PARIS - Teodorin Obiang Nguema has luxuriated in spectacular mansions in Malibu and Paris, traveled in expensive sports cars, yachts and a private jet, amassed a multi-million-dollar art collection and once went on a reported $80,000 shopping spree at Gucci.
But increasingly, the long arm of justice seems to be catching up to the jet-setting, 47-year-old son of Teodoro Obiang, Equatorial Guinea’s veteran hardline leader — not in his impoverished homeland, but in the western nations where he flaunts his allegedly ill-gotten gains.
Obiang’s latest legal battle takes place Monday in Paris, with the opening of a graft trial against him. The Equatorial Guinea vice president is not expected to be present and he reportedly will plead not guilty to charges of corruption, money laundering and embezzlement of public funds. Still the trial is considered groundbreaking in France, a favorite haunt for African leaders with questionable fortunes.
“It’s one stage,” said lawyer William Bourdon, president of Sherpa and legal advisor to Transparency International, two anti-corruption NGOs who filed lawsuits several years ago against Obiang and two other African leaders.
Others under review
“It’s a long book, an encyclopaedia, these ill-gotten gains,” Bourdon added in an interview, describing French investigations also underway targeting Republic of Congo President Denis Sassou-Nguesso and Gabon’s deceased leader Omar Bongo.
“There will then be chapters dedicated to the family of Sassou-Nguesso and the Bongo family,” he added.
France is not the only country setting its sights on Obiang. In December, Dutch authorities seized a 76 meter yacht, Ebony Shine, reportedly belonging to Obiang. Switzerland has also seized 11 luxury cars in response to a French request.
And in the United States, Obiang gave up a $30 million California mansion and his collection of Michael Jackson memorabilia in 2014 to settle corruption claims by federal prosecutors.
In France, prosecutors in 2012 seized the Obiang family’s Paris mansion on the elegant Avenue Foch, along with luxury cars, paintings and expensive wines, on suspicion they were bought with funds plundered from Equatorial Guinea’s public coffers. While the tiny West African country is oil rich, three-quarters of its population lives below the poverty line.
In September, Equatorial Guinea petitioned the Hague-based International Court of Justice to suspend the French trial, arguing Paris had violated Obiang’s diplomatic immunity. Obiang’s lawyers say he acquired his wealth legally and the Paris mansion is part of the country’s diplomatic mission.
But while the court approved Equatorial Guinea’s demand to have the mansion returned, it said it lacked jurisdiction to halt the trial.
The latest twist came late last month, when Equatorial Guinea arrested three executives of French bank Societe Generale, in what appeared to be a tit-for-tat reprisal. The three stand accused of leaking financial documents to be used against Obiang in the Paris proceedings.
Observers say Obiang is unlikely to serve a sentence if he is convicted. Still some say the trial could set a powerful precedent in France — and reflects a broader change afoot in Africa.
“I think there’s a new wind blowing across Africa,” says lawyer Bourdon, pointing to landmark trials against former Chadian dictator Hissene Habre and the son of Senegal’s former president Abdoulaye Wade as cases in point.
“But there’s also resistance,” he added, describing African leaders reluctant to leave power, partly for fear they will be held accountable for their crimes, even as others adopt increasingly sophisticated tactics. “That’s the paradox of judicial advances.”