Teodorin Obiang, vice-president of Equatorial Guinea, is on trial in France for plundering the nation’s treasury to fund his aristocrat lifestyle. Obiang, who is also the son of Equatorial Guinea’s president, faces up to 10 years in prison if found guilty of corruption, money laundering and embezzlement. Obiang stayed away, but his lawyer requested that the trial be suspended on the grounds that his client had not been given enough time to prepare his defense in a complex case, having been summoned to trial just three weeks ago.
“We’re not talking about a moped theft charge,” said Emmanuel Marsigny, his lawyer, in Paris.
Lawyer William Bourdon, who represents Transparency International, which helped bring the case, accused the defense of trying to paralyse the judicial system through a series of “opportunistic” and “malicious” manoeuvres. Obiang’s trial came after two non-governmental organisations targeting corruption and an association of Congolese citizens living abroad launched a lawsuit in France nearly 10 years ago. The lawsuit was launched against leaders in nearly a half-dozen African countries, including the late Gabon president Omar Bongo, charging them with using state funds during or after their tenures to buy properties and luxury goods in France.
Obiang allegedly bought up to 15 cars in France for 5.7 million euros (currently $6 million) and once splashed nearly 20 million euros at an art auction. However, Swiss authorities opened a preliminary investigation last year, and the U.S. filed claims in 2011 against his US-held assets worth more than $70 million, alleging they were the proceeds of corruption.
But can France hold African leaders to account, because the nation has had its own share of corruption scandals involving high-ranking public officials, the defence and public works are said to be the most affected by corruption? Transparency International concluded in its annual report for 2011 that France does not do enough to stop corruption. “There will be no lasting progress in the fight against corruption in France with an increase in vigilance and citizen engagement. For a start they need to stop voting for elected officials convicted of dishonest conduct,” Daniel Lebègue, president of the agency’s French section told French daily Le Figaro.
Political corruption studies include the presidential campaign 2007 finance investigation in the value of 150,000 euros from Liliane Bettencourt to Nicolas Sarkozy. Jacques Chirac was accused of using public funds for his election campaign in Paris in the 1990s. On 15 December 2011, Chirac was found guilty and given a suspended sentence of two years. He was convicted of diverting public funds, abuse of trust and illegal conflict of interest.
Bribery investigations from South Africa to France are ongoing, including bribery claims of Jacques Chirac, Dominique de Villepin and Jean-Marie Le Pen bribery claim from Gabon ex-president Omar Bongo. Alstom has been under investigation in France and Switzerland for allegedly making improper payments of US$200 million for contracts for Brazil’s Itá hydroelectric plant, for São Paulo’s subway expansion and for other major works in Venezuela, Singapore, and Indonesia. The Mexican government has penalised Alstom and in 2007 the European Commission’s antitrust authority fined Alstom €65 million for price fixing with competitors.
Since the disclosure of budget minister Jéröme Cahuzac and his secret hidden bank account in Switzerland, many others have been implicated. “The most common public corruption is among local and not national authorities in France. The council members and mayors are in closer proximity to local business people,” Jacques Terray, the Vice President of Transparency International in France, told The Local at the time.
But is France pursuing a neo-colonial policy in Africa? Is it continuing Francafrique, the term coined to describe the country’s relationship with its former African colonies, in which it supported unpopular African politicians in order to advance and protect its economic interests? After independence, France still needed Africa’s natural resources, particularly its oil – and Africa needed French investment.
This dependence allowed France to position itself as the guardian of its former colonies. In the decades following independence, France supported the lavish lifestyles of African dictators while their people endured extreme poverty. African leaders, well aware of France’s need for their countries’ resources, adopted the same manipulation tactics once used on them. So, after supporting a war in Biafra, overthrowing several presidents, collapsing Guinea’s economy and bribing leaders to support its interests, France started to lose the control that it once exercised in Africa.
Protests against France escalated to violence in several countries. Although France’s control over its former colonies had weakened, the colonies still needed French investors – and this reliance allows some networks to persist today.