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Françafrique, kick-backs, petro-dollars and privileged relations defined Paris’s foreign policy, is back in the spotlight of the presidential campaign. President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea and his clan are accused of having assets worth €160m in France.“People here could have a very good life with the oil and gas. Instead it all goes to Mr Obiang and his family.“ The Sassou N’Guesso clan have 24 properties in France in their own name, 112 bank accounts and various sports cars. Meanwhile, NGOs point out that 70% of Congo-Brazzaville people live on less than $1 a day. The Bongo clan has the biggest property portfolio in the „ill-gotten gains case“. A preliminary police report claimed he and his close relatives own 39 properties in France, mostly in exclusive districts of Paris and on the French Riviera. They also have 70 French bank accounts and at least nine luxury cars in France, including Ferraris and Mercedes worth a total of €1.5m. Bongo’s son, Ali Bongo.

Februar 6, 2012

France impounds African autocrats‘ ‚ill-gotten gains‘

French authorities are investigating the conspicuous Paris fortunes of three serving African leaders and their families

Supercars impounded in Paris

Eleven supercars worth up to €5m have been seized from outside an African leader’s Paris mansion as part of money-laundering investigations. Photograph: Alexsmolik

At 42 Avenue Foch, the tree-lined boulevard that is one of Paris’s most expensive streets, looms a five-storey private mansion complete with disco, spa room, hair salon, gold- and jewel-encrusted taps, lift, pastel pink dining room and a breathtaking balcony-view of the Arc de Triomphe.

Local people always knew when there was about to be a visit from its 41-year-old „playboy“ resident, Teodorin Obiang, eldest son of the autocratic president of Equatorial Guinea. Days before Obiang Jr’s private jet touched down, two massive lorries would pull up outside and disgorge a sea of fresh flowers to dress the interior of the mansion.

When Obiang was in residence, passersby would see a parade of couturiers from Paris’s top design houses, including Yves Saint Laurent, Dior, Louis Vuitton, waiting to be admitted for fittings before returning with vanloads of made-to-measure clothes. Crates of the most expensive burgundy were another regular delivery.

On one occasion 15,000 DVDs were hauled in on wooden pallets – roughly 41 years worth of viewing.

But the most public statement of opulence was the fleet of luxury, turbo-charged, yellow, red and blue sports cars, parked in garages or in the cobbled courtyard.

„The noise-factor was extreme,“ one local said. „He seemed obsessed with security so when he wanted to go out between midnight and 2am, he’d order the chauffeur to warm up four cars so no one knew which he’d take. Can you imagine the noise of Ferraris, Porsches and Maseratis all running at once? Then he’d come down and decide to take a fifth car and that would have to be started.“

But the courtyard has fallen quiet, the mansion empty of occupants. Three months ago, in a morning raid, French police towed away 11 luxury cars, including a Maserati, a Porsche Carrera, an Aston Martin and a Mercedes Maybach.

At the time, Obiang Jr, whose salary as Equatorial Guinea’s agriculture and forestry minister was €3,200 (£2,700) a month, owned two Bugatti Veyrons, the most expensive and fastest street car in the world, costing about €1m a piece and reaching 250mph . He was in the process of acquiring a third.

The raid was the first in the landmark French inquiry known as the case of the „ill-gotten gains“.

In an unprecedented move, three serving African leaders and their families are under investigation in Paris over whether they embezzled state funds to acquire vast assets in France including bank accounts, Riviera villas and fleets of luxury cars.

The clan of Gabon’s late leader Omar Bongo and its current leader, his son Ali Bongo; the Congo-Brazzaville leader, Denis Sassou-Nguesso and his family, and President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea and his clan are accused of having assets worth €160m in France, from penthouses and villas to scores of bank accounts and luxury car fleets.

The leaders and their families have denied building up personal wealth in France through embezzlement, money-laundering and misuse of public funds.

Judges are beginning the detailed task of trying to prove such spectacular wealth was directly siphoned from the coffers of the oil-rich states to the detriment of populations left to live in misery.

In 2000, just as Obiang began building up his car collection, Equatorial Guinea was on paper the wealthiest African country per inhabitant, yet a majority of its people lived below the UN poverty threshold.

With billions of dollars worth of assets of Muammar Gaddafi frozen by the UN and member countries, and other legal moves to recover the wealth of deposed autocrats such as Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, the drive to seize billions plundered by corrupt leaders has never been higher.

But the French case against three serving African leaders, initiated by anti-corruption NGOs as part of a long legal battle, also illustrates the limits on western willingness to act against rulers still in power.

