Friday, November 18, 2011

Equatorial Guinea on the Big Screen?

Various sources are reporting that Ridley Scott is planning a film based on Simon Mann's 2004 effort to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea, a plot that Adam Roberts described in a book called The Wonga Coup.  Gerard Butler will play Mann in the film.

Much remains unclear about the coup attempt that ended with Mann's arrest--without a fight that Scott would be able to embellish with spectacular pyrotechnics--in Zimbabwe.  The drama for those who know about the episode (all four of us?) will lie in seeing (1) how far Scott takes dramatic license to turn a failed coup attempt into something worthy of his directing talents and (2) who Scott (and his screenwriter, Robert Edwards) decide to blame for it.  Was it simply a big money-making proposition--with Margaret Thatcher's son, Mark Thatcher, as the primary investor?  Were American and British intelligence services involved?  The word is that Simon Mann's forthcoming book, Cry Havoc, will not provide the answers to these questions.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Is America Over?

This is the question that dominates the cover of the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs.

Foreign Affairs is an Establishment publication.  It is, in fact, the flagship publication of the Council on Foreign Relations, an Establishment establishment.  It doesn't engage in demagoguery.  And, in the November/December issue, it doesn't offer much reassurance in response to the big question on the cover.

The key article related to the big question is George Packer's essay entitled "The Broken Contract:  Inequality and American Decline."  It is not, strictly speaking, about foreign policy, although the implications of its thesis for foreign policy are very clear.  That it appears in Foreign Affairs should be reason enough to take notice of the argument.

Packer argues that the the unwritten social contract that for decades ensured Americans would work together in common cause to solve the great collective problems of society has been broken by the rise of "organized money" in the nation's political system.  This, in part, was an unintended consequence of reforms implemented in the 1970s that were designed to bring greater transparency and equality into the system.  But the rise of political action committees, independent expenditures in political campaigns, a form of lobbying that is tantamount to legalized bribery, and more is only part of the story.  Ultimately, Packer states, "inequality is the ill that underlies all the others."

For those who doubt that inequality is a problem in the United States, Packer cites these indicators:
Between 1979 and 2006, middle-class Americans saw their annual incomes after taxes increase by 21 percent (adjusted for inflation). The poorest Americans saw their incomes rise by only 11 percent. The top one percent, meanwhile, saw their incomes increase by 256 percent. This almost tripled their share of the national income, up to 23 percent,the highest level since 1928.
The entire article deserves to be read and discussed widely.  Here, however, we skip to Packer's conclusion and another big question:  What difference does inequality make?  Packer answers eloquently:
Inequality divides us from one another in schools, in neighborhoods, at work, on airplanes, in hospitals, in what we eat, in the condition of our bodies, in what we think, in our children’s futures, in how we die. Inequality makes it harder to imagine the lives of others—which is one reason why the fate of over 14 million more or less permanently unemployed Americans leaves so little impression in the country’s political and media capitals. Inequality corrodes trust among fellow citizens, making it seem as if the game is rigged. Inequality provokes a generalized anger that finds targets where it can—immigrants, foreign countries, American elites, government in all forms—and it rewards demagogues while discrediting reformers. Inequality saps the will to conceive of ambitious solutions to large collective problems, because those problems no longer seem very collective. Inequality undermines democracy.

Equatorial Guinea's Constitutional Referendum

The government of Equatorial Guinea is claiming that 99 percent of the electorate approved a package of constitutional reforms in a national referendum yesterday.  Opposition groups claim the vote was a sham.

The referendum will establish a two-term presidential limit, create the office of vice president, and remove the constitutional limit barring a president from serving beyond 75 years of age.  The current president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, has been in office since overthrowing Francisco Macias in a coup in 1979.  He is 69 and in the second year of a presidential term set to expire in 2016.  It is unclear whether the new term limit would prevent him from serving one or more terms beyond the current seven-year term.

Those who observe political developments in Equatorial Guinea generally believe the constitutional changes effected by this referendum are designed to make it easier for Obiang to ensure that his oldest son, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, will be able to succeed him as president.  The younger Obiang is expected to be named vice president soon.  This expectation has been bolstered by the fact that he has, in recent months, been named vice president of the ruling party, chair of the constitutional reform campaign, and ambassador to UNESCO.  He has also been hit with legal proceedings in France and the United States aimed at seizing assets that are the products of bribery and extortion, but such embarrassments seem to have little effect on politics inside Equatorial Guinea.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Oil and Water

A piece by Mark Landler in today's New York Times titled "A New Era of Gunboat Diplomacy" is well worth reading for those interested in the connection between oil and national security.  One-third of global oil production now occurs offshore and some of the hotspots for oil and natural gas exploration are in maritime regions where overlapping claims to jurisdiction have the potential to create problems:  the South China Sea, the Arctic Ocean, and the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

Offshore production presents a number of serious environmental risks--one only has to recall the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico--but there can be security benefits from confining production to offshore platforms.  Oil production in the Gulf of Guinea, for example, avoids the serious political and military threats that plague production onshore in Nigeria and Angola.  If, however, the regime governing maritime jurisdiction established by the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention is contested or there are serious sovereignty disputes involving islands (as in the South China Sea), then offshore oil exploration and production may generate new security concerns.  If there are resource wars in our future, they may begin at sea.

Viktor Bout: Friend or Foe?

On Wednesday, November 2, the notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout was convicted in a federal court in Manhattan on four counts of conspiracy in connection with the sale of weapons to Colombian rebels.  Bout, who once advised the Soviet military in Africa, bought weapons and a fleet of cargo planes from the former Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War and began trafficking arms to both governments and rebel forces in various conflicts around the world.  A British government report published in 2000 referred to him as "the Merchant of Death."  The movie Lord of War, which starred Nicholas Cage, was based on his exploits.

