COLUMN | More hostages of fortune: Equatorial Guinea convicts SBM workers as Toxic Teddy’s revenge for another yacht arrest [Offshore Accounts]
When we covered the gross injustice of the case of Heroic Idun, where the 26-strong crew of a tanker were detained in Nigeria for many months on trumped up charges until the owner agreed to pay restitution of US$15 million to the Nigerian authorities, there was a also second state that also ran roughshod over the rights of the crew: Equatorial Guinea.
In fact, after the Norwegian owners paid an extortionate fine of US$2 million to the Equatorial Guinean authorities for the supposed crime of failing to fly the national flag on the tanker, we commented that, “if Mickey Mouse had a government, he would put the capital in Malabo.”
Now, events in Malabo have taken a dark turn. Again.
Treating people like pawns
Further evidence of the appalling abuses of power by the ruling family of Malabo was revealed when two South African offshore workers were convicted to 12 years in prison each, and fined US$7.8 million apiece. The imprisonment of South African citizens Peter Huxham and Frederic Potgeiter is a reminder that Equatorial Guinea treats people like human pawns, and that there is no rule of law in the country.
Just after jailing the two offshore workers, Equatorial Guinea also sentenced an opposition leader, Gabriel Nse Obiang Obono, to 29 years in prison, along with eight of his supporters. His now-illegal political party had once held the only opposition seat in the country’s hundred-member parliament. He was convicted of, amongst other things, “insulting the Equatorial Guinean security forces”.
Now that is something we would never dream of doing.
Implausible charges with obvious timing
The government authorities claimed that after signing off from a tour of duty on an offshore production facility, the two South Africans were trying to smuggle cocaine out of the country, back to South Africa. This makes no sense, and is highly implausible, especially as nobody in Equatorial Guinea was ever arrested or charged with providing the men with the drugs, and the court provided no evidence as to where the narcotics might have appeared from during their brief stay at the Anda China hotel. Francois Negrini, their representative, told the South African news site George Herald that the men were innocent, and that no evidence was presented by the prosecutor before they were convicted.
SBM has been providing legal representation to the men and has stated that they have exemplary work records. Bizarrely, the pair worked offshore on separate facilities more than 20 kilometres apart, FPSO Aseng and FPSO Serpentina, on different fields, operated by different oil companies. They say that they did not know one another before they were arrested together in the hotel.
Coca is not grown in Equatorial Guinea, cocaine is not produced there, and the country has some of the most repressive security apparatus in Africa. The offshore crew were held for over four months before being brought to court to be charged, and then summarily convicted by a bench of five judges at the end of June.
Those working in the country’s offshore sector, where Tidewater and P&O Maritime are major players, need to be aware that their human rights may not be respected.
“Corruption is endemic and affects all levels of government and the bureaucracy,” Security contractor Crisis24 states in its country profile for Equatorial Guinea. “Rule of law is weak, with widespread political interference in the judiciary and a culture of impunity among political, military, and economic elites.”
The South African government has protested that the men were denied access to consular services and were not charged until the end of June, four months after they were held. You can read the South African government statement here. Both required medical attention in the prison hospital before their trial.
Toxic Teddy the Veep denounces South African legal system
As usual, Equatorial Guinea’s Vice President Teodoro Nguema Obiang (better known by his nickname “Teddy”, which is also his Instagram handle) is at the centre of the scandal. Mr Obiang claimed that the conviction was “the first of the package of measures” he would be taking in response to the arrest of his 66-metre-long yacht Blue Shadow in South Africa, as per Energy Voice. The timing of the arrest of the two offshore workers came immediately after the detention of the yacht in their homeland.
Teddy claimed on Twitter that the yacht was a ship of the Equatorial Guinean Navy. If, indeed, this is correct, it may explain why the navy has performed so feebly against the Nigerian pirates who regularly intrude into the country’s waters, as luxury yachts are generally not provided with ballistics protection or weapons.
The vice president denounced those who had arrested the ship as “racists” on social media (twice), said he was a victim of “white, slave-owning lawyers from Cape Town”, and threatened to close the national air and maritime space to South African ships and vessels.
