Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue (nicknamed Teodorin), vice president of Equatorial Guinea, son of his country’s president, and heir apparent to that office, made headlines this week. According to media reports, authorities in Brazil seized some $16 million in cash and high-end watches from his delegation, where he had reportedly traveled for medical treatment. Brazilian law limits the amount of cash visitors can bring into the country to $2,400.
This sort of awkward international incident is not particularly novel for Vice President Obiang. In 2016, Swiss authorities seized eleven of his luxury cars as part of an investigation into corruption and money laundering that culminated in his conviction for embezzlement, in abstentia, in a Paris court last year. In 2014, he resolved the U.S. Justice Department’s charges that he used his country’s public funds for private gain by reaching a $30 million settlement with federal authorities, requiring him to sell his Malibu mansion, a Ferrari, and some of his Michael Jackson memorabilia. None of these previous brushes with the law seem to have cramped the vice president’s style, much of which he documents on Instagram.
The lavish lifestyle, luxury goods, and very public nature of Teodorin Obiang’s wealth echo the habits of his father, who has ruled his small, oil-rich country for a jaw-dropping thirty-nine years. They may be about more than champagne tastes. To some degree, they are about showmanship, and a performance of power meant to establish his place in a hierarchy. With each outrageous extravagance, a message is being sent—he is formidable, to be feared and obeyed, and legitimately in a position of authority.
Of course, political leaders wielding flashy trappings of wealth as personal hallmarks are no strangers to more powerful countries like the United States. But in a place like Equatorial Guinea, where despite an extraordinarily high GDP per capital over three quarters of the population lives in poverty, it may be especially important as a leadership style. Equatorial Guinea’s governing authorities have proven adept at suppressing dissent but not at the most basic service delivery. Connective tissue between popular demand and government priorities is nearly nonexistent. It may be that making extraordinarily ostentatious acquisitions is simply what it means to wield political power in the context the Obiang dynasty has created, one that is devoid of democratic or legal accountability. A degree of notoriety for corruption is beside the point.