Equatorial Guinea's Oil Minister Allegedly Siphoned Off Millions from Public Construction Project
Portuguese construction firm Armando Cunha is accused of paying more than 10 million euros to companies linked to Gabriel Mbega Obiang Lima.
For years, Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel was known as an outspoken critic of Equatorial Guinea’s government, despite decades of brutal repression and staggering corruption.
By 2011, the award-winning writer had finally had enough. With the Arab Spring toppling autocratic regimes across the Middle East and North Africa, he launched a hunger strike, hoping to trigger a wave of reform in his own country.
It didn’t work. Equatorial Guinea’s ruler, Teodoro Obiang, 78, and his family have used the profits from a decades-long boom in the country’s oil industry to secure an almost unshakeable hold on power in Africa’s longest-running dictatorship.
“Oil money has served for some or many to get rich … but personal wealth does not contribute to the development of any community,” Ávila Laurel said in a recent interview in Spain, where he fled after being “harassed” for his hunger strike.
“The most probable thing is that the oil money will run out without the Guineans ever benefiting.”
Now,have uncovered a new vein of corruption in Equatorial Guinea’s kleptocracy through an international web of firms and assets linked to Obiang’s son, the country’s Minister of Mines and Hydrocarbons, Gabriel Mbega Obiang Lima.
Reporters uncovered evidence that the 48-year-old has used his powerful position to allegedly extort bribes from businessmen and siphon off millions of euros of state money from a construction project. A criminal complaint filed by someone with knowledge of Armando Cunha, a company involved in the alleged scheme, and obtained by OCCRP’s partner Expresso, claims the funds ended up in offshore companies and accounts controlled by Obiang Lima’s associates.
Multiple sources told Expresso that police raided Armando Cunha’s headquarters in Lisbon on December 17. Police did not reply to a request for comment about the raids.
Armando Cunha said via its law firm that the company conducted its operations abroad “in a regular and lawful manner,” and denied all allegations of corruption. The company did not respond to follow-up questions about the police raid.
Oil could have been a boon rather than a curse for Equatorial Guinea, which consists of a jungle-clad island in the Gulf of Guinea and a sliver of West African coast. Major foreign firms rushed to exploit deposits discovered in its territorial waters in the late 1990s, generating billions of dollars of revenue every year for the government.
But little of that money has trickled down to the population. Instead, much has been channeled into vanity projects, such as hosting the 2015 Africa Cup in the midst of West Africa’s Ebola epidemic and building a complex for an African Union summit featuring a villa for each head of state.
Today, Equatorial Guinea has one of the highest GDPs per capita in Africa, but few people have access to proper education or healthcare, and many houses in the capital still lack drinking water.
“When the oil came, we had this influx of millions and millions of dollars and influx of oil companies, gas companies that were willing to bribe government officials to get access to the production capacities,” said Tutu Alicante, a human rights lawyer and founder of Equatorial Guinea-focused NGO EG Justice.
“So we went from being a small corrupt country to becoming a very, very corrupt nation, a country that’s now defined by how corrupt we are,” he added.
Ávila Laurel told OCCRP he has little hope conditions will improve in his native country any time soon.
“Oil has served Obiang to reward Guineans who are loyal to him. Obiang knows that those around him are thieves,” he said of the dictator’s son. “Oil allows you to buy people, or make people feel bought.”
Obiang Lima did not respond to requests for comment sent by reporters.
In 2010, as Equatorial Guinea’s oil production was growing, Obiang Lima signed a contract to create a facility for the National Technological Institute of Hydrocarbons of Equatorial Guinea to train students from across Africa for jobs in the oil industry.
The planned facility would cost more than 57 million euros (just over $81 million) to build, and it would be based in Malabo, the country’s capital, according to a document obtained by Expresso.
But by 2012, the institute’s planned location had shifted to Mongomo — a town on the mainland where Obiang Lima’s father was born — and the cost to the state had risen to almost 107 million euros ($139.5 million). As a point of comparison, Equatorial Guinea’s entire education budget for 2020 was a little over 91 million euros (around $102 million).
