I’ve been writing abut the small West African nation of Equatorial Guinea since 2002, when it began being lauded in the US media as a country that was friendly to the United States and was, the story went, fitfully moving towards democracy. I traveled to the country that year to write a story for The Nation and found that this image in no way jibed with reality.
The country, ruled by the clan of dictator Teodoro Obiang, was one of the most repressive governments in the world. The only reason that Equatorial Guinea, long a backwater, had appeared on the media radar screen at all was that ExxonMobil, Chevron and other US oil companies had discovered oil there and it had quickly become the third largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa.
As I wrote in the story, U.S. Oil Politics in the ‘Kuwait of Africa’:
With its newfound oil wealth and tiny population, Equatorial Guinea could indeed be a model in a region known for dictatorial rule and gross corruption. But that prospect seems unlikely given that the Obiang regime is generally considered to rank among the world’s worst -– an assessment shared not only by human rights groups but also the CIA. The agency’s current World Factbook says that America’s new strategic partner is a country “ruled by ruthless leaders who have badly mismanaged the economy. The State Department’s most recent report on worldwide human rights says that the government employs “the psychological effects of arrest, along with the fear of beatings and harassment, to intimidate opposition party officials and members,” and that the country has never had a “free, fair and transparent” election. “It’s a corrupt, rotten government,” says Frank Ruddy, US ambassador to Equatorial Guinea during the Reagan years. “The people there deserve better than the crooks they’ve got.”
Despite this grim record, the George W. Bush administration steadily improved ties with the Obiang regime. “It is important to underscore that most of the oil and gas concessions awarded in Equatorial Guinea to date, have been awarded to US firms,” said a memo drafted on behalf of the oil companies, led by ExxonMobil and Chevron Texaco, and sent to Bush in 2001. “This is in stark contrast to neighboring countries in the region, where the United States has consistently lost out to French and other European and Asian competitors.”
In 2003, I reported that Washington’s venerable Riggs Bank was laundering money for the Obiang regime. That led to a US Senate investigation, which found that Riggs was also laundering money for Chile’s former dictator Augusto Pinochet. Riggs was subsequently hit with what was then the largest fine ever levied under the Bank Secrecy Act and was soon bought by PNC Bank.
Eight years later I wrote another story in Foreign Policy that focused on the pathetic and literally deranged son of the dictator, Teodorin Obiang. At the time, Teodorin was the country’s Minister of Agriculture, Livestock, Forestry and Environment despite spending much of his time in Malibu, California, where he owned a $30 million mansion, a collection of sports cars, a private jet and an extensive collection of Michael Jackson memorabilia. His primary activities included sleeping all day, playing video games, snorting coke and entertaining a stream of prostitutes who he paid to come to his mansion.
Ultimately, the US government seized Teodorin’s Malibu mansion and other assets, and effectively barred him from entering the country. Meanwhile, he continued to accumulate vast wealth around the globe, including in France and Great Britain. The scope of thievery by the Obiang clan certainly totals in the billions. It’s a small country — the population is less than a million — and on a per capita basis its corruption rivals historic kleptocrats like Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and Suharto in Indonesia.
More recently, the French and British governments took action against the Obiang regime. France’s highest court recently upheld two lower courts’ convictions of Teodorin for embezzling and laundering public funds. Last week, Britain sanctioned Minister Coke Head for stealing millions of dollars in public funds.
It’s better late than never and it’s significant that Teodorin is finally being shunned by Western governments. However, the impact of these actions will be muted because they came many years after it was apparent that Teodorin was an unstable mental case and had plundered his country’s national treasury to an astonishing degree. By now he’s been appointed the country’s vice president by Daddy Dearest and is virtually certain to succeed him after the 79-year-old dictator finally bites the dust.
If you’re interested in finding out more about what’s going on in Equatorial Guinea check out a recent 5-minute interview I did with the BBC. It will bring you up to date on recent developments and lay out the generally terrible role of the US government, which despite seizing Teodorin’s US assets has, from Bush to Obama to Trump and now Biden, done almost nothing to pressure the regime and turns the usual blind eye to its horrifying abuses.