„With deposed heads of state after the Arab spring, there was no problem, the whole community was scandalised at the plundering of money from their countries. We’re warning against double standards: why should you have to wait for a leader to fall to put a stop to corruption?“ said Maud Perdriel-Vaissiere, head of Sherpa, one NGO leading the case.

The police inquiry has given an unprecedented insight into the lifestyle of certain African leaders. When the spectacular art collection from the homes of the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent went up for auction in Paris in 2009 it was called the art sale of the century and raised more than €370m. French authorities later revealed that Obiang Jr bought 109 lots at the sale, costing €18m.

Olivier Pardo, lawyer for Equatorial Guinea in France, said the case of the „ill-gotten gains“ violated international law and that he would contest the case and pursue France through the international courts. It may not just be France.

A US government court action is seeking to seize $71m (£45m) of assets from Obiang Jr in the US which it claims were paid for through corruption. His US assets are said to include a $38.5m Gulfstream V private jet, a $30m mansion in Malibu, California, and $1.8m of Michael Jackson memorabilia, including a white crystal-covered glove and a crystal-covered pair of socks. A spokesman for Equatorial Guinea denied wrongdoing. An inquiry into the Obiangs‘ assets is also underway in Spain.

On a corner of Paris’s chic Avenue Rapp, in the heart of the wealthy 7th arrondissement, a short walk from the Eiffel tower, the gentlemen’s outfitters Pape tells its own story of the lifestyle of leaders of oil-rich states.

The Senegalese tailor Pape Ibrahima N’diaye, a Paris institution known as „Monsieur Pape“, is a favourite of French lawyers, politicians and businessmen.

Denis Sassou N’Guesso, the 68-year-old leader of Congo-Brazzaville, famous for his impeccable suits and dress sense, did not hold back in his private fittings.

A new book, The Scandal of the Ill-Gotten Gains, by the investigative journalists Thomas Hofnung and Xavier Harel, has sent shockwaves through the French establishment with fresh details of spending habits.

In it, the authors reveal a note by Tracfin, the French anti-money laundering authority, which states that in April 2010, Sassou N’Guesso ordered 91 suits from Pape for €276,000. A month earlier, in March 2010, he had bought 48 shirts for €24,000. In one year, in the 12 months from November 2009, Sassou N’Guesso spent more than €652,000 on clothes there. His lawyer dismissed the sum as „false and absurd“.

The Sassou N’Guesso clan have 24 properties in France in their own name, 112 bank accounts and various sports cars. Meanwhile, NGOs point out that 70% of Congo-Brazzaville people live on less than $1 a day.

In the heart of the 8th arrondissement, not far from the French president’s Elysée palace, a mansion on the quiet Rue de la Baume has come to symbolise the wealth of Gabon’s late leader Omar Bongo. When Bongo died in 2009, he was the world’s longest-ruling head of state, save for the British and Thai monarchies.

A friend of all recent French presidents, at one time he owned more Paris properties than any other foreign leader. The Bongo clan has the biggest property portfolio in the „ill-gotten gains case“.

A preliminary police report claimed he and his close relatives own 39 properties in France, mostly in exclusive districts of Paris and on the French Riviera. They also have 70 French bank accounts and at least nine luxury cars in France, including Ferraris and Mercedes worth a total of €1.5m. Bongo’s son, Ali Bongo, was elected president in 2009 after his father’s death. That year he bought himself a Bentley Continental Flying Spur for more than €200,000, which can run for 1,500 miles without refuelling despite the fact that oil-rich Gabon has less than 500 miles of asphalt roads.

Anti-corruption campaigners have already trooped past the €18.9m mansion on Rue de La Baume, bought in 2007 in the name of two Bongo children, then 13 and 16, and other relatives, in what some call Paris’s „ill-gotten gains“ walking tour. Rooms are full of unopened boxes of electrical kitchen goods which suggest the house hasn’t yet been moved into. A broken doorbell hangs from a wire beside the entrance.

When in power, Omar Bongo’s official salary was reportedly €14,940 to €20,000 a month. French officials are now investigating where the money came from. A 2007 French police report indicated that the payments for some vehicles „appeared at least atypical“.

The case has shed further light on allegations of French collusion in corruption under the cosy system known as „françafrique“ – in which kickbacks, petrodollars and privileged relations defined Paris’s foreign policy towards its former colonies.

Recent allegations about African leaders regularly giving briefcases of cash to French politicians has ruffled feathers in Paris. „It has contributed to a climate of mistrust of politicians, one of a number of different affairs which have sparked revulsion in France,“ said Hofnung, co-author of the Scandal of the Ill-Gotten Gains.

