Today a French court handed Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, the vice-president of Equatorial Guinea and son of the president, a suspended three-year prison sentence, a €30 million (US$35 million) fine and confiscated all of his French-held assets.
Obiang was found guilty of embezzlement: abusing his position as agriculture and forestry minister to siphon public money for his own use. He used the stolen money to buy, among other things, a 20-room apartment worth an estimated €80 million (US$91 million) in Paris, and a garage full of luxury cars.
He has been called the ‘Playboy of Instagram’ for documenting his lavish lifestyle on social media while three quarters of the population in the country his family rules live in poverty.
This is not the first time Obiang has been indicted. In 2014, he reached a settlement in the US on separate corruption charges. That time, he was forced to sell a multi-million dollar mansion in Malibu, California and donate US$30 million to a charity to help people in Equatorial Guinea.
This trial in France came after a decade-long fight by Transparency International and Sherpa to win the right for civil society to present evidence. It required a change to French law and a crowdfunding campaign to bring witnesses to France and ensure the case was heard.
We are now pushing for changes to the French legal system so that the assets recovered in this and other pending cases where powerful politicians have allegedly stolen from state coffers go back to their rightful owners: the people in the countries from which the assets were stolen .
Before the verdict was announced we interviewed Delfin Mocache Massoko, a key witness in the case, to find out what the trial means to him. Massoko is founder of Diario Rombe, a digital newspaper that publishes news and ideas that do not appear in the state-controlled media of the Republic of Equatorial Guinea. He left the country in 2013.
TI: Why is this trial important for you personally?
Delfin Mocache Massoko (DMM): This is the trial of one of the most corrupt, violent and harmful people in our country and the world, that is why, for me and for those who work for the liberation of Equatorial Guinea, this trial is historic. We have seen how other African nations have restored democracy in their countries. These examples give us hope and feed our determination to achieve the same for our own people.
The rule of law has been missing for decades in Equatorial Guinea, so the fact that this has come to trial in Paris is also significant because it shows firstly that the rule of law does exist, and provides a platform, that we do not have, to hold the corrupt to account. This trial vindicates the people of Equatorial Guinea because it acknowledges us as citizens with rights and duties, rather than as resources to be abused and exploited by the Obiang regime.
TI: Do you think the people in Equatorial Guinea are aware of this case?
DMM: Of course they are aware – and there are huge expectations that this trial ends with a precedent-setting sentence against the child of one of the world’s longest serving dictators whose history of human rights violations has been denounced by numerous human rights reports.
Despite the regime’s restrictions, the international press and the domestic media in Equatorial Guinea that is not owned by the Obiangs have reported extensively on the trial since the beginning. So Guineans know the facts. They know that for decades the supposed successor to Obiang has enriched himself with the people’s money – and they know what he has spent that money on. Whatever the outcome of the trial, finally it seems to the citizens of Equatorial Guinea that sooner or later the Obiang family will lose everything that they have acquired through deception, force and corruption.
TI: What do you expect to change in your country as a result of this trial?
DMM: Establishing equality between citizens has been a major challenge in Equatorial Guinea. Society is strongly hierarchical, and it feels as though the sole aim is to climb to the top and steal from the country. What I hope for, and what I think many other Guineans hope for, is a move towards justice and equality – but this won’t happen as long as the Obiang family are in power.
We have been able to judge Theodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, but we must now also show the international community the links between other members of the Obiang family and numerous illicit activities. These have been investigated by international organisations and researchers, including my team and myself in the years that we have worked at the Diario Rombe.
TI: How do you think corruption affects the lives of citizens of Equatorial Guinea?
DMM: I am not afraid to state with complete certainty that the main function of the government for many years has been to unlawfully profit from the resources of the state without sharing any of those benefits with citizens – citizens who are living hand to mouth on the poverty line. Just as in any country, corruption has a negative impact on citizens’ shopping baskets, leads to a deeply unequal distribution of resources and creates more poverty – all of which has made Equatorial Guinea ungovernable.
TI: What do you think needs to change in your country to root out corruption?
DMM: In my opinion, the only way to eradicate corruption is to expel all members of the regime from power and confiscate their property, because otherwise it is impossible.
TI: What are your plans for the future?
DMM: I will continue working with the rest of my colleagues in Equatorial Guinea to raise awareness of the important role played by the media in dictatorships. One of the projects we have in mind is to launch an online radio station that all Guineans can identify with and where we can create healthy debate. At the moment we are also working on creating an organisation that, in the not-too-distant future, will fight to recover assets acquired by members of Obiang's government and family abroad. There is too much hidden wealth outside of Equatorial Guinea which must be returned to its rightful owner: the people.
TI: Can you return to Equatorial Guinea and if not why?
DMM: In the more than four years that I have carried forward the Diario Rombe, I have faced death threats and constant intrusions into my life: both to the website of my project, and my home, which was broken into to implant a device to divert my communications. In fact, even in my own web browser I have received threatening messages.
For the safety of many people it would not be wise for me to return to Equatorial Guinea. I may not be as lucky as many other activists who have decided to end the fight and return to Equatorial Guinea. Those who criticise President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo most fiercely risk falling into his hands, and he neither forgives nor forgets.
At the trial, the attorneys of Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue asked me over and over again, in the presence of the judge, to identify my informants in Guinea. And that is the objective of the regime: to extract all possible information from me at any price.
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