Last Friday, just as the workweek in France was winding down in readiness for Bastille Day celebrations, French authorities quietly issued an arrest warrant for a man whose lavish spending has for years raised eyebrows not only in Paris but also thousands of kilometers away — in California. Teodorin Nguema Obiang Mangue, son of the President of one of Africa’s smallest countries, Equatorial Guinea, had failed to appear at a French money-laundering investigation in order to answer questions about how he managed to spend millions of dollars despite earning a modest government salary.
For the 41-year-old potentate, the French warrant was just the latest episode in what has been a wild ride, one that includes a movie-star life in Malibu, allegedly fueled by proceeds from companies — mostly American — operating in his tiny oil-rich country. Now that bucolic lifestyle is under threat, in part, according to some activists, because Western tolerance for foreign dictators’ excesses has lately worn thin — and that’s in turn thanks, some believe, to the Arab Spring. “It doesn’t hurt that in the public perception, the catalyst for the Arab Spring was those leaders’ corruption,” says Joseph Kraus, development director of EG Justice, an NGO in Washington working on human rights in Equatorial Guinea. “Corruption is a difficult thing to prove, especially in a country which is so closed, but we hope the arrest warrant will be a signal for other countries to follow.”
But will it? That seems unclear, judging by a separate political wrangle unfolding this week in Paris. Despite the fury of human-rights organizations and Western diplomats, Teodorin’s father, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, is due to arrive in the French capital on Tuesday to present a life-sciences award at the U.N.’s cultural agency, UNESCO. The African leader has given UNESCO $3 million over five years for the award. President Obiang, 70, has ruled Equatorial Guinea for more than 32 years, since overthrowing his uncle in 1979. Enraged by UNESCO’s decision, U.S. and E.U. diplomats have said they intend to boycott Tuesday’s event. “We have consistently and adamantly objected to this particular prize,” said U.S. ambassador to UNESCO David Killion in a statement, citing Equatorial Guinea’s record of human-rights abuses.
Yet, prizes aside, there is a new chill against the Obiangs, who for decades have been able to amass fortunes outside their country.
After years of trying to track Teodorin’s wealth, the U.S. Department of Justice finally filed a lawsuit last month in a California court alleging massive money-laundering and listing, among the eye-popping catalog of assets, his $35 million Malibu mansion — a 1,400-sq-m sprawl off the Pacific Coast Highway with a four-hole golf course, tennis court and two swimming pools. That’s just one of the acquisitions he’s made in the U.S. His first trip to California was in 1991, paid for by a U.S. oil company called Walter Oil & Gas Corp., when he was 20, to study at Pepperdine University (he dropped out after five months), according to the lawsuit. The U.S. complaint also lists, among Teodorin’s assets, a fleet of luxury cars, including a 2011 Ferrari worth about $532,000 and a $494,000 collection of Michael Jackson memorabilia allegedly bought at auction after the singer’s death, including seven life-size statues of the singer and a white glove from Jackson’s 1986 Bad Tour.
That is not all. In a separate case, French investigators are trying to track the millions Teodorin has spent in Paris — a longtime favorite place for dictators to make use of their ill-gotten gains. Last Friday’s arrest warrant came despite a move by President Obiang to protect his son through diplomatic immunity, by having him join Equatorial Guinea’s mission to UNESCO. Clearly, that ploy failed. The President’s son — currently Vice President and the likely successor for Equatorial Guinea’s top post — owns a five-story mansion on Paris’ swank Avenue Foch, where he kept 11 luxury cars, including a Maserati and an Aston Martin, until French police seized them last November as part of the investigation. Neighbors on the treelined avenue described to the Guardian how a parade of tailors from France’s top fashion houses regularly arrived at the house while Teodorin was there. Not bad for an official from an obscure African nation with just 720,000 people, whose official yearly salary was less than $100,000.
Indeed, Equatorial Guinea might have remained an impoverished backwater — a classic banana republic — had energy-exploration companies not chanced upon the country’s spectacular oil wealth in the late ’90s. Now, with Equatorial Guinea’s estimated 1.1 billion barrels in proven oil reserves, ExxonMobil, Marathon Oil and Noble Energy have plowed billions into the country, turning it into Africa’s fourth largest oil exporter, with much of its output headed to the U.S.
These days the country has a per capita income equivalent to its former colonial ruler, Spain. Yet the distribution of its wealth is hugely disproportionate, with many locals living below the poverty line, according to World Bank estimates. And although State Department human-rights reports have regularly assailed Equatorial Guinea for its imprisonment and torture of antigovernment activists, investments by U.S. companies have nonetheless expanded beyond oil. In 2010, the country signed a $250 million military-security contract with a Virginia company called MPRI to improve coastal surveillance, according to a corporate press release at the time. So dominant have U.S. investments been, in fact, that in 2009 a diplomatic cable from the U.S. embassy in the country advised that “the door is wide open” for the U.S. to exercise significant influence and to push the aging President to institute democratic reforms. “After all, we [via the U.S. oil companies] pay all the bills, and the [Equatorial Guinea] leadership knows it,” said the cable.
Although it is not clear whether U.S. oil companies helped pay for Teodorin’s high-flying lifestyle, last month’s U.S. lawsuit gives a rare window into how foreign corporations are expected to operate in Equatorial Guinea. In 2005, for example, Teodorin tried (and failed) to have a U.S. oil company called Ocean Energy pay for Gulfstream to furnish him with a $40 million private jet. Both companies refused to cooperate, according to the U.S. complaint. But other companies have not escaped being embroiled in Teodorin’s taste for luxury. The French engineering company Bouygues, which has large business interests in Equatorial Guinea, allegedly built a mansion for the President’s son in the country’s capital for free, according to the filing. And Teodorin, the document claims, also ordered foreign companies to upgrade thousands of poor people’s homes by installing zinc-tile roofs, at a time when he had a “substantial financial interest” in the zinc-roofing business.
Years of these corrupt practices may finally be ending — or at least are finding attention far more difficult to escape. Some legal experts have even argued to make such corruption a crime against humanity in the International Criminal Court. The challenge ahead, say anticorruption organizations, is making money-laundering cases stick. Such investigations are hugely complex and often take years, with witnesses and documents pooled in from multiple continents.
The Arab Spring’s financial investigations show just how difficult the probe into Teodorin’s alleged corruption might be. Over breakfast on Monday in Paris, Khaled Ben M’Barek, political counselor to Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, told a group of reporters that Tunisian officials have barely begun to unravel the finances of ousted dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who is believed to have siphoned billions out of the country during his 24-year rule. “Money is in many different countries and companies,” M’Barek said. In London, Global Witness campaigner Robert Palmer told TIME on Monday that U.S. and European officials could well face the same problem in trying to unravel Equatorial Guinea’s billions. “You just have to look at the Arab Spring to see how easy it was for leaders to bring their money into investment banks,” he said. “It is exceptionally difficult to track down assets when you can hide them in a web of shell companies.” Or when those assets come in the form of Malibu property and Michael Jackson memorabilia.