Lose one case, start two more
Blue Shadow was impounded in Cape Town in early February alongside the historic Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, after Daniel Janse van Rensburg, a South African businessman, had successfully sued Teddy for damages. Mr van Rensburg had been unlawfully detained in Equatorial Guinea for over 400 days in squalid and dangerous conditions after an aviation deal with the Vice President’s family members turned sour. Mr van Rensburg received an award of ZAR40 million (US$2.2 million) from the South African courts in 2021 but had struggled to enforce the damages.
The Sunday Times reported Mr van Rensburg had relinquished his claim on the yacht because he did not want to be the possible cause of the incarceration of the two South African workers in Equatorial Guinea. Daniel Janse van Rensburg’s spokesman said that documents found aboard Blue Shadow, together with statements from its crew, supported his claim that the yacht belongs to Teddy.
Blue Shadow was eventually released from arrest in Cape Town after “settlement was reached with the arresting creditors attorneys”, according to the super yacht industry press. The yacht sailed northwards on February 25.
In 2021, Mr Obiang also forfeited two Cape Town properties, a mansion in Bishopscourt, and a bungalow in the suburb of Clifton after they were also seized under an attachment order linked to the damages he owes Mr van Rensburg. Days before Blue Shadow was detained, Teddy had lost an appeal in the South African courts against the damages.
Mr Obiang responded to losing an appeal against damages in one unlawful imprisonment case to a South African by immediately locking up two more.
Daddy’s been in power for 24 years
Teddy is the son of the country’s long serving president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has ruled the oil-rich island state since 1979. He came to power by overthrowing his own uncle, who had conducted a reign of terror against the population after it gained independence from Spain in 1968. The elder Obiang has kept a tight grip on power whilst his family enjoy the benefits of the oil discoveries ExxonMobil brought to production in 1996 and the liquefied natural gas plant (LNG) that came onstream in 2007.
Mr Obiang senior was re-elected as president for a sixth term in November 2022 with around 95 per cent of the vote. Teddy is widely believed to be his heir, although Teddy’s half-brother Gabriel is also seen as a possible candidate. Gabriel is the current Minister of Finance.
Teddy’s lengthy record
Teddy has been convicted of money laundering and stealing US$150 million of state funds whilst living the high life in Europe (here). The US government has confiscated his villa in California, the Swiss government seized his collection of Bugatti supercars in Geneva, and the French have also prosecuted him.
The United States Department of Justice made the case succinctly:
“Through relentless embezzlement and extortion, Vice President Obiang shamelessly looted his government and shook down businesses in his country to support his lavish lifestyle, while many of his fellow citizens lived in extreme poverty,” Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell said. “After raking in millions in bribes and kickbacks, Nguema Obiang embarked on a corruption-fueled spending spree in the United States.”
When Teddy was sanctioned by the UK in 2021 for corruption, the British government highlighted how he had splurged his ill-gotten gains on a collection of Michael Jackson memorabilia, including a crystal-encrusted glove from the singer’s 1980s Bad tour, for which the Vice President had apparently paid US$275,000. In 2020 he promised to give the gloves to the national football team’s goalkeeper Jesus Owo if the team won the African Cup of Nations.
Equatorial Guinea was unfortunately eliminated in the quarter finals.
Isn’t the first time a yacht has been seized
The arrest of Blue Shadow is not the first time one of Mr Obiang’s yachts has been detained. In 2020, the 76-metre Ebony Shine, another superyacht allegedly owned by Teddy, left Cape Town after journalists from the country’s Sunday Times made enquiries about it.
That yacht has been arrested twice, including in the Netherlands in 2016, as lawyers attempt to attach Obiang’s assets in relation to an embezzlement case and an Interpol arrest warrant validated by the International Court of Justice. The full story of the arrest and Equatorial Guinea’s efforts to recover the vessel is here. Again, the government claimed that the yacht was a military asset.
