An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth a Pound of Cure

October 4th, 2011

Teodoro Nguema Obiang has controlled Equatorial Guineasince he executed his uncle in a bloody coup d’état in 1979. Equatorial Guinea is a country in Middle Africa on the coast.  It is one of the smallest and wealthiest countries in the continent, in large part because it holds Africa’s largest oil reserves.  Yet the wealth is extremely concentrated in the hands of the government and the ruling elite.   As a result over 75% of the population lives below $2 per day, 35% of its citizens do not live past the age of 40, and nearly 60% do not have access to safe drinking water.

Over Obiang’s three decades as president, Equatorial Guinea has witnessed many disappointments.  The IMF and World Bank have both withdrawn aid programs, citing massive government corruption and theft.  The International Red Cross has accused Obiang of human rights violations.  In July 2003, state-operated radio declared Obiang to be a God who is “in permanent contact with the Almighty” and “can decide to kill without anyone calling him to account and without going to hell.”  The Alliance of Professional Africans in the Diaspora has called Obiang one of Africa’s “worst dictators,” along with Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Angola’s Jose Eduardo dosSantos.

In 2009 campaign group and Task Force member Global Witness uncovered documents showing Obiang’s son, Teodorin Obiang, purchased a $33 million private jet, a $35 million Malibu mansion, speedboats and a fleet of luxury cars in the United States. Then, earlier this year, Global Witness revealed that Teodorin Obiang, the son of the dictator, “commissioned plans to build a superyacht worth $380 million.” That’s nearly three times the amount Equatorial Guinea spends annually on both health and education programs. Given his salary of $4,000 – $5,000 a month as a minister, we must wonder where this grip of cash came from.  Teodorin himself vaguely—and insultingly—once explained “I have been very lucky in business…and I like to live well.”

For the robbed inhabitants of Equatorial Guinea, the prospect of getting their money back is dismal. As the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Center has noted: “asset recovery is…costly and time consuming. It requires lawyers, forensic accountants, expert opinions, translators, and travel expenses.” Private law firms can prove helpful recovering assets abroad, but their proficiency comes at a price—generally ranging from $200 to $600 per hour. In fact as Tom Cardamone, Managing Director of Task Force member Global Financial Integrity, has noted: “Shockingly…only about 1 percent of all stolen government money is ever seen again.”

This is why it came as a rather startling surprise when French police entered Teodoro’s Paris mansion on Friday and seized eleven high-end cars, including a Ferrari 599 GTO, a Maserati MC12, and not one, but two Bugatti Veyrons, which are considered “the most powerful, most expensive, and fastest street-legal production car(s) in the world.” The cars are registered to Teodoro, but according to a house employee, it is his fun-loving son who usually drives them. French police believe the Obiang family purchased the cars as part of a money-laundering scheme to smuggle cash into France. In response to questions from the press, an unnamed source responded: “There is an ongoing judicial investigation into money laundering and other crimes related to the receipt of foreign aid … these seizures have resulted from this inquiry.”

As much satisfaction as we should all get from this anedecdote, it is wise to remember that this seizure is very much the exception—not the rule. As Cardamone has put it: “the opportunity costs of trying to locate, let alone recover, corrupt proceeds are just too frustratingly, maddeningly, horribly high. Given their complexity and difficulty, efforts to recoup stolen funds are Sisyphean in the extreme.”

While we should continue to pursue the Obiang family and their criminal assets, we must also remember that prevention continues to be more important than recovery. It is better to stop these funds at the source than try to pursue them after the corrupt leaders and officials have absconded with their ill-gotten cash. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. On the other hand, it is rather satisfying to picture the look that must have been splashed acorss Teodorin Obiang’s face when he saw the French police load his Bugattis onto their car carrier. I hope they weren’t gentle.

Written by Ann Hollingshead

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