It was a glorious autumn morning in Malibu yesterday. But the owner of 3620 Sweetwater Mesa Road, high above the exclusive community’s famous Surfrider beach, was unable to enjoy his hilltop property’s untrammelled views of the sun-drenched Pacific.
Teodoro Nguema Obiang, the chubby, 41-year-old son of Equatorial Guinea’s autocratic president, was not at home. Security gates guarded a long, tree-lined drive which meandered past first a 20-car garage, then a tennis court, and then a four-hole private golf course.
In the distance stood the 15,000-square-foot main residence, which has eight bathrooms, the same number of fireplaces, a large swimming pool, and at least six walk-in wardrobes. Mr Obiang purchased the 12-acre estate for $31m (£19.5m) in 2004, telling Los Angeles estate agent Neal Baddin that he would be paying with cash.
At the time, no one thought to ask the mysterious foreigner how he’d laid his hands upon such a vast fortune. If Mr Baddin had done some digging, he would have discovered that his client’s only legitimate source of income was his salary as “Forestry Minister” in his father’s government. It currently pays $6,800-a-month.
Yesterday, the US Justice Department reached its own conclusions about Obiang’s wealth. The Malibu home, a half-hour’s drive from Hollywood, was among $70m-worth of assets seized by prosecutors – who say he plundered more than $100m from his homeland through “extortion, misappropriation, embezzlement, or theft of public funds”.
Lawsuits in Los Angeles and Washington DC pledged to recover stolen funds “for the benefit of the people of the country from which they are taken”. Although Equatorial Guinea’s vast oil resources give it Africa’s highest per-capita income, it is also fantastically corrupt.
In recent years, the nation’s political elite has accrued vast wealth. But more than 70 per cent of the population currently earns less than the UN poverty threshold of $2-per-day. Mr Obiang’s 69-year-old father, also called Teodoro, seized power in a 1979 coup, but despite becoming one of the world’s richest men, has failed to provide water or electricity to much of the country.
As the President’s heir apparent, Obiang (Jr’s) spending habits seem extraordinary even by the standards of African dictators. Among items seized by the US authorities are a $38m Gulfstream jet, a $530,000 Ferrari 599 GTO, and $3.2m dollars worth of bejewelled Michael Jackson memorabilia, including a crystal-encrusted glove from the singer’s 1987 Bad tour purchased for $300,000.
The President’s son once spent $60,000 on rugs, $58,000 on a home theatre, and $1,784 on a single pair of wine glasses for the Malibu property. He had 24 luxury cars, including Maserati, Ferrari, Porsche, Rolls-Royce and Bugatti, which he paid to store in a garage at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
“While his people struggled, he lived the high life,” America’s assistant Attorney General, Lanny A. Breuer, told reporters yesterday. “We are sending the message loud and clear: the United States will not be a hiding place for the ill-gotten riches of the world’s corrupt leaders.”
America’s decision to take action follows years of pressure from human rights groups concerned at the kleptocratic habits of Equatorial Guinea’s political elite. Mr Obiang, for example, is accused of taking cash bribes from logging companies. He also owns a timber company which operates in the very forests his ministry is supposed to regulate.
Despite the pressure, previous US administrations have turned a blind eye to Obiang’s activities, hoping perhaps to ensure that American companies continue to be given access to the small West African country’s lucrative oilfields, where ExxonMobil has been operating since 1994.
A Justice Department investigation found that Obiang was able to transfer $75m to the US between 2005 and 2007, without the authorities managing to prevent it. In one incident, he walked into a high-street bank, dropped $1m in shrink-wrapped $100 bills on the counter, and was promptly allowed to open an account.
This week’s legal action comes shortly after the Obama White House announced that its Justice Department was establishing a “Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative”, to recover the proceeds of foreign corruption laundered through the United States.
“This should keep suspected kleptocrats with assets in the US awake at night,” said Robert Palmer, a spokesman for the pressure group Global Witness, which first revealed the existence of Obiang’s Malibu mansion, told the Washington Post last night. He hopes the Obama administration will now actively seek to stop deposed dictators of the Arab Spring salting money across the Atlantic.
It also follows a torrid few months for Obiang, whose plutocratic behaviour has been the subject of a string of lawsuits and media exposes.
In June, Le Monde revealed he had shipped 26 luxury cars, worth $12m, from California to Equatorial Guinea, via France. It also identified him as the mystery individual who had purchased €18m-worth of art from the collection of Yves Saint Laurent auctioned in Paris in 2009. The bill for that was paid by the country’s Forestry Board.
In March, it emerged that Obiang was spending $380m (more than his country spends on health and education in an entire year) on the world’s second largest private yacht. When that news leaked, Equatorial Guinea announced that he had decided to cancel the order, with the German shipmaker Kusch, after “changing his mind”.
Meanwhile, in February, Foreign Policy magazine revealed that Obiang had settled a dozen civil lawsuits filed by staff working at his property in Malibu. They complained of being cheated out of salaries and overtime wages, and being forced to source prostitutes, Playboy bunnies, drugs, and even tigers for parties held at the estate.
Neither Mr Obiang, nor the government of Equatorial Guinea, responded to news of the asset seizure last night. A spokesman for Qorvis, a PR firm which has vigorously lobbied Washington lawmakers on behalf of the country, did not return emails seeking comment.
The man himself is not currently thought to be in the US. But he is hardly short of alternate residences: his global property portfolio includes a fourth-floor apartment near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and four other homes including two gated properties in South Africa.
Guy Adams, The Independent