President Obiang and the Kleptocrats in Africa

President of Equatorial Guinea Teodoro Obiang

The prospect of economic emancipation and development in Africa was the biggest motivation that drove the struggle for independence. African people generally believed that the change in managers of the state and its resources could translate to greater access, participation, equity and development. However, it was not to be. Many scholars continue to associate the lingering failure of the development project in Africa to the character of the post-independence political class. Corruption permeated the political elite and became one of the biggest impediments obstructing African citizens from realising their objectives.

Overwhelming evidence points to natural resource-rich countries as a sanctuary of primitive accumulation at very huge costs to a hapless citizenry. The same natural resource abundance that provided the foundation for enviable development and economic growth in countries like Norway, Canada and Brazil has not done the same in Africa. Why? A new chapter of the governance dilemma opens every day. It is repeatedly amazing, sometimes amusing and often unpredictable. This cancer seems to be most manifest in Africa’s largest oil producers; otherwise how can one rationalise the scenes playing out regularly from amongst them?

On 29 September 2011, in far away Paris, French police swooped into a compound allegedly belonging to one of the longest serving dictators in Africa, President of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, and seized eleven luxury cars. Amongst the cars seized were two Buggatti Veyrons, three Ferraris, one Porsche Carrera GT and Bentleys with a total value of 5 million US dollars.

Global Witness, the foremost UK-based corruption watchdog recently published a mindboggling report on Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue or TNO, a son of the president. TNO holds the title of Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment in his father’s government with an official salary of $4000-5000 US per month. However, he is globally famous for mindless squandermania and recently paid $35 million for a stupendous, sixteen-acre estate in Malibu, California, equipped with swimming pools, tennis courts and a four-hole golf course. He is also said to own several luxury cars and boats with ship tank inside, including a gulfstream jet valued at $35 million.

Last February news broke that TNO (as he is popularly called) commissioned the building of another 387-foot long luxury super yacht valued at $380 million. The boat is expected to house a moving theatre, a bar, restaurant and swimming pool. Sometime last year it was reported that he hired Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen’s luxury yacht Tatoosh for more than $680,000 US for a short cruise with his girlfriend and US rapper Eve. A report monitored by UK group Global Witness indicates TNO bought an estate in Cape Town in 2004 at $7 million and once went on a shopping spree in Paris where he bought 30 designer suits in a single afternoon.

During the week of February 14, 2012, the French police again seized tens of millions of dollars worth of antiques, art work and luxury wood from Obiang’s Avenue Foch residence including a $1.5 million Louis X1V desk, in a house worth more than 500 million Euros.
In Nigeria – Africa’s highest old producer, a few nautical miles away — politicians within the ruling People’s Democratic Party allegedly benefited from a bribery bonanza totalling more about $180 million from KBR, a subsidiary of US-based Halliburton Energy Company between 1995-2004, in order to win a Liquefied Natural Gas(LNG) contract. An investigation in 2009 unearthed issues and a report available online alleges that three former presidents of Nigeria, a former vice president and many high level politicians might have benefited. However, both investigation and possible prosecution of the alleged beneficiaries have been stalled since then.

Both countries have become text book cases of the resource curse as many of their citizens still live below the poverty line.

The case of Equatorial Guinea is particularly pathetic. With a population of about 700,000, this country was one of the most isolated in the world and a destitute pariah state until she found oil and became the third highest producer in equatorial Africa, with a very high per capita income of about $37, 200. Yet 77 per cent of the country lives in poverty, 35 per cent of the population die before the age of 40, 57 per cent lack access to safe water. Between 1990 and 2007, infant mortality rate rose from 10 to 12 per cent per annum.

Mohammed Bello Adoke, Attorney General and Minister for Justice of Nigeria recently confirmed that about $20 to $40 billion of global inflow of proceeds of corruption and criminality originate from monies handed as bribes to public officials in developing countries. Most recently the global watchdog, Transparency International reported that Nigerian civil (and public) servants took bribes amounting to 450 billion naira ($3 billion ) in 2010 alone.

How do these monies develop wings and fly out of developing countries and how can we stop the flow?

There are several levels of action but I will highlight five entry points. The first is that African politics is in dire need of auto-purification. This cannot be achieved by mere democratic events like conducting elections but by a conscious effort by citizens to overcome laissez-faire complacency to demand genuine participation in a deepened democratic process. The second level is the review of public procurement laws to ensure watertight and committed implementation. Political interference in public procurement is the single biggest driver of public sector corruption in many African countries. The political will necessary to achieve this can hardly be availed willingly by the vampire elite until it is demanded by a vigilant media and committed citizenry.

A few African countries have established regulatory commissions in charge of the fight against corruption. Those who have not at the moment must be pressured through the peer review mechanism like the NEPAD to follow suit. There is also a need to insulate such agencies from political manipulation through enabling laws – if we must go beyond lip service and public relations.

The fourth action point is for a committed international community to cast a searchlight on both banks and recipient countries to enforce regulations like the OECD anti-bribery laws that prohibit and punish such behaviour. The framework of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) provides a robust opportunity for confiscation and repatriation of dubious assets hidden by unaccountable rulers. Increased commitment to mutual legal assistance could assist to navigate conditions of secrecy and facilitate speedy asset recovery.

It is disgusting and unacceptable to imagine that some of the continent’s rulers are squandering Africa’s resource patrimony when citizens die daily due to penury and curable diseases. Obiang and his co-kleptocrats must be stopped for our own sake and that of generation that will follow. If the enormous natural resource endowment in Africa does not translate to economic progress and better quality of life, Mo Ibrahim, billionaire philanthropist and fellow African warns that there may be more revolutions beyond the Tahir Squares of Egypt erupting from the turbulent bellies of discontent in many corners of the continent.