Even the unfettered profit motive can be resisted, even foiled, for the greater good

Thursday August 10 2017

Some of BAT products in Kenya. The company has been accused of using unjustified practices to dilute plans to limit sales of its products in Kenya. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Some of BAT products in Kenya. The company has been accused of using unjustified practices to dilute plans to limit sales of its products in Kenya. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

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You know what can be an even more engaging passion than trying to parse politics? Going on a quest to list the most wretchedly damned profiteers that ever profiteered.

If, you know, you have that kind of moralistic penchant which I think we all do at some level. Even hardcore villains tend to pause at the exploitation of, say, children before they merrily do it anyways. Business and multinational companies influence our every day lives, probably at a more intimate level than our public structures do.

So I keep a loose track of the baddest of the bad, made up of gleaned information, more conspiracy theories than should be admitted and occasional online research as well as books.

It is by no means comprehensive since of course the truly terrifying are usually smart enough to keep well away from the limelight. So far it seems as though the bigger the organisation, the worse they probably are — not invariably, but it does seem to be the nature of business. Part of the entertainment is watching the arms race between what companies try to get away with and what legal systems can do about it.

For sentimental and Africanist reasons, I keep a special place right at the very top of the list for King Leopold II of Belgium — founder of the Congo Free State and unparalleled murderous exploiter of Africans.

Of course the colonial experience was a collective collision between Africa and Europe, but King Leopold was in a class all of his own. That Belgians today continue to benefit from the generosity of his public works — funded by his evil deeds in the Congo — while Congo continues to flounder is one of those “developed/developing” political conversations that are completely unfashionable these days.

Unfettered profit motive

And surely by now you have heard of the Bond villain, Martin Skreli, who bought a drug in the US pharmaceutical industry whose patent had expired and then inflated the price 5,000 times.

Do drug companies in the US get away with similar behaviour all the time? Yes, because Big Pharma has a dark side. This guy, though, when questioned about it unabashedly revelled in profiting off HIV+ and children at that. Satisfyingly Mr Shkreli has managed to get himself arrested for fraud (life is better than fiction) but he remains this decade’s oiliest, smirking caricature of a very bad person who loves money in an... unhealthy... way.

I bring him up because occasionally justice does get served to individuals, companies — even whole industries. This keeps hope alive that even the unfettered profit motive can be resisted, sometimes even foiled, for the greater good. So you know how the tobacco industry has been having a hard time in its more developed markets?

Defeated by class action suits that have linked cigarette-smoking to cancer, taxed punitively and forced to dress up their goods in the most unflattering health warnings, they have had to hunt elsewhere to keep their profits up.

Like, here. Africans might grow the stuff, but as with so many commodities, we were not encouraged to consume it locally. Now thanks to our “emergence,” we are a plump and ripe market temptation for Big Tobacco, so they came. I can’t imagine it has been easy: We don’t seem culturally predisposed to smoking.

The good thing about coming late to the game is that the anti-cancer-via-nicotine-pushing lobbies have had time to learn from others’ handling of the superbly stubborn and deeply rich Tobacco Industry.

Guess who is being investigated by the UK’s Serious Fraud Office? Only British Tobacco, a massive global concern — for getting up to no good in their African dealings for over a decade, as reported by The Guardian of the UK. Worse yet for them, there seems to be pressure for the US Department of Justice to join in on the fun of making their work harder.

At the end of the day, those who believe that how profit and wealth is made matters can prove useful. Idealists they might be, but I like to think of them as the ones who watch and try to save the rest of the herd from untoward exploitations, diseases, death, out own worst impulses, et cetera.

Now, if you really want to read some horror, maybe next time I’ll tell you about a recent discovery that will delight your inner conspiracy theorist... but first let them get caught at something so I can do it as reporting, not “defamation.”

Elsie Eyakuze is an independent consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report. E-mail: [email protected]