CORRUPTION is never far from the front page. In recent weeks, thousands of Romanians protested against plans to decriminalise low-level graft, and Rolls-Royce was hit with a £671m ($835m) penalty for alleged bribery. Meanwhile, long-running corruption scandals continue to roil political and corporate leaders in Brazil and Malaysia. The growing attention has spurred governments to pledge action, as dozens did at a global anti-corruption summit in London last year.
Jason Sharman, professor of international relations at Cambridge University, is particularly interested in “grand corruption”: the theft of national wealth by kleptocratic leaders and their cronies, often in poor (albeit resource-rich) countries. It is a subject he knows well, having spent over a decade studying the offshore centres and vehicles—shell companies, for example—that are used to hide ill-gotten gains.
The list of light-fingered leaders who feature in “The Despot’s Guide to Wealth Management” is long. It includes various dead ones, such as Nigeria’s Sani Abacha, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, Indonesia’s Suharto and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines (whose shoe-loving wife, Imelda, graces the book’s cover). These four alone ran off with an estimated $55bn. More recent examples include the pre-Arab spring leaders of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, and Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine. The overall amount that has been pilfered is anyone’s guess, given the murkiness of offshore finance. Estimates for Egypt under Hosni Mubarak range from $1bn to $70bn. One complicating factor is that much of the money is siphoned off through “legal corruption”, in business ventures that comply with local laws, often because of legislative tinkering by pliant parliaments. (more...)