JOHANNESBURG – A U.S. diplomat called Equatorial Guinea's dictator of 31 years one of "the good guys" in leaked diplomatic cables urging Washington to engage with its third largest oil supplier or risk endangering energy security.
In 2009 cables published by WikiLeaks, Anton K. Smith, the ranking U.S. diplomat at the time, described a country beset by foreign and homegrown predators, "sharks ... buccaneers and adventurers," since U.S. wildcatters discovered oil in 1994.
"There are good guys and bad guys here. We need to strengthen the good guys — for all his faults, President Obiang among them — and undercut the bad guys," Smith wrote in a May 9, 2009 cable.
President Teodoro Obiang is accused of making his family and a small group of people fabulously wealthy off oil while U.N. figures show child mortality has increased and a third of children do not finish primary school.
In the space of less than one generation, oil wealth has transformed the tiny West African nation of 600,000 from being one of the poorest in the world to one of its richest, per capita. The per capita income is listed at $31,000 a year, but the average citizen is unlikely to live beyond 50. Yet someone in Brazil — with an average income of less than $10,000 — can expect to live to 72.
The U.S. State Department's annual country report enumerated multiple human rights abuses in Equatorial Guinea including torture, arbitrary arrest, severe restrictions on freedom of speech and forced child labor.
It has said that Obiang's regime has either killed or forced into exile a third of the country's population.
But Smith called Obiang's a "mellowing, benign leadership" maligned by journalists and human rights activists with exaggerated claims about the levels of corruption and brutality.
The International Monetary Fund reported last year that two-thirds of the people live below the poverty line, but Smith said it was "implausible" that half the population lives on less than a dollar a day.
Smith absolved Obiang of responsibility in the most publicized example of corruption from Equatorial Guinea: the scandal that brought down Washington D.C.'s venerable Riggs bank when it was found stashing some $700 million in accounts in the name of Obiang, his family and clan. Bankers told a U.S. Senate investigation that some of the money was carried to the bank, a million dollars at a time, in shrink-wrapped bundles.
"Riggs rigged," Smith said, blaming the bank since "Equatoguineans readily accepted Riggs' advice regarding accounts and accounting __ assuming the bank was 'acting properly.'"
Riggs was fined $41 million and subsequently collapsed.
In the cables, Smith also discredited the scandal exposed by Global Witness about a U.S. Justice Department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigation indicating that since the Riggs scandal, U.S. banks have accepted some $75 million in wire transfers between 2005 and 2007 from Obiang's favorite son and would-be successor, Teodorin Obiang.
Global Witness said the money bought a $35 million Malibu mansion, a $33 million private jet and a fleet of exotic cars. Obiang himself owns two mansions in Washington, according to the Senate investigation. Human rights groups have filed complaints in courts in France and Spain about multimillion-dollar villas and fleets of cars owned by the Obiang family in those countries.
Teodorin Obiang has stated in a South African court that he earns a salary of $60,000 a year as agriculture minister but that since public officials in his country are allowed to partner with foreign companies bidding for government contracts, "a Cabinet minister ends up with a sizable part of the contract price in his bank account."
Smith said in the cables that Teodorin Obiang indicated he got the money from a lumber concession sold to a Malaysian company that clear-cut and shipped "a wealth of whole logs" to Asia.
Asked for comment on the cables, Robert Palmer of Global Witness said it "reads like a puff piece put together by the Obiang's expensive Washington PR agents: Despite the reassurances that corruption is not so bad, the official paints a picture of a kleptocratic state, ruled by a nepotistic president who hands out choice natural resource concessions to family members, has personal control over government spending and 'clamp(s) down on news.'"
In the cable, Smith quoted representatives of "a foreign, internationally recognized law firm working closely with U.S. oil companies in (Equatorial Guinea) for years" as saying that they had seen "gray areas" but "never encountered a 'smoking gun of outright corruption.'"
In a March 9, 2009 report to the newly installed administration of President Barack Obama, Smith said: "It is time to abandon a moral narrative that has left us with a retrospective bias and an ambivalent approach to one of the most-promising success stories in the region.
"U.S. involvement is needed to shape EG's future," the cable continued, using an acronym for the country's name. "Relatively minor U.S. technical assistance and advice in key areas (justice, human rights and democracy, social development, education,conservation, maritime security) will be effective in giving EG the future we want it to have."
The alternative, he said, could be "a revolution that brings sudden, uncertain change and unpredictability ... (with) potentially dire consequences for our interests, most notably our energy security."
He also noted that Obiang himself seized power in a coup "likely supported by outside forces," though he did not further identify them.
Obiang has survived numerous coup attempts since staging his own in 1979, when he oversaw the public execution of his uncle, the then-president.
The most notorious was a botched 2008 attempt by British mercenary Simon Mann with funding from British interests, allegedly including the son of former British leader Margaret Thatcher.
Last year, four alleged coup plotters were executed just an hour after they were condemned in a case that Amnesty International called a "pretense of justice."