Why you should care
Because it is definitely not what you expect.
Monaco and Qatar get lots of play on the wealth beat, but some of the lands of Swarovski and Cristal keep a lower profile. Like coast-of-West-Africa low. According to the World Bank:
Teensy Equatorial Guinea is the wealthiest country on the African continent.
This Spanish-speaking nation of just under 800,000 people is not only the wealthiest country in Africa — in terms of gross domestic product per capita (a country’s income divided by the population), with a $14.31 billion GDP — but also ranks 38th worldwide. It’s higher than countries like Chile, Brazil and Poland — and the average non-Africanist has probably never even heard of it.
So, is Equatorial Guinea mining diamonds? Printing money? Selling really good drugs? The source of its wealth is a little more pedestrian but no less dramatic: oil. Almost 60 percent of the country is covered in trees, and forestry (both legal and illegal) used to be its highest source of income. That has plummeted to a paltry 5 percent of total revenue, though, thanks to the discovery of black gold in the mid-1990s, which gave Equatorial Guinea its very own Spindletop gusher moment. From pariah to “partner” in a slippery black wink! Now it’s Africa’s third-largest oil exporter, with Exxon Mobil Corp. driving production. But no one knows exactly how much oil revenue the country has — President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo refuses to disclose his earnings.
With wealth comes fun — that is, if you’re a wee bitty dictator (Africa’s longest-serving, in fact, since that 1979 military coup). President Obiang has been the honored guest at swanky cocktail parties in suburban Washington, D.C., and owns mansions from the French Riviera to Cape Town. And the apple doesn’t fall far. His son, Teodoro “Teodorin” Nguema Obiang Mangue, is a colonel-meets-wannabe-rapper-meets-playboy-meets-trust-fund-baby. Also known as vice president, Teodorin is more famous for partying than politics. He spent a year in an ESL class at Pepperdine University, racking up more than $50,000 in hotel and restaurant bills before dropping out. But he was still living easy; he had a $30 million oceanfront home in Malibu, and one in nearby Bel Air too. (The DOJ later fined him over $60 million for his shopping sprees as part of its Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative. He settled for $30 million, his mansions, and six life-size statues of Michael Jackson.) In case the short drive between properties was too cumbersome in his Ferrari, Bugatti or dozens of other cars, Teodorin could hop in his $38.5 million Gulfstream jet. The Equatorial Fresh Prince even owned his own record label, TNO Entertainment LLC. (Neither the DOJ nor representatives of the Obiang family replied to requests for comment.)
To be sure, this oil enclave isn’t the only country to have a case of the greedies — OZY has done a whole series on little-known dictators, from Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov to Laos’ Choummaly Sayasone — or the only one under the U.S. Feds’ spotlight. The Department of Justice has brought cases against a Filipina businesswoman who stole millions of dollars from a disaster relief fund; the Honduran head of social security for receiving U.S. property as a bribe; and the former (and now deceased) Nigerian leader and his co-conspirators for hiding more than $458 million in stolen funds.
The U.S. still refers to the mini-nation as an ally. Tutu Alicante, head of the human rights organization EG Justice, points out that one “can imagine petroleum is playing a big role, because the oil is being produced by American companies.” Things could get weird, though, when Dictator Jr. inevitably takes over the throne. He just might not get over that one time Uncle Sam took away his toys and put him in timeout.