Putting Kleptocrats on Notice

Putting Kleptocrats on Notice

[Robert E. Williams, Jr. is an associate professor of political science at Pepperdine University and an expert on corruption in Equatorial Guinea].

The other shoe has dropped in the U.S. Government’s corruption case against Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue. Last week, a civil forfeiture complaint was unsealed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California as a second complaint was filed in the District of Columbia. The complaints, tantalizingly foreshadowed by the lis pendens filing earlier this month that Roger noted in a previous post, seek the forfeiture of over $70 million in assets owned by the profligate son and heir-apparent of Equatorial Guinea’s dictator, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.

These actions are part of the Justice Department’s Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative that was announced by Attorney General Holder at the African Union Summit on July 25, 2010. (In a move that angered human rights groups, the African Union selected President Obiang Nguema to chair the organization six months later.) Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer directs the group within the Criminal Division that is implementing the Initiative. The first complaint filed by Breuer’s group sought the seizure of over $1 million in assets (including a $600,000 home in Maryland) owned by Diepreye Solomon Peter Alamieyeseigha, former governor of the oil-rich Bayelsa State in Nigeria. DSP, as he was known to investigators, was impeached in 2005, but by that time he had laundered millions of dollars gained through oil-related corruption in the U.S., the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.

The assets to be seized in the Equatoguinean case are also the products of oil-related corruption. Like Nigeria, its neighbor to the north, Equatorial Guinea sits over the large oil reserves of the Gulf of Guinea. Unlike Nigeria and the other oil giant of sub-Saharan Africa, Angola, Equatorial Guinea is an oasis of political stability, although its stability is a product of severe repression. Since 2004, Equatoguinean oil production has averaged over 300,000 barrels per day, the vast majority of it produced by ExxonMobil, Hess, and Marathon, three U.S. corporations. As a result of extortion, misappropriation of public funds, and other forms of corruption, President Obiang Nguema, his family, and others in the inner circle have become fabulously wealthy while the nation at large remains among the most impoverished in Africa.

Teodorín, as the president’s oldest son is known, has been especially reckless in flaunting his portion of Equatorial Guinea’s oil wealth. Roger listed some of the property against which the U.S. Government has filed complaints for forfeiture in rem, but there are other countries around the world that could put together similar lists of homes, cars, and collectables. In fact, last month France seized eleven luxury cars belonging to Teodorín from the family’s residence on Avenue Foch near the Arc de Triomphe, while Spain is reportedly preparing to move against properties in Madrid and Las Palmas.

The beauty of what now appears to be a coordinated action by prosecutors in the U.S., France, and Spain against one of the most corrupt governments in the world is that it severely limits the possibilities for retaliation using the oil weapon. Because Equatorial Guinea’s oil is produced offshore in deepwater wells, few companies, whether state-owned or private, can provide the necessary production technology. In fact, China’s principal oil production company, CNOOC, completed its first deepwater production rig—destined for use in the South China Sea—in May of this year. Although China is the destination of 12 percent of Equatorial Guinea’s oil exports, it will not be in a position to displace Western oil companies for years to come.

The seizure of Teodorín’s assets in the United States is unlikely to speed the departure of the man who, since Gaddafi’s demise, is the longest-surviving dictator in Africa, nor is it likely to spur dramatic progress toward democracy and respect for human rights in Equatorial Guinea. It will be, however, a small victory for anti-corruption advocates and, perhaps more importantly, a strong signal to the world’s remaining kleptocrats.

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Africa, International Criminal Law
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