Acacia payments expose Tanzania's troubling nexus of money and power

Acacia Mining has noted it’s increasingly concerned about the safety of its members of staff and the challenging operating environment, which may impact the firm’s business outlook. PHOTO|FILE

A series of explosive emails has laid bare a shocking web of corruption entangling Acacia Mining and Tanzanian law-enforcement officials.

The emails, brought to light in an ongoing court case in London, reveal that Acacia was funnelling up a staggering $1.2 million annually to a cohort of 60 civil servants serving on a national task force.

The emails reveal monthly payments reaching nearly $10,000 to the then-Inspector General of Police (IGP).

Response to this revelation has been relatively muted in Tanzania, with only a handful of publications carrying the story among the nation’s major news outlets.

Yet, the rumblings of discontent echo on social media platforms, where impassioned discussions continue to unravel. Although few can feign surprise at this disclosure, it serves as a stark reminder of the inner workings of corruption in Tanzania.

I got to appreciate that well from an enlightening encounter with an Asian client years ago. This individual offered a profound perspective on the relationship between money and power.

Contrary to the prevailing belief that money is power, he posited that real power lies in leveraging money to acquire power. He elucidated how his family had been disbursing funds to government officials since Nyerere’s time.

Consequently, his family, along with other prominent families, wielded substantial sway over the workings of the government.

I witnessed first-hand the exercise of this power during one of our late-night meetings. On one occasion, during a late dinner at a renowned Asian eatery, he received a phone call from an immigration officer.

It appeared that a competitor had enlisted foreign experts who posed a threat, and the official sought guidance on whether to deport them immediately or not.

This man was kind; he permitted them to stay in the country for a few more days.
Friends, this is Tanzania. The Acacia emails just corroborate what we already know: numerous officials are on the payroll of wealthy businessmen. While the emails expose one specific instance, we are aware that such practices are regrettably commonplace in Tanzania.

Some have called the exposure ‘allegations of corruption’. But this is just corruption. There are many reasons why that is the case.

Firstly, when the Acacia emails surfaced in court, the legal counsel did not contest the veracity of the information, but they merely labelled it as ‘tangential.’

This implies that, while they do not dispute the truth of the matter, they assert its peripheral relevance to the case at hand. Nevertheless, to us, this is a vital issue about corruption in high places.

Secondly, these officials were collecting money from Acacia to perform duties for which they were already drawing salaries from the government. While officials often receive honoraria when they grace corporate functions, those are one-off cases.

But when you have a very senior official collecting $10,000 every month for spurious services rendered, we call that being on payroll. One cannot help but wonder how many other companies these officials were collecting money from.

Thirdly, the fabrication of phoney criminal incidents for financial gain is not the conduct of conscientious public servants, is it?
This case offers profound insights into the nature of business transactions with government officials—they often constitute payments for protection. Even though Acacia benefited from this arrangement, the emails betray a high degree of anxiety.

As much as Acacia wished to withdraw, there was fear of the repercussions, a stark reminder that this was not money for protection against criminals but, rather disconcertingly, against the very government itself.

Notably, Acacia terminated this arrangement upon Magufuli’s ascent to power, only to find itself ensnared in a complex web of legal quagmire within a few years. One must wonder whether they would have faced such predicaments had they continued with the protection money.

Another noteworthy aspect is that these arrangements are typically initiated by government officials, not the private sector. While many officials may not overtly solicit payments, they subtly mask their intentions through bureaucratic obstacles to obstruct business operations—customs delays, tax inspections, licencing hurdles, and myriad other means of extracting bribes.

Africa loses 25 percent of its GDP annually due to such practices.
Finally, some of us have persistently questioned the narrative that blames our underdevelopment on ‘imperialists’.

The Acacia example serves as a compelling rejoinder to this perspective: We see a foreign entity that is clearly hesitant to engage in a questionable deal with government officials, yet they feel coerced into doing so.

Many investors would avoid operating in such a climate, but those who do must resort to whatever means necessary to survive.

It is called pragmatism. If bribes are the only currency you deal with, why should their pragmatism be stymied by your idiocy?
The Acacia emails should indeed be cause for grave concern.

In a functioning nation, one would expect swift and decisive action against wrongdoers to preserve public trust in government institutions. But we don’t harbour such expectations, do we? Consequently, we anticipate that life will continue unabated