Paris, with its image as the capital of the art of living, was always popular with high-spending dictators. ¬

The question now is what impact the case has in other countries where serving leaders placed their cash.

Tim Daniel, a British lawyer and anti-corruption specialist, said: „London is a No 1 destination for kleptocrats.“ But British law does not allow for cases to be brought by NGOs, so any recovery of assets would depend on the money-laundering authorities.

One of Nigeria’s most influential and wealthy politicians, James Ibori, has been charged in London with 25 offences relating to alleged money-laundering and fraud and will soon face trial.

„The international anti-corruption community is following the French case intensely,“ Daniel said. „It’s a very interesting precedent.“

Three African leaders face fraud inquiry in France

Judges to investigate presidents of Equatorial Guinea, Congo-Brazzaville and late Gabon leader

Three African leaders and their families are to be investigated in Paris over whether they embezzled state funds to acquire vast assets in France including bank accounts, Riviera villas and fleets of luxury cars.

After a series of legal battles known as the „case of the ill-gotten gains“, Paris’s highest appeals court today authorised an inquiry into Gabon’s late leader Omar Bongo, President Denis Sassou-Nguesso of Congo-Brazzaville and President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea.

The independent anti-corruption organisation Transparency International had brought a case accusing the leaders of laundering their nation’s riches.

The NGO said the African leaders and their families had assets worth €160m (£137m) in France including scores of penthouses and villas, dozens of French bank accounts and cars including Ferraris, Maseratis and a Rolls-Royce.

A police report in 2007 said the Bongo clan had 39 properties in France, mostly in Paris’s 16th arrondissement and on the Riviera. The family also had 70 French bank accounts, 11 in Omar Bongo’s name. They had at least nine luxury cars in France, including Ferraris and Mercedes worth a total of €1.5m. Bongo, once the world’s longest-ruling head of state, died last year and was succeeded by his son Ali.

The family of Sassou-Nguesso, Omar Bongo’s father-in-law, had 112 French bank accounts, 18 properties and at least one car in France worth more than €170,000.

The Obiang family had eight luxury cars in France, worth €4.2m. Obiang’s son, a government minister, owns an apartment in an exclusive area of the capital.

Transparency International said the assets were worth several times more than the African leaders officially earned.

The NGO fought a long court battle to open a judicial investigation as French state prosecutors opposed an inquiry. Today’s ruling sets a precedent for corruption investigations against sitting heads of state. An investigating magistrate will now begin looking into the assets of the three leaders and the role of French banks in acquiring them.

Transparency International praised the court ruling as a „major step forward“ in French judicial history that opened the way for other „politically and economically sensitive“ inquiries.

The African leaders and their families have denied building up personal wealth in France through embezzlement, money-laundering and the misuse of public funds.

The case threatens to lay bare the opaque deal-making and blind eye to corruption of France’s special „Françafrique“ relationship with its former African colonies. The case could also strain French diplomatic and business ties with Gabon and Congo, two former colonies, and with Equatorial Guinea, a growing oil exporter.

Jacques Chirac ‚given briefcases of election cash by African leaders‘

Former French president and his premier Dominique de Villepin given millions in notes to fund elections, Africa expert alleg

Jacques Chirac and Dominique de Villepin

Jacques Chirac, right, the former French president, and ex-prime minister Dominique de Villepin have been accused of taking kickbacks Photograph: Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images

African leaders regularly gave briefcases of cash to Jacques Chirac, the former French president, and Dominique de Villepin, the former prime minister, to fund election campaigns, an Africa expert close to President Nicolas Sarkozy has claimed.

The allegations sparked a fresh row over the role of shadowy middlemen and dirty money in French dealings with Africa. The system known as françafrique, in which kick-backs, petro-dollars and privileged relations defined Paris’s foreign policy, is back in the spotlight in the run-up to next year’s presidential campaign.

A Parisian lawyer, Robert Bourgi, who advised Chirac and De Villepin on African affairs before switching allegiance to their rival Sarkozy, described how between 1995 and 2005 he allegedly acted as a „bag carrier“ at the highest level of the French state.

He claimed he delivered hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash from African leaders to Chirac and De Villepin, mostly stuffed into briefcases, but once hidden in a set of African drums, or in a sports bag that was so full of notes he got backache carrying it through the underground corridors of the Elysée palace.

He said the only time he was afraid was while driving through Paris during street demonstrations with €4m (£3.4m) in low-denomination notes in the boot of his car.

„There was never less than 5m [French] francs. It could go up to 15 million,“ Bourgi told Le Journal du Dimanche, describing how he had allegedly helped deliver cash to Chirac as mayor of Paris before he became president. He said Chirac would offer him a beer while putting the wads of cash into a vault.

