Alemayehu G. Mariam
A Plague of Thieves Visited on Africa
For the past four decades, a plague of cold-blooded thieves has descended upon Africa like a swarm of blood sucking ticks. These thieves masquerading as leaders have been trafficking in Africa’s natural resources and trading in the wealth created by the blood, tears and sweat of African peoples. Now U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, America’s top law enforcement officer, says to Africa’s biggest thieves: “You can run with Africa’s stolen treasures but you can’t hide them in America!”
In July 2010, in a breathtaking act of legal diplomacy, U.S. Attorney General Holder travelled to meet Africa’s greatest kleptocrats in Uganda and delivered a staggering message: “The U.S. Department of Justice is launching a new Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative aimed at combating large-scale foreign official corruption and recovering public funds for their intended – and proper – use: for the people of our nations. We’re assembling a team of prosecutors who will focus exclusively on this work and build upon efforts already underway to deter corruption, hold offenders accountable, and protect public resources.” Holder’s move was so surreal and stunning that I described it as the equivalent of filing a sealed indictment against “La Commissione” – the Godfathers of the Bonnano, Columbo, Gambino, Genovese, and Lucchese crime families in New York City, Chicago, Detroit, Miami, Atlantic City, Las Vegas, St. Louis, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.
The Rape of Equatorial Guinea by the Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo Family
Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, the 43-year old son of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, is now facing asset seizures by the U.S. and other European governments. The U.S. has filed legal action to take away Mangue’s property valued at tens of millions of dollars because they were allegedly acquired with money stolen from the people of Equatorial Guinea. Mangue is the heir apparent and Minister of Forestry and Agriculture of that tiny west African nation with a population of 680,000, seventy percent of which lives below the poverty line. Mangue reportedly earns a monthly salary of USD$6,799.
U.S. law allows the government to seize cash, personal or real property of a person or entity if the government can trace the property to “specified unlawful activity”. Such activity includes foreign offenses involving “extortion”, “money laundering” or the “misappropriation, theft or embezzlement of public funds by or for the benefit of a public official” of a foreign government. (18 U.S. C. sections 981 (a) (1) (c); 1956; 1957.) Mangue is not facing any criminal charges at this time and the proceedings are against the items of property alone in the form of “United States v. One White Crystal-Covered Bad Tour Glove…” Mangue becomes a third party claimant if he decides to defend.
In a 46-page civil forfeiture action filed in mid-October by U.S. Justice Department in California and a separate but similar action filed in the District of Columbia in late October, the U.S. Justice Department details its claims against Mangue. Among the items of property the Justice Department wants to seize include Michael Jackson’s white crystal-covered gloves valued at $275,000 and a pair of crystal-covered socks valued at $80,000, a $30 million Gulfstream jet, and a variety of super-cars including two Bugatti Veyrons worth $2million, eight Ferarraris, seven Rolls Royces, Five Bentleys, four Mercedes one Aston Martin and one Masarati. The government also seeks to seize a 12-acre estate (pictured above) overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Malibu, CA valued at $38.5 million.
Teodoro Obiang and Africa’s Forty Thieves
Ali Baba and his forty thieves have nothing on the Teodoro Obiangs and Africa’s Forty Thieves. Neither do the European colonizers who had plundered and picked Africa’s bones clean. At least they left behind a few bones behind for the benefit of the archaeologists. Africa’s thieving dictators over the past four decades have stripped Africa so completely that they are now gang-mugging Africa’s ghost. As Africans die from famine, starvation, poverty, disease, civil war and conflict and suffer from illiteracy and economic woes, Teodoro Obiang and Africa’s Forty Thieves are spreading their empires of corruption to the four corners of the earth.
Let the facts speak for themselves:
Sudan. Dictator Omar al-Bashir, according to a WikiLeaks cablegram, has amassed fortune that boggles the mind: “International Criminal Court [ICC] Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo told [U.S.] Ambassadors Rice and Wolff on March 20  that [Ocampo] would put the figure of Sudanese President Bashir’s stash of money at possibly $9 billion.”
Zimbabwe. In 2010, dictator Robert Mugabe announced his plan to sell “about $1.7 billion of diamonds in storage” (probably rejects of his diamond-crazed wife Grace). According to a Wikileaks cablegram, “a small group of high-ranking Zimbabwean officials (including Grace Mugabe) have been extracting tremendous diamond profits.” Mugabe is so greedy that he stole outright “£4.5 million from [aid] funds meant to help millions of seriously ill people.”
