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Do Oily Kleptocrats Slip Away?

President Barack Obama and the First Lady at the Metropolitan Museum in New York with Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasog in September 2009. White House Photo by Lawrence JacksonKen Silverstein asks in Foreign Policy why the kleptocratic regime of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea has escaped U.S. sanctions.

The article traces a four-year “meandering investigation” by the DOJ and Immigration and Customs Enforcement into Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, son of Equatorial Guinea’s permanent president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who’s been in office since 1979.

“Teddy,” as the son is called, is suspected of corruption and money laundering. According to Silverstein, the son is enormously wealthy “despite earning an official salary as Equatorial Guinea’s minister of agriculture and forestry of only about $5,000 per month.”

Silverstein doesn’t mention it, but the U.S.’s handling of Equatorial Guinea contrasts with decisions about Ivory Coast. Beginning in December last year, the Obama administration imposed financial and travel sanctions on President Laurent Gbagbo. Until his arrest this week, he had refused to leave office in favor of the apparent winner of last year’s election, Alassane Ouattara. 

Why hasn’t the U.S. sanctioned Teddy and his family? Silverstein doesn’t know. But he asks whether the “hapless” federal investigation is bogged down because of political interference from the White House, under both the Bush and Obama administrations, perhaps to protect America’s “friendly relations with an American oil partner?”

Crude oil production in Ivory Coast is less than 60,000 barrels per day. Production from Equatorial Guinea is between 300,000 and 350,000 bpd.

Equatorial Guinea ranks 168 on the Corruption Perception Index, tied with Angola. Freedom House said the country’s “abundant oil revenues do not reach the majority of its citizens; according to the watchdog group Global Witness, 60 percent of the population lives on less than $1 a day.”

Silverstein, an editor and writer at Harper’s, has covered Teddy and his family before.The U.S. government knows about the family’s “apparently ill-gotten gains,” he said, “but hasn’t taken any action. A Senate report, Silverstein said, alleged that Teddy had laundered more than $100 million into the United States. The money was allegedly used “to buy a $30 million estate in Malibu, California, a $38 million private plane, and a fleet of luxury sports cars. Global Witness, the London-based anti-corruption group, recently reported that Teodorin had commissioned plans for a custom-built $380 million superyacht.”

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A final note.

Silverstein was apparently the first American journalist to write about Presidential Proclamation 7750 after the FCPA Blog first mentioned it in a post in March 2009. In his current story in Foreign Policy he revisted the topic:

Legal experts contend that Teodorin shouldn’t have been allowed to enter the United States since 2004, when President George W. Bush issued Proclamation 7750, which bars corrupt foreign officials from receiving U.S. visas. President Barack Obama reaffirmed this message, pledging to “vigorously” enforce the proclamation and saying, “We have a responsibility to support those who act responsibly and to isolate those who don’t.” Meanwhile, as the investigation plods along, a source has informed me that Teodorin has arranged to ship his luxury cars and other assets out of the country.

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Ken Silverstein’s article, “How Many Investigators Does It Take to Catch a Kleptocrat?,” from the April 7 online edition Foreign Policy, is here.

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