Throughout the twentieth century and well into the twenty-first, kleptocrats around the world have managed to successfully plunder their countries’ coffers to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, if not more, hoarding piles of cash for themselves even as their fellow citizens struggled to survive. According to estimates by Transparency International, the most successful among them—people like Indonesia’s Suharto, the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos, the Nigeria’s Sani Abacha—managed to accumulate loot totaling in the billions of dollars.
Until recently, Western response to such brazen theft has left much to be desired. Despite welcome initiatives like the U.S. Department of Justice’s Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative (which launched in 2010), little measurable progress has been made in combating this scourge. One World Bank study found that only $5 billion has been recovered from kleptocrats since the turn of the century, while it estimated that some $40 billion continues to be stolen annually.
Part of the enormity of the task has to do with the difficulties in dismantling a convoluted dual-use infrastructure that has sprung up to service these international thieves, allowing them both to launder and squirrel away their ill-gotten gains abroad. Unscrupulous bankers, real estate agents, and lawyers, all with clients who they at least suspect have blood on their hands, have set up a formidable set of legal roadblocks to anyone pursuing cases of “grand corruption”. For example, the U.S. remains one of the most prominent jurisdictions without any registry identifying the beneficial owners of the shell companies set up in states like Nevada, Wyoming, or Delaware. In the UK, the situation is just as grim.
With this as background, it’s worth keeping an eye on a trial now winding down in a court in Paris. While the confluence of circumstances behind the trial remain unique, a forthcoming ruling has the potential to set a remarkable precedent—both as it pertains to a Western response to kleptocracy, and also as a means for combating the massive looting machines still fully operational in places ranging from Azerbaijan to Astana, and from the Kremlin to Kinshasa.
Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, the Vice President of Equatorial Guinea and the son of the country’s obscenely long-serving President, is alleged to have stolen on a massive scale, with his purportedly pilfered loot running into nine figures, and with Obiang spending the money on an eye-poppingly lavish assortment of assets, listed in painstaking detail in the lawsuits filed against him. Obiang, who once dated rapper Eve, appears to have cultivated the lifestyle of a celebrity high-roller. He owned a Malibu mansion nestled between properties belonging to Mel Gibson and Britney Spears, and cultivated close links to members of Michael Jackson’s family. At one point, he owned half a dozen statues of Michael Jackson himself, and apparently still owns Jackson’s crystal-studded glove. He also adhered to the more traditional trappings of kleptocracy: he owns a private jet, a multi-million dollar wine collection, and, reportedly, a massive yacht featuring a shark tank built in.
The Malibu mansion and the MJ statues were impounded in 2014, when Obiang reached a settlement with the U.S.’s Department of Justice, but the case didn’t go any further. The current French case, brought at the behest of two NGOs (Sherpa and Transparency International) is breaking ground by not only seeking a $34 million fine and the forfeiture of all of Obiang’s assets located in France, but also in seeking a prison sentence—a first for a sitting politician accused of such crimes.
Obiang and his father have overseen the wholesale implosion of Equatorial Guinea’s economy. Obiang’s father has been President since 1979, and meaningful opposition has never existed in the country. The President effectively rules by decree—state radio has already referred to him as a god—and Obiang won the most recent election with 94 percent of the vote. The family’s brazen kleptocracy shines through in basic statistics. The tiny country, one of the larger oil-producers in Africa, maintains the highest GDP per capita in the region. It also has one of the lowest life expectancies globally, with most of its population subsisting on less than a dollar a day.
The verdict is not expected until late October, but the precedent French prosecutors have pursued in this biens mal acquis case has almost certainly rattled kleptocrats elsewhere. The case has already sparked talk of a counter-suit from Obiang’s father, as well as leaders in Gabon and Congo-Brazzaville, against Transparency International, with Obiang’s father claiming that the hundreds of millions of dollars tied to his son were all earned legally. Obiang himself has avoided traveling to Paris during the trial, and there’s little reason to think he’ll ever return to France if found guilty.
Regardless of the trial’s outcome, expect more of these kinds of cases in the future—especially as diaspora communities, like the ones that helped bring the suit against Obiang, realize the type of cudgel Western courts can suddenly wield. The U.S.’s Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative continues expanding the scope of its seizures elsewhere, and anti-corruption coordination between countries is improving by leaps and bounds. While asset recovery is but one tool in combating the types of figures Obiang and his ilk cut, kleptocrats are no longer facing the prospect of simply losing their Maseratis, their mansions, or their Michael Jackson memorabilia. Now, for the first time, the prospect of a prison term awaits.