BY TOM ODHIAMBO The Panama leaks are probably bigger than Wikileaks. Whereas the latter revealed what politicians do as they pursue power and more power, Panama leaks tell us why too many countries are poor, why corruption is big business today, why there is such a cozy relationship between businessmen and politicians, why offshore banking is so popular even to wage earners. Panama leaks have offered us a peek into where ‘real’ money is banked; not in the ‘local’ big banks, but in some obscure, semi-states. And this money is both legit and illegitimate. In other words, in the world of modern, globalized finance, where money is nearly completely unrelated to real wealth, the distinction between clean and dirty money is quite hazy. The point is that criminal organizations and CEOs of respected global corporations may be sharing bankers, financial advisors or investing pretty much in the same stocks or ventures. This is why Misha Glenny’s book, McMafia: Crime without Frontiers (The Bodley Head, 2008) is such an intriguing read. McMafia reads like fiction, documentary, a history of global crime, a journalistic report; all these things put together. With the eye of an accomplished investigative reporter and historian, Glenny takes the reader on a worldwide tour, throwing a spotlight onto crime scenes, criminal bosses, criminal cultures, criminal organizations and every little thing that is associated with crime. His conclusions are tragic and mortifying for the ordinary, law obeying, ‘good’ governments, government regulatory agencies and the world in general. Why? Because McMafia isn’t any longer some hidden, supposedly immoral, person or group out there. No. ‘Crime without frontiers’ is an industry with returns in billions, if not trillions, of dollars. Think about trade in counterfeit goods. Today, you can buy an ‘authentically fake’ item. These clones are so good to the extent that differentiating them from the ‘original’ you have to be an expert. China is the major source of such goods, from cellphones, computers, TVs, shoes, all kinds of household goods etc. But you must have heard of Kariobangi industries? You could be using bathing soap made somewhere in Kariobangi or drinking some fancy whisky but produced right next to your apartment block, anywhere in this city. If you have read stories of some Chinese or Koreans being arrested in Runda or Muthaiga with communication equipment, but whose cases often collapse, you could be reading about people involved in email harvesting – don’t open that email offering you eternal love from a woman you have never heard of – or identity theft – I am sure you have enough warnings from your bank about securing your credit and debit card password. This is, according to Glenny, probably the next most productive frontier of organized crime. Ask yourself, how do these foreigners arrive in Nairobi, rent houses in such exclusive neighborhoods, set up their equipment, get arrested almost just by chance and end up being deported and not sent to prison here in Kenya. The racket involves local crime networks, connected to global ones. This is one of the biggest businesses around, especially now that billions of dollars are transferred every day electronically. If you have been thinking that the massage parlors that advertise in the media, offering you a chance to have your body oiled by some exotic Chinese, Indian, Thai or Russian girls are just massage parlors, think again. Yes, some may be the genuine thing. But ask yourself: what is so special about an Indian or Chinese masseuse? What is so exotic about the skin of a woman? In many cases these are women who are held in captivity, victims of transnational human trafficking, who reap billions of dollars, working these women often for up to 18 hours a day as prostitutes. Have you ever wondered why the fight against the hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin always fizzles out whilst people caught with one roll of bhang are thrown into jail all the time? It is simply because such drugs are major income earners, all over the world. Why would Kenyans be left out of such a lucrative industry? After all, Kenya has been said to be the transit point for drugs from all the way in Colombia and Brazil, which sometimes pass through West Africa, into Europe. It isn’t surprising that tens of young Kenyan women, used as drug mules are rotting in jails in Asia. But cannabis sativa could just be the next big thing. As it gets legalized in some parts of USA and Europe, the demand will rise. It is already a major problem in countries like Britain and Canada where it is grown on industrial scale, in homes, apartment blocks or forests. The catch is that criminal gangs are investing in it. So, don’t hope for bhang to be localized locally for when it is illegal, the supply is limited and so demand can be controlled. The tragedy of the global networking of crime syndicates is that crimes committed locally may actually be ‘outsourced.’ In other words, Kenyan criminal groups may call in their Ugandan counterparts to do their local rackets, vice versa. But it also means governments will find it harder to deal with crimes such as money laundering, already a headache for many governments all over the world. So, don’t assume that the water shortages or uncollected garbage or power outages in your neighborhood are because of poor service delivery. They may actually be deliberately created in order to make it possible for some criminal gang to start ‘offering’ the services. If you read McMafia you will understand why Misha Glenny thinks everyone of us should be concerned by how internationalization of crime is a threat to not just legit business but society in general.
Writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi.