Tom Burgis: ‘To confront his kleptocracy, we must first cease our complicity in it’
Tom Burgis is investigations correspondent at the Financial Times and author of Kleptopia (William Collins)
There lived a man whose land was rich with oil and gas but who grew up surrounded by poverty and knew every day that things could, and periodically did, fall apart. He joined the security forces then entered public service. That is the wrong term: he began to participate in the looting that is the incessant occupation of those who hold public office in his country. This became his life’s work, to remain an insider, not to tumble from the enclave of wealth and safety into the turbulent world outside.
He grew rich. He rose. He grew richer. So did those on whom he bestowed his favour, those he licensed to loot. They fawned over him, told of his greatness. As for the rest, those in whose name he ruled, there was no need to seek their consent. Instead, to maintain control, he fed them fear while promising the antidote. They are coming, the others, those who wish us harm, wish to take what we have, but I will keep you safe. It was a double life: he was at once the thief and the guard.
The man I have in mind was the governor of a Nigerian state. As he guzzled petro-dollars, villages burned in his name. But this sketch applies, with only minor variations, to many of the world’s rulers. From the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to Kazakhstan, most countries’ principal way of making money in the global economy is by selling its basic ingredients: fuel, metals precious and industrial, certain stones. The proceeds are at the disposal of whoever holds power. They take what they want, then hire bankers and lawyers to remove their fingerprints from the loot and stash it in rich countries. They have no need to raise taxes from their own people, so their own people have no way to call them to account. Corruption is the opposite of consent.
Vladimir Putin’s eligibility for this club of kleptocrats comes across in First Person, a book written by three Russian journalists shortly after Putin became president in 2000, based on interviews with him, his wife and some of his friends. Growing up with rats and abysmal toilets, Putin dreamed of a place in the Soviet empire’…….