He’s Not a Criminal… He’s Just “Lucky”

March 2nd, 2011

Teodoro Nguema Obiang has controlled Equatorial Guinea since 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  The IMF and World Bank have both withdrawn aid programs, citing massive government corruption and theft.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.”   Obiang has been called one of Africa’s “worst dictators,” along with Libya’s Muammar al-Quaddafi, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Angola’s Jose Eduardo dos Santos.

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.  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—explained “I have been very lucky in business…and I like to live well.”To some extent the world has responded to this and other claims of Obiang’s corruption.  In April of 2010 the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, “an alliance of governments, civil society groups and companies that sets standards for the disclosure of revenues from oil, gas and mining,” excluded Equatorial Guinea for failing to meet its requirements.  And later in the year diplomats to the UN from the U.S., Europe, and Africa called for a withdrawal of a lavish prize offered by the dictator with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).  The action followed wide criticism from scientists and human rights activists who criticized the prize as “little more than an effort to burnish the reputation of Teodoro Obiang.”

But despite the international communities outward condemnation of the dictator’s actions, it seems the reaction is merely symbolic. For example, although, U.S. presidential proclamation prohibits corrupt foreign officials from receiving American visas and the Justice Department has inwardly admitted that “most if not all” of Obiang’s wealth comes from his country’s oil and gas reserves, Obiang continues to come and go freely, spending vacations in his estate in Malibu, California.

But it would seem Obiang hasn’t had his fill of luxury at the expense of his countrymen.  In fact, that mansion was just the beginning.  Yesterday Global Witness revealed that Teodorin Obiang, the son of the dictator, has “commissioned plans to build a superyacht worth $380 million” that’s almost three times the amount Equatorial Guinea spends annually on both health and education programs.

As Raymond Baker, John Christensen, and Nicholas Shaxton have pointed out in the American Interest, it does little good for citizens of oil rich countries to know that their “country is among the world’s most corrupt.”  Rather citizens of Equatorial Guinea would prefer “to know where their money has gone.”  Well in the case of this superyacht, Global Witness can tell us that the money has gone to Germany’s Kusch Yachts, which has drawn up a basic design.  And his money has been funneled through American and European banks—banks which were required by law to vet this “politically exposed” client when he applied for an account and verify that the initial funds coming into the account were legally obtained.  Yet Global Witness discovered European and American banks including Banque de France, Natixis and Fortis, Wachovia, Union Bank of California, and Bank of America channeled roughly $75 million into the United States from Equatorial Guinea between 2005 and 2007.

Obiang’s actions are beyond shameless.  Unethical, immoral, and unjust do not even begin to describe the gravity of his exploits.  His home, cars, and now future superyacht have been purchased with stolen money.  I cannot emphasize that word enough.  If a known criminal stole hundreds of millions of dollars from a company or a museum or a wealthy person, and the world found out, would the U.S. welcome him with open arms? Would he be free to go where he wanted to and openly use his stolen money to buy what he wanted to?  No.  So why should the outcome be any different when the criminal steals from many who are impoverished instead of one who is rich?

Written by Ann Hollingshead

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