Bourgi claimed five African heads of states, including Ivory Coast’s ousted leader Laurent Gbagbo and Omar Bongo of Gabon, paid around $10m for Chirac’s 2002 election campaign.

The allegations come before publication next week of an explosive book, The Republic of the Briefcases, by journalist Pierre Péan, which will examine the role of businessmen and Africa advisers and suggest Sarkozy also benefited from African leaders.

Bourgi said when he went to work for Sarkozy, there were no briefcases of cash. But a Chirac adviser, Michel de Bonnecorse, claims in Péan’s book that cash from African leaders was also given to Sarkozy when he was interior minister. The Elysée refused to comment.

De Villepin denounced claims that he or Chirac took money as „nonsense and smokescreens“ and an effort to smear them.

A spokeswoman for Sarkozy’s ruling rightwing UMP party said if Bourgi had evidence of any wrongdoing he should go to the police.

François Hollande, the Socialist who is favourite to stand against Sarkozy in the 2012 presidential election, demanded a judicial inquiry. He said Bourgi, currently an official adviser to Sarkozy, claimed he had been an intermediary for Chirac and De Villepin, but not Sarkozy. „I’d like to believe him,“ he said. „But he should be held to account.“

US accuses dictator’s son of looting $100m from Equatorial Guinea

US moves to seize assets worth $70m, including Gulfstream jet, Malibu mansion, Ferrari and Michael Jackson memorabilia

africa dictator son playboy

A young girl leans out of the doorway of a slum home in Equatorial Guinea, where one in five children dies under the age of five. Photograph: Christine Nesbitt/AP

The playboy son of an African dictator is accused by the United States of looting more than $100m (£63m) from his impoverished country to go shopping for a Malibu mansion, a Gulfstream jet and the late Michael Jackson’s white, crystal-covered glove.

Teodorin Obiang, the eldest son of Teodoro Obiang, the autocratic president of Equatorial Guinea, is the target of a US government court action to seize nearly $71m worth of assets allegedly siphoned off through corruption.

The US justice department claims that Teodorin plundered the tiny west African’s country’s natural resources to buy a $1.8m treasure trove of Jackson memorabilia, some without his name being used, between June 2010 and June this year.

He lavished $275,000 on one of Jackson’s white, crystal-covered gloves used during the singer’s Bad tour, and $80,000 on a pair of crystal-covered socks, according to the asset forfeiture complaint. He is also said to have collected clothing, awards, autographed music sheets and a basketball signed by Jackson and the former basketball player Michael Jordan.

The extravagance stands in stark contrast to the plight of Equatorial Guinea where, despite huge oil wealth, seven in 10 people live below the poverty line and one in five children dies before their fifth birthday.

Teodorin, who is in his early 40s, serves as a minister of forestry and agriculture, earning about $6,800 a month, and is reputedly being groomed to succeed his father, who has been widely accused of human rights abuses since coming to power in a coup 32 years ago.

Human rights activists described the spending on Jackson collectables as bizarre. Tutu Alicante, the executive director of EG Justice, said: „We have known of his obsession with music, and particularly the Jacksons, for a long time. It shows the eccentricities. He’s more concerned about Michael Jackson than improving the lives of the ordinary people of Equatorial Guinea. It’s the mind of a megalomaniac.“

The US justice department filed forfeiture complaints in Los Angeles and Washington for a $38.5m Gulfstream V jet, a $30m mansion in the Californian seaside town of Malibu, a 2011 Ferrari worth more than $530,000 and the Jackson memorabilia worth $1.8m.

Equatorial Guinea’s natural resources, including oil, gas and timber, are allegedly being used in a variety of schemes to line the pockets of the president, his son and their close confidants, the justice department claims.

The alleged corruption runs the gamut of bribery and money-laundering schemes, and includes demanding fees before signing logging concessions to companies, according to the complaint. In another alleged scheme, Teodorin ran a programme in which companies working in Equatorial Guinea made contributions to provide metal roofs to homes for the poor, but instead he and others took the money. Companies that refused to donate faced retaliation, the US authorities said.

When Teodorin went to the US in 1991 to attend Pepperdine University in Malibu, he lived in the luxury Beverly Wilshire hotel and a house in the upscale town, the complaint said. His expenses were paid for by a US oil company operating in his country.

Lanny Breuer, head of the justice department’s criminal division, said: „We are sending the message loud and clear. The United States will not be a hiding place for the ill-gotten riches of the world’s corrupt leaders.“

Teodorin appears to be increasingly boxed in by international courts. Late last year, he moved his luxury car and motorcycle collection, worth an estimated $10m, from Los Angeles to France. French authorities, however, seized 11 of the vehicles last month.

