Although few readers likely can find Equatorial Guinea on a map (hint: it’s that small square wedged between Cameroon and Gabon), many have heard its name in connection with the annual contest to identify the “most corrupt country.” For despite the always stiff competition from the likes of such states as Iran, Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, year-in-year-out Equatorial Guinea always manages to place at or near the top. Observers attribute its perennially strong showing to a combination of two factors: 1) the country’s vast mineral wealth and 2) its rulers’ skill and ruthlessness in keeping it all for themselves.
Thanks to large deposits of crude oil and other natural resources, Equatorial Guinea is the fourth wealthiest nation in the world with a per capita income approaching $50,000. Yet most Equatorial Guineans live in poverty. Over half the population does not have access to clean drinking water, 47% are without access to safe plumbing, and more than 51% of primary school teachers lack adequate professional training. As a result, the nation ranks at or near the bottom of cross-national indicators of development. (Information in this post is from the NGO APDHE’s filing against the government at the African Peoples and Human Rights Commission.)
“Credit” for this appalling state of affairs goes to the nation’s president, H.E Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, his family, and allied families from the Esangui clan of the Mongomo region. Through the creation and maintenance of a corrupt state they have managed to ensure that the country’s enormous wealth has gone to fund mansions and luxury automobiles in Spain, the United States, France,Brazil, and other countries for themselves and their cronies. Perhaps most notorious was the acquisition by Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, the president’s son, of one of the gloves Michael Jackson wore during his “Bad Tour.” He reportedly paid a half million dollars for the right to display it at his Malibu mansion.
A promising break in this depressing story of the pillage of a nation’s assets came in October 2011 when the U.S. Department of Justice filed suit against the younger Obiang. The Department alleged that the glove, the Malibu mansion, a Gulf Stream jet, and other trinkets totaling some $100 million the youngster had stashed in the United States were “the proceeds of foreign official corruption” and thus subject to seizure under U.S. law. The suit is perhaps the most significant result of the Department’s Kleptocracy Initiative. Launched under President Bush and strengthened under President Obama, the program brings civil and criminal cases in American courts to seize assets of the Obiangs of the world whenever they have a connection to the United States. Civil society groups around the world have applauded the initiative, and in the case of the Obiang case provided the Department with information to support it.
Many of these groups now worry that, thanks to political and diplomatic considerations, the Department may give up on its suit. A tentative settlement has been reached, and rumors are swirling that it lets the Obiangs off the hook. The settlement must be approved by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, and late on August 5, the Open Society Justice Initiative, APDHE, the Spanish group pursuing a similar case against the Obiangs in Spanish court, SHERPA, a French NGO that instigated a case against the family in France, and EGJUSTICE, a group of Equatorial Guinean citizens, wrote General Holder urging he reject any settlement that would go easy on the Obiangs. Among other things the four asked the Attorney General was to ensure that —
– all forfeited funds are returned to Equatorial Guinea for the benefit of its citizens;
– the Obiangs and their cronies have no role in the allocation of the returned funds;
– those benefiting from the funds not be subject to any retaliation; and
– anyone who assisted in the recovery of the funds be free from further harm and that in particular Roberto Berardi, an Italian national imprisoned and tortured in Equatorial Guinea for his role in the case, be immediately released and allowed to leave the country safely.
The Kleptocracy Initiative is one of the more promising efforts to curb the grand corruption rampant in many weak states. This is not the time to weaken it. General Holder, don’t give the Obiangs back that Jackson glove!