Today, the institute boasts a modern building with open spaces, classrooms, an auditorium, tennis courts, and housing for teachers and students.
But documents obtained by OCCRP and its partners suggest part of the budget increase went into lining Obiang Lima’s pockets.
The criminal complaint filed in Portugal says Armando Cunha paid more than 10 million euros to seven companies that appear to be controlled by the minister and his associates, including Cyprus-based Gabangare Holdings Limited and several of its subsidiaries.
The complaint alleges the cash, described as payment for consulting services, was then funneled to accounts in Cyprus, the Netherlands, Spain, and elsewhere.
“These funds, regardless of the description on the invoices, are nothing more than the payment of fees/bribes,” it said.
Invoices, bank records, and contracts analyzed by OCCRP and partners confirmed Armando Cunha paid out almost 7 million euros to these companies out of the 10 million they invoiced for. The documents do not show whether the Portuguese construction company paid the more than 3.4 million euros that Gabangare invoiced for over several years.
Armando Cunha also agreed to carry out more than 23 million euros of works on various properties around Equatorial Guinea as part of the deal. Notably, they included 11.3 million euros of free renovation and construction work on the Grand Hotel Malabo — also known as the Cotton Tree and Eureka, or Ureka, Hotel — which has various ties to Obiang Lima.
ACSA, a subsidiary of Burilda Consultancy Limited, Armando Cunha’s joint venture partner with Gabangare, said in a financial statement it had carried out more than 9 million euros of works on the hotel between 2011 and 2013.
Two companies claim to own the Grand Hotel Malabo. Evidence collected by reporters indicates Obiang Lima is behind them both.
For one thing, Equatorial Guinea’s oil minister was the administrator of a local company that claims to own the hotel, Grupo Molsa, and acted as its representative on at least two occasions.
Sources who spoke to OCCRP on condition of anonymity said Obiang Lima is also the beneficial owner of Gabangare, which also claims to own the hotel. Gabangare’s director is one of the minister’s associates and it is owned by a company in Belize, a secretive jurisdiction where ownership is not reported.
Reporters tried to find documentation proving definitively who owned these companies, but were hindered by difficult reporting conditions in Equatorial Guinea and the lack of transparency in Belize.
A lawyer for Armando Cunha denied the company was involved in any corrupt practices and blamed any claims otherwise on a disgruntled partner with which it is having a legal dispute.
“Because there are pending court cases no statements will be made, but we underline the fact that all the company’s activity has been carried out in a regular and lawful manner and its accounts have been repeatedly approved and audited by an external entity,” said the statement sent by the lawyer.
Anti-corruption expert Lucas Oló said Grupo Molsa and other companies linked to Obiang Lima often make money by renting out residences to foreign oil companies or even the government.
“At the end of the day, they get the money back either way,” Oló said. “Usually they charge a lot of money, beyond market rents for houses. Some companies do not worry that much about the cost because they may charge back the ministry.”
Reporters have identified several important players in Obiang Lima’s network.
They include NJ Ayuk, CEO of the law firm Centurion Law Group; Nicolaos Neocleous, director of Gabangare; and a Dutchman named Donald Frank van der Horn van den Bos, who appeared as the director or owner of a number of firms involved in the hydrocarbon institute deal.
Names really matter in Equatorial Guinea. Ávila Laurel remembers how the Spanish colonizers changed the names of the inhabitants of the small island of Annobon to names of Catholic saints.
They also seem to matter to Obiang Lima and his Dutch associate, Van der Horn van den Bos.
“Gabangare,” the name of the holding company linked to the minister, seems to be derived from the names of his three children, Gabriel Jr., Angelita, and Arelis. Up until mid-2008, two years after Arelis was born, the company’s name was merely Gabang Holdings Limited.
Van der Horn van den Bos appears to have followed the same model, naming one of his companies Flojust Holding B.V., after two of his children, Flo and Just.
It’s unclear how Van der Horn van den Bos, a 60-year-old tax consultant, met the son of Equatorial Guinea’s president, though the two appear to share many interests, as well as lucrative business ties.