He also moved two yachts from California back to Equatorial Guinea last year, a court filing said.

The US move was welcomed by the campaign group Global Witness which has spent years investigating Teodorin’s assets and revealed his ownership of the house in Malibu.

„By taking action to seize this house, the US is finally starting to send a strong message that it does not want to be a safe haven for ill-gotten loot and vast, unexplained wealth,“ said Robert Palmer of Global Witness. „This should keep suspected kleptocrats with assets in the US awake at night.“

Global Witness also reported earlier this year that Teodorin had commissioned plans to build a superyacht costing $380m – nearly three times what the country spends on health and education annually. After an outcry he decided not to go ahead with the project.

A Washington-based spokesman for Equatorial Guinea and Teodorin said they had tried to offer US officials evidence „that there has been no wrongdoing“, but were rebuffed.

„We intend to carefully review the allegations of this complaint now that we finally have access to it,“ said Matt Lauer of Qorvis Communications. „We look forward to meeting with representatives of the department of justice to provide information that we hope will resolve the issues presented.“

The strange and evil world of Equatorial Guinea

When Nadine Dorries decided to lead Britain’s first parliamentary delegation to one of Africa’s richest states, Ian Birrell tagged along to see how our MPs coped with President Obiang’s kleptocracy

Black beach prison

At the president’s pleasure: Black Beach prison in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea. Photograph: Observer

It is hard not to be impressed when you arrive in the newly rich nation of Equatorial Guinea, especially when you are invited as a guest of the president. There is just a brief wait in the VIP lounge, with its white leatherette sofas and The Naked Gun playing on a flat-screen television, before you are whisked into your limousine, the usual hassles of passport control handled by friendly officials. Leaving Malabo airport you see what looks almost like a modernist sculpture of discarded aeroplanes, one of which has its nose pointing into the air. You wonder if this is some kind of weird memorial to the infamous Wonga coup attempt, when British-led mercenaries failed to overthrow your host in an attempt to get their hands on his oil wealth.

Then there is a drive for several miles along a new three-lane highway. Strangely, it is devoid of traffic – we passed no more than five cars coming in the opposite direction. On either side are new buildings planted among the impossibly lush foliage. There are offices for oil and construction companies, together with scores of new blocks of flats – again all empty.

Eventually you pass the conference centre, a concrete edifice built to host a recent African Union summit. Beside it is a complex of 52 identical mansions, one for every African leader attending the week-long event. It has its own heliport, of course. The houses are all empty.

„Fantastic infrastructure here, isn’t it, compared with the rest of Africa,“ enthuses one of my companions as we speed past. This is Adrian Yalland, an ebullient former spokesman for the Countryside Alliance who now speaks up for this West African dictatorship. He has not visited the country before.

Next, you pass an artificial beach and an ultramodern hospital before turning into an impressive Sofitel hotel with 200 rooms, the country’s first spa and a bespoke island nature walk. An 18-hole golf course is being hacked from the verdant jungle. Even the obligatory picture of President Teodoro Obiang has been given a black-and-gold makeover, giving him the look of JFK. There are, however, hardly any guests.

Welcome to Sipopo. This Orwellian complex, grafted on to the capital, Malabo, is the face Equatorial Guinea wishes to present to the world. Obiang, now the longest-serving ruler in Africa and a man accused of presiding over one of the world’s most corrupt, kleptocratic and repressive governments, spent more than half a billion pounds creating it as part of his drive to rebrand his regime. It is small change for a man alleged to pocket £40m a day in energy revenues; his tiny country is sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest oil producer.

It is like something out of The Truman Show, one of many illusions in a land of artifice. Sipopo cost four times the annual education budget in what is perhaps the planet’s most unequal society, a country where per-capita wealth exceeds Britain but three-quarters of its 675,000 citizens live on less than a dollar a day. Infant mortality rates are among the worst in the world, but that spanking-new hospital, said one doctor, has no patients most of the time. Ordinary people, it turns out, are barred from the area.

This makes it difficult for hotel guests to get taxis in and out of town. But I was travelling with Britain’s first parliamentary delegation to Equatorial Guinea, so we were cocooned from reality, taken around in motorcades led by police cars with blaring horns. It was great fun – although judging by the angry glares rather less so for local drivers forced out of the way. They are unlikely to complain, however; a pharmacist recently stopped by police over a minor traffic mishap said they beat him „like an animal“.

