Colossal Corruption in Africa

The 1980 Coup: Tribulations of the One-Party State in Zambia

by Goodwin Yoram Mumba
Lusaka, Zambia: UNZA Press, 221 pp., $45.00
Ana Nance/Redux
Zambia’s former president Kenneth Kaunda, 2000

There’s a lot of money to be made in Africa, with its vast reserves of oil and gas, its abundant gold, diamonds, uranium, and other minerals, its timber, ivory, and fish. The ongoing Ebola epidemic in West Africa obscures the fact that the continent’s fast-growing population includes hundreds of millions of middle-class consumers with a taste for modern electronics, expensive clothes and other manufactured goods, as well as a need for pharmaceuticals and medical technology. These are the realities President Obama must have had in mind at last summer’s African Leaders Summit in Washington when he announced $33 billion in new US investment on the continent.

Most of the money will be directed at modernization. It will come from corporations like General Electric and in the form of loans backed by the government and World Bank, and will be spent on energy, construction, communications, and banking projects. In return, some investors probably hope to secure rights to extract and market Africa’s natural resources. Meanwhile, some one million Chinese restaurateurs, construction workers, oil drillers, mining engineers, fishermen, loggers, and prostitutes have also descended on Africa in the past decade. They too are competing for the continent’s riches.

“Africa is like a beautiful woman,” a Ugandan journalist told me when I asked him what he thought about all this economic activity. “She must choose among her suitors.”

Several recent books about Zambia, a kidney-shaped Central African country known for its copper mines and game parks, suggest that this beautiful woman must also do more to avoid getting raped. Increased trade and investment are essential if Africa is ever to escape from poverty, but the continent still loses far more to corruption each year than it receives in foreign aid.1 The details of most of these scandals will likely be lost forever in a haze of complicated and unrecorded accounting tricks and whispered political promises. But these recent books provide telling details about coup plots and financial catastrophes that occurred there during and after the cold war, transforming what had been one of Africa’s most hopeful newly independent countries into one of the world’s most destitute.

Africans caught up in today’s scramble for their continent’s resources can be pretty certain that although the actors have changed, the play is much the same: as investment in Africa soars, foreign financiers and governments will no doubt continue to benefit from the continent’s vast but not limitless natural wealth, while shoring up allegiances with local leaders sympathetic to them. African people—most still poorly educated, preoccupied with tribal competition, and in the grip of corrupt dictators—need to strive for greater transparency and the rule of law in their countries before it’s too late.

On the eve of independence in 1964, 2 percent of Zambia’s 3.5 million people were white, but they controlled everything in a system resembling…

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