Two people with knowledge of Gabangare, who both asked not to be named, described the Dutchman as Obiang Lima’s “right-hand man,” conveying the minister’s instructions to the directors and management of the company.
“At the top was Donald [Van der Horn van den Bos],” one told OCCRP, “meaning that [it] was Donald who was in contact with Gabriel [Obiang Lima].”
Van der Horn van den Bos lives in Son Gual, Mallorca, where his company Patapouf S.L. is also registered.
Patapouf and Bellezzavecchio S.A, a real estate company where he served as a director, together were paid 4.65 million euros by Armando Cunha, mainly described as for consulting, between 2013 and 2016. Another of his companies, Flojust Holding B.V., also invoiced the Portuguese construction firm for more than 400,000 euros between 2011 and 2013.
Van der Horn van den Bos did not respond to a request for comment.
One of the more curious links between Obiang Lima and Van der Horn van den Bos was the 2012 production of the first feature film ever shot in Equatorial Guinea. Where the Road Runs Out tells the story of a scientist living in the Netherlands who returns to his roots in Equatorial Guinea after the death of an old friend.
Gabangare’s 2013 financial statements show it planned to contribute 1.8 million euros to making the movie, which was produced by Dutch production firm Firenze Film. Gabangare then withdrew as an investor due to a financial dispute, leaving the production company to go bankrupt. Van der Horn van den Bos eventually acquired Firenze’s movie rights, including to Where the Road Runs Out.
“The film was released and finally distributed, but I doubt if the investors got their money back or made money with this film,” said a person familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
“But I always had the impression that was not the most important (thing). And yes it ended with a conflict, including a legal battle.”
Another of Obiang Lima’s associates is Neocleous, a 45-year-old self-described former fund manager and the director of Gabangare and several of its numerous Cypriot subsidiaries.
Neocleous denied that Obiang Lima was Gabangare’s beneficiary when reporters reached him in November. “The owner of the company is Mr. Donald Frank (van der Horn van den Bos),” he said.
He also said he had no knowledge of any projects ACSA had carried out, including work at the institute of hydrocarbons, nor who had paid for the construction works at the Grand Hotel Malabo.
Ayuk, the founder and CEO of Centurion Law Group, also has a close relationship with Obiang Lima. The minister and his wife attended Ayuk’s wedding in Marbella in 2016 and the launch of his book, “Billions at Play: The Future of African Energy and Doing Deals,” three years later.
Ayuk, who goes by various names, has had several brushes with the law. In 2007 he had to leave the U.S. after pleading guilty to impersonating Congressman Donald Payne to obtain visas for several of his countrymen while interning in the lawmaker’s office. Ayuk was also reportedly caught up in a case in Ghana, where the local director for Centurion Law Group was charged with laundering $2.5 million.
That same local director oversaw the construction of a property in Aburi, a small town near Ghana’s capital. Locals said in interviews that Obiang Lima and his father use a villa in the area.
According to Oló and other sources, Centurion is an important channel for winning oil-related contracts in Equatorial Guinea.
“You can go with others and try if you want, but you may find yourself losing bids against other companies less capable but that went with Centurion,” he said. “That’s how they do it.”
On November 30, two days after OCCRP contacted NJ Ayuk and Obiang Lima for comment on this article, Centurion Law Group issued a statement on its website accusing Equatoguinean investigative journalist Delfin Mocache Massoko of extortion.
The statement, which was reproduced as a news story in several media organizations, falsely accused Massoko of having worked with former Spanish police commissioner Jose Manuel Villarejo to discredit African businesses and politicians.
Villarejo is currently detained in Spain amid an ongoing investigation into an alleged espionage network operating since 2004. He is accused of being paid to prepare a damaging report against Obiang Lima, who is engaged in a power struggle with his half-brother Teodorin.
Centurion said it intended to file charges against the former policeman and Massoko for “trying to extort a company, public officials and threatening to inflict substantial financial and reputational harm.”
Massoko refutes these allegations and OCCRP stands by its story.
