The Looting Machine

Tom Burgis PublicAffairs, 319 pages, $27.99

Africans ask many questions about what ails a continent that abounds with natural riches yet suffers, too, from greedy rulers, bad government and entrenched poverty. The replies they get range from the outright racist to the climatic and the political, with many blaming colonialism or so-called neocolonialism for the continent's woes.

For Tom Burgis, a journalist with the Financial Times, the problem is, paradoxically, Africa's wealth of natural resources. He is not the first to write about countries with the "resource curse." Nor does his book add to the copious academic literature on the subject. But Burgis sees Africa — with a third of the Earth's mineral deposits and some of its weakest institutions — as being particularly vulnerable to the predations that arise from the combination of mineral wealth and poor governance.

"The Looting Machine: Warlords, Tycoons, Smugglers and the Systematic Theft of Africa's Wealth" is the fruit of Burgis' many travels through Africa. The book reads partly like a mystery thriller and partly like a court submission, with its detailed descriptions of the corporate connections among Chinese companies with interests across the continent. Burgis offers a rich collage of examples showing the links between corrupt companies and African elites. But he fails to argue convincingly that natural resources are the primary, or even a major, source of Africa's troubles.