All hell broke loose when, a few weeks back, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists [ICIJ] released a report which exposed the shady dealings of Isabel dos Santos, the richest woman in Africa. Referred to as the Luanda Leaks, the report linked Dos Santos to at least 400 off-shore companies. As head of Group Sonangol [the country’s oil firm which her father, the President, hand-picked her to lead], she laundered the state’s money through a number of pretend-investments. Publicly, she was a mogul whose $2.1 billion business empire covered telecoms, cement, banking, television, alcohol, supermarket, diamonds and real estate. From her £13 million mansion in the Royal Borough of Kensington to her 163-foot yacht, she was living the dream. She appeared a globe-trotting socialite who unwound by hanging out with Kim Kardashian, Nicki Minaj, Paris Hilton, and Rita Ora. Her hands were dirty, but her image was clean.
Yet, savvy as Dos Santos’ schemes have been, she is only one among the legion of African leaders and their families who have transformed ill-gotten wealth in Africa into a luxurious lifestyle abroad. From Charles Taylor of Liberia to Idi Amin of Uganda, corrupt African leaders have a legacy of building generational wealth off of stolen funds. Many have enriched their families with a fleet of yachts, limousines, Dubai mansions and California apartments where they live next-door to Hollywood icons. A closer look at a handful of such leaders gives one a much clearer picture of the matter:
Felix Houphouët-Boigny [Ivory Coast]
Félix Houphouët-Boigny served as the first President of the Ivory Coast from 1960 to his death in 1993. At the time of his death, he was the longest-lasting ruler in African history, third in the world to Fidel Castro of Cuba and Kim II-sung of North Korea. He was also one of the richest people in the world, with his net worth estimated to be between $7 billion and $11 billion. Born into a wealthy family, his parents owned large cocoa and coffee plantations. Houphouët-Boigny was a big spender; he lavished his wealth on different acquisitions: Hotel de Maressan in Paris, an unnamed property in Italy, a house in Switzerland, real estate companies [Grand Air SI, SI Picallpoc and Interfalco] as well as shares in Harry Wilson and Paiget SA. He also made a number of investments in Switzerland, saying “[I don’t know if] there is any serious man on Earth not stocking parts of his fortune in Switzerland”. As a gift to Pope John Paul II, he built the Basicilia of Our Lady of Peace, the world’s largest church, for a staggering amount that some sources estimate to be as high as $600 million, while the country was facing a massive recession.
Upon his death, Houphouët-Boigny left no will, making it difficult to know how exactly to split the inheritance. When the news of his passing spread across the globe, his lawyers in Paris, Switzerland and Ivory Coast scrambled to take an inventory of his finances. They shared the money among themselves and gave the rest to Marie, Guillaume, François and Augustin, his children from his first marriage. Today, his children live a relatively quiet life in the cosy mansions of Paris, away from the glamour and the celebrity; perhaps financially set for life.
Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo [Equatorial Guinea]
In 1979, Mbasogo became the leader of Equatorial Guinea after overthrowing his uncle, President Francisco Macias Nguema, who had become so paranoid that he ordered the execution of anyone he deemed a potential threat. After wrestling power from his uncle’s hands, Mbasogo positioned himself as an antithesis to his uncle the corrupt dictator who would not let go of his grasp on power. In an ironic twist, Mbasogo is still in power 41 years later, with plans to leave his son, Teodorín [who he has also appointed the Vice President] as his successor upon his death. Mbasogo, through the state-owned radio, has declared himself “the country’s god of all things [who] can decide to kill without anyone calling him to account and without going to hell”. This limitless dominion over all things has also spread to the country’s finances.
In 2003, he told the nation that he felt compelled by the divine to take charge of the national treasury so as to avoid corruption. His first act in that regard was to deposit over $500 million to more than 60 accounts his family owned at the Riggs Bank in Washington DC. Research has found that his family owns a number of luxurious properties including: a $31million compound in Malibu [California], a 5,000 square feet home on Avenue Foch in the affluent 16th arrondissement of Paris, 30 models of the Bugatti Veyron 16.4 sports car [estimated at 1,100,000 €], a Maserati MC 12 at €700,000 and a rap music record label. In 2014, Teodorin bought a $100 million yacht for personal use, under the cover of a holding company.
