Corruption in My Own Backyard

by Roger Alford

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This story from the New York Times about the corruption of Teodoro Obiang certainly hits close to home. His $35 million dollar estate in Malibu is just down the hill from Pepperdine.

Several times a year, Teodoro Nguema Obiang arrives at the doorstep of the United States from his home in Equatorial Guinea, on his way to his $35 million estate in Malibu, Calif., his fleet of luxury cars, his speedboats and private jet. And he is always let into the country. The nation’s doors are open to Mr. Obiang, the forest and agriculture minister of Equatorial Guinea and the son of its president, even though federal law enforcement officials believe that “most if not all” of his wealth comes from corruption related to the extensive oil and gas reserves discovered more than a decade and a half ago off the coast of his tiny West African country. And they are open despite a federal law and a presidential proclamation that prohibit corrupt foreign officials and their families from receiving American visas. The measures require only credible evidence of corruption, not a conviction of it.

Transparency International ranks Equatorial Guinea as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, with only seven countries ranking below it in the 2009 Corruption Perception Index. According to my friend Professor Robert Williams, the resident expert on Obiang’s corruption, Equatorial Guinea also has one of widest gaps in the world between GDP and HDI. With its wealth of natural resources, Equatorial Guinea has one of the highest GDP’s in the world, ranked 29th, just above the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, and France. But the country is ranked well below the median on the Human Development Index, 118 out of 182 countries. As discussed here, it also is ranked extremely low on the poverty index, the gender disparity index, the life mortality index, among many other issues.

In short, the average citizen of Equatorial Guinea has a miserable life compared to what he or she could have with the country’s bounty of natural resources. Meanwhile, if the tabloids are correct, my neighbor Teodoro Obiang is hanging out in Malibu at his multi-million dollar hilltop estate overlooking the Pacific Ocean, driving Bentleys and Lamborghinis, and jetting off in his $34 million dollar Gulfstream V to his other homes in Cape Town, Buenos Aires and Paris.

My question is what could be done to address Obiang’s corruption? Go after corporate corruption with Equatorial Guinea under the FCPA and the OECD Convention? Pursue Obiang through litigation as the plaintiffs did with Ferdinand Marcos? Pressure the Obama Administration to take human rights seriously and revoke Obiang’s visa? Other ideas?

http://opiniojuris.org/2009/11/18/corruption-in-my-own-back-yard/

6 Responses

  1. I’m leaning towards visa revocation here.  He hasn’t been convicted of anything, and we don’t have any real right to detain him until he has.

    It is certainly within our power, however, to tell him he’s not welcome in our country.

  2. I believe that a revocation of an individual’s visa may be permissible.  What I am most surprised about, however, is Mr. Alford’s shock of the imbalance of Obiang’s wealth with the rest of the country’s.  He expresses his concern for the unfairness of Obiang’s riches in comparison to the average citizen of Equatorial Guinea’s “miserable life” lived in poverty.  My question is: what’s new? Why is this unfairness and imbalance so shocking? We witness this imbalance in the U.S. every single day.  It is a shame, but its reality – even in this country.  One other question – is taking his visa away really going to alleviate this corruption problem? I argue that it won’t.  However, on a more positive note, such a revocation would at least illustrate the United States’ disapproval of such corrupt behavior.  As we have witnessed in many instances, a country’s international reputation and actions are valuable; therefore, maybe revocation would have a strong enough impact to encourage other countries to react the same way towards him.  After all, the President of a country should have his country’s best interests in mind, not his own.

  3. “…a federal law and a presidential proclamation that prohibit corrupt foreign officials and their families from receiving American visas. The measures require only credible evidence of corruption, not a conviction of it”. This sentence says it all, just revoke his visa! And like Moe, I am surprised by how astonished Mr. Alford is by this situation. This is nothing new, most developing countries have such an abundance of natural resources that it is baffling that any mouths go unfed, yet the disparities of wealth in such countries remain astonishing. However, if we are really concerned with the corruption of the Obiang government, it seems that the revocation of a visa is unlikely to ruffle anyones feathers. So far in 2009 we have engaged in nearly 140 million dollars worth of trade with Papua New Guinea, perhaps we should reconsider a trade relationship with Papua New guinea, and pressure our friends abroad to do as well. After all, there are plenty of other luxury oceanside retreats that Mr. Obiang can relocate to if we refuse to let him visit Malibu.

  4. Please excuse my last post! I meant to say Equatorial Guinea; and have made corrections accordingly:“…a federal law and a presidential proclamation that prohibit corrupt foreign officials and their families from receiving American visas. The measures require only credible evidence of corruption, not a conviction of it”. This sentence says it all, just revoke his visa! And like Moe, I am surprised by how astonished Mr. Alford is by this situation. This is nothing new, most developing countries have such an abundance of natural resources that it is baffling that any mouths go unfed, yet the disparities of wealth in such countries remain astonishing. However, if we are really concerned with the corruption of the Obiang government, it seems that the revocation of a visa is unlikely to ruffle anyones feathers. So far in 2009 we have engaged in hundreds of millions of dollars worth of trade with equatorial Guinea, perhaps we should reconsider a trade relationship with equatorial guinea, and pressure our friends abroad to do as well. After all, there are plenty of other luxury oceanside retreats that Mr. Obiang can relocate to if we refuse to let him visit Malibu.


  5. While I agree that the US should certainly do something to address Obiang’s corruption, but I am not sure revocation of a visa would do the trick.  Certainly, it would send a message that the US does not approve of such behavior, but ultimately what does this do? Obiang sells his mansion and as Mollie A pointed out, buys another piece of beachfront property.
    Furthermore, I’m concerned trade measures would only hurt Equatorial Guinea as a nation and not Obiang personally, since he has proven that he will not suffer as a result of his country’s poverty. If we prevent trade, the economy of the nation will deteriorate further, but Obiang will live as extravagantly as he always has.
    In my opinion, the best result is to protect Equatorial Guinea from further economic harm and to go after Obiang directly, pursuing him through litigation under the Alien Tort Statute.  That way he, and not his country will be punished.

  6. My first instincts were similar to Amanda’s and to avoid any reprimand on Equatorial Guinea and try to get Obiang under the ATS however there are some problems with that. First someone would have to file the claim and who here is in fact being injured? Could it be a class action claim representing the people of Equatorial Guinea? Secondly massive amounts of US time, money and resources would have to be allocated to solve a problem which really does not influence our country and is not even in our geographic “sphere of influence”.
    Simply taking the visa of Obiang would not solve this problem either because although he would not be able to party in his seaside mansion he could still gallivant around Europe and Africa.
    Ultimately it seems that there needs to be a multi-national effort to curb the misappropriation of funds going on in Equatorial Guinea. Perhaps a NATO backed boycott of all the oil coming from Equatorial Guinea could help this problem however this would merely harm the economy, a result which is not needed. Maybe a multi-lateral ban on Obiang from entering countries where he has used misappropriated funds to  support his lavish lifestyle would help solve this problem. Either way this seems like a problem that will never go away and so long as these developing countries do not either stop this corruption themselves or receive international aid to stop this corruption they will ALWAYS be merely developing countries.

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