The invitation to join the trip came from Greg Wales, a British businessman with a long-standing interest in the murkier corners of Africa – not least when he was associated with fellow Brit Simon Mann’s plot to overthrow Obiang. In a surreal twist, he now promotes the regime he sought to oust seven years ago. He asked me as a cultural representative, given my interest in African music; I saw a rare opportunity to get a glimpse into a notoriously despotic regime.

Former foreign secretary Michael Ancram had been scheduled to lead the delegation, Wales told me, but was unable to make it. So there were just three backbench Tory MPs – none of whom appeared to have done too much research on Equatorial Guinea before sinking into their business-class seats on the flight out – together with two cultural representatives. The aim was clear: to persuade us this was a good place for business, arts and possibly even tourism.

The rain hammered down as we headed off for our first meeting. It was chaired by Ángel Serafín Seriche Dougan, a dapper fellow who is president of the parliament. Before this he was prime minister until he was forced out amid allegations of corruption – no mean feat in Equatorial Guinea. We sat in a row on his right while senior politicians from his country sat three abreast on sofas to his left. The watches on display were impressive.

„We are here to find out about Equatorial Guinea and take back our impressions,“ said Nadine Dorries, the former nurse best known for her anti-abortion campaigning, heading the group in Lord Ancram’s absence. „We are incredibly honoured to be the first parliamentary delegation in your country.“

There followed a polite discussion about the „dynamic democracy“ of Equatorial Guinea. Mr Dougan said they held free elections with „all the transparency possible“, discussed the freedoms given to opposition parties and explained how they were reforming their constitution along British lines. „We will have two houses, so better to attend to the people. We are learning from you – you may say we do not go fast enough, but we are good pupils.“ He added that the two sets of parliamentarians shared common interests. „From 1996 we have had oil and have been trying to develop the country. We try to use the resources with all possible transparency to develop the country for the welfare of the country.“

Laudable aims. If only they were true. Freedom House, the respected US think tank, places Equatorial Guinea alongside Burma, North Korea and Somalia on its list of the world’s worst regimes, a ruthless one-party state where elections are stolen, opponents jailed and state coffers looted, control of daily life is all-pervasive and the government is accused of grotesque human rights abuses, including torture and extrajudicial killings.

Britain’s representatives responded with the following three questions as the illusory discourse continued: could the opposition raise issues to be debated in parliament? Could they apply for debates? And best of all, whether democratic reform was driven by politicians or the people. This came from Caroline Nokes, MP for Romsey and Southampton North and former chief executive of the National Pony Society.

Then the cream-suited Yalland chipped in: „One of the misconceptions of Equatorial Guinea is that you don’t have a functioning democracy, but you obviously do with state funding and functioning political parties. One of the other major misconceptions is over civil liberties and human rights.“

Dougan said he knew it was a big job for his guests to change the views of people in Europe and show them that not everything in Equatorial Guinea was negative. „You will leave as our first ambassadors,“ he concluded with a smile. Little wonder – cameras had been rolling and clicking constantly, ensuring excellent footage for state-controlled broadcasters. Official reports were hailing the arrival of an all-party group of 10 British MPs.

Despite the naivety of their questions, the MPs begun to twig that all was not as it appeared. Dorries confided she had noticed one of the female politicians had a Hermès handbag costing about £15,000. „What sort of parliamentarian has a bag like that? It’s the little things you notice that cause the alarm.“

The answer was obvious, given the precedent set by the president. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo seized power in 1979 from his uncle, a man who claimed to be a sorcerer, collected human skulls and was such a tyrant that one-third of the population fled his murderous rule. Since then Obiang has created a brutal one-party state that revolves around his family. He is lauded on state radio as a god in „permanent contact with the Almighty“ who can „decide to kill without anyone calling him to account and without going to hell“; this has not, however, stopped him claiming to be a Catholic and being invited to the Vatican by successive popes.

Few outsiders cared much about events in this Spanish-speaking backwater until the discovery of oil. Then western energy giants moved in and the first family joined the global rich list. Obiang, blaming foreigners for bringing corruption to his country, told people he needed to run the national treasury to prevent others falling into temptation. The fantastic scale of his subsequent larceny became apparent when American inquiries into a collapsed bank discovered that Obiang controlled $700m in deposits there alone.

The most notorious member of the clan is Teodorín, the favourite son and presumed heir. His official salary as minister of agriculture and forestry is about £5,000 a month, but in just three years he spent twice as much as the state’s annual education budget on luxury goods. He was caught trying to buy a £234m super yacht earlier this year – and last month was reported to have lost a briefcase in Swaziland with £250,000 inside. „He’s an unstable, reckless idiot,“ commented one US intelligence official.

