Fast cars and Fabergé eggs: Why we must put the brakes on corruption

Joseph Kraus and Meredith Varela of EG Justice, an organization that focuses on improving human rights and good governance in Equatorial Guinea, highlight the need for greater transparency to end corruption.

Contrast2
 

A typical Equatoguinean neighborhood, contrasted with the trappings of the Obiang family’s opulent lifestyle. Photo credit: EG Justice and Wikimedia Commons.
An unusual scene unfolded on Valentine’s Day in Paris this year: French police raided a residence belonging to the family of President Obiang of Equatorial Guinea. The raid occurred as part of an ongoing French corruption investigation into three African heads of state, including President Obiang. What the police discovered highlights the desperate need for strong transparency rules that help citizens of resource-rich countries hold their governments accountable for how their money gets spent.

The raid highlighted that, while most Equatoguineans continue to live without access to basic needs like quality education, health care, electricity and running water, their government has been spending enormous amounts of money to opulently furnish an apartment building in an upscale Parisian neighborhood that affords balcony views of the Arc de Triomphe.

According to several media reports, the police discovered that the six story, 101-room apartment building was filled with luxury items, including collectible art and furniture potentially valued at $40 million Euros. Investigators involved in the raid stated that “[w]hat we have discovered defies comprehension,” claiming to have never “seen such an accumulation of luxury.” Among the thousands of objects reportedly uncovered, police found a King Louis XIV desk valued at approximately 1.6 million Euros, a signed Rodin statue, and numerous Fabergé eggs. Police also seized antiques and art pieces from the collection of late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent-Pierre Bergé, which President Obiang’s eldest son Teodoro Nguema (“Teodorin”) purchased for 18 million Euros at an auction in 2009.

Disturbingly, widespread corruption and misguided spending siphons off the country’s natural resource wealth, thereby curtailing development. The country is the third largest producer of oil in sub-Saharan Africa, and its per-capita GDP is on par with Spain and Italy. Yet nearly one out of eight children dies before the age of five, and the country ranks 136 out of 187 countries in the Human Development Index. Despite these poor indicators, government spending on health and education remains below the regional average in sub-Saharan Africa.

The French raid is only the latest in a recent string of investigations into corruption and money laundering by high-ranking members of the government of Equatorial Guinea. Members of President Obiang’s family or his close political associates are the subjects of corruption investigations in France, Spain, and the United States. In September, French authorities seized 11 high end sports cars belonging to Teodorín Nguema from the same residence they raided last week. In October 2011, the US Department of Justice moved to seize more than $70 million worth of US goods allegedly purchased with corrupt money, including a Michael Jackson “Bad Tour” glove.

The Equatoguinean government has claimed that the Paris residence was purchased by the state for the use of the country’s representative to UNESCO, and therefore is protected by diplomatic immunity. It is unclear why such a large and well-appointed building was necessary to house one diplomat. This also raises concerns that the government may be using UNESCO’s name, and the immunity it affords, to protect members of the ruling family from the ongoing French corruption investigation.

ONE blog readers may recall taking action to oppose President Obiang‘s effort to force UNESCO to establish the UNESCO Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences, which he financed with $3 million. In October 2010, UNESCO reversed course and suspended the prize following an unprecedented global outcry from scientists, public health officials, civil society groups, Cano World Press Freedom Prize laureates, and Nobel Laureates, including Wole Soyinka, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Mario Vargas Llosa.

One year later, President Obiang attempted to resurrect the prize. Thanks to the quick action of activists, including ONE members, we defeated this plan -– temporarily. UNESCO compromised by continuing the suspension of the prize until its next board meeting, which runs from February 27 to March 10.

On November 7, President Obiang proposed removing his name from the prize and renaming it the “Equatorial Guinea-UNESCO Prize for Life Sciences.” Given the high levels of corruption in the Equatoguinean government, the name change — if accepted by UNESCO — wouldn’t solve the prize’s fundamental problem: the questionable source of the $3 million donated by President Obiang to establish the prize.

ONE Blog readers can once again take action to right the wrongs of corrupt leaders. It takes just seconds to sign ONE’s petition in support of pro-transparency rules that will help end secrecy and corruption in resource-rich countries. You can also send a letter to UNESCO delegates urging them to abolish President Obiang’s prize and refuse his tainted money. Together, we can take a stand against corruption and reckless spending, and press leaders to put their countries’ money where it belongs.