The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.K. places sanctions on Equatorial Guinea president’s son after purchases including Michael Jackson’s glove

Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, Equatorial Guinea vice president, at a 2015 U.N. development summit in New York. (Darren Ornitz/Reuters)

An earlier version of this article incorrectly recounted the purchase of Michael Jackson’s gloves, rather than his glove. The article has been corrected.

There was the $38 million private jet. And the $100 million mansion in Paris. There were the Ferraris, Bentleys and Aston Martins. And the paintings by Renoir and Degas. And a glittery, $275,000, crystal-covered glove Michael Jackson wore during his “Bad” tour.

They are just some of the alleged spoils uncovered in corruption investigations of Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, vice president of Equatorial Guinea and son of its current president. He has reportedly spent over $500 million since his government appointment two decades ago.

Meanwhile, three-fourths of the nation’s people live in poverty and one-third lack access to basic sanitation.

After years of flashing his cash, Obiang has been hit with sanctions by the United Kingdom.

On Thursday, Britain announced new sanctions on the Central African nation’s vice president for alleged misappropriation of state funding, corrupt contract agreements and solicitation of bribes — all serving to “fund a lavish lifestyle inconsistent” with his official government minister salary. No longer will he be able to enter Britain or channel his money through British banks. Obiang was one of five added to the asset freeze list Thursday.

A vice president with a taste for yachts, sports cars and mansions is now on trial

The slate of anti-corruption punishments comes amid a major shift for the United Kingdom on sanctions. Until last year’s official Brexit turning point, Britain was bound to the European Union’s limited sanctions regime. Now, making use of a post-Brexit ability to autonomously introduce sanctions, the British government is flexing its geopolitical independence on a global stage with a new approach to targeted sanctions.

“The U.K. is always trying to position itself as something of a standard-setter when it comes to anti-corruption,” Matt Townsend, partner and co-head of Allen & Overy’s sanctions practice, told The Washington Post.

Governments are finding the use of sanctions “a very addictive habit,” especially in the past five years, he said. British leaders have wanted to expand their sanction powers for a long time, he said, and now London is swiftly using “a powerful weapon” to align with its long-standing anti-corruption goals.

Targeted economic sanctions have been a favored tool in Washington for responding to provocations, interference and rising tensions — against Myanmar for human rights violations, Russia for cyberspying, China for the erosion of democracy in Hong Kong and Cuba over a crackdown on recent protests.

The E.U., however, has been slower and more conservative on the sanctions front. The 27-member bloc has also “not actively enforced compliance,” for reasons including the lack of E.U.-level enforcement authority, the New York-based Skadden international law firm wrote in a January memorandum. And, when Britain was part of the E.U., any British foreign policy objectives tied to the imposition of sanctions would have required the unanimous approval of all E.U. members, said Paul Feldberg, a partner in Jenner & Block’s investigations, compliance and defense practice.

“Now the U.K. is able to go it alone and can move swiftly in reaction to world events,” he said. For example, he noted, the British have responded to Russia, Myanmar and Belarus with sanctions more quickly than the E.U. as a whole.

In the past few months alone, with its unilateral sanction-making power, Britain has passed and started implementing two thematic sanctions regimes, the Global Anti-Corruption Sanctions Regulations and the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations, with the latter taking aim at several entities and individuals, including in Belarus, North Korea and Russia.

Obiang and the four people hit with corruption sanctions Thursday join a list of 22 others around the world — from places such as Russia, South Africa, South Sudan and Latin America — whose assets were frozen in April. The new list includes Iraqi provincial governor Nawfal Hammadi al-Sultan, who the British government said took advantage of reconstruction after a devastating occupation by the Islamic State militant group. Also listed is Zimbabwean businessman Kudakwashe Regimond Tagwirei, whose actions “accelerated the devaluation” of the national currency, the British government release said.

What are economic sanctions, and how did they become Washington’s foreign policy tool of choice?

The anti-corruption sanctions announced Thursday targeted people “who have lined their own pockets at the expense of their citizens,” Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab wrote in a press statement, adding, “Corruption drains the wealth of poorer nations, keeps their people trapped in poverty and poisons the well of democracy.”

Anna Bradshaw, a partner at Peters & Peters who advises on economic sanctions, called Thursday’s actions “the most recent example of how the U.K. is flexing its muscles on the world sanctions stage.” She said Britain has indicated its intention to use autonomous action to become “a world leader on sanctions.”

Some experts also see the recent U.K. sanctions as a move to further align with non-E.U. partners, including Canada and the United States. Of the five new individuals hit with sanctions by London on Thursday, four were already designated by the United States — a point that U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen and Secretary of State Antony Blinken pointed out in a joint statement Thursday commending Britain’s announcement of further anti-corruption sanctions.

Britain appears to be following the example of the United States’ 2012 Magnitsky Act, which imposed sanctions on Russians tied to the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who untangled a web of tax fraud involving 23 companies and individuals close to the government in Moscow. The act laid a foundation for more widespread, focused sanctions on individual actors — as opposed to a historical trend of countrywide embargoes and sanctions, such as those imposed on apartheid South Africa.

The E.U. passed the European Magnitsky Law in December 2020 to impose sanctions on individuals committing human rights abuses. But unlike the U.S. and British measures, the E.U. tool lacks the ability to target corrupt actors.

Critics of U.S. sanctions policy are not eager to see the U.S. approach spread, arguing that sanctions often fail to achieve stated policy goals and that their effectiveness is difficult to evaluate.

Konstantin Bureiko, a London-based Debevoise & Plimpton associate with experience conducting international anti-corruption investigations, said he thinks the United States and Britain would describe their roles as “leading the way” on the use of sanctions to dissuade corruption.

The new sanctions for human rights abuses and corruption are also a way for Britain to show that separating from E.U. international policy is good for the country, Bureiko said. In taking a larger global stand against corruption, London may play a role in decreasing the global likelihood of individuals engaging in a type of “very prolific, very obvious corruption” that grabs international attention, he said.

Despite signs of “political signaling,” Townsend said he believes that the British government has shown a “genuine willingness to utilize sanctions” to combat human rights abuses.

“This is not just a piece of an academic law that will not be utilized,” he said. Townsend said he thinks there will be “an incremental ratcheting up” of measures against individuals targeted globally by the United Kingdom.

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