As we wring our hands over Gaddafi’s and Mubarak’s missing millions, why is no one chasing Equatorial Guinea’s corrupt dictator Teodoro Obiang, whose kleptocratic son and heir, Teodorin, has just been busted trying to buy a $380 million luxury yacht from a German shipyard?

The answer may be that 69-year old Obiang, is a “good friend” to the US (according to Condoleezza Rice) and Equatorial Guinea is one of the world’s major oil producers.

But, oh what a friend!

Since Teodoro Obiang came to power in a bloody coup in 1979, he has imprisoned, tortured and killed anyone brave enough to oppose him, and earned one of the worst human rights records in the world.  He has also enriched himself and his family on a massive scale, while leaving his subjects in poverty. Many rank him ahead of Robert Mugabe as Africa’s vilest dictator.

Equatorial Guinea was once one of the poorest nations in Africa. Then in 1996 American oil companies struck vast reserves of oil and gas off the country’s coast and earned it the title “Africa’s Kuwait”.

But none of the new-found wealth has gone to the people. Three-quarters of Equatorial Guinea’s 675,000 population live below the poverty line and, according to London-based Global Witness, 60% struggle to survive on an income of only $US1 a day. Infant mortality has even risen — from 10% to 12% — since oil was discovered.

Instead, the money has gone to Teodoro Obiang and his family, and to his shopaholic son and heir.

According to Global Witness: Teodorin’s new tinny (codenamed Project Zen) will cost more than Equatorial Guinea spends a year on education and health combined. If it’s ever built (and that may now be in doubt) it will be the world’s second-most expensive private yacht and (at 118.5 metres) one of the largest. Naturally, it will boast the usual swimming pool, cinema, restaurant, bar and helipad but it will also have a whizz-bang security system complete with floor motion sensors, photoelectric barriers and fingerprint door openers.

But Teodorin, who is Equatorial Guinea’s Minister of Agriculture and Forestry, has heaps of other toys: he owns a $35 million 6.4-hectare estate in Malibu, California, with swimming pool, tennis courts and four-hole golf course, purchased in 2006, a $34 million Gulfstream V jet and three Bugatti Veyrons — the world’s most expensive car — costing $1.7 million apiece. Each of these cars costs enough to buy a mosquito net for every child in Equatorial Guinea, according to Anthea Lawson, head of Global Witness’s Kleptocracy Campaign. As of 2007, Obiang also had three Rolls-Royces, two Mercedes Maybachs, and four Ferraris in the Petersen Automobile Museum in Los Angeles.

The money to buy Teodorin’s US assets was wired from Societe Generale de Banque en Guinee Equatoriale to the Banque de France and then brought into the US through a network of dummy companies. According to the US Justice Department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), “most if not all” of this money was “derived from extortion, bribery or the misappropriation of public funds”. Some of it was believed to have come from a “revolutionary tax” on Malaysian, Chinese and North Korean logging companies that Obiang jnr was getting paid directly to him.

Despite this evidence of corruption and looting, Teodorin Obiang continues to be allowed into the US and to arrive carrying $1 million in cash, according to US Customs. More seriously, no action has been taken to seize or freeze his assets, or to prosecute him, despite a mass of evidence accumulated by US law enforcement officials.

Teodorin, who earns a ministerial salary of $5000 a month, also owns property in Spain, South Africa and France, where he has another multimillion-dollar car collection and money in Paris bank accounts (in his own name) with Barclays, HSBC and Paribas, according to a 200-page French police report in 2007.

This is despite a legal requirement for banks to employ extra due diligence when dealing with PEPs or Politcally Exposed Persons such as Obiang, and to satisfy themselves that their millions have been legitimately obtained.

Thankfully, French authorities are going ahead with a judicial investigation of his assets, following a long legal battle that culminated in a French Supreme Court decision last November.

But young Teodorin is just following in his father’s footsteps. In the late 1990s Obiang snr took control of the nation’s Treasury and deposited $700 million in Washington DC’s oldest bank, Riggs Bank, which opened up a series of personal accounts for him and his family and set up shell companies and offshore accounts, to which he then transferred money. The funds in Washington were replenished at regular intervals with wire transfers from the Bahamas and suitcases full of shrink-wrapped $100 bills. The Riggs Bank failed to report any of this to the authorities (or the fact that it was hiding millions of dollars for Chile’s dictator Augusto Pinochet) but it was eventually busted by US Senate investigators and fined US$41 million. 

Several directors of the Riggs Bank faced criminal prosecution and the bank was taken over. But US authorities made no attempt to seize Obiang’s money and returned what was left of the $700 million to Equatorial Guinea.

After all, they could not risk upsetting such a good friend.

Peter Fray

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