Oil Slick

The Obiang regime tries to spin the Riggs scandal.

| Mon Dec. 20, 2004 4:00 AM EST

So far, the Senate investigation that revealed Teodoro Obiang’s questionable dealings with the Riggs Bank and American oil companies has caused relatively little fallout for his regime. It has moved its money to accounts outside the jurisdiction of U.S. regulators, and it continues to do business with the same firms that made millions of dollars worth of unorthodox payments to Obiang’s family and associates.

Yet Equatorial Guinea’s strongman did not completely brush off last summer’s brief P.R. hit. In September, his government issued a statement condemning the investigation and its findings. As detailed in its indignant 82-point rebuttal, the Equatoguinean government claimed the Senate investigators not only got their facts horribly wrong, but that they did so with the “clear intention of denigrating” its image.

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But the document does not dispute the Senate investigation’s main finding, namely, that Equatoguinean officials freely moved hundreds of millions of dollars through Riggs Bank and blurred the line between public and private monies. It maintains, however, that these transactions were entirely legal, transparent, and not related to money laundering or corruption. The Senate, it contends, overstepped its authority and littered its report with “conceptual confusions,” “repeated imprecisions,” and “unfounded extrapolations.” And even if the Senate was onto something, Equatorial Guinea says it was under no obligation to “answer questions as regards the observance, or otherwise” of American banking laws.

Such stridency is typical of the Obiang regime’s response to international scrutiny. Understandably, a leader who is accustomed to being hailed as God’s earthly agent on state radio does not readily embrace criticism. In recent interviews, Obiang has branded his opponents as “bad losers,” and accused Amnesty International and the United Nations of misrepresenting his human rights record.

Obiang also is not afraid to challenge the U.S. government directly. During a personal visit to Washington, D.C. in March 2001, the president tried to discredit a recent State Department report that had detailed the torture and repression of political dissidents in Equatorial Guinea. While conceding there had been “excesses of behavior from some people in authority,” he asserted that “there are no abuses on human rights issues.” Another Equatoguinean official went further, claiming the incidents listed in the report “were old stories from people who are not in the country,” and suggesting, enigmatically, that the report was “the work of one man.”

This umbrageous and at times paranoid tone is echoed in the Equatoguinean government’s response to the Riggs investigation. If your only impression of the country came from the response, you might think that it is an unfairly beleaguered free-market democracy. Politically, Equatorial Guinea, is portrayed as a smoothly functioning multiparty state. “Indeed,” the response boasts, “its electoral system is superior to many others internationally.” Economically, the country is described as an even playing field. “Many Equatorial Guineans,” it states, “not just the President of the Republic and his family,” have gained substantial wealth due to their “entrepreneurial flair.” Financial conflicts of interest are regulated by a decree that prohibits public servants from owning or running companies. (This decree, however, was issued in February 2004, months after the events described in the Senate investigation involving the Obiang clan’s companies took place.)

In an bizarre twist, the document also offers a defense of Simon Kareri, the Riggs Bank official who had handled the Equatoguinean accounts and was accused of embezzlement in the Senate hearings. As reported in the Senate report, Kareri transferred $1.2 million dollars from Equatorial Guinea’s accounts into his own. However, according to the Obiang government, Kareri’s unorthodox million-dollar deposit was an authorized payment to a construction company in Equatorial Guinea. Kareri took the Fifth during the hearings.

If all this is true, then how did the Senate manage to misinterpret Equatorial Guinea’s financial dealings? It was, according to the document, duped by “pressure groups” leading a disinformation campaign against the country. “Equatorial Guinea and its Political Institutions are the victims of a conspiracy of considerable and major proportions,” it claims. The figure behind this conspiracy is identified as Severo Moto Nsa, an opposition leader who has been convicted in absentia of trying to overthrow Obiang and now heads a “government in exile” in Spain. A $40,000 contract between Moto and an American lobbying firm “has come to light,” the document reports, implying that the firm influenced the Senate to target Equatorial Guinea.

The response letter does not acknowledge that Equatorial Guinea also retains American lobby shops to represent it in Washington. According to records filed with the Justice Department, the Obiang regime has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on P.R. and lobbying in the past five years. Earlier in 2004, it paid C/R International $120,000 to coordinate meetings between Equatoguinean and American officials. The firm also helped secure banking facilities for the country’s embassy—a task necessitated by the Riggs scandal, which had forced Equatorial Guinea to take its money elsewhere. It also organized a visit to the U.S. for Obiang in the summer of 2004, just as news of the Riggs investigation was emerging. On June 17, Condoleezza Rice accepted an award for international diplomacy in Washington, exhorting the audience, “Americans must never excuse tyranny or corruption in Africa.” Sitting with Bill Clinton and the other guests of honor was Teodoro Obiang.

In spite of its success cozying up to the Bush administration, the Obiang regime realizes that it must clean up its image, if not its behavior. After the Senate report came out, it signed a $50,000-a-month contract with the New York-based Farragut Advisors to help “improve the country’s public image and reputation in the United States.” And in its written response to the Riggs investigation, it insisted that it would “collaborate with any action aimed at clarifying the matters dealt with in the report.” Yet until now, most of the glimpses into its inner workings have not come from its promises of transparency, but rather the work of journalists, human rights groups, and now, Senate investigators. As more unpleasant details about Obiang’s petroligarchy seep out, no doubt he will continue to pump out more bluster and spin.

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