Ayuk’s wife, Kelly Mealia, is a director of Africa Oil & Power, a Mauritius-based energy event organizer and investment platform. Obiang Lima sits on its advisory board.
A letter obtained by Dario Rombe shows Africa Oil & Power appears to have been used to park payments extorted by the minister. The letter, signed with the name Obiang Lima and addressed to a recipient whose name is redacted, demands that he sponsor an event called Energy Year of Guinea 2019 for $80,000, to be deposited in an account held by Africa Oil & Power.
A former member of Equatorial Guinea’s administration, who is not named to protect their safety, said the Ministry of Mines and Hydrocarbons often extorted money from businesses by demanding payments for events that are already funded by the government.
“The ministry has the practice of forcing operators to finance activities that are already financed by the state, setting amounts that are already totally exorbitant,” the source said. “If you do not pay the letter, there is retaliation.”
In another letter, from October 2018, Obiang Lima accused a businessman, whose name is also redacted, of “very serious breaches of his administrative, legal and social obligations,” again demanding money be sent to a private company in payment.
“Your company must finance the database of the Ministry of Mines and Hydrocarbons … at a cost of $300,000,” the letter said.
Obiang Lima said the funds should be paid to Virensis S.A., a Spanish company tasked with creating the database. Francisco López González, project manager of Virensis, said the company was asked to develop the database in 2018, but the project never went ahead as not enough businessmen paid the ‘fines’ Obiang Lima demanded.
“Only one businessman [who received a letter] called me to find out more information about our company,” he told a reporter, though he declined to comment further.
Cypriot bank Astrobank, where Gabangare held the accounts listed on the invoices it issued to Armando Cunha, said the bank has “terminated the relationship [with Gabangare] in the context of regulation” after carrying out a review in 2017.
Obiang Lima is not the only member of Equatorial Guinea’s first family accused of pillaging the country’s riches. His older brother, Teodoro “Teodorin” Nguema Obiang Mangue, 52, has for years been fighting a public battle against a French court that convicted him of embezzlement in 2017.
Teodorin, who was appointed Equatorial Guinea’s vice president in 2012, was fined 30 million euros by the appeals court. Prosecutors had shown that he stole state funds to finance his luxurious lifestyle, which included a private jet, a mansion in France worth over 100 million euros, and a collection of Michael Jackson memorabilia, including a gemstone-encrusted glove.
Last year, a court rejected his appeal. On December 11, the International Court of Justice ruled that France was under no obligation to return the villa to Teodorin after the government of the African state challenged the jurisdiction of French courts.
Swiss prosecutors in 2016 also seized 25 vehicles from Teodorin, including Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Bentleys and Rolls Royces.
Teodorin’s lack of scruples doesn’t surprise Ávila Laurel, who went to elementary school with the son of Equatorial Guinea’s dictator.
“Since his father was who he was, and his mother was a teacher, he rarely went to class,” said the writer. “He was already a spoiled child at that age.”
The brothers have different approaches to looting their country, according to Oló, the anti-corruption expert. He said Teodorin leads a much flashier lifestyle than Gabriel Obiang Lima.
“Teodorin might go directly to the Treasury to get money,” he said. “Teodorin is there to spend his money. Gabriel invests.”
But there are signs that the oil money is drying up.
Equatorial Guinea’s crude production rose steadily from the 1990s, and in 2012 it was little over 256,700 barrels per day. By 2017, that had halved to 128,600 barrels. If no new petroleum deposits are discovered, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates the country will run out of oil by 2035.
Obiang Lima’s failure to make the oil and gas sector more transparent, including implementing “a robust asset declaration regime for senior public officials,” is also preventing the release of more than $200 million of IMF loans to help restructure the economy.
The end of the oil bonanza may not matter greatly to the Obiang clan, according to Ávila Laurel.
“These people can live many lives with this money. They have taken over many areas and buildings in Malabo. They have taken everything,” he said. “Even if the oil money ran out, they would still have it all.”
Rana Al-Sabbagh and Khadija Sharif contributed to this story.