How to get filthy rich in sinking Africa

When a government gets serious about fighting corruption, certain effects quickly become visible. As a New York Times article showed last week in the case of Nigeria, once President Buhari’s crackdown got underway a few months ago, the people who’d been stealing the country’s vast public wealth started behaving differently. It takes more than speeches: a head of state must initiate some investigations, high-profile arrests, and firings of high-ranking civil servants before corrupt officials start to realize that the cycle of impunity that had protected them for so long is over — or at least, as we may find in Nigeria, temporarily interrupted.

In Mali, meanwhile, nothing has yet signaled embezzlers or reassured ordinary citizens that feeding time at the government trough is over — President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s abundant 2013 campaign promises to fight graft notwithstanding. Despite a string of corruption scandals since Keita took power, nobody caught with their hands in Mali’s public till has been punished. And of course it doesn’t help that French investigators have linked Keita himself to various shady dealings and underworld figures.

Bamako’s illicit economy, fueled by money looted from state coffers, continues unabated. Far from being reined in under Keita’s rule, it appears to be undergoing a boom. I heard from one human rights investigator recently that Keita and his entourage are turning back the clock to the bad old days of impunity. Civil servants who complain about corruption or try to hold their staff accountable for it, such as police director Hamidou Kansaye, are being let go.

And some of the biggest forms of abuse are happening in the open. Earlier this month reports surfaced of a deal to sell a 3.43-hectare plot of public land in Bamako to private developers. The video below shows a panoramic view of the parcel in question; it’s the cleared area in the foreground.

Given its setting on the waterfront between the Pont Fahd and the Pont des Martyrs, it’s a prime location for development. The problem, as an article in the Bamako weekly Le Sphynx points out, is that the land was reserved for public use five years ago. The plot was meant to become the Place du Cinquantenaire, site of a new monument and park for the Malian people. This fact didn’t stop two of Keita’s cabinet ministers from approving the sale earlier this year, ostensibly to an American firm called Wipi Group for “construction of a five-star hotel and shopping mall,” according to a leaked official document (n° 2015 – 0028-MDEAF- MATD/SG dated 1 September 2015).

There’s so much that’s dubious about this transaction. By all evidence Wipi Group, owned by a Sudanese immigrant in the U.S. and registered in South Dakota, has no other holdings and lacks the capital to develop the site. How did such an unknown company secure this deal — which was never put out for a bid — in the first place? Why has a Wipi Group representative denied that his firm ever purchased this property, or any other property in Mali? Why does Mohamed Ali Bathily, one of the two ministers whose signature appears on the leaked document, now reportedly deny that the signature is actually his? Suspicions in Bamako abound that Wipi is merely a smokescreen, a stand-in for unnamed buyers likely to enjoy close ties to Mali’s head of state. But you can forgive Malians for being suspicious: over the past couple of decades they’ve seen too much of their national patrimony sold into private hands at below-market prices, after all, lining the pockets of their country’s corrupt elite.

The Wipi Group deal only illustrates a rule Malians have long understood: if you want to make a fortune in this country, you don’t have to offer the best goods or services at the lowest price. You shouldn’t try to pioneer some fantastic new product that will make people’s lives better. For that matter, you needn’t bother creating anything of value at all. Just get your hands on some public resources, buy off anyone charged with overseeing their use, and sell those resources to private buyers. In broad daylight.

Will the Place du Cinquantenaire deal go forward now that it’s come into public view? Will the government officials who (allegedly) approved this deal ever be called to account for their lack of transparency? The average Bamako resident, according to Sidiki Guindo’s latest poll, rates President Keita’s performance lowest with respect to the fight against corruption. Given the climate of cynicism fostered by Mali’s booming illicit economy, whistle-blowers and anti-corruption campaigners face an uphill battle. The same is true all over Africa, not least in Nigeria, where decades of failed crackdowns can inspire a sinking feeling. (Good luck to you, President Buhari!)

Readers may recognize this post’s title as a variation on that of Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013), which recounts an unnamed protagonist’s rise from poverty to power amid the cutthroat business competition of an unnamed South Asian city. But you have to look elsewhere in this author’s work to find the passage that best resonates with the cynical opportunism now prevailing in Mali. As one particularly corrupt character in Hamid’s debut novel Moth Smoke (2000) puts it: “People are pulling their pieces out of the pie, and the pie is getting smaller, so if you love your family, you’d better take your piece now, while there’s still some left. That’s what I’m doing. And if anyone isn’t doing it, it’s because they’re locked out of the kitchen.”

Words to live by in Bamako these days. Or as Malians might put it, “Silence, on mange.”

Pie, anyone? Grab it before it’s gone.

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5 Responses to How to get filthy rich in sinking Africa

  1. ABDUL says:

    Thank you. Your article depicts the sad spectacle that the vast majority of Malians are watching. But the feeling is also that it’s going to end dramatically.

  2. Stephen Harmon says:

    Bruce, Thanks for another nice post. I read Mohsin Hamid’s book a year or so ago, and I too noticed that it could have been written about Mali (or several other African countries) as well.


  3. Yasmin says:

    Thank you for this all this information. I can only concur with Abdul and every time I see these poor, poor, malnourished little street children, I can’t help but think about the depth of corruption in this unfortunate country. So sad that most Malians care so little about Mali……

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