Saturday, November 11, 2006

Welcome to the Neighborhood

Melissa Giaimo, the Pepperdine student and Graphic reporter who wrote the story on Ken Starr and Blackwater that I linked to here, has made me aware of another story close to home that has international law ramifications. According to Global Witness, Teodoro Nguema Obiang, Equatorial Guinea's minister of agriculture and forestry and the son of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, purchased an estate in Malibu last February for a reported $35 million. "Little Teodoro," whose official salary is approximately $60,000 per year, is said to have purchased the property through a corporation he controls called Sweetwater Malibu, LLC. I'm not certain at this point, but based on the description of the estate in this Guardian story, I think the property in question might be the one pictured here.

Why should residents of Malibu--and Americans everywhere--care about this real estate transaction? First, the money involved is, beyond doubt, tainted by the Obiang regime's corrupt practices. According to a recent ranking by Transparency International, Equatorial Guinea is one of the most corrupt states in the world. Although Equatorial Guinea is the third-largest oil producing state in Africa and, consequently, has a GDP per capita of $20,510 (30th in the world), it ranks 120th on the UN's Human Development Index. Life expectancy at birth is 42.8 years, which ranks 167th in the world.

Equatorial Guinea also has one of the worst human rights records in the world. The State Department's most recent human rights report (issued on March 8, 2006), with understatement reserved for important oil-producing states, said, "The 2002 presidential election was marred by extensive fraud and intimidation. The international community widely criticized the 2004 parliamentary elections as seriously flawed." The report goes on to note that torture, arbitrary arrests, trafficking in persons, and forced labor (among many other abuses) were reported in Equatorial Guinea in 2005.

In August, President Bush announced a National Strategy to Internationalize Efforts against Kleptocracy. This strategy commits the United States to efforts to fight against kleptocracy through the development of means to compel the forfeiture of assets associated with corrupt practices.

This would be a good time to test the President's commitment to combat the corruption of foreign rulers. It may be, however, that Equatorial Guinea's importance as an oil producer, its ties to ExxonMobil, Amerada Hess, Marathon, and other American oil companies, and its intensive lobbying efforts in the United States may dissuade the Bush Administration from even trying to act against the Obiang regime and its Malibu real estate holdings.

Maybe we can't expect the Bush Administration to act contrary to the interests of ExxonMobil, but would it be too much to ask local realtors to ask a few questions before dealing with dictators?