Here is the description of Bout in the second edition of Seeking Security in an Insecure World:
Bout is alleged to have sold over seven hundred surface-to-air missiles, military helicopters and airplanes, and thousands of guns to FARC, the Colombian paramilitary organization.  He has also sold weapons in Afghanistan and in various war zones in Africa.  At a Bangkok hotel in March 2008, Bout offered undercover agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency posing as FARC representatives a wide range of weapons, including land mines, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and C-4 explosives.  He was arrested at the conclusion of the meeting, which was taped, and, in August 2010, a Thai court ordered his extradition to stand trial in the United States.
In an op-ed published in the New York Times on Friday, Andrew Feinstein, author of The Shadow World:  Inside the Global Arms Trade (reviewed here by John Tirman), writes that in 2003 and 2004, Irbis Air--a company owned by Bout--flew supplies into Baghdad under contract to the U.S. Defense Department and KBR, a private contractor that was itself working for the U.S. Government.  Feinstein points out that "governments protect corrupt and dangerous arms dealers as long as they need them and then throw them behind bars when they are no longer useful."

Friday, November 11, 2011

Putting Kleptocrats on Notice

[The following was written for Opinio Juris and posted there yesterday.  I am cross-posting here with a few updated references and links.]

The other shoe has dropped in the U.S. Government’s corruption case against Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue. On October 25, a civil forfeiture complaint was unsealed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California as a second complaint was filed in the District of Columbia. The complaints, tantalizingly foreshadowed by the lis pendens filing on October 13 that Roger noted in a previous post, seek the forfeiture of over $70 million in assets owned by the profligate son and heir-apparent of Equatorial Guinea’s dictator, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.

These actions are part of the Justice Department’s Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative that was announced by Attorney General Holder at the African Union Summit on July 25, 2010. (In a move that angered human rights groups, the African Union selected President Obiang Nguema to chair the organization six months later.) Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer directs the group within the Criminal Division that is implementing the Initiative. The first complaint filed by Breuer’s group sought the seizure of over $1 million in assets (including a $600,000 home in Maryland) owned by Diepreye Solomon Peter Alamieyeseigha, former governor of the oil-rich Bayelsa State in Nigeria. DSP, as he was known to investigators, was impeached in 2005, but by that time he had laundered millions of dollars gained through oil-related corruption in the U.S., the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.

The assets to be seized in the Equatoguinean case are also the products of oil-related corruption. Like Nigeria, its neighbor to the north, Equatorial Guinea sits over the large oil reserves of the Gulf of Guinea. Unlike Nigeria and the other oil giant of sub-Saharan Africa, Angola, Equatorial Guinea is an oasis of political stability, although its stability is a product of severe repression. Since 2004, Equatoguinean oil production has averaged over 300,000 barrels per day, the vast majority of it produced by ExxonMobil, Hess, and Marathon, three U.S. corporations. As a result of extortion, misappropriation of public funds, and other forms of corruption, President Obiang Nguema, his family, and others in the inner circle have become fabulously wealthy while the nation at large remains among the most impoverished in Africa.

Teodorín, as the president’s oldest son is known, has been especially reckless in flaunting his portion of Equatorial Guinea’s oil wealth. Roger listed some of the property against which the U.S. Government has filed complaints for forfeiture in rem, but there are other countries around the world that could put together similar lists of homes, cars, and collectables. In fact, last month France seized eleven luxury cars belonging to Teodorín from the family’s residence on Avenue Foch near the Arc de Triomphe, while Spain is reportedly preparing to move against properties in Madrid and Las Palmas.

The beauty of what now appears to be a coordinated action by prosecutors in the U.S., France, and Spain against one of the most corrupt governments in the world is that it severely limits the possibilities for retaliation using the oil weapon. Because Equatorial Guinea’s oil is produced offshore in deepwater wells, few companies, whether state-owned or private, can provide the necessary production technology. In fact, China’s principal oil production company, CNOOC, completed its first deepwater production rig—destined for use in the South China Sea—in May of this year. Although China is the destination of 12 percent of Equatorial Guinea’s oil exports, it will not be in a position to displace Western oil companies for years to come.

The seizure of Teodorín’s assets in the United States is unlikely to speed the departure of the man who, since Gaddafi’s demise, is the longest-surviving dictator in Africa, nor is it likely to spur dramatic progress toward democracy and respect for human rights in Equatorial Guinea. It will be, however, a small victory for anti-corruption advocates and, perhaps more importantly, a strong signal to the world’s remaining kleptocrats.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A "Kill Team" Conviction

Staff sergeant Calvin Gibbs was convicted on three counts of murder and sentenced to life in prison for a series of sport killings in Afghanistan between January and May 2010.  Gibbs was one of five members of the Fifth Stryker Brigade, Second Infantry Division, charged with murder for deliberately killing civilians.  Three have entered guilty pleas.  In all, twelve members of the brigade have been charged with crimes related to activities of the so-called "kill team."  Ten of those have pleaded guilty or been convicted to date.

According to an Army investigation into the killings that was leaked to the Washington Post last year, a member of Gibbs' unit claimed that he hoped to make a necklace from fingers that he cut from the hands of those he killed.  Gibbs also had a tattoo on his calf that he used to keep track of his kills.  Red skulls represented kills in Iraq while blue skulls indicated kills in Afghanistan.

There are many atrocities in war that go unpunished.  Indeed, war itself may be the greatest atrocity.  But what happened today in a U.S. court martial is a reminder that not everything is permissible in war.  And sometimes activities that cross the line--even in war--are actually punished.