🔒 Premium from the FT – Understanding the Mafia Don leadership of Zimbabwe, Namibia and elsewhere

On Monday, we celebrated the massive oil and gas windfall that nature – and international maritime law – has bestowed on the Namibian people. Today, we should be pondering whether ‘the people’ of our arid neighbour to the north west will ever see the benefit of their endowment.

Consider its leadership. No rational assessment could possibly conclude last week’s Zimbabwean election was free and fair. The country has been driven into an abyss. Yet its leaders tell the world that citizens voted for more of the same – many so determined to do so they literally queued through the night to make their crosses.

We are asked to believe ordinary Zimbabweans went to such efforts simply to re-elect an 80-year-old with a dubious past – a man exposed by Al Jazeera as a gold smuggling mafia don with the dubious honour of being even worse than Mugabe. More on that character type from Gideon Rachman of the FT below.  


As you can read in the tweet above, an 82 year old who has been Namibia’s president since 2015, is ecstatic at The Crocodile’s ‘victory’. What is it with these old codgers? You’d expect at least a little concern at what consequences await their actions – if not here, then in the hereafter where they’re heading soon enough.

– Alec Hogg

‘Godfather’-style politics: Putin, Trump and the meaning of a mafia state

By Gideon Rachman of The Financial Times

Demands for personal loyalty and an obsession with revenge are hallmarks of the Godfather style in politics

“We are not a gang. We are not the mafia. We don’t seek revenge like they did in Mario Puzo’s book The Godfather. We are a nation. A nation of laws.” Those were the fulminations of Vladimir Solovyov, a Russian television host, denying that the Kremlin had anything to do with the aeroplane explosion that killed Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Solovyov’s comments are a fine example of that excellent French saying: “Qui s’excuse, s’accuse”. (“He who excuses himself, accuses himself.”) The pro-Kremlin propagandist understands completely that the killing of Prigozhin had all the hallmarks of a mafia hit.

Vladimir Putin follows a mobster honour code. Betrayal and disloyalty are the sins that can never be forgiven. That is why the Kremlin has sent hit-men across Europe, to kill defectors from the Russian intelligence services. As boss of the Wagner militia, Prigozhin — known as Putin’s chef — provided cannon fodder for Russia’s war in Ukraine. But when he turned on Putin in June, he signed his own death warrant.

The mafia code, known to every movie-goer, is that a failure to take revenge makes the don look weak. Two months passed between Prigozhin’s rebellion and his death. But then as Don Corleone remarks in The Godfather — “Revenge is a dish best served cold.”

The suggestion that Russia is a mafia state is more than a literary conceit. Putin’s biographer, Catherine Belton, has shown that as deputy mayor of St Petersburg in the 1990s, Putin cultivated his ties to that city’s criminal underworld. Prigozhin himself spent nearly a decade in prison.

The Russian intelligence services, for whom Putin worked for so many years, has always maintained ties with organised crime — which has useful expertise in smuggling, money laundering and murder. It is telling that when Russia organised a prisoner swap with America — the man they chose to extricate was Viktor Bout, an arms-dealer, alleged money-launderer and former Soviet military officer, who was arrested in 2008 after a long operation by the US Drug Enforcement Agency.

The operations of Prigozhin’s Wagner group in Africa — through a network of front companies — blurred the lines between private business, organised crime and the Russian state. The demands of the Ukraine war have made those lines even fuzzier. Western sanctions have made it much harder for Russia to sell oil or to buy key technologies on the open market. That increases the incentives for Russia to link up with criminal networks, which are experts in illicit trade and smuggling.

Yet before America and the west dismiss Russia as a criminal outlier, it is worth noting that, the day after Prigozhin’s death, a former president of the United States was indicted in Georgia under the state’s version of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (Rico) — a law that was specifically designed to go after the mafia.

The legal merits of the charges against Donald Trump will be decided in court. But, whatever happens there, it is a commonplace that Trump has long adopted some of the mannerisms and mores of a mob boss.

It is not entirely surprising that a man who made his fortune in New York construction — before branching out into Atlantic City casinos — should occasionally sound like a mobster. One of Trump’s most important mentors was Roy Cohn, a lawyer who represented many of the New York crime families. As his legal troubles mounted during his presidency, Trump famously bemoaned the lack of such a figure to represent him.

James Comey, Trump’s first FBI director, later recalled a private dinner with Trump in the White House, in which the newly elected president said: “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty.” In his memoirs, Comey wrote that Trump reminded him of mafia bosses that he had come across in his work in law enforcement: “The demand was like Sammy the Bull’s Cosa Nostra induction ceremony.”

Trump’s emphasis on personal loyalty is reminiscent not just of Sammy the Bull but also of Putin. Both leaders enjoy and even encourage rivalries between factions in their staff. That creates a system in which the leader is the final arbiter of all disputes — the big man whose favour everybody needs.

As president, Trump sometimes conducted foreign affairs as if he was negotiating with rival Godfathers: Kim Jong Un in North Korea, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Putin in Russia.

The Trump-Putin comparison, however, is not intended as a contribution to that favourite Russian sport of “what-aboutism”. The two men may share certain instincts and mannerisms. But the systems they operate in are very different.

In today’s Russia, there is zero chance that Putin will be investigated for involvement in the murder of Yevgeny Prigozhin — or any of the other crimes he may have committed. There will be no independent prosecutors carefully amassing any evidence that could send the president to jail.

Trump, by contrast, is being held to account. There is every chance that he will eventually be given a jail term — although my guess is that President Biden would ultimately pardon him. In the meantime, Trump remains free to argue his case and even to campaign for the presidency.

The difference is clear. The US can claim the status that Solovyov falsely bestowed on Russia: “A nation of laws.” Sadly, Russia itself is now a mafia state.

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