January 31, 2017
Inside a Paris mansion worth almost US $180 million, you could find a hair salon, two gyms, a cinema and a Turkish bath. The bathrooms had gold- and jewel-encrusted taps. The furniture in the mansion was worth at least US $50 million, and the art collection included one Degas and five Rodins. In 2009, more than US $22 million was spent to purchase items from a private art collection, including a 16th-century gold-plated elephant.
Until it was seized by French authorities in 2012, this pied-à-terre had belonged to the son of Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the president of Equatorial Guinea. It is just one of the many ways in which Obiang and his family have indulged themselves, spending hundreds of millions of dollars on real estate, vehicles and other luxury items from around the world.
President Obiang has ruled the country since 1979, after coming to power by deposing and executing his uncle. Since at least 2009, one of Obiang’s sons has been under investigation for money laundering, bribery and extortion, after spending more than US $300 million on real estate and luxury items while making less than US $100,000 annually as a government minister. In 2012, in an effort to cloak his son with diplomatic immunity, Obiang promoted him to second vice president, then to vice president in 2016. A U.S. suit settled in 2012 for US $30 million; a corruption trial in Paris began this month.
There is little question of where the family originally made its money. In 1995, vast oil reserves were discovered off the coast of Equatorial Guinea, creating billions of dollars in oil revenue. Equatorial Guinea is the fourth-largest producer of oil in sub-Saharan Africa, with a GDP similar to that of Spain and Italy. While oil has helped make Equatorial Guinea into Africa’s richest country per capita, most of the population of almost 850,000 lives on less than two dollars a day.
A substantial part of this revenue found its way into the pockets of the president’s family. In the early 2000s, oil companies made large deposits into bank accounts held by Equatorial Guinea government officials and their relatives, while oil funds meant to benefit Equatorial Guineans were instead placed into Obiang’s personal accounts. Given this history, one might find something slightly ominous in the description of a new exploration agreement with the largest oil producer in the country offered by the country’s minister of mines, industry and energy—another one of Obiang’s sons, as it happens—as “the start of a new adventure between old acquaintances.”
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