French probe 'ill-gotten gains' of big-spending African leaders

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Equatorial Guinea has 1,800 miles of roads which are largely unpaved and impassable in rainy weather without a four-wheel drive truck.

So just what does Teodoro Nguema Obiang, the 41-year-old son of the country's autocratic president, do with all his cars?

According to judicial documents leaked in France yesterday, Mr Obiang imported 26 luxury cars from the US via France in a $12m (£7.4m) shipment in November 2009.

The delivery included seven Ferraris, four Mercedes-Benz, five Bentleys, four Rolls-Royces, two Bugattis, an Aston Martin, a Porsche, a Lamborghini and a Maserati. According to a French judicial investigation, the vehicles were imported from America to the Vatry freight airport east of Paris and then re-exported in the name of Mr Obiang Jnr to Equatorial Guinea.

It is one of a host of recent examples of extravagant spending uncovered by French magistrates as part of an official investigation into the alleged biens mal aquis (ill-gotten gains) of the leaders of three African countries.

The younger Mr Obiang is also an art-lover, it appears. Tracfin, the French government's anti-money laundering agency, also documented his purchase of more than €18m (£16.2m) of objets d'art from the personal collection of the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent when they were auctioned in Paris in February 2009. The bill for the 109 art works was settled by bank transfers from the Equatorial Guinea forestry board.

Mr Obiang Jnr is, among his other responsibilities, the country's minister of agriculture and forests. The works of art are believed to have been distributed among his six homes abroad, including an seafront house in Malibu, California, and a four-floor apartment near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

Equatorial Guinea is one Africa's smallest countries and, in theory, one of the most prosperous. Oil revenues make it the wealthiest single country in Africa per capita, but 70 per cent of the population live beneath the United Nations' poverty threshold of $2 a day.

By comparison with Mr Obiang, extravagant spending by other African leaders uncovered by the French is relatively modest. The President of Gabon, Ali Bongo, bought a Bentley Continental Flying Speed, worth €220,000, in France in 2009. Antoinette Nguesso, wife of the President of Congo-Brazzaville, Denis Sassou Nguesso, bought a Mercedes Class E and his nephew, Wilfrid, a Porsche Panamera Turbo (both worth more than €100,000).

A judicial investigation in France into the alleged embezzlement of state funds by leaders in the three African nations was authorised by the highest French appeal court last year after a formal complaint was made in 2008 by the pressure group Transparency International France (TIF).

The French prosecution service initially refused to authorise an investigation, leading to accusations that Paris was "protecting" its three oil-producing former colonies. The highest appeal court, the Cour de Cassation, overturned the official objections last year.

Documents leaked to the newspaper Le Monde suggest the complaint has done little to cramp the style of the leaders and their families. The two magistrates entrusted with the investigation asked the prosecution service last month for permission to extend their inquiry to extravagant purchases made after 2008. Permission was refused, but the prosecution service later ordered a different investigation by the national anti-fraud agency.