The plundering of Equatorial Guinea
Source: The Guardian
Author: Tutu Alicante
Date: 31st October 2011
Let’s hope that US moves to seize millions in assets marks a turning point in the fight against corruption in Equatorial Guinea
Thanks to the recent publication of two complaints filed by the United States department of justice against a high-level official of the government of Equatorial Guinea, the world has been given a rare glimpse into the normally opaque governing practices of this oil-rich country. The documents paint a detailed picture of systematic corruption, impunity and extravagant spending by government officials in a country where the living standards of the general population remain at a subsistence level.
Investigators have focused particular attention on the actions of Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue (Teodorin), the eldest son of, and potential successor to, the country’s president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasago, in power since 1979. The complaint seeks to seize a number of Teodorin’s assets purchased in the US, including a $30m seaside mansion, a $38.5m Gulfstream jet, a $533,000 2011 Ferrari and more than $3m of Michael Jackson memorabilia. He is said to have purchased these goods using money obtained through corruption.
The complaints further allege that Teodorin and other government officials belonging to President Obiang’s inner circle used a myriad of illegal schemes, including extortion, embezzlement, and the direct misappropriation of funds and state-owned land to siphon government money into their own pockets. Notably, the activities revealed by the anti-corruption suit are illegal in Equatorial Guinea, not just in the US, where the case was filed. Yet the national laws were not enforced.
These complaints challenge the narrative often recounted by expatriate oil executives and foreign government officials that President Obiang is a sympathetic figure, a lone island of accountability amid a sea of government corruption. According to a WikiLeaks cable, for instance, a US government official applauded Obiang’s efforts to control corruption, lamenting that “one person can’t supervise everything”.
The justice department’s suit tells a different story. In 1993 and 1994, President Obiang granted forest concessions totaling 36,000 hectares to the then 24-year-old Teodorin and a forestry company he created. Five years later, and in spite of the inherent conflict of interest, Obiang appointed Teodorin as minister of forestry, a direct violation of the country’s legal code which prohibits government officials from holding “a financial stake in any business regulated by his office”. Subsequently, Teodorin allegedly used his official position to extract bribes and illegal tariffs from forestry companies operating in Equatorial Guinea, a practice forbidden by Equatoguinean law.
The complaints allege that under Obiang’s watch, members of Obiang’s inner circle, including Obiang’s wife, transferred and registered large tracts of state-owned lands into their own names. They then leased this land to foreign oil companies, personally collecting money that would otherwise have accrued to the state.
Despite the vast evidence of corruption against Teodorin, President Obiang continues to promote his son within the government. Shortly after Unesco decided in early October to continue the suspension of a prize funded by and named for President Obiang, Obiang appointed Teodorin as the country’s permanent assistant delegate to Unesco. Then, on 20 October, he appointed Teodorin, who is the ruling political party’s vice-president, to head the party’s campaign effort to persuade citizens to vote in favour of the government’s proposed constitutional reforms. The reforms would include the creation of the post of vice-president, a position that some fear is being tailor-made for Teodorin.
The department of justice’s complaints further confirm what the people of Equatorial Guinea know all too well: the country’s natural resources are being plundered by an elite few, while most citizens remain mired in poverty. Let’s hope that by shining a spotlight on the brazen corruption and impunity of government officials, this case will mark an important turning point in the fight to bring about a more just and equitable Equatorial Guinea.