Axe falls on Africa’s big spending despots

By Stef Terblanche, BBQ — Neither popular uprisings nor the increased spreading of democracy’s sweet appeal across Africa have managed to completely rid the continent of all its ‘Big Man’ rulers – the bully autocrats and dictators who rule with iron fists while looting and plundering their way to fabulous wealth. But at last it seems they may be hit where it hurts most: in their pockets.

The popular rebellions of the Arab Spring spurred a new interest in the affairs of these thieving rulers. As the despots fell one after the other, astounding details emerged of the incredible stolen wealth amassed by the likes of Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia.

But, in Sub-Saharan Africa many of these ‘Big Men’ of Africa continue to live in fabulous ill-begotten wealth; untouchable by any instruments of democracy or their own corrupt police.

Palaces and bank accounts are spread outside their own countries as insurance for the often inevitable future exile. Their grossly inflated egos demand that they ensconce themselves behind walls of absurd security while their populaces are kept in line by brutal secret police, self-serving armies and thuggish militias.

Just think of Zimbabwe’s octogenarian ruler Robert Mugabe, the father-and-son presidents of Gabon, Omar and Ali Bongo, Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea, Denis Sassou-Nguesso of Congo-Brazzaville, King Mswati III of Swaziland, or Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan to name but a few.

Feathered nests

Many of these tyrants have feathered their nests in Europe and elsewhere with impunity except when they fell out of favour with their hosts – think Libya.

In this way, Equatorial Guinea’s Obiang, who ousted his uncle, Francisco Macías Nguema, in a bloody coup in 1979 – becoming Africa’s longest serving ruler – has plundered the coffers of one of Africa’s wealthiest oil economies.

At Number 42 on Paris’ expensive and fashionable Avenue Foch, writes Angelique Chrisafis, correspondent of The Guardian, Obiang owns a 5-storey mansion with its own hair salon, disco, spa room, gold and jewel encrusted taps, and fabulous views of the Arc de Triomphe, that symbol of everything Obian is not.

Here, his 41-year old playboy son, Teodorin, until recently drank some of the most expensive French wines, received the city’s top couturiers to cut his cloth, watched movies from his collection of over 15,000 DVDs, and stabled his fleet of Ferraris, Maseratis and Porches.

Recently Forbes Magazine named Obiang Africa’s worst ruler. Journalist Mfonobong Nsehe, says most Equatorial Guineans do not have access to clean drinking water, while about 20% of its children die before the age of five.

Meanwhile Bongo junior and close relatives in France own 39 properties, at least nine luxury cars, and operate 70 bank accounts, states one French police report.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, had nothing good to say about Gaddafi’s ill-begotten wealth – despite his people benefitting more than the subjects of most other despots.

But, Sarkozy recently keenly received and posed for photos with another big-spending African despot: Sassou-Nguesso of Congo-Brazzaville. In their new book, The Scandal of the Ill-gotten Gains, investigative journalists Thomas Hofnung and Xavier Harel say Sassou-Nguesso spent €652,000 on clothes in 12 months at just one Paris tailor, members of his clan owned 24 properties in France, held 112 bank accounts and a string of expensive sports cars, this while 70% of his fellow countrymen live on less than one dollar (R8) a day.

Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, has amassed a fortune at home and abroad. This week he will be celebrating his 88th birthday at a cost of $1-million while most Zimbabweans go to bed hungry. Despite travel restrictions imposed on them in many countries, he and his wife – commonly known as “Gucci Grace,” frequently manage lavish shopping sprees abroad.

Africa’s second-longest serving president, Angola’s José Eduardo dos Santos, is often accused of running his government as if it is his personal investment holding company. It is said there is nothing of value in Angola that is not directly or indirectly owned by the Dos Santos family.

Serving with him in the “family business” as vice president is cousin Fernando da Piedade Dias dos Santos, while the president’s daughter Isabel Dos Santos is said to be the wealthiest woman in the country.

The majority of Angolans lives in abject poverty and are denied almost every single basic socio-economic right people in developed nations take for granted.

Many governments like that of Sarkozy’s are still loath to act against their cash-flush African cronies. Chrisafis’ article points out that allegedly African leaders regularly give briefcases of cash to French politicians. Allegations are rife of French collusion in corruption in its former colonies under the cosy system known as “francafrique,” in which kickbacks, petrodollars and privileged relations feature strongly.

Tide changing?

But perhaps, what the Arab Spring exposed has finally touched a moral nerve or two regarding the rest of Africa’s big-spending ‘Big Men’. Hofnung and Harel’s revelations have scandalized Francem and triggered a landmark investigation led by anti-corruption NGOs, investigators and prosecutors into the ill-gotten gains of several African despots in France. The axe may soon fall on them.

The on-going enquiry in France into the origins of the Obiang, Bongo and Sassou-Nguesso clans’ fortunes led to a police raid on the Obiang properties and the seizure of possessions. More raids are to follow. Silence has settled on the Obiang house on Avenue Foche.

French police say jointly the Obiang, Bongo and Sassou-Nguesso clans have assets worth €160-million in France.

In reference the Arab Spring’s fallen despots, Chrisafis quotes Maud Perdriel-Vaissiere, head of one of the NGOs leading the French case, as saying: “We’re warning against double standards: Why should you have to wait for a leader to fall to put a stop to corruption?”

And, it is happening elsewhere as well. In the US a government-initiated court action is seeking to seize $71-million of corruptly-gained assets from Obiang Jr. In Spain an enquiry into the Obiangs’ assets is also under way with investigations and actions in the pipeline in other countries.

With a lot of hard work, perseverance and some luck we may yet soon see the last of Africa’s ‘Big Men’ spending their ill-gotten gains abroad while their subjects suffer in the worst conditions of poverty imaginable.


Date: Tuesday, 21 February 2012
Source: Black Business Quarterly: www.bbqonline.co.za/articles/politics/international/501-out-of-africa

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