Oil, Instagram and the Plunder of Equatorial Guinea

Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue’s $50 million home in Malibu, California. Credit via Pacific Coast News
Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue’s $50 million home in Malibu, California. Credit via Pacific Coast News

On Oct. 27, a Paris criminal court convicted Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, the vice president of Equatorial Guinea and son of its president, of money laundering and embezzlement of more than $100 million.

Mr. Obiang received a suspended three-year prison sentence and was fined $35 million. The judge ruled that the French government would keep more than $100 million of Mr. Obiang’s assets, seized by the police in Paris in 2012. They included a 100-room mansion and a collection of sports cars.

More than a decade earlier, CCFD-Terre Solidaire, a French nongovernmental organization, denounced Western companies and governments for enabling dictators by welcoming their ill-gotten wealth. That prompted the anticorruption groups Transparency International France and Sherpa to start legal proceedings against the presidents of Equatorial Guinea, the Republic of Congo and Gabon.

Mr. Obiang’s case is the first to go to trial. His particularly ostentatious lifestyle raised questions about corruption, with posts on Instagram showing him driving luxury cars or riding limited-edition motorcycles.

In Paris, where he would spend a few months a year, he flaunted a fleet of obscenely expensive cars and motorcycles. He displayed a $22 million art collection in his mansion. Bénédicte de Perthuis, the French judge who found him guilty, said Mr. Obiang had failed to produce a “convincing justification of the origin of his fortune.”

I was born in Equatorial Guinea in 1979, when his father, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, took power in a coup. He is still in power. The corruption of the Obiang family and their retainers grew exponentially after oil was discovered in 1996.

The United States Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found in 2004 that the Washington-based Riggs Bank, now closed, which had helped the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet transfer huge amounts of money to offshore shell companies, provided similar services to the Obiang family.

The Senate report stated that Riggs Bank opened multiple personal accounts for the Obiangs, unquestionably accepted millions of dollars of cash deposits into their accounts, and helped establish offshore shell corporations for them.

The ruling family of Equatorial Guinea doesn’t seem to care much about foreign legal proceedings. Mr. Obiang, who did not appear in the Paris court, reacted to the verdict by posting smiling selfies on Instagram.

In 2014, the United States Justice Department reached a settlement of its civil forfeiture cases against Mr. Obiang and forced him to relinquish assets worth $30 million. “After raking in millions in bribes and kickbacks, Nguema Obiang embarked on a corruption-fueled spree in the United States,” the Justice Department said in a statement. Court documents revealed that Mr. Obiang, who received a government salary of less than $100,000, had amassed assets worth more than $300 million through corruption and money laundering.

But Mr. Obiang, who has a fetish for Michael Jackson memorabilia, managed to spirit away his collection in a private jet. Both the jet and the memorabilia are now “subject to seizure and forfeiture” if ever brought back to the United States.

Transparency International France and the judge are arguing that the confiscated assets should not revert to the French treasury as the French laws require but instead used for truly independent civil society organizations or institutions that support development and strengthen good governance in Equatorial Guinea, such as an independent electoral body.

It is too early to assess if the 2014 settlement with the United States has set a positive precedent, but it mandated that the assets Mr. Obiang relinquished in America benefit the people of Equatorial Guinea through a charity, which would be forbidden to make any payments to Mr. Obiang’s government and his associates.

While Mr. Obiang enjoys his wealth, a majority of the 1.2 million people in Equatorial Guinea live on less than $2 a day. They lack safe drinking water, and electricity failures are consistent and common, even in the capital.

When I was growing up in Equatorial Guinea in the 1980s, we had no running water or electricity most of the year. We would study by kerosene lamp. Streetlights barely worked in Bata, my hometown, but Mr. Obiang drove around in luxury cars.

On a visit last year I admired the skyscrapers in Bata city center but — as in my childhood — there was no electricity in the rest of the city. A month ago, I heard that an acquaintance had died in childbirth because of poor facilities. Infant mortality at 68 deaths per 1,000 live births was among the 10 highest in the world, according to the World Bank.

Elections remain a farce, with the ruling party receiving nearly 100 percent of the votes in elections this month. Political rights are an illusion. The political cartoonist and activist Ramon Esono Ebale published a graphic novel in 2014 titled “Obi’s Nightmare,” which imagined President Obiang waking up to find himself an impoverished everyman in Equatorial Guinea suffering the hardships and humiliation ordinary citizens endure. Mr. Esono, who had been living in Spain and Paraguay, visited the capital, Malabo, to renew his passport in September and was arrested. He remains in prison.

Western banks and oil corporations, which have enthusiastically and unquestionably worked with the Obiangs, have contributed to the misery of Equatorial Guinea. Prosecutors in the United States say that Mr. Obiang was the owner of two shell companies used to buy his mansion in Malibu, Calif. He similarly used five companies based in Switzerland to buy his mansion in France for $29.5 million.

Company registries around the world should be open and indicate the real owners to end the secrecy of myriad shell companies based in “comfortable” jurisdictions (the United States, Switzerland, France or Luxembourg in this case) to the detriment of the struggling people of Equatorial Guinea.

Banks and regulatory authorities should do their due diligence and not accept dirty money — both the United States investigations and the French court have indicated that it was not possible for the Riggs Bank or the Central Bank of France to be unaware of the evidence of Mr. Obiang’s ill-gotten wealth.

Oil companies likes ExxonMobil, Glencore and SBM Offshore, which have major investments in Equatorial Guinea, must stop helping Mr. Obiang keep such a beautiful country in perennial agony.

Lucas Olo Fernandes is programs coordinator at Transparency International, the global anticorruption organization.

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