Teodorin’s spending habits has earned him notoriety in the foreign media and among international law enforcement agencies. In 2017, France gave him a three-year travel ban, seized 17 of his luxury cars and the Paris mansion, and fined him €30 million.
Omar Bongo [Gabon]
The 42-year ruler of Gabon was one of the world’s longest-serving non-royal leaders of all time. He presided over the largest oil boom his country had ever witnessed. However, the revenue generated from this economic advantage was poured mostly into Bongo’s personal pockets. Some critics argue that he practically worked as president just to amass money for himself and his family. In 1999, he was reported to have deposited $130 million in different accounts he controlled at Citibank in New York. But this amount does not paint the full picture of just how much money he made. During his lifetime, he was one of the wealthiest men in the world.
He was sure to want of nothing. He built himself a $500 million presidential villa which suited his tastes. He personally charged the oil group, Elf Aquitaine €40 million per year for the access to exploit petrol lands in Gabon. Among his material acquisitions are 39 luxury houses in France including a £15 million mansion in Paris, seven properties in Nice, nine Paris apartments, two flats near the Eiffel Tower, a fleet of limousines, including a £308,823 Maybach, £60,000 Mercedes, £153,000 Ferrari 612 Scaglietti F1 and £156,000 Ferrari 456 M GT.
Surely, his family loves to live large as well. At some point, they spent up to £55 million a year on lavish acquisitions. His wife, Omar Bongo splashed $3.5 million on Paris apartments in 2005. In 2007, his son, Ali Bongo’s second wife shocked the world when she appeared on the American reality show, Really Rich Real Estate, trying to buy a $25 million mansion in Malibu, California. The Bongo family currently controls at least 70 bank accounts, while owning a yacht, an enormous art collection and a Boeing 777. Most importantly, they are still in control of Gabon political and economic fate, with Ali taking over from his father following the latter’s death in 2009.
Sani Abacha [Nigeria]
The late Sani Abacha’s wealth-stashing method was quite an interesting one. For the sake of officiality, Abacha would direct his National Security Adviser, Ismaila Gwarzo, to write him a letter requesting millions of dollars so as to tend to national security “emergencies”. Abacha would then give his consent in writing and get the CBN to release the emergency monies to Gwarzo. On paper, this was a proactive head of state doing all he needed to protect his territory. In reality, of course, this was not the case. The funds were not used for any emergencies whatsoever. They were moved to accounts in Europe that Abacha secretly controlled such as such as the Rayville and Standard Alliance accounts, at Banque SBA, the Eagle Alliance, and Mecosta accounts at ANZ [London], and the Mecosta account at Standard Bank. The records showed money being spent on security, but the only thing being secured was Abacha’s metaphorical bag. This little charade was repeated up to 60 times, with the CBN getting poorer each time.
In 2002, years after his passing, a series of investigations began into his financial misdemeanours. His family was later ordered to return $1.2 billion to the government. During his reign, his family owned seven real estate properties in Dubai
Interestingly, no one knows exactly just how much Abacha took from his country. Every now and then, news comes out of some recently-uncovered funds linked to the late military leader. In 2014, the United States pledged to return US$480 million of recovered loot to Nigeria. In 2018, Switzerland made an agreement with Nigeria to return $323 million worth of recovered funds. In 2019, British tax company, Bailiwick of Jersey, discovered that $270 million laundered through secret networks. It has become impossible to estimate at this point just how much money or properties Abacha acquired at the expense of the economy.
Despite the allegations and global demonisation of Abacha’s legacy, his family is not exactly living in squalor either. In 2002, terms of settlement were reached to allow his family keep up to $100 million of the looted funds as their possession. His ten children and thirty-three grandchildren have become heirs to the Abacha Empire.
Where African Leaders Buy:
Paris is a particularly attractive spot for African leaders looking to launder money through real estate. A mark of considerable affluence, owning a Parisian apartment is one of the most common power flexes for those looking to transform African loot into a European high-class lifestyle. And, as expected from those who enjoy ill-begotten wealth, the lengths to which they lavish these riches in Paris knows no bounds.