Little wonder Estanislao Don Malavo, the minister of work and social security, told us: „We used to be very poor. Then God answered our prayers – we discovered oil.“

Like others we met, he repeated a mantra fed by their advisers that the world had the wrong impression of Equatorial Guinea. Certainly it is easy to be seduced by the capitals’s crumbling colonial buildings, the tropical-gothic cathedral and the fancy new restaurants filled with expats – although the streets seem noticeably more subdued, the people more wary, than in other parts of Africa. „People think that when you come here you will be shot at the airport,“ said Malavo. „Our mistake was that we did not do anything to portray a more positive image.“

The regime is spending huge sums on public relations, although this has not stopped criminal investigations in America and France. Obiang’s first attempt to whitewash his image on the global stage came three years ago with the £2m sponsorship of a United Nations science prize, which caused such a furore with human rights groups it was never awarded. Now he is president of the African Union and adopting what one aide called more subtle approaches.

Hence our trip – and its highlight of a promised meeting with Obiang. So with the sun finally shining, we were whisked on the presidential jet over to Bata, the second city. An even bigger motorcade collected us at the airport, security men in reflector shades jumping out and opening doors as our cars slowed down. Waiting at the hotel, we watched a minister guzzling champagne at the bar before being told we must meet the prime minister, Ignacio Milam Tang, first.

Tang sat strangely rigid throughout our meeting, with his back ramrod straight and hands clasped tightly together. The only movement came from his legs, which shook uncontrollably. He was clearly extraordinarily nervous as he explained their goal to develop the country „not just internally but morally in building a better society“.

Dorries opened with her now-familiar recitation about how honoured the delegation was to be there. „We are here to dispel some of the myths about Equatorial Guinea and also with humility to offer you help to avoid the mistakes we have made.“

Then came a bizarre question-and-answer session. Dorries, for instance, asked if Sipopo hospital would be open for everyone, to which the PM replied that it was new so people were unaware of it – this in a country where one in seven children dies before the age of five. Steve Baker, the earnest third member of the delegation with a fixation on free markets, asked about tax rates, to which the PM replied he did not know the exact figures „since I’m not in charge of finance“.

After Tang said he did not know how to reply to my question on why he thought the country’s reputation was so bad, Dorries conferred with Baker and finally raised the issue of repression. „We keep hearing that you don’t recognise your image. But that answer does not help us to help you,“ she said. „It is particularly the question of human rights.“

Tang replied that some governments tried to impose views that were not suitable because of cultural differences, before adding they were victims of stories emanating from the previous regime. As the meeting ended, he dropped his bombshell: the president was not in town, so he could no longer meet us.

Dorries, clearly irked, demanded another question „if we are not going to meet your president“, and asked which of their cultural values were at odds with those of their critics. Tang looked uneasy, said he didn’t know, then added that their „African values“ could never meet „your values in Europe“.

The mood became glacial. Baker and the ambassador to Britain joined in, the latter saying tribalism made democracy difficult, before concluding: „We can’t have people coming from Europe and telling us what to do without understanding Africa and the African way of doing things.“

Dorries, who spent a year working in Zambia when she was younger, replied that the problem was „unacceptable diktats“ from governments. „All African countries have tribes, but not all African countries have a reputation like Equatorial Guinea.“

Tang responded that they were not the only African country with a bad reputation. „People have tried to learn the truth of cultures before making accusations. Concerning what you say about diktats of government, let me say again: Equatorial Guinea is trying its best to be a country ruled by law. We are trying to do our best.“ He closed the meeting by thanking his visitors for their sincerity.

Outside in the corridor, the mood was tense. „I need a cup of tea, I need a cup of tea,“ said Nokes. „No one has offered me a drink. How can this country be developed?“

By the time I returned to the hotel after another meeting, the party was polishing off pizzas and wine. Dorries ended the meal by telling Wales they were not being shown a proper picture of the country and would not write a „whitewash“ report; he replied that they had been rude to their hosts and did not understand Africa. A furious row broke out.

Just at that moment, the mayor of Bata and governor of the state turned up for another official dinner. Needless to say, it turned out to be excruciating.

We never met Obiang. Nor did we get our promised trip to Black Beach, briefly home to Simon Mann and the most notorious prison in Africa, with its reputation for systematic savagery and torture. This was less surprising, despite all the claims that its infamy belonged in the past.

But I did meet Gerardo Angüe Mangue, who knows the prison all too well. A leading member of the Progress Party, he received a phone call in March 2008 urging him to get home quickly. When he got there, four policemen handcuffed him and beat him up outside the house, then threw him into a tiny cell at Black Beach. He was accused with fellow party leaders of scheming to overthrow Obiang.

