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Malibu Bad Neighbor 

A dictator in training buys his way in, as politically active superstars stay mum

Wednesday, Jan 17 2007
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THE PRESTIGIOUS GATED COMMUNITY of Serra Retreat in Malibu has two manned guardhouses to keep unwelcome visitors out, yet its homeowners’ association has no control over who buys in.

Perhaps that is why there was no outcry among the politically sensitive denizens when Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, the quasi-prince of Equatorial Guinea, quietly purchased a 16-acre estate at 3620 Sweetwater Mesa Road in April 2006 for $35 million in cash — last year’s California state record.

The exotic-car-loving playboy newcomer to the exclusive cliff above Malibu Pier, heir to one of the most ruthless dictators in the world, now sits behind two guard shacks with the likes of Dick van Dyke, James Cameron, Larry Hagman, Mel Gibson and other biggies.

Yet Malibu — an image-conscious city that just weeks ago officially changed the name of De Butts Terrace to Paradise View Way to accommodate the finer sensibilities of its residents — has been surprisingly silent about its infamous new resident.

His father, Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang, is dying of prostate cancer, and the president’s express wish, according to human-rights groups, is for the younger Teodoro to take over as president and dictator. Unless the president is deposed while on one of his many cancer-treatment trips to the West, Big Teodoro’s word will remain the only law in the tiny but cash-rich nation he controls with an iron hand. And his son, called Teodorin, or Little Teodoro, is believed next in line for the job.

Perhaps his politically active Malibu neighbors don’t know that Equatorial Guinea, on the west coast of Africa, with only 540,000 inhabitants, has neither a free press nor free speech. Its people are among the world’s poorest, surviving on less than $1 a day, yet because of plentiful oil and natural gas, the country is the second richest in gross domestic product per capita, just behind wealthy Luxembourg.

But unlike in Luxembourg, no money gets to the people. The Obiang family — including Little Teodoro — and its closest friends, are among the world’s super-rich, recipients of enormous investments and various forms of tribute paid by American oil companies.

According to anticorruption organization Global Witness, Transparency International, Amnesty International and testimony from U.S. congressional investigations, the family has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into its own pockets. These organizations say Exxon Mobil leads the pack, paying between 20 percent and 35 percent of its revenue from oil and natural gas to the Equatorial Guinea government — a corrupt and bureaucratic tangle in which Obiang family members hold more than half the ministerial posts and control income from major economic sectors. According to congressional testimony, Little Teodoro of Malibu controls the forestry industry.

Yet the 36-year-old eldest son of the dictator, who holds the job of minister of forestry, or “Minister for Chopping Down Trees” — as dubbed by the New York Daily News — officially earns just $5,000 monthly.

Last year, when he bought the $35 million Malibu estate, the transaction was named by Forbes as the sixth most expensive sale of a home in America, setting off global criticism among human-rights groups about how, exactly, Teodorin came up with the dough.

The “Minister for Chopping Down Trees” actually openly admits to controlling significant riches from his country’s natural resources, offering this spin in a sworn statement to a South African court last year, and obtained by the L.A. Weekly: “Cabinet ministers and public servants of Equatorial Guinea are by law allowed to own companies that, in consortium with a foreign company, can bid for government contracts . . . It means that a cabinet minister ends up with a sizable part of the contract price in his bank account.”

In addition to controlling the forestry industry, Teodorin Obiang Mangue owns the nation’s only TV station, as well as Radio Asonga, the nation’s main radio station. Three years ago, according to the U.K.’s Guardian and other reports, Radio Asonga declared that his father, President Obiang, is a god “in permanent contact with the almighty” and has the authority to “kill anyone without being called to account.”

INTERNATIONAL MEDIA, including The Guardian and Germany’s Der Spiegel, have covered Little Teodoro fairly extensively, but California media give him a free pass.

A rare mention of his arrival in Malibu appeared in a disapproving editorial in the Los Angeles Times late last year — strangely without any news report in the rest of the paper. Of the Malibu newspapers, only the Graphic at Pepperdine University has mentioned that the record-high home sale involves an exceedingly controversial buyer with a globally newsworthy dark side.

Robert E. Williams, associate professor of political science at Pepperdine, tried to alert Malibu papers, but never heard back from reporters. “My guess is that the small local papers don’t want to explore this story, as a big part of their revenue comes from real estate advertising,” Williams says.

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