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Sat 25 May 2019
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With the “epidemic of thievery” going unpunished across the world, author of the best-selling Moneyland, Oliver Bullough, argues that if you can’t beat them, join them, and provides a beginner’s guide to Kleptocracy.

Every year crooks and kleptocrats steal more than a trillion dollars from the world’s poorest countries and spend it on power, violence and bling. It is an epidemic of thievery and no one appears willing or able to do anything about it. In the circumstances, therefore, you may as well join in.

The purpose of this column is to guide you through a career in kleptocracy: how to get involved, how to avoid detection, and what to buy once you’ve made it.

In the era of Trump and Brexit, you’d be a fool not to take your fair advantage while you can. Follow our advice and soon a chunk of that trillion dollars can be yours.

No Ordinary Corruption

Before we begin the first lesson, it’s important to know that we’re not talking about ordinary corruption here, the standard act of a policeman extorting $10 from someone who’s committed an imaginary traffic offence. That kind of abuse of power has been around for as long as there has been power and, though it’s potentially lucrative, it’s not going to deliver you a bank balance with commas in it.

True kleptocracy is a creation of globalisation; its hybrid vigour born of the intermarriage between autocracy and a globalised financial system. Autocrats have always been able to steal, but previously their theft was limited by the number of rooms they had to store their wealth in. Even the greediest miser eventually runs out of the inclination or capability to keep filling boxes with treasure.

True kleptocracy is a creation of globalisation; its hybrid vigour born of the intermarriage between autocracy and a globalised financial system.

Starting in the 1960s, corrupt politicians began to access the modern financial system. In collaboration with bankers, lawyers, accountants, and other professionals – all of whom were well used to the demands of Western tax dodgers — these politicians suddenly found that corruption could be limitless.

Some of these people remain legendary to this day: Sani Abacha or Nigeria, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire. Even the most supposedly austere dictators like Augusto Pinochet couldn’t resist stashing a nest egg somewhere offshore.

It was easy for these men (and they were all men in the early days, the women only joined in later). The Cold War ensured that they could get away with what they wanted as long as they were ideologically sound, and they piled up huge fortunes by simple expedients like stealing all the money in the Central Bank.

It will, I’m afraid, be harder for you to steal your fortune now those golden days are gone.

Western banks are no longer willing to accept a dictator’s account and mark up his wealth as “self-made, as a result of position”, as Citibank did for Omar Bongo of Gabon. These day, central banks will insist on more than just a handwritten note before handing over the national currency reserves, and Western banks demand you at least pretend to justify the origins of your cash before opening an account.

But do not despair, it may be harder than it was to steal a fortune, but with the right guidance anyone can do it. Next time we’ll start telling you how.

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