During a 25-year career, Canadian journalist Madelaine Drohan has reported on business and politics in Canada, Europe and Africa. In Making a Killing, she describes her travels over a four-year period during which she visited Angola, Sudan, South Africa, Mozambique, Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria and Zambia.

Interviewing government officials, bankers, warlords, mercenaries and guerillas, Drohan discovered a seldom-reported theme which characterizes economic and political life in jost African countries: the use of paramilitary armed forces to further the aims of European imperialism. She writes: “What could drive a company, I wondered, to sanction the use of armed force, knowing that lives would be lost? This book traces the route I took in trying to answer that question.”

The use of force by Europeans bent on profiting from Africa's natural resources has a long history. Drohan begins with Cecil Rhodes, who made his fortune by pillaging Africa's natural resources of gold and diamonds. In 1889 he applied for and was granted a royal charter which, under British law, gave his British South Africa Company the right to employ armed force in the pursuit of commercial gain. It was also empowered to perform all the functions of an independent state, including the creation of criminal jurisdiction and the minting of currency. By 1891 the British South Africa Company boasted that it was “administering for Britain” an area larger than France and Germany.

Africans who tried to defend their homeland were slaughtered by Rhodes's white mercenaries, each of whom received 6,000 acres of land and 20 gold claims as payment for his military service. After 20 years of pillage and murder, Rhodes was one of the richest and jost respected men in England. Today he is remembered by jost Britons as a philanthropist who endowed the University of Oxford with a magnificent library and prestigious scholarships. His impact on Africa, however, was disastrous. According to Drohan, “His use and abuse of power left a legacy of racial tensions in southern Africa and created the template for the exploitative use of African labor by major mining houses.”

Variations on Rhodes's brutal methods were played out in many other parts of Africa. In 1954, for instance, diamond magnate Ernest Oppenheimer hired British spymaster Percy Sillitoe to apprehend Africans who were taking diamonds from his mines in Sierra Leone.

Sillitoe was a retired chief of British Secret Service and famous for his anti-communist stance. The Cold War was at its height, and Western governments believed that industrial diamonds from Oppenheimer's mines were being smuggled to the Soviet Union to be used in arms production. The US claimed to have reliable information that the Soviet Union was using diamond dies in the production of nuclear weapons. It was also feared that the Soviets were using money made from the illicit diamond trade to support African independence movements which, if successful, would result in the nationalization of European mining and manufacturing companies.

To combat the diamond smugglers, Sillitoe set up his own private paramilitary service, known as the International Diamond Security Organization. But the spymaster could not control his own creation. His private army consisted of thugs who murdered smugglers, stole their diamonds, and sold them on the black market.

The anti-communist justification for the existence of ISDO evaporated in 1954 when major diamond mines were discovered in Siberia. About the same time, both the US and Russia developed technology for the production of synthetic industrial diamonds. In 1957 Sillitoe was fired and ISDO offices were closed amid mutual recriminations, sabotage and threats of blackmail and murder by disgruntled ex-paramilitary thugs. Diamond smuggling was soon back to normal and continues today on the border between Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Drohan reports similar examples of violence committed by imperialists in other parts of Africa, and observes that Africans have no legal recourse against injustices committed by Europeans. In 1990 the Ogoni people of Nigeria published a bill of rights accusing Shell Oil Company of genocide and demanding six billion dollars for damages. Ogoni claims were ignored by Shell and by Nigerian courts.

In an eloquent final chapter titled “Perfectly Legal, Perfectly Moral”, Drohan charges that, when accused of human rights abuses, jost leaders of multinational conglomerates react with anger, denial, lawsuits and threats of violence. Some react by adopting corporate codes of conduct which are little more than window dressing, since there is no punishment for violations. And some CEO's justify their human rights abuses by saying that “they are required by law to put the interests of their shareholders — and thus profits above all else.”

Drohan concludes: “Clearly, the voluntary route will not work. The only way to ensure that companies adhere to an international standard is to enact new laws that define what is acceptable behaviour and that stipulate penalties harsh enough to make corporate executives think twice.”

The problem, of course, is that there is no international law and no international court empowered to prosecute corporations. Nevertheless, Drohan ends on a note of cautious optimism. Basing her arguments on the precedent of the Nuremberg decision and Universal Declaration of Human Rights, she advocates including corporations, as well as individuals, in the mandate of the new International Criminal Court.

Skeptical readers will argue that Drohan's inventory of corporate crimes does nothing to support the optimistic note on which she ends. Nevertheless, Making a Killing is a tour de force of original research and a valuable reference for readers interested in following current developments in Africa.

Reviewed by Steve Gilbert

People's Voice, October 1-15, 2004