“A jacuzzi on the upper deck serves no military purpose,” asserted the Dutch public prosecutor, dryly.
But not content with two yachts, Teddy apparently also has a third, the 90-metre ICE, which he bought from the Russian oligarch Suleiman Kerimov in 2015. The yacht was originally built for the Chupa-Chup loll-pop and Mentos mint billionaire Augusto Perfetti.
Mr Perfetti seems to have been the only owner of the vessel who actually worked for money rather than acquiring it in dubious circumstances. You can marvel at the specification and photos here.
Would you buy a yacht from Mr Kerimov?
As an aside, Mr Kerimov and his son are now subject to sanctions in the EU and USA, and he himself has been investigated for, but never convicted of, various activities in France. The BBC has reported how he used a network of front companies to buy property in Europe, including a US$100 million property in London, after he reportedly made US$21 billion from investing in the Russian state gas company Gazprom, and in Sberbank, the biggest bank in Russia.
Mr Kerimov previously shot to fame in November 2006 when he was seriously injured after he crashed his Ferrari Enzo, which then burst into flames, on Nice’s Promenade des Anglais. He and his family own 46 per cent of the Russian gold mining company Polyus, and another yacht he allegedly owns, the 106-metre-long Amadea, was arrested in Fiji in 2022 upon suspicion of being purchased with the proceeds of crime. Amadea was also flagged in the Cayman Islands before it was seized by US authorities and sailed back to Honolulu under the American registry.
Birds of a feather flock together. And, seriously, does anyone in the superyacht business know about anti-money laundering best practice and Know Your Customer principles?
Answers on a post card to Grand Cayman, please.
So much corruption, so little enforcement in Malabo
Along with his yachts, Teddy also owns Asonga TV, the country’s only “privately owned” television channel.
Over and over, Equatorial Guinea has featured in many of the major corruption scandals of recent years. Last June, the mining company and trading house Glencore was convicted of paying kickbacks to win oil shipments in Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Ivory Coast, South Sudan, and Cameroon. Glencore was fined US$1.5 billion for its malfeasance. Nobody in Malabo was ever prosecuted for receiving the bribes paid by Glencore.
SBM Offshore’s long-running corruption scandal began when whistle-blower Jonathan Taylor spotted some “irregular payments” to officials in Equatorial Guinea, leading to the exposition of a massive bribery scandal. This then resulted in the floating production company paying out fines of over US$830 million in multiple jurisdictions, as well as losing a defamation claim against the whistle-blower, who was detained in Croatia at the behest of the government of Monaco. Again, no one was prosecuted in Malabo for receiving the bribes paid by SBM.
Our favourite investigators at the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) reported in 2021 that Teddy’s half-brother, Gabriel Mbega Obiang Lima, who was then the country’s Minister of Mines and Hydrocarbons, had allegedly extorted bribes and siphoned off millions of dollars of state money from various construction projects carried out by Portuguese contractor Armando Cunha.
Later in 2021, OCCRP reported that the CEO of Equatorial Guinea’s state oil company GEPetrol was caught up in a court battle against an oil trading company in Europe, Arcadia Petroleum. A 2018 letter sent to Antonio Oburu Ondo by Arcadia’s lawyers alleged that companies owned or controlled by Mr Oburu received between US$64 and US$73 million in “stolen funds”.
In claims that sound very similar to the allegations that led to the conviction of Glencore, Arcadia said that sham intermediary companies were inserted into oil sales and these entities “made multi-million dollar payments to shell companies linked to Oburu.” Mr Oburu was in charge of GEPetrol crude oil sales throughout the period of the alleged embezzlement, OCCRP maintains, and its investigators went on to find a string of luxury properties around the world owned by the GEPetrol CEO and his wife. Cándida Okomo Nsue Mensa is a former singer who is also employed at the state oil company, as well as being a relative of the First Lady of Equatorial Guinea. Her father is a former Equatorial Guinean ambassador to the United States.
