The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Brazil just seized $15 million worth of luxury watches from this African leader. For him, it isn’t a big deal.

Equatorial Guinea Vice President Teodorin Nguema Obiang in 2013. (Jerome Leroy/AFP/Getty Images)
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The vice president of Equatorial Guinea has certainly earned his reputation for a love of all things luxe.

In 2014, Teodorin Nguema Obiang had to give up more than $30 million worth of assets — including a mansion in Malibu, Calif., and expensive vehicles — to settle with the U.S. Justice Department in a civil forfeiture case. Among his possessions was a collection of Michael Jackson paraphernalia, including one of the late singer’s gloves, studded with Swarovski crystals, that caught the attention of the Justice Department.

When that case closed, then-U.S. Assistant Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell said in a statement that Obiang “shamelessly looted his government and shook down businesses in his country to support his lavish lifestyle, while many of his fellow citizens lived in extreme poverty."

This week, Obiang again caught the attention of authorities — this time in Brazil. Local media outlets reported that when his delegation landed near Sao Paulo on Friday, about $16 million in cash and pricey watches were seized from it.

Brazilian laws prevent visitors from bringing more than $2,400 in cash into the country, Agence France-Presse reported. Obiang’s group was found to be carrying about $1.5 million cash and watches estimated to be worth $15 million.

Equatorial Guinea’s embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment. But its embassy in Brazil released a statement accusing Brazilian authorities of wrongly searching the Obiang delegation’s belongings.

“This approach of gross violation of international diplomatic practice had no other goal than to create a totally gratuitous embarrassment for the vice president of Equatorial Guinea and the country he represents,” the statement said.

Obiang is used to raising eyebrows and suspicions over his belongings.

He is somewhat notorious for his playboy lifestyle — and has only recently begun paying the price. In addition to his run-in with U.S. authorities, Obiang was tried in absentia in France last year and found guilty of embezzlement. The court found that he was using money he stole from Equatorial Guinea to fund a lavish lifestyle in Europe. His assets included a mansion near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris that Reuters reported had 101 rooms. The Guardian reported that his home included a private hairdressing salon, a Rodin statue, a disco and sink taps encrusted with gold.

The French court ordered the seizure of about $115 million worth of his assets, and authorities sent in tow trucks to seize several of his luxury vehicles, including a Porsche Carrera. Other trucks were deployed to lug away some of his other expensive belongings.

At the time, the court handed Obiang a three-year suspended sentence and fined him about $35 million, also suspended. Equatorial Guinea has since tried to fight the court’s decision.

Obiang’s father, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, has been in power since 1979, and under his rule, watchdog groups have ranked the small, central African nation one of the most corrupt in the world.

Equatorial Guinea is an oil-rich nation, but its population remains extremely poor. In Human Rights Watch’s 2018 world report, the group said, “Vast oil revenues fund lavish lifestyles for the small elite surrounding the president, while little progress has been made on improving access to key rights, including health care and primary education, for the vast majority of Equatorial Guineans.”

“Mismanagement of public funds, credible allegations of high-level corruption and repression of civil society groups and opposition politicians, and unfair trials, persist,” the report said.

As for what will happen to the many, many watches seized in Brazil from Obiang’s delegation? AFP reported that the Brazilian Foreign Ministry said it is coordinating “with the federal police and the customs service over the case and to decide what measures should be taken.”

But the watches aren’t even worth that much compared with the other items Obiang has forfeited on various trips abroad. On top of the asset seizures in the United States and France, authorities in Switzerland have seized several of his luxury cars. And the Netherlands seized his $120 million yacht in 2016. It was 250 feet long and named Ebony Shine.

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