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08/23/2013

From Equatorial Guinea, with cash

Teodoro
A California court has dismissed a raft of corruption-related charges lodged against "frustrated singer" and Equato-Guinean vice-president Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue who, nonetheless, is very, very rich. (Photo: Getty Images)

 

 

 

The score so far:

Teddy Bear: 1. United States justice department: 0.

Actually, “Teddy Bear” is not the man’s real name.

His real name is Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, and he is second vice-president of the miniscule but now oil-rich west African republic of Equatorial Guinea, the only Spanish-speaking country in Africa.

Now 42, Nguema Obiang probably owes his elevated official position to a most convenient circumstance. His father – Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mbasogo – is the president. He has ruled Equatorial Guinea since leading a 1979 coup in which he overthrew (and executed) his uncle, a murderous lunatic named Francisco Macias Nguema. Nguema Obiang, the elder, is now the longest-ruling leader in Africa, edging out Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe by a year.

But back to the present.

This week, a court in California threw out a series of corruption-related charges brought against Nguema Obiang, the younger, by the U.S. justice department, part of a long-running legal imbroglio that goes by the barely believable (but true) case name of “U.S. v. one white crystal-covered 'Bad Tour' glove and other Michael Jackson memorabilia.”

The court ruled that the U.S. government failed to prove the defendant had broken his country’s laws in acquiring the roughly $315 million he apparently spent on luxury goods in the United States between 2004 and 2011.

Those goods are reported to include a $30 million beachfront home in Malibu, a $38.5 million Gulfstream G-V jet, a Bentley Azure, and a Lamborghini Murcielago, not to mention an array of Michael Jackson memorabilia valued at almost $2 million.

Nguema Obiang was magnanimous in victory

“Personally, and on behalf of my country, I’m still confident that this misunderstanding with the United States can be resolved,” he said in a prepared statement. “I understand that there can be disagreements between friends.”

Once described by Paris Match magazine as a “frustrated singer,” Nguema Obiang spent several years pursuing a career in pop music in the United States. He set up a recording company called TNO Entertainment – after his initials – and even produced a hip-hop album of his own, performing as “Teddy Bear.” That was before he went into politics.

Nguema Obiang, who still faces one or two outstanding charges in the United States, has also run into legal difficulties in France.

A year ago, French authorities seized his five-story, 101-room home on Paris’s exclusive Avenue Foch, impounding a collection of 11 luxury cars, including two Bugatti Veyrons, a Maybach, an Aston Martin, and a Maserati MC12, as well as a wine collection valued at $2 million. Oh, yes, all that and a $3.7 million clock.

The vice-president’s French lawyer argued at the time that his client had done no wrong.

“He earned money in accordance with the laws of Equatorial Guinea, even if those don’t comply with international standards,” said Emmanuel Marsigny.

Deftly put, monsieur.

With a population of about 720,000 – most of whom live on an island called Bioko, located off the coast of Cameroon – Equatorial Guinea used to be a very poor country. But offshore oil was discovered in the 1990s, and now Equatorial Guinea is an extremely rich country, with a per capita income much higher than that of Canada or the United States. Still, almost everyone is impoverished, except those who are close to the president, mostly fellow members of the unfortunately named Fang tribe.

I went there once, in 1988, and interviewed Teddy Bear’s father, the president, who spoke perfect Spanish and equally perfect French. He told me his country was not yet “mature” enough for democracy. That was 25 years ago. You’d think things would have changed by now, but apparently not.

Oakland Ross is a foreign affairs reporter for the Toronto Star. He spent several years as a correspondent in Africa in the 1980s.

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