A kleptocrat on trial

A corruption trial making headlines in France is a cautionary tale of what happens when power remains in the same hands for too long. The defendant is the son of the President of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. Obiang holds the dubious distinction of being Africa’s longest-serving leader and has presided over the oil-rich but poverty-ridden nation for nearly 28 years, after deposing his uncle in a military coup  and executing him by firing squad shortly after. His son, Teodorin, is on trial for the abuse of corporate assets, embezzlement of public funds, breaches of trust and corruption.

The current trial is the outcome of an investigation launched by a French judge in 2009. Since his indictment in 2014, Teodorin Obiang has unsuccessfully appealed against his charges by claiming immunity as a joint vice-president of Equatorial Guinea and has asked the International Court of Justice to dismiss the case. It isn’t hard to see why he fears a public trial. His 101-room mansion in one of Paris’s most exclusive neighbourhoods, reportedly had gold plated bathroom fixtures, a sauna, sports room, nightclub, salon, even a cinema. In the upcoming proceedings he will be asked to explain whether public funds were used to acquire an estimated US$115m of assets in France, including at least US$20m in artworks and US$5m on luxury cars. Whatever happens, he is not likely to serve the five-year jail sentence the charges could lead to, unless the government controlled by his father hands him over to the French.

A recent settlement with the US justice department also saw Teodorin forfeit more than $US30m in US properties, including a luxury home in Malibu, but he was able to keep a US$38m private jet. His 76-metre yacht The Ebony Shine was seized last month in the Netherlands. The list of his ill-gotten gains continues at some length. Prosecutors believe Obiang’s lavish fortune was acquired between 2004 and 2011 when, as Minister of Agriculture, he levied a special tax on timber sales and transferred its proceeds to his private accounts.

Equatorial Guinea is Sub-Saharan Africa’s fourth largest oil producer and its GDP has increased 50-fold since 1992. During that time a kleptocratic elite has accumulated huge personal fortunes but there has been little improvement in the lives of the population, which is currently estimated at around 850,000. Three out of four citizens live below the poverty line – a figure comparable to Haiti – and life expectancy hovers slightly above 50 years; infant mortality is 124 per 100,000 live births – more than twice as high as in neighbouring Cameroon and Gabon. Currently Equatorial Guinea is ranked 138 in the UN Human Development Index.

After surviving a 2004 coup and winning a 2016 election, President Obiang looks secure as the head of the Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea. He has also served as the head of the African Union. During the 1980s he got used to winning uncontested presidential elections with more than 99 per cent of the vote. Nevertheless he remains wary of foreign critics and has described the country’s oil resources as a “state secret.” When Transparency International published its 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index (previous editions had ranked the country 163rd out of 174 and 177 countries, respectively) it omitted Equatorial Guinea altogether, due to a lack of available data. This deliberate opacity may explain why Teodorin’s official salary, during the period in which he accumulated his alleged personal wealth was approximately US$7,000 a month.

When the journalist Peter Maass visited Equatorial Guinea in 2005 – after the country had already absorbed vast oil revenues – he described a hospital in the town of Ebebiyín, in Kié-Ntem province, as “a place for dying, not healing. The wards are dingy rooms with soiled mattresses and no medical equipment except for a couple of IV drips.” In the same town, however, just one night earlier, a “sparkling” air-conditioned conference hall had hosted a reception for President Obiang’s cabinet, complete with “a 25-foot table stocked with bottles of Johnnie Walker, Smirnoff, and Spanish wine.” Later, when Maass interviewed the Minister of Education in his office, “only one of the two light fixtures had a bulb and I could not tell whether it worked because the power was out.”

Equatorial Guinea is unlikely to be the last country to suffer the “resource curse” that has plagued countries throughout Africa and the Middle East, but the personal excesses of its authoritarian kleptocracy should serve as a warning against the naive hope that a sudden influx of petrodollars can fix countries with entrenched corruption and the usual lack of transparency. It is not difficult to imagine the rise of a version of Teodora Obiang in this country during the next few decades, but it may still be possible to enact democratic reforms that might help to prevent it.

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