Argument

Obiang’s Booby Prize

Obiang’s Booby Prize

For years, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of tiny, oil-rich Equatorial Guinea has gamely sought to buy a UNESCO prize in his honor. Back in 2009, he was so confident of success that he sent a $3 million check to the organization to endow the UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences.

But last October, UNESCO for the second time delayed a decision on the prize in the face of protests from human rights and anti-corruption groups. Some countries, including the United States, also oppose naming a prize in honor of Obiang, who seized power in 1979 and was most recently "elected" three years ago with 95.4 percent of the vote.

The source of the $3 million is also at issue. During his three decades-plus as president, Obiang has somehow accumulated a fortune of $600 million, enough to place him at No. 8 on a list of the world’s richest rulers. Some cynics suspect he and his family have misappropriated government revenues, which are largely derived from oil pumped by American companies like ExxonMobil and Hess Corp.

Last fall, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) wrote UNESCO to ask that the organization reject the prize. The $3 million contribution to endow it was likely "the product of corruption or theft from the public treasury," he said.

An internal UNESCO working group is seeking to come up with a solution to the problem. To win approval, Obiang agreed to take his name off the prize and endow it in the name of Equatorial Guinea.

But as of now, it looks like even this desperate step won’t be enough. While Obiang’s regime is still desperately lobbying for the prize, sources say that the working group is leaning toward definitively rescinding it. As a face-saving gesture for Obiang, it would create a new UNESCO scientific award — not named for either the dictator or his country — that would accept contributions from any government, not just from Equatorial Guinea.

Continued concerns about the source of Obiang’s $3 million contribution are one of the key issues blocking approval. Equatorial Guinea originally claimed that the endowment money would come from the Obiang Nguema Mbasogo Foundation for the Preservation of Life, an entity that was, until then, entirely unknown. Nor was it clear whether the cash was coming from Obiang’s government or his personal pockets — a distinction that, based on his great wealth, the president does not generally recognize.

In fact, Foreign Policy has learned that the 2009 check didn’t come from the president’s mysterious foundation. Instead, it was drawn from a state account controlled by the president and sent from a bank in Equatorial Guinea to the First International Merchant Bank of Malta, which then transferred it to UNESCO via a cashier’s check. (First International used Deutsche Bank Trust Company, at 280 Park Avenue in New York, as a correspondent bank on the transaction.)

It was a strangely circuitous route for what should have been a straightforward bank transfer and was an embarrassing reminder to UNESCO of the Obiang regime’s shady record of dodgy financial dealings. That the Obiang government misled UNESCO about the funding has not sat well with the working group and is helping push delegates toward rescinding the president’s long-sought prize. (A final decision is expected next month.)

Concerns about money laundering and corruption are also at the heart of the Obiang clan’s problems in the United States.

Last October, the Justice Department unveiled an asset forfeiture complaint seeking to seize more than $75 million worth of property belonging to Obiang’s son and heir apparent, Teodorin, whose holdings in the United States include a $30 million mansion in Malibu, various luxury sports cars, and several million dollars’ worth of Michael Jackson memorabilia, including "one white crystal-covered ‘Bad Tour’ glove."

The Justice Department’s complaint contends that an "inner circle" of powerful Obiang clan officials control political and economic power and have been "the near-exclusive beneficiaries" of Equatorial Guinea’s natural resource wealth. Teodorin officially receives a modest salary of about $5,000 per month as his country’s minister of agriculture and forestry, a level of pay the Justice Dept. deems "inconsistent" with his lavish spending habits.

The complaint says that in 1993, when Teodorin was 24 years old, his father began awarding him logging concessions on nearly 90,000 acres of rain forest. The following year, he was named minister of agriculture and forestry and subsequently formed joint ventures in partnership with foreign companies.

As minister, Teodorin demanded that international logging companies pay him to obtain concessions and receive permission to export logs, the complaint alleges. Teodorin "used his position and influence … to acquire criminal proceeds through corruption and money laundering, in violation of both Equatoguinean and U.S. law," it says. The Justice Department’s action marks the first time that the U.S. government has moved to seize the assets of a sitting foreign government official for allegedly breaking the law in his or her home country.

To fight for his Malibu home and treasured Michael Jackson memorabilia, Teodorin has hired Mike DeGeurin, a highly regarded Houston lawyer. DeGeurin recently filed a motion stating that Teodorin’s assets were purchased "with legitimate funds acquired through private ventures" and that none of his actions violated Equatorial Guinea’s laws. The country, he explains in the motion, has sought to encourage "economic development by allowing government officials to have economic interests in private businesses," and though that might "seem unusual to American sensibilities," it was not illegal in Equatorial Guinea.

The case should be dismissed, the motion argues, because moving forward would "infringe Equatorial Guinea’s sovereign right to create, interpret, and enforce its own laws and will significantly hinder the existing cooperative, friendly relationship" between the United States and the Obiang regime. The next hearing in the asset forfeiture case is tentatively set for March 12, in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, with Judge George Wu presiding.

Incidentally, Obiang clan members have also been targeted in corruption probes in Spain and France. Teodorin is at the center of the latter; last September, police seized 11 luxury vehicles outside his Paris residence, near the Champs-Élysées — and on Tuesday, Feb. 14, police raided his apartment.

A Feb. 6 story in the Guardian said that the residence has been sitting empty since September, but when Teodorin stayed there in the past "passersby would see a parade of couturiers from Paris’s top design houses, including Yves Saint Laurent, Dior, Louis Vuitton, waiting to be admitted for fittings before returning with vanloads of made-to-measure clothes. Crates of the most expensive burgundy were another regular delivery."

Ironically, President Obiang last October named Teodorin as his country’s deputy permanent representative to UNESCO, which is headquartered in Paris. The posting would give Teodorin diplomatic standing in France and looked to be a transparent effort to win his son legal immunity from the corruption charges there. But thus far, it seems that the lobbying effort to convince UNESCO to accept the allegedly ill-begotten millions is falling on deaf ears.