So now we know a little more. We always knew that in 2001 the British company BAE Systems sold Tanzania a £28 million air traffic control system. The World Bank and the International Civil Aviation Organisation said it was unnecessarily sophisticated and overpriced. At the time Clare Short, then Minister for International Development, claimed that bribery was involved. Some calculated that the BAE system that Tanzania bought cost four times more than the system that Tanzania needed. It was a military system but Tanzania barely has an air force. Nevertheless, Tony Blair pushed the deal.
Last week BAE paid £288 million to the courts in America and Britain for, in its own words, “conspiring to make false statements … in connection with certain regulatory filings and undertakings”. The British settlement admits to “payments made to a former marketing adviser in Tanzania” in connection with that air traffic control system. The US settlement refers explicitly to paying bribes.
As part of the settlement further investigation into the Tanzanian air traffic control system will stop and the facts so far established will be kept secret. So — astoundingly — will the investigation into other corruption allegations, including the South African £5.5 billion arms deal in which BAE was a partner. Mr Blair also supported that deal. BAE was not on the original shortlist but was put on it at a late stage by Joe Modise, then South African Defence Minister. Its bid included sophisticated fighter jets that the South African Air Force had never asked for. Some of them have never left their hangars — there are no pilots to fly them. The South Africans have established that Mr Modise and one of his advisers received £15 million in bribes, part of more than £100 million paid in bribes to secure the deal.
Has justice been done? Transparency International, the anti-corruption lobby group, has welcomed the deal, saying that the Serious Fraud Office and the Department of Justice “should be congratulated for achieving an outcome”. But there is no transparency here. It may be fine for the UK — a major British company has been allowed to “draw a line under its past”. But what about Britain’s international reputation? And what about the people of Tanzania and South Africa whose politicians and officials have been bribed? Are they not the biggest losers in these crimes?
For justice to be done the facts must be exposed, which a court case would have done. Tanzanians will now never know which of their ministers and officials were bribed by “marketing advisers” and with how much. Instead they are given a “charitable payment” by BAE of £15 million. That’s an insulting bung that smells like yet another bribe. Tanzania has wasted perhaps £21 million that should have gone on building schools, roads, clinics and reducing poverty. Instead members of its Government have been induced to waste that money. Corrupt and powerful Tanzanians are now more powerful and much richer.
Corruption breeds corruption and I believe it is one of the most potent factors holding Africa back and preventing development. In Britain the Security Services now watch intensely for movements of money for terrorism, drugs and corruption. But corruption money comes a poor third to the other two. I would argue that corruption kills more people than terrorism and the drugs trade combined. The more public funds — some of them our taxes — that are stolen and go into the offshore bank accounts of corrupt officials and politicians, the less goes on health, education and development.
That loss kills people. In 2001 Tanzania was the third poorest country in the world with an infant mortality rate of 91 deaths per thousand births. South Africa provides an even better example. As that £5.5 billion arms deal was going through President Mbeki was arguing that his country could not afford the £25 a month anti-retroviral drugs for the estimated 5.5 million South Africans who were infected with HIV. Work it out for yourself.
Another irony in all of this is that when it was realised that there had never been a single successful prosecution in the UK for overseas bribery, the Government decided to beef up the police unit that should be dealing with it. But there was no money. It had to come from the Department for International Development, which now diverts aid money to subsidise the policing of Britain’s international obligations.
BAE on the other hand is exceptionally close to the military and security departments of the British Government. Some say it is a commercial extension of the MoD and the Security Services.
Mr Blair called Africa “a scar on the conscience of the world”. Perhaps Tanzania and South Africa are the scars on his conscience. The next time a British minister stands up to denounce corruption in Africa, there will be hollow laughter from the continent. And rightly so.
Richard Dowden, director of the Royal African Society and author of Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles.