Dirk Hartford: Zupta’s plundering pal Obiang, “worst of worst” in Africa

All of us are judged by the company we keep. And by that measure, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma is scraping the bottom of the barrel. In last week’s Sunday Times, trade unionist Zwelinzima Vavi opened a window into what happens during Zuma’s “state visits” – explaining how he accompanied then President-in-waiting on an official visit to Equatorial Guinea. With Rajesh Gupta and Zuma’s son Duduzane in tow, Vavi complained that their presence made the trip an exercise in futility. He never got a word in about plans for the future because the Zuptas were too busy striking business deals with their host, the world’s longest serving President, Teodoro Obiang. In this insightful contribution, former ANC activist, journalist and trade unionist Dirk Hartford takes the story further – unpacking how Obiang accumulated massive wealth by plundering his country’s resources, and musing why Africa’s “worst of the worst” has become such a close pal of the Zuptas. – Alec Hogg

By Dirk Hartford*

So Zuma went in someone’s private jet to Equatorial Guinea well before he was President where he had several days of discussions with President Teodoro Obiang. On the last day Rajesh Gupta and Duduzane Zuma joined the meeting.

Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang
Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang

The smokescreen for the meetings was Independence Day celebrations (Zuma stayed at the Presidential palace) and side discussions on the Alliance with Zwelinzima Vavi and Blade Nzimande (which never happened over the four days they were there), according to Vavi.

In a world where most politicians’ mission statement is “Its my turn to eat”, there are plenty of politicians in power who could have advised Zuma on how best to eat. But few have Obiang’s longevity and venality. Obiang has a good story to tell and Zuma must have liked it for he has been back over and over since then to visit his “dear brother and friend”.

So what is Obiang’s story?

He seized power of Equatorial Guinea in a bloody coup in 1979 and is now the world’s third longest serving dictator. Equatorial Guinea is a third bigger than Gauteng with a population smaller than Soweto. This pimple on the face of Spanish colonialism, a tiny coastal enclave in central Africa, went “independent” in 1968 and Obiang seized power eleven years later.

Read also: Vavi on SA: ‘A kleptocracy led by thieves’ – corruption cost R700bn in 20yrs

The country was dirt poor and its people among the most wretched on earth. But after the discovery of oil in the nineties it soon became the richest country per capita in Africa. But only the Obiang family and its cheerleaders have benefitted. The people remain in abject poverty under his 37 year old dictatorship which is routinely described as among the “worst of the worst” dictatorships on earth.

Obiang’s regime easily features among the top on earth when it comes to human rights abuses, unfree media and economic inequality. Human and sex trafficking, as well as forced labour for women and children are among its other stand out achievements. Meanwhile the majority survive on less then a dollar a day, 20% of children die before the age of 5 and half the people don’t have access to clean drinking water.

Prior to Zuma there had been minimal contact between SA and Equatorial Guinea but now ties are close and visits frequent.

It is unclear what it is that makes Equatorial Guinea so important to SA interests, compared to other African countries that Zuma has visited so much. The depravity, greed and proven corruption of the Obiang family is well known. A huge amount of detailed information is public in judgements against them through courts in France and the USA and in depth reports of major established international human rights organisations.

The key players in the Obiang family story are President Obiang and his 47 year old son Teodorin, who is now vice-president of the country. Famous for his love of fine things in life, Teodorin spent hundreds of millions of oil dollars stolen from the Equatorial Guinea people in an extended shopping spree twelve years ago in at least France, the USA and South Africa.

Read also: African examples encourage Zuma’s 3rd term ambitions; but he should be wary

He lived in South Africa for about six months in 2004 during which time he bought a R23.5 million bungalow above Clifton’s 4th beach and a R35 million mansion at 35 Klaasens Road in Constantia and at least 3 super luxury cars. Although the properties were neglected since he left and he never paid rates on them, he is still the legal owner of both. The properties, now worth over R75 million, were legally attached last year to cover the civil suit of SA businessman Janse van Rensburg who fell out with Obiang in a business deal.

A court in France ordered the seizure of the family’s six-storey mansion on the Avenue Foch in Paris, and several luxury cars, after charging him with money laundering and embezzlement in March 2014. Possessions including famous paintings, a $4.2m clock and wines worth thousands of dollars a bottle were also confiscated.

US authorities also pursued him for more than $300m stolen through embezzlement, extortion, and money laundering, while earning a government salary of less than $100 000 a year, and forced him to hand back assets of $30m including a Malibu villa, a Ferrari and Michael Jackson memorabilia.

These are just the tip of the iceberg of the Obiang family story (see, for example, www.globalwitness.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/gw_obiang_low.pdf) but enough to get the big picture.

When Zuma, his son Duduzane and Rajesh Gupta met Obiang in the meeting Vavi refers too, Zuma had just been elected President of the ANC. One can only imagine what was discussed as Zuma was not yet in government.

Official business and ties between the two countries has subsequently involved the petrochemical, natural gas and arms industries especially, with SA companies like PetroSA, Denel and Glencore in the mix. But it’s unlikely that these issues were then on the agenda.

Given the Obiang family’s track record, and the key involvement of father and son, it’s far more likely that he would have conspired and shared with Zuma his three decades of experience of how to effectively loot a country for your own family’s benefit.

  • Dirk Hartford is working on social entrepreneurship projects with the NGO sector in the Overberg. In previous incarnations, he was the founding CEO of Gauteng radio station YFM, a journalist and a trade unionist. He was an activist in the ANC for 30 years but faded away from that a decade ago and is feeling much better now thank you.