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France tightens noose on infamous African playboy

Text by Sophie PILGRIM

Latest update : 2012-07-13

French magistrates issued a Europe-wide arrest warrant Friday for one of Africa’s most notorious spenders, the car-crazy, Michael Jackson-obsessed and allegedly corrupt son of Equatorial Guinean President Teodoro Nguema Obiang.

A flashy in-house nightclub, a fleet of luxury cars and a five-floor private mansion equipped with a spa, gym and hair salon. For the playboy son of Equatorial Guinea’s autocratic leader, his Paris set-up was just another part of his extravagant existence, spent between the French capital, Malibu in California and Malabo in his own impoverished land.

But on Friday, French prosecutors issued Mr Teodoro “Teodorin” Nguema Obiang (pictured) with a Europe-wide arrest warrant. Accused of squandering his country’s wealth on private jets, gold-plated taps and a rapacious obsession with Michael Jackson memorabilia, 41-year-old Teodorin is finding his worldwide playground growing smaller.

TEODORIN'S PARIS HOME

The warrant was issued after Teodorin refused to meet France’s financial fraud squad, claiming immunity as Equatorial Guinea’s second vice-president and a UNESCO mission chief. Teodorin’s lawyer, Emmanuel Marsigny, described the warrant as “null and void”. But the NGOs which brought the charges say that the legal argument does not hold up.

“If [Teodorin] Obiang had turned up to the questioning on Wednesday, then his immunity as vice-president would protect him from arrest,” explained Rachel Leenhardt of the Sherpa law association, which along with anti-corruption campaign Transparency International (TI), has fought a five-year campaign against Teodorin on behalf of the people of Equatorial Guinea – most of whom survive on under €1.60 a day. Failing to meet his legal obligation, Teodorin now faces arrest on arrival in any European Union country.

‘Ill-gotten riches’

The move is the latest step in a cross-Atlantic effort to tighten the noose on Teodorin. In October of last year the US authorities sought to seize $70m of his assets, including a Gulfstream jet, a Malibu mansion and nearly $2m (€1.6m) worth of Michael Jackson memorabilia. In a statement following the ruling, US Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said: “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.”

Three months later, French authorities impounded 11 of Teodorin’s luxury cars from his five-floor Paris mansion in the uber-wealthy 8th arrondissement, where he enjoyed a view of the Arc du Triomphe. The fleet, worth around €5m, included Maseratis, Ferraris and Rolls Royces.

TEODORIN'S IMPOUNDED PARIS FLEET

In response, Teodorin’s father (also called Teodoro Nguema Obiang), appointed his son to Equatorial Guinea's diplomatic mission to UNESCO, thereby granting him diplomatic immunity. Teodorin is widely expected to succeed his father, who has ruled the oil-rich central African state with an iron grip since he led a bloody coup against his uncle in 1979. Despite rich oil and gas resources, the Guinean people remain one of Africa’s most needy. Only half the country has access to clean drinking water and one in five children die before reaching their fifth birthday, according to the UN poverty index.

‘French authorities reluctant to help’

Leenahardt, whose Sherpa organisation applauded the French prosecutors’ decision to issue the arrest warrant Friday, told FRANCE 24 that gaining the support of the authorities had been a five-year battle, beleaguered by political obstacles. “They cited unsound evidence, but in reality, it was because of political implications. French bankers, lawyers, magistrates and politicians are still heavily invested in the [French-African trade] ‘françafrique’ structure, which is not compatible with justice.”

Leenhardt said that while an investigation was eventually launched in 2010, then French president Nicolas Sarkozy (who lost his seat to socialist François Hollande in May this year), was particularly reluctant to support the probe. “The Sarkozy administration made no efforts whatsoever to push this thing forward,” Leenhardt said. The inquiry is also looking into the finances of Republic of Congo’s Denis Sassou Nguesso and Omar Bongo, the late president of Gabon, whose son, Ali Bongo, now rules the country. They too are accused by NGOs of suspected corruption and money laundering.

In what might be considered a gloomy sign of things to come, François Hollande welcomed Gabonese President Ali Bongo to the Elysée Palace last week.

As for Teodorin, his whereabouts are unknown, but he is believed to be outside of France. He is supposed to return to Paris for a UNESCO prize-giving ceremony on Tuesday.

Date created : 2012-07-13

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