On holiday in the (remarkably for mid-July) sunny South Island, I was reading Dictatorland: The Men Who Stole Africa, by British journalist Paul Kenyon. It is well-worth reading for anyone with an interest in Africa, or indeed in economic (under)development. Over 400 or so pages, it is a series of accounts of leaders of post-colonial African countries who enriched themselves – typically almost obscenely so – from the vast natural wealth of the continent. There are exceptions of course; notably well-governed Botswana. And there were countries where idealistic disastrous policies impaired the material wellbeing of the citizenry without any great personal enrichment of the leaders (Tanzania and Zambia under Nyerere and Kaunda are two examples). But Kenyon’s focus is on a series of countries with abundant natural resources (oil or very fertile land in his particular examples), one or more brutal leaders, and, at very best, mediocre material living standards for their people – think Congo, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Libya, Ivory Coast (with the rather different, but equally bleak, Eritrea thrown in for good measure). Eritrea may – the author reports – have abundant oil and gas, but the regime simply refuses to allow any exploration. Looting by leaders and their cronies was too often a big part of the story – billions in foreign banks, fancy houses in Paris, London and the like. The way various Western companies – oil companies notably – acted as enablers of this evil is pretty unedifying too.
Many many books and learned articles have been written on failures of post-colonial Africa. I’m not sure that any of the stories really persuade me, except perhaps in the most reduced-form sense: there were weak institutions for sure, but they needn’t have stayed weak; the boundaries of many countries were artificial at best, but a strongman (arguably necessary to hold some countries together) could have lived modestly, governed wisely, and so on. And if one were to blame the colonial predecessors – in some cases dreadful (think Leopold of the Belgians), in others not much better than indifferent – much of east Asia also emerged from (relatively shortlived) colonial rule at around the same time, and the small Pacific countries emerged even later. Much of the Middle East emerged from Ottoman rule only a little earlier. And if, indeed, there is a “natural resource curse” of sorts – at least in the presence of weak institutions – there are places like Brunei or Norway (independent since 1905).
I spent a couple of years in Zambia, working as the economic adviser to the central bank. Kenneth Kaunda hadn’t been overly brutal, and hadn’t much enriched himself. But under his watch, his country’s economy and material living standards had been severely impaired nonetheless. In the midst of the liberalisation/disinflation shakeout in the early-mid 1990s, per capita GDP is estimated to have been more than a third lower than it had been at independence in 1964. In the “what might have been” file, the story was often told of how at independence Zambia – rich in copper, and with abundant agricultural land and a small population – had had per capita GDP similar to (or a bit higher than) those in Taiwan or South Korea. Zimbabwe had also been about as well-off as those two east Asian states, which themselves had only emerged from fairly brutal decades of Japanese occupation in 1945. These days, Zambia and Zimbabwe “enjoy” per capita GDP between 5 and 10 per cent of those of Taiwan and South Korea.
Another way to look at Africa’s economic failure is to compare the growth performance with New Zealand. In 1960, New Zealand was still among the richer of the advanced countries of the world. Nowhere in Africa had estimated per capita incomes more than about half of New Zealand’s (South Africa and Algeria), and most had incomes not much more than a tenth of New Zealand’s. As readers know, over the subsequent decades we have been among the worst performing of the advanced countries. So beating New Zealand’s growth record over the decades since 1960, should have been easy. But of the 25 African countries for which the Conference Board database had data (in PPP terms), only 7 did. Taken as a whole, the continent couldn’t even manage to make gains relative to the advanced country laggard New Zealand. Of the 18 east Asian countries in the Conference Board database, every single one grew faster than New Zealand over the period since 1960. Looting by Africa’s leaders is far from the only story, but at very least it was symptomatic of the wider failure – as well as being morally inexcusable.
Official looting isn’t, of course, confined to post-colonial Africa. It is mercifully rare in New Zealand, but in the course of my holiday I stumbled on an extraordinary example from the early days of settlement, In Nelson, we stayed in Blackmore Cottage, (the warmer version of) a house first built in the early 1850s for Edward Blackmore, who had been appointed by Governor Grey as Collector of Customs and sub-treasurer in Nelson. The owner was keen to tell us the story. Blackmore had started by lying about his qualifications – claiming an Oxford degree when he’d done no more than qualified to matriculate (never even attending) – but that was just the start. He appears to have collected customs duties (at the time, the bulk of regular government revenue other than land sales) and simply never passed the revenue to the government. At the time, it appears, people appointed customs collector had to provide sureties or guarantors, but Blackmore never provided these either. Questions were soon asked, repeatedly, but the mails were slow, and it appears that Governor Grey himself took Blackmore under his wing (when senior public servants started pursuing him). By the time the incident came to a head a year or two later, Blackmore owed the Crown around 2000 pounds. That mightn’t seem like much, but total customs revenue for the entire country in 1855 was 105000 pounds.
No one seems quite clear what Blackmore did with the money, but it was probably failed business ventures. He’d even bought a couple of islands. But whatever he did with it, there wasn’t much left by the time things came to a head. You might suppose that he’d have been arrested and served a considerable prison sentence – defalcation is no trivial crime. But, astonishingly, there were no legal consequences at all. Instead, someone in the Nelson community apparently gave Blackmore ten shillings, and took over whatever assets were left, apparently with the intention of liquidating them and paying any proceeds to the Crown. Ten shillings (or perhaps it was in addition to the fare) seems to have been enough for the Blackmore family to leave for Sydney, whence the law did not pursue them. Blackmore was, reportedly, no more successful in Australia, running for a time (before it failed) a private school, at which two of Australia’s earliest Prime Ministers were educated.
The Blackmore affair seemed to create quite a stir. There was a near-unanimous resolution in Parliament that Blackmore should be arrested, wherever he was. There was a parliamentary inquiry into the failures of senior civil servants in dealing with Blackmore (the question was whether those civil servants should have their pensions docked. But Blackmore was never arrested, never prosecuted. never punished. Perhaps it was simply too embarrassing for some senior people? Whatever the latter day failings of our leaders – and they are many – looting in office is almost unknown.
And with that post-holiday whimsy, I’ll start to get back to the regular round of posts.