Kenya. The 2004 Kroll Report revealed that former president Daniel Arap Moi stole billions of dollars using a “web of shell companies, secret trusts and frontmen” and secreted the loot in 30 countries. Moi’s “relatives and associates of Mr. Moi siphoned off more than £1bn of government money.” Moi’s sons “Philip and Gideon – were reported to be worth £384m and £550m respectively.” Current president Mwai Kibaki stonewalled further action on the report, including prosecution of Moi.
Niger. In 2010, Niger’s state auditor reported that “at least 64 billion CFA francs [USD$128-million] were stolen from Niger’s state coffers under the government of former president Mamadou Tandja.”
Nigeria. Ex-President Sani Abacha, who stole some $2bn in the five years he ruled the country was determined to be a member of a criminal organization by a Swiss court.
Libya. Moamar Gadhafi is believed to have stashed $200bn dollars all over the world. Shortly after the Libyan uprising last February, the British Government announced that it expected to seize “around £20 billion in liquid assets of the Libyan regime, mostly in London.” The Swiss Government similarly issued an order for the immediate freeze of assets belonging to Gaddafi and his entourage in the amount of 613 million Swiss francs (USD$658 million), with an additional 205 million francs (USD$220 million) in paper or fiduciary operations. In 2008, Gadhafi’s Swiss holdings amounted to 5.7 billion in cash and 812 million francs in paper and fiduciary operations. In 2006, the Libyan Sovereign Wealth Fund had investments of $70 billion. The U.S. has frozen $37 billion in Libyan assets.
Ethiopia. A few months ago, a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) commissioned report from Global Financial Integrity (GFI) on “illicit financial flows” (money stolen by government officials and their cronies and stashed away in foreign banks) from the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) revealed the theft of US$8.4 billion from Ethiopia, the second poorest country on the planet. The anti-corruption agency of the regime in Ethiopia reported in 2008 that “USD$16 million dollars” worth of gold bars simply walked out of the bank in broad daylight never to be seen again. Not long ago, dictator Meles Zenawi publicly stated that 10,000 tons of coffee earmarked for exports had simply vanished from the warehouses. He called a meeting of commodities traders and in a videotaped statement told the traders he will forgive them this time because “we all have our hands in the disappearance of the coffee”. He threatened to “cut off their hands” if they should steal coffee in the future.
According to a recent Wikileaks cablegram, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the current ruling party in Ethiopia, “Upon taking power in 1991… liquidated non-military assets to found a series of companies whose profits would be used as venture capital to rehabilitate the war-torn Tigray region’s economy…[with] roughly US $100 million… Throughout the 1990s…, no new EFFORT [Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray owned and operated by TPLF] ventures have been established despite significant profits, lending credibility to the popular perception that the ruling party and its members are drawing on endowment resources to fund their own interests or for personal gain.” According to the World Bank, roughly half of the Ethiopian national economy is accounted for by companies held by an EPRDF-affiliated business group called the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT). EFFORT’s freight transport, construction, pharmaceutical, and cement firms receive lucrative foreign aid contracts and highly favorable terms on loans from government banks.
Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt also have safely stashed their loot in various international banks although the Swiss government has frozen a few hundred million dollars secretly kept there. Others who have robbed their people blind (and pretty much have gotten away with it) include Nigeria’s Ibrahim Babangida, Guniea’s Lansana Conte, Togo’s Gnassingbe Eyadema, Gabon’s Omar Bongo, Burkina Faso’s Blaise Campore and Congo’s (Brazaville) Denis Sassou Nguesso. The story of official corruption, embezzlement, fraud, bribery, money-laundering, extortion and theft occurs with such monotonous regularity that a 2004 African Union report estimated that nearly $148 billion is lost to corruption annually in Africa.
Going After Africorruption, Inc.
In my commentary “Africorruption, Inc.”, I argued that the business of African “governments” is large part corruption. The majority of African “leaders” seize political power to operate sophisticated criminal enterprises to loot their national treasuries and resources. Stated simply, many African “governments” and “regimes” are kleptocracies which function in much the same way as the highly organized and centralized criminal enterprises that dominate the business of crime in the West. Attorney General Holder is now using against the biggest African thieves the same tools that have been used in one form or another for decades against drug lords, Mafiosi, organized crime figures and a variety of criminal syndicates engaged in racketeering. The legal strategy against American and African syndicates is now the same: hit the economic base of their criminal enterprises and confiscate the stolen loot.
