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Keeping up with the Obiangs: Theft and Hereditary Succession in Dictatorships

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “kleptocracy” was first introduced into the English language in 1819 as a contemporary criticism of the Imperial Spanish Government. Perhaps it is fitting then that the leadership of tiny Equatorial Guinea – one of Spain’s former colonies – is doing so much to keep this particular colonial legacy alive. Yet after years of living like Spanish royalty, the Obiang family may have let their passion for the perks of such a system undermine its core idea: securing the position for the following generation. Plagued by recent scandals, lawsuits and a growing barrage of international criticism the family seems increasingly likely to end up like the Bonapartes rather than the Bourbons.

Equatorial Guinea holds the twin distinctions of: 

    1. Being the wealthiest country in Africa - measured by GDP/Capita (PPP)
    2. Being ruled by the most longstanding dictator in the world: President Teodoro Obiang 

Equatorial Guinea’s wealth results from the combination of sizable oil reserves and a relative scarcity of capitas.  While the luckless Saudi government must endeavor to cover the daily living costs of 3.4 citizens with a single $100 barrel, Equatorial Guinea has a far more comfortable ratio of 700,000 people to 400,000 barrels per day in exports. The resultant $36,000 per citizen, renders Equatorial Guinea not just the richest country in Africa, but substantially wealthier than the EU average and above countries such as Spain and the United Kingdom. 

Yet this high wealth ranking is nowhere reflected in the country’s low living standards. The Human Development Index ranks Equatorial Guinea at 136th with reports of a life expectancy hovering around 50 years and 70% of the population subsisting on less than one dollar a day.

This glaring discrepancy between national wealth and national well being is a direct result of large-scale theft on the part of Obiang, his family and members of the regime.  Since 2003 when the president took personal control over the national treasury, ostensibly in a move to reduce corruption, the level of graft has worsened exponentially. The president himself is reported to have deposited nearly half a billion dollars, into a personal account in Washington, D.C.

Teodoro Obiang first seized power in 1979 through a violent coup that led to the toppling (and eventually execution) of his uncle Francisco Macías Nguema, Equatorial Guinea’s first post-colonial president.  Following these bloody beginnings the Obiang regime accumulated a human rights record on par with many better-known contemporaries such as Idi Amin and Mobutu Sese Seko. Yet once oil was discovered in the early 1990s, the regime began spending lavishly both on the lifestyles of it ruling elite and on expensive national initiatives aimed at improving their government’s image. 

As previously addressed by Tom Ginsburg, the Equatoguinean Constitution was modified in 2011 so as to clear the way for the aging dictator to handpick his successor through the creation of a new vice-presidential position. His eldest son Teodorín was appointed to the position soon after.

Of course, from an autocrat’s perspective, attempting a hereditary succession makes a great deal of sense. Beyond any love a tyrant may or may not feel for their children, a filial successor cements one’s presidential legacy and virtually guarantees that any closeted skeletons regarding human rights abuses, graft etc. will not be made public in the future. Likewise, the ruler’s family and political allies can rest easy that they will continue to be taken care of.

Yet disregarding democratic familial successions (like the Kirchners in Argentina) or those that are stipulated by law (such as Elizabeth II or the Saudis) the success rate for implementing hereditary succession among autocrats in modern times is decidedly mixed. While there are success stories – such as Syria’s embattled Bashar al-Assad, Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev, Haiti’s fallen Duvaliers and possibly Cuba’s Castros (too soon to tell) –  recent history is likewise littered with many failed potential princes.

Back in 2010, international commentators spoke of four clearly signaled “heir apparents” in autocratic regimes. These were: Gamal Mubarak in Egypt, Ahmed Saleh in Yemen, Islam al-Saif in Lybia (a son of Gaddafi), and Kim Jong-un in North Korea. Of these, only Kim made good while the others fell spectacularly; alongside the fathers who sought to position them as successors. Similar attempts in Iran, Paraguay and many other countries have seen the regime survive but the presumptive familial heir be passed over in favor of an outsider. 