In February, Teddy’s father the president showed how seriously he treats allegation of embezzlement and corruption by (Wait for it…) promoting Mr Oburu to the cabinet post as Minister of Mines and Hydrocarbons. He could “leverage his years of industry experience” by “building on the progress that has already been achieved in Equatorial Guinea,” in the words of NJ Ayuk, Executive Chairman of the African Energy Chamber.
Conclusion: approach with caution, enforce with vigour
The imprisonment of Mr Huxham and Mr Potgeiter is a salutary warning that innocent people can get caught up in events completely beyond their control and relating to political tensions in which they have played no part. Unfortunately, governments like those of Russia, China, and Equatorial Guinea are quite willing to use foreigners working in their countries as human pawns to further political interests.
The detention of Heroic Idun eventually ended with the 26 crew being released within a year but only after the payment of US$15 million to the Nigerian authorities. Let us hope that Mr Huxham and Mr Potgeiter are also freed soon.
We commend SBM for standing behind them. However, we urge everyone in the offshore industry to remember that just because you do not take an interest in politics, it doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.
A country like Equatorial Guinea is remarkably corrupt; this should be no surprise to readers of this column. Unfortunately, protected by lots of paid professionals in the west, men like Toxic Teddy can often act with impunity against their enemies. Mr van Rensburg had his day in court, but it took years and years. Only strong legal systems and active corruption enforcement around the world can prevent the worst of the presidential family’s abuses. When the Brazilian authorities seized US$16 million in undeclared cash and jewellery from Teddy’s entourage in 2018, his friends’ defence was that they needed the money to spend in Singapore, which they were visiting as their next stop. Perhaps the Singaporean government might also want to be looking into any shady connections to Malabo?
Shame on the Cayman Islands for facilitating the ownership of those yachts.
Karma is a thing, right?
The population of Africa already surpasses that of India and China, but corruption means that the fast-growing population of the continent is often robbed of opportunities by the crooked and ruthless politicians who run the 54 countries there. See our coverage of the greedy ruling family of Congo-Brazzaville and the life of plunder of the former Angolan president Jose Eduardo Dos Santos, who died last year.
Nigeria’s Ikenga Online has a fascinating piece by Osmund Agbo on the connections between Calabar University and Equatorial Guinea.
You can track the private jets used by Teddy here.
You can read the judgement in the Janse van Rensburg vs Teddy Obiang court filing in South Africa here online. It makes grim reading regarding conditions in Equatorial Guinea’s detention facilities:
“The plaintiff testified that he was tightly handcuffed so much so that his wrists were cut. His hands were handcuffed to a rail in one of the rooms in a dungeon. He witnessed inmates being tortured in his presence in prison. He was later thrown in a small, crammed cell with about thirty inmates. The plaintiff was further tortured by other inmates in the cell. His arms ached from being handcuffed. He found it difficult to breathe in the room as it was hot and humid. He could not even swat a cloud of mosquitoes away, as his hands were cuffed behind his back. The floor of the cell was slippery and covered with human blood and vomit.”
Mr van Rensburg wrote a book about his imprisonment called Black Beach: 491 Days in One of Africa’s Most Brutal Prisons. You can buy a copy and find out more about the case on his website.
As ever, our thoughts go out to Mr Huxham and Mr Potgeiter and their families. Follow George Herald, their hometown newspaper, for more news on the case, or Bobby Jordan, the Times Live reporter who has done so much to shine light on the case.
Equatorial Guinea’s beef with South Africa goes back to 2004 and the disastrous failed coup attempt by British Army officer Simon Mann, which is covered in the excellent book The Wonga Coup by Adam Roberts.
Ebony Shine’s most recent AIS records shows that Teddy’s yacht (sorry, I mean the EG naval vessel…) was last spotted in Italy. ICE’s AIS pinged close to the picturesque Cinque Terre coast of Italy as we wrote this piece. Blue Shadow has recently cleared into Portugal as per Vesselfinder. Needless to say, all three yachts are flagged to the Cayman Islands, a country where money laundering appears to be a national sport. And why, oh why, are the assets owned by a convicted embezzler and money launderer able to freely call at European ports?