, and still have room for more. The Democratic Republic of Congo alone is the size of western Europe.

There are also vast differences between the 55 states that comprise Africa. Some have massive mineral deposits and oil reserves, others have none. Some have grinding military conflicts and some have been peaceful since independence. All have growing urban sectors, yet there are huge differences in infrastructure. To find a systematic logic in anything so huge and differentiated would be a major accomplishment.

Tom Burgis, an FT investigations correspondent who has reported from Africa since 2006, is well aware of the scale of the challenge but does not let it daunt him. His subject in The Looting Machine is, as the subtitle has it, “warlords, tycoons, smugglers and the systematic theft of Africa’s wealth”; his aim is to explain how a continent that is exceptionally rich in resources can also be blighted by poverty. This paradoxical combination, familiar to economists as the “resource curse”, is not confined to Africa, but, Burgis writes, “it is at its most virulent on the continent that is at once the world’s poorest and, arguably, its richest”.

In essence, the book is a great scrapbook of exploitation. It is written in a way that will appeal to the general reader, but still interest specialists. It assembles a long series of case studies involving different power blocs in different countries, different resources and different global players. Rapacious African presidents and warlords are obviously culpable — but so too are equally rapacious and perhaps even more demanding multinational corporations, and their bankers, advisers and customers far away from Africa in New York, London, Paris and Zurich.

The resulting corruption takes many different forms. The trade in counterfeit textiles across the Niger/Nigeria border, for example, involves both large concerns that are part of the formal economy and very small informal operators who would otherwise have no sustenance for their families. This is a very different set-up from, say, a giant mining concern in Guinea, where, as Burgis recounts, there has allegedly been scant division between politics and business, to the benefit of the president’s family. As a consequence, there is no one-size-fits-all remedy, a problem exacerbated by the mutual dependence of the formal and informal economies. Outside its intersections with the informal economy, the formal economy simply does not employ most Africans; any sudden effort to clean up corruption would further impoverish three-quarters of the people on the continent.

Goodluck Jonathan

Burgis is damning of Shell, together with its efforts to rehabilitate itself in the Niger Delta. He is damning too of Goodluck Jonathan (pictured), Nigeria’s president, whose political party is accused of being a vehicle for sharing the proceeds of corruption. The question of who is corrupting whom gives way to the more troubling question of how the cycle of corruption persists when even its beneficiaries have qualms about the damage it causes.

The Looting Machine’s francophone case studies are excellent: Burgis clearly has good French. He may not, however, have much Chinese. He does not differentiate the complex model of official Chinese government-to-government projects from the careless and often racist behaviour of private Chinese entrepreneurs. But he does say that China is genuinely seeking to uplift Africans as it pursues its own goals and competes with the west.

Underlying the exploitation of Africa is a global culture that values the products of pillage. In that sense the continent’s problems are only part of a global malaise. Burgis makes this point very starkly in his epilogue. Throughout the east London suburb where he lives, he can buy products sourced or derived from Africa. The products come to London on planes and boats, and great oil tankers carry the fuel that drives our cars. The tankers are carrying valuable cargo and are kept to high safety standards. On the same seas approaching Europe, thousands upon thousands of African refugees in ramshackle boats sink and drown. There could not be a crueller contrast, and Burgis has the good sense not to present it in an alarmist way, but with an understatement that is far more powerful.

That understatement has been hard won. In an Author’s Note at the beginning of the book, Burgis very honestly sets out the personal toll that his experiences in Africa have exacted. Diagnosed with severe depression in late 2010, he underwent several weeks of hospital treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. The Looting Machine is in part a means of self-exoneration, a way of making amends to those he ultimately could not help. “I started to see the thread that connects a massacre in a remote African village with the pleasures and comforts that we in the richer parts of the world enjoy,” he writes. In doggedly following that thread, he has done a service to some of the world’s poorest people.

The Looting Machine, by Tom Burgis, William Collins, RRP£20/PublicAffairs, RRP$27.99, 336 pages

Stephen Chan is professor of world politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London

Tom Burgis will be speaking on the Oxford Literary Festival’s round table about the future of Africa on Sunday March 29

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