Mainstream U.S. press coverage of government corruption in Africa is all too often marred by unconscious racism. Reports dwell at loving length on the grotesque wealth of certain African leaders, but the same articles will often forget to even name the big oil companies, mining giants and hedge funds that pay and sometimes bribe them.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is a prime example. The world is slowly waking up to the latest humanitarian disaster that is underway there, as the repressive regime of President Joseph Kabila stokes violence and crushes dissent after refusing to hold new elections. Thousands have already died and more than 1.3 million Congolese are fleeing for their lives.
Recent reports have chronicled the Kabila family’s wealth, reckoned in at least the tens of millions, and included the usual prurient details; the New York Times explained that Kabila has “a collection of expensive watches, expensive motorcycles and a chimpanzee in a cage,” and, for good measure, he sometimes wears “two expensive watches at the same time — a Rolex and a Patek Philippe — one for each wrist.”
But the reports downplay or leave out entirely that rich world mining enterprises and oil companies, and a New York hedge fund, have paid and sometimes bribed Kabila, using an Israeli billionaire as intermediary. The hedge fund, Och-Ziff Capital Management, was hit with a huge $413 million fine in September 2016 for giving Kabila a $100 million bribe in return for mineral concessions, but the New York Times buried a dry account in the financial pages. Months later, when a federal judge in Brooklyn, Nicholas Garaufis, was sentencing a hapless African middleman to prison for his role in the scandal, the judge noted with anger that the American hedge fund officials who masterminded the bribery scheme were getting off without jail because high-priced attorneys had defended them. “I’m sick and tired of lawyers from white-shoe law firms marching into my courtroom and getting a deferred prosecution agreement for their clients,” he said. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported his remarks, but not the New York Times.
The mainstream media did not follow the disgrace at the Och-Ziff hedge fund with vigorous reporting about Daniel Och, the 56-year-old founder, who is worth an estimated $3.2 billion. In May 2015, the activist group Hedge Clippers had rallied outside Och’s $41 million Central Park West penthouse, but reporters were not sent there, or out to scrutinize his $26.5 million estate in Southhampton, Long Island, or to his mansion in Aspen, Colorado, valued at another $20 million. No one was interrogated about Och’s various possessions — including what kind of wristwatches he favors.
The Israeli billionaire, Dan Gertler, the man who actually passed the bribe from Och-Ziff on to DR Congo President Kabila, is also sailing under the radar. Gertler has used his close relationship with Joseph Kabila to arrange deals that have boosted his net worth to more than $2 billion, money he has drained from one of the poorest nations on earth. But the mainstream press, with the honorable exception of Bloomberg, did not rush to profile him, and no one is making lists of his possessions either.
Another favorite for salacious media scrutiny is the Obiang family dictatorship in Equatorial Guinea. A few years back, a New York Times report included a thorough census of the holdings of Teodorin, the son and heir apparent; “roomfuls of expensive goods, including bottles of Chateau Petrous, among the world’s most expensive wines, and a $3.7 million clock.” The article also carefully listed the 7 brand names of his luxury autos: “two Bugatti Veyrons; an Aston Martin; a Ferrari Enzo. . .” Yet somehow Exxon, the poor country’s biggest oil exporter, and the source of much of that wealth, was not even mentioned by name in the report.
Angola is one more example in which the mainstream exposes the wealthy Africans and not the large enterprises that pay them. Two recent New York Times stories provided the usual details, (. . . the president’s daughter, “Ms. dos Santos, worth $3.5 billion according to Forbes, mingles with Hollywood and European celebrities. . .”). But the Times could not find room to even mention Chevron or Exxon, two of the leading giants that export Angolan oil.
Naming corporate names is even more essential now that Donald Trump is in power. The very first legislation that Trump signed, back on February 14, scrapped a proposed part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank legislation, known as Section 1504, that would have required oil and mineral companies listed in the U.S. to publish what they pay to foreign governments. The measure was mild, but Big Oil and Big Mining fought successfully to delay it for years until the GOP Congress killed it.
By hiding the connivance of the rich world, the press is not just wrongly shifting all the blame onto Africans. Och-Ziff Capital Management, at one time the fourth-largest U.S. hedge fund, is publicly traded, and pension funds made up half of its shareholders. The teachers and municipal employees whose money is invested in Och-Ziff might want to know how their company is behaving in some of the poorest countries on earth. Owners of Exxon and Chevron stock may also be curious about the direct connection between the companies that pay their dividends and the terrible health conditions and lack of schools across Africa.
This pattern of whitewashing rich world complicity is too common to be an accident. Of course mainstream journalists don’t sit down at their keyboards and consciously ask themselves how they can ridicule African kleptocrats while ignoring American oil companies. But until they can break free from racial stereotypes that are now ages old, their reports will keep on distorting the truth.