Africa's Odious Debts

One side effect of the American/British occupation of Iraq is that it sparked public debate on a dark secret of international finance: the debts taken on by odious regimes.

As Iraq's new rulers debate what to do about the billions of dollars in foreign debts inherited from Saddam Hussein's regime, voices ranging from the charity Oxfam-International to US defence guru Richard Perle are calling for debt repudiation on the grounds that the debts Iraq now bears were contracted to sustain a corrupt, oppressive regime.

Iraq is not the only country burdened by such debts. Across sub-Saharan Africa, many of the world's poorest people struggle with the crippling legacy of profligate lending to corrupt, oppressive rulers.

During his 32-year dictatorship, Congo's former president Joseph Mobutu accumulated a personal fortune estimated at $4 billion, while his government ran up a $12 billion foreign debt. More of the same in Angola, where last year an IMF investigation revealed that $4 billion disappeared from Angola's treasury over the past five years. It so happens that the Angolan government borrowed a similar sum from private banks in this period, mortgaging future oil revenues as security.