The procedure in civil forfeiture cases is pretty straightforward and highly favors the government. In Mangue’s case, once the government establishes probable cause (reasonable belief) that the property (house, cars, etc.,) is subject to forfeiture or confiscation (by showing it was obtained by corruption, extortion, theft, etc.,), Mangue must prove by a “preponderance of the evidence” (more likely to be true than not true) that the properties can be traced to a legitimate source such as his monthly salary of USD$6,799. If he cannot prove that, the U.S. Government is entitled to keep the assets, auction them off and return the proceeds to the country. Perhaps not in this case, as that would involve giving the money stolen by the son to the father who runs the theft ring.
From the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) to an “African Racketeer Influenced Corruption Act” (AfRICA)?
For decades, the U.S. Government has been fighting organized crime using the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) (18 U.S.C. § 1961–1968) in one form or another. Now the U.S. is pursuing what may be informally described as “African Racketeer Influenced Corruption Act (Af-RICA)”. I have previously argued that contemporary Africa has largely been reduced to a collection of thugocracies. I defined a “thugocracy” as a government of thieves, for thieves, by thieves. Simply stated, much of Africa today is under thugtatorships run by a gang of thieves and robbers (thugtators) in designer suits who have privatized the continent’s resources for their personal benefit. In a thugtatorship, the purpose of seizing and clinging to political power is solely to accumulate personal wealth for the ruling class by stealing public funds and depriving the broader population scarce resources necessary for basic survival. What legal tool could be more effective than RICO or Af-RICA to restore good governance in Africa?
Africa’s thugtators and their henchmen are now coming under the microscope of the U.S. Justice Department. They are viewed as part of an international organized criminal syndicate. Few would have realistically expected to see the U.S. going after even a single corrupt and thieving African dictator; but it sends a chilling message to all the other African kleptocrats and their henchmen who launder billions of dollars every year in the U.S. buying businesses and homes and making “investments” in legitimate commercial enterprises.
Though the U.S. action against Mangue is encouraging, no one believes that the other thieves are next in line. After all, the U.S. knew about Mangue’s criminal enterprises for at least a decade before it took action. Time will tell if the U.S. is serious in using civil RICO-type proceedings against Africa’s thugtators or merely window dressing for media publicity. What is significant is the symbolic but chilling message it sends to all of the other cunning African thieves, their associates, business partners, investors, and all others in the U.S. who “directly or indirectly” facilitate and sustain official corruption in Africa. Regardless, it is heartwarming (and breathtaking) to know that the Obama Administration is at least considering seriously using civil forfeiture laws to deal with African dictators as organized criminals, syndicates and equivalents of Mafia bosses.
The Moral Duty of Every African
The United States could transform the bleak human rights landscape in Africa overnight by aggressively using civil forfeiture actions against the properties and bank accounts of Africa’s thieving dictators. One civil forfeiture action against each of the bloodthirsty African thugs could do more to usher democracy and respect for human rights in Africa than a century’s worth of human rights legislation or a horde of idle American diplomats shuffling to suck up to these thugtators.
Criminal defense lawyers know all too well that crooks and criminals fear loss of their stolen loot more than their liberty or even their lives. For a criminal nothing matters more that the loot he has stolen. If the U.S. could effectively investigate and aggressively seize the assets of Africa’s kleptocrats, the continent will witness significant improvements in human rights and governance overnight. There will surely be a dramatic reduction in corruption and an increase in the availability of significant resources from recovered assets for investment in infrastructure and other social programs for the African population. Help improve human rights in Africa: Finger the biggest African thieves hiding in America.
It is the civic and moral duty of every African to help the U.S. Justice Department catch Africa’s biggest thieves. It is very easy to do, and do it anonymously. Individuals with information about possible proceeds of foreign corruption in the United States, or funds laundered through institutions in the United States, should contact Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security Investigations (ICE HIS) toll free at 866-347-2423 or send email to: firstname.lastname@example.org. If calling from outside of the U.S., the number is: 802-872-6199
BLOW THE WHISTLE ON AFRICA’S BIGGEST THIEVES HIDING IN AMERICA!!!
Release all political prisoners in Ethiopia, NOW!
Photo insert: Equatorial Guinea village, Teodoro N. Obiang Mangue’s $38m Malibu, CA estate, Teodoro N. Obiang Mangue with hangers-on.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at: www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/ andhttp://open.salon.com/blog/almariam/