For two months, he was kept in shackles. Police would regularly fetch him, bind his hands and feet and then suspend him from a pole threaded through his arms. In his tidy house, he demonstrated the crouching position he was forced into, his body screaming in agony as candles were lit under his face so the smoke choked him. Sometimes cold water was poured over him. „Many people died under this torture,“ he said. „I thought often I would die also.“

The only sustenance was bread and water, while a bucket in the corner served as a toilet. Beatings were commonplace. After a few weeks he was moved to a cell with five other people, and the food improved with chicken necks and wings. For a year he was held incommunicado, then his wife, family and friends were allowed to visit if they paid the guards. Sometimes, they too were beaten.

Mangue, 50, told me women and children were among the inmates. A Lebanese man owing money to members of the country’s elite died after police refused his girlfriend’s pleadings to give him insulin for his diabetes, while a Nigerian died under torture. The prison was cleaned up before Red Cross visits, but most inmates were too scared to talk openly, he said.

He was freed in June after a presidential amnesty, although he was warned he would go straight back to Black Beach if he resumed political activity. So why was he talking openly to me? „It is simple,“ he said. „After you have been in Black Beach you have nothing to lose.“

Another dissident offered to show me an alternative view of Equatorial Guinea. He smiled when he saw me emerge from a car with presidential licence plates, then asked if I was sure I wanted to join him since the last foreign journalists in Malabo had been detained by secret police then deported.

We wandered around Campo Yaoundé, a community of 25,000 people in the midst of the capital. The bustling streets were so muddy it was hard to walk without slipping. Soukous and hip-hop pounded out of bars as young children walked around hawking clothes. A man offered to show me his shack, made from planks of wood with a corrugated iron roof. Inside were two rooms for the four people living there, with buckets of water stored by the door and intermittent power. Many houses had far more people crammed in.

„Welcome to my home,“ he said with a rueful smile. „Maybe half the people in Malabo live like this. Not just the unemployed but teachers, engineers, even economists. It’s a long way from Sipopo, isn’t it?“ There were a handful of books on his shelves bought in Spain. „We must be the only country in the world where there are no bookshops,“ he said when I mentioned them. Despite tough circumstances, he offered to share his dinner of rice and stew with me.

After leaving, the dissident gave me an example of how the regime offered illusions of change while retaining control. „The opposition socialist party used to be unable to sell its papers. Now they can sell them openly in the street,“ he said. „But anyone buying a paper is followed by plainclothes police and then questioned, harassed and intimidated.“

He pointed to a striking yellow building in the distance, saying it was a new private school owned by the first lady. Then he showed me another yellow building; this one was more like a ramshackle shed, with wooden props that looked like they were stopping it collapsing into the mud. It was the local school, but there were no books, so the 100 pupils learned by rote.

A teacher told me schools used to make a little money by selling uniforms to parents. Last year, however, Obiang’s family opened a textile factory and insisted all schools bought uniforms from there, increasing their wealth a tiny bit more and further undermining a poorly resourced education system.

This is the real face of the family ruling the wealthiest country in sub-Saharan Africa: ruthless, heartless and obscenely greedy. While the president stuffs his bank accounts and his spendthrift son fritters away a fortune on flash cars, more than half his people lack access to safe water, child survival rates are reportedly falling and numbers of children receiving primary education dropping. Obiang, meanwhile, concentrates on polishing his tarnished image; one of the visiting MPs was offered £20,000 to lure out colleagues.

The MP rejected the offer. Regardless, I could not help but wonder about such ventures after my unusual glimpse into the world of the parliamentary freebie. The British politicians returned home after a strange trip for which they made few preparations, asked few penetrating questions, sometimes patronised their hosts and never left their purpose-built bubble. Yet to give them credit, they had ventured into the unknown and ultimately refused to buckle down and whitewash the regime as expected.

In our meeting with the president of parliament, I asked the whereabouts of Plácido Micó, the lone voice of genuine opposition in parliament. „We asked him to be here,“ Dougan replied. „He is not around. Maybe he is out of the country.“

He wasn’t, of course. Micó snorted with derision when I mentioned this before telling me of how he was barred from the media, his meetings were broken up by thugs, his members sacked from their jobs. He has been arrested a dozen times and endured spells in Black Beach.

I asked Micó what he would have told Britain’s MPs. „My message is that the people of Equatorial Guinea are suffering one of the worst dictatorships. People here need help. Look at the interests of the people suffering, not of the oil companies and multinationals.

„In the past 10 years most of the foreign people who come here are more interested in oil and to get commercial advantages than the lack of human rights and democracy,“ he said. „People here could have a very good life with the oil and gas. Instead it all goes to Mr Obiang and his family.“

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