One 2007 study showed that, since 1950, only 20% of attempted hereditary autocratic successions have been successful in cases where the party/regime predated the autocrat/father (such as with Joseph Stalin and his potential heir Vasili.) In contrast, success rates were much higher (nearly 70%) in those rarer cases where the autocrat seized power personally and then created the party structures around themselves (like in the case of the Castros.)

This stands to reason. Succession, even in the most autocratic environments, will always depend on the cooperation of non-family elites and stakeholders such as the military, critical industries and (increasingly) international investors. In the absence of some other functional, stable and relatively independent intra-party mechanism for passing on leadership by other means, these groups are likely to prefer a predictable hereditary transfer over the risk of potentially disruptive infighting within the regime itself.  

At first blush this would seem to bode well for Teodorín since the Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea was created by the elder Obiang himself, nearly a decade after taking power. Yet even in  cases where a given autocrat looms larger than the party surrounding him, there is a certain palatability requirement for potential heirs without which the the support of necessary family and external stakeholders is unlikely to be secured.

Potential political heirs within autocracies have recently begun acting more like the children of family business owners and CEOs. From a young age they are incentivized to collect personal accomplishments through which to signal (both internationally and domestically) that their qualifications are not *entirely* nepotistic. To this end, political scions are likely to seek out degrees from acclaimed universities (Mubarak) or else spend time working in respected industries such as academia (Aliyev), medicine (Assad) or Human Rights law (al-Islam.) Alternately, they can become invisible, remaining entirely out of the public eye and safe from criticism until their positions are rendered internally secure as was the case for Kim Jong-un.

Not so the mercurial Teodorín however. For years he has kept a very high international profile, being photographed at parties amongst beautiful women, private jets and yachts while otherwise managing little else in terms of personal accomplishment. He failed as a hip hop artist (despite founding his own label) and a mansion in Malibu that was recently seized by the US Justice Department, was the only legacy of his lone semester in higher education at beachfront Pepperdine University. 

The property seized by the Justice Department, likewise included a gulfstream jet, some sports cars and a substantial collection of Michael Jackson memorabilia. This previous taking is said to pale however in comparison to this week’s French confiscation, apparently valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

These scandals likewise comes at a tricky time for the regime itself. After spending millions in plundered national wealth on international legitimization initiatives including lobbyists, sizeable UN donations and expensive leadership initiatives for the African Union - in hopes of whitewashing their violent and despotic past - the Obiangs now emerge with a worse reputation than ever before. And by drawing such spectacular attention to the kleptocratic tendencies of his clan Teodorín is unlikely to have garnered himself much in the way of stakeholder support. 

A recent profile on the Obiangs in the Spanish newspaper El País hints at considerable dissatisfaction among family members, stakeholders and foreign investors towards the possibility of a Teodorín’s eventual succession. One opponent claims that: “Obiang has promised not to leave us with an idiot. Perhaps that was a signal as everyone knows his son is just that.”

The elder Obiang likewise seems cognizant of his desired successor’s potential unsuitability. The same 2011 constitutional amendments that created the new vice presidency, likewise got rid of presidential age limits that would have disallowed Obiang himself to stay at the helm longer if need be. This might serve as a potential escape valve should Teodorín be pushed aside and a new successor require time to be properly positioned...

In Shakespeare's Henry V, the young king is sent a mocking gift by the French, insulting him for youthful indiscretions committed before the start of his rule. “I can understand the Dauphin," Henry reflects, "how he comes over me with my former days, not measuring what use I made of them.” He then proceeds to destroy the French at Agincourt. 

Like Henry, Teodorín has also fallen afoul of the French, who have gone as far as to issue a warrant for his arrest. Could this perhaps be a sign that it is not too late for Teodorín to come into his own?
Perhaps he may still rise to the occasion, fulfilling his father’s hopes for a serious and capable heir to continue his own policies of collecting international accolades whilst mercilessly fleecing the Equatoguinean people.  I wouldn't bet on it however. A man well into his forties, sparsely educated, professionally under-accomplished, internationally disgraced and domestically disparaged; the heir in question seems particularly ill-suited to the task.

A tough break perhaps for an elderly despot seeking a dynasty, but excellent news for the people of Equatorial Guinea. 

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