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Thursday, May 9, 2024

How An African Tribal Chief Snookered The White Man Out Of Millions And Lived Happily In St. Tropez

Jacob M'bele was an impressive man.  Tall and elegantly dressed in his white, gold-embroidered, silk and linen kanzu, he rose from his desk and greeted the white man with great courtesy and warmth. The office was as elegant and sumptuous as the Elysees, magnificently ornate but tastefully so.  There was no exaggerated show of wealth and privilege, but appointments simply reflective of the man's station. 

'Welcome', M'bele  said, shaking the man's hand. 'Welcome', he said again, this time embracing him formally but warmly.  'My country greets you'. 

The white man, an emissary from the World Bank in the country to begin negotiations for a multi-million dollar loan to help rebuild the country's infrastructure after a long and costly civil war, was pleased.  First impressions were important, and this man of impeccable credentials who spoke the perfect French of the Sorbonne and the Ecole Nationale d'Administration quickly dismissed any and all rumors that circulated on Pennsylvania Avenue about him. 


Besides, it would be a pleasure in the coming months to deal with an educated, well-mannered African. He, like many white men had trouble accepting the fact that Africans - at least some of them - could actually be intelligent and even sophisticated. This is what development meant; and this was why he joined the Bank.

Let the Americans talk about 'participatory, village-based, consensual progress'.  He was quite happy, delighted in fact to be in the company of his kind of African, a man who was adept at finance and geopolitics, the very attributes of a Bank executive, and who could just as easily discuss Moliere. 

The path to M'bele's present position, Minister of Home Affairs, had been a long one, and thanks to his family, his tribe, its regional elders, and kinship with the President himself, he had been appointed and established in the government's top job - the jewel in the crown in what the President considered the new Africa. 


The job was not as officially important as Minister of Foreign Affairs, but the Home Office was both the center of political authority and repository of international foreign assistance monies. The country, although one of the poorest in Africa was rich in natural resources - it had oil, gas, industrial diamonds, and the  rare earth elements needed in cell phone and computer operating systems, and so Western nations were clambering for access.  

M'bele was aware of his President's support, the vast resources for which he was responsible, and the dark forces of the PDF (Patriotic Defense Forces), the secret police as powerful as Stasi, the KGB, and Sevak put together.  Governing was a matter of keeping the country on an even keel, and this triad assured it. 


Despite the admiration and immediate support of the World Bank representative, the system was carefully set up so that most of the Bank's investment - and that from the United States, the UK, and the Scandinavians as well - could be channeled 'properly', i.e. to private accounts in Switzerland, the Bahamas, and Dubai. 

African leaders since independence had become absolute masters at the development game - a game of generous welcome, superficial ethical probity, an appearance of sound financial sense, an avowed commitment to social and economic reform, and a fidelity to the people governed. Crudely but aptly put, it was a shell game.  Neither M'bele, the President, or any in his cabinet or official staff thought otherwise.  The white man was to be had, snookered, and filched. 

'Let me introduce you to my staff', the Minister said to the Bank emissary, and one by one the equally well-dressed men and women came forward to bow slightly and shake his hand. 'They are here to serve you'.  The red telephone on the Minister's desk rang.  'Yes, Mr. President.  Yes sir, he's here.  Absolutely, sir, post haste'. 

'The President would like to see you', the Minister said.  'And as soon as his staff unblocks his very busy schedule, he will be delighted to receive you'. 

This was a feather in the white man's cap - a meeting with the President of any country in which he worked had never happened before nor was ever considered possible. The Bank man would be feted in Washington. 

The bait had been laid, the trap set, and success assured.  The Minister knew his job well - never had he known a white man who understood how the development game was played.  They were all innocents, babes in the woods, credulous, and desperately hopeful to find some kernel of white value in the black man, and so much were their noses wide open, they were marks, johns, and tricks easily had. 

Everyone in the world knows that infrastructure projects are early Christmas presents.  Everyone from municipal authorities to contractors, labor unions, and the guy on the forklift gets their cut and covers it with 'cost overruns', necessary 'adjustments', and refinancing. Whether in Africa, Asia, or America, projects to build roads, bridges, ports, and runways have always been cash cows. 

Governments should know better than to give carte blanche to these mega-projects, but so committed to progress and the welfare of their constituents are they, they let it pass, turn a blind eye and continue round after round of re-negotiation, refinancing, and re-direction. 

At least in the developed world something gets done - some version of the original bridge design is usually completed and some runways which will enable reasonably safe takeoffs and landings are built - but in Africa the goal is not progress, development, or completion, but 'diversion', that Bank term which gives a kindly name to the siphoning of millions to offshore accounts, homes on the Riviera, and secure investments in the Gulf. 

Yet these international development managers could simply not let Africa go untended. With the much-touted ‘systemic racism’ eroding national polity in their countries, and with the black man still suffering in poverty and lack of opportunity there, they simply had to do something.  In a nod of resignation to the endemic corruption everywhere on the continent, they settled for gesture.

The Bank, to try to introduce at least a modicum of accountability to the process, included 'conditionalities' in all its loans.  Additional monies and continuation of financing was conditional on positive changes in the electoral process, the judicial system, and financial accounting.

Of course savvy African leaders like Jacob M'bele knew their way around that, said yes to every codicil, and then did absolutely nothing. At the end of the loan period, World Bankers simply restructured the loan, gave the country more time to comply, and in the interim kept the funds flowing. 

All this was a bonanza for countries like M'bele's - or should I say for government dons like him.  Millions of dollars flowed into national treasuries and then were quickly and deftly transferred to offshore accounts.  

The shell game could not be successful without some show of development initiative, so in the project zone there were always signs of activity - tractors pushing dirt from here to there, backhoes digging, and hundreds of laborers milling about - but nothing, absolutely was being done. 

'We have proudly completed Phase I', the letters from the Ministry of Finance to the World Bank would begin, followed by fictitious numbers pulled out of a hat and photoshopped pictures of asphalt being laid, girders going up, or foundations being dug. 

All of which is to say that the Bank emissary to M'bele should have known better; but development is an emotional business, and he like many in the trade simply bought the systemic racism, slavery, colonialism meme lock, stock, and barrel - swallowed it hook, line, and sinker.  They were guilt-carrying, do-good, racial remediation envoys and little more. Their parliaments, congresses, senates, and boards of directors looked no further. 

The World Bank's Annual 'World Development Report' always features 'Lessons Learned'.  The next phases of implementation will be successful because the glitches, bumps in the road, and inconsistencies have been identified, dealt with, and eliminated. 

Whistlin' Dixie was all it was, hopeful dreaming that there ever could be such a thing as normal, Western development in Africa.  One dictator followed another, one more former Minister of Home Affairs moved to spacious homes in Biarritz or Rimini.  

The Africans were brilliant at these shell games and Ponzi schemes.  They read the West like an open book.  Foreign donors wanted to give money to impoverished, desperate African countries more than the countries themselves wanted to receive it.  America simply had to give money to Africa, the mother country of nearly 15 percent of its citizens.  Development aid was reparation money in another guise, so even if it was diverted or misused, the intent would always been there. 

So it was not surprising that the Bank envoy successfully negotiated a loan in the high hundred millions. He would be responsible for pulling a whole country out of poverty.  He was confident of the integrity of the loan, the conditionalities, and the black-and-white dates of delivery. 

Nothing of the sort, of course.  The white man had been snookered once again, the Minister retired to his new home in St. Tropez and the President ruled for decades.  The World Bank white man was promoted and money kept flowing to Africa. 

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