President Denis Sassou-Nguesso of Congo Republic presides over the fifth-biggest oil-producing country in sub-Saharan Africa and enjoys the wealth accordingly. Currently, his family owns up to 24 real estate properties in the French capital. His daughter Edith was reported by the French police to have bought a mansion worth €18.9 million. While his children studied in France, Sassou-Nguesso bought the Villa Suzette, an exquisite mansion in Le Vésine, one of the wealthiest communes in France. In 2012, the French authorities seized an €80 million Parisian mansion from Teodorin Nguema Obiang.
Due to its sentimental connection to Francophone Africa, fuelled by the protectionist policies of presidents like Nicolas Sarkozy, leaders from that part of Africa are wont to retire in the country’s capital. For that reason, many of them tend to invest in real estate property there for their descendants who might not want to take up the mantle of leadership. For instance, Houphouët-Boigny’s children have shied away from the spotlight and instead enjoy a quiet but luxurious life in the Paris villas they inherited from their father.
Malibu, California United States
Malibu’s spot on the list is not at all difficult to comprehend. Perhaps the single most attractive place of residence in the entire world, it is famed for being home to the biggest stars in Hollywood, including Leonardo Di Caprio, Lady Gaga, Brad Pitt, Ellen DeGeneres, Angelina Jolie, Eddie Murphy, Bruce Willis, Beyoncé and many more. Anyone who could afford a home in Tinseltown would hardly pass up the opportunity to have someone like Will Smith as their next-door buddy.
That is why it made perfect sense when the fun-loving playboy with the rockstar-complex, Teodorin, bought a $31 million mansion in Malibu. As stated earlier, Ali Bongo’s wife was also on national television in the United States trying to acquire a $25 million mansion in Malibu, something she naturally should not be able to afford on her own.
The Plight of Nigerian Looters
With the current war against corruption being waged by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission [EFCC], Nigerian looters have been facing a hard time funnelling money through their usual channels: Switzerland, Luxemburg, United Kingdom, United States and Seychelles. Attempting to stash money in accounts in all those places is a sure-fire way to attract the suspicion of the federal authorities who are currently alert to such illicit transactions.
But the strategy has seemingly changed. The trend of Nigerian looters stashing money in Europe is seeing a decline, not for morality purposes, but purely because the destination of those monies has changed. According to a report by the EFCC, Nigerian leaders now prefer to acquire real estate properties in neghbouring African countries like Ghana, Egypt, Cameroon, South Africa, Equatorial Guinea, Niger Republic and Morocco.
The anti-graft agency’s focus on transactions and illegitimate acquisition of property in target countries means that looters can afford to go more domestic in stashing the loot, and sometimes, domestic does not mean neighbouring countries. It means the country itself. With renewed interest in Nigeria’s real estate sector, affluent Nigerians as well as real estate developers have found a brilliant investment opportunity. For upper class Nigerians, owning houses in places like Banana Island and Maitama is not just a status symbol, but a way to ensure security of assets appreciation. The influx of the well-to-do looking to invest in real estate has made a lot of these residential areas more expensive than they usually are.
The man-made island has been described a Nigeria’s most expensive neighbourhood by Forbes. It has been compared to Seventh Arrondissement in Paris, La Jolla in San Diego, California and Tokyo’s Shibuya and Roppongi neighborhoods It was designed specifically with the beau monde in mind, with houses costing more than a fortune. A 3-bedroom apartment typically costs about N100Million ($625,000) here and N450Million ($2.81Million) for a 5-bedroom house. It is also great business for those looking to lease. Renting a 3-bedroom apartment could cost as much N10 million yearly. It is regarded as a city for billionaires, with Globacom Chairman Mike Adenuga, daughter of a former president of Nigeria, Iyabo Obasanjo owning property in the residential area.
As at 2015, apartments in this area cost up to N450million. For a residential area known to house commissioners, ambassadors and other top government officials, that figure is not at all surprising. Its status as a haven for highly-placed individuals means that anyone looking to stash funds through real estate would fit in easily among the crowd, attracting less suspicion.
Nicon Town, Lekki
Nicon Town is a quiet, self-sustaining enclave hidden away among the treasures of the Lagos city. With houses costing between N300 million and N400milion, it definitely has an irresistible appeal for property acquisition.