It is hard to find reasons to be cheerful, but the sight of the law finally catching up with Teodorin Obiang is among them. His trial in Paris ought to represent the triumph of the globalisation of justice. Yet as liberalism shudders under the blows of Trump, Putin and Brexit, support for the values that can check men such as Obiang is fading. The case feels like yesterday’s news, even though Obiang’s prosecution is by any reasonable standard a sensational event.
This is the first time the serving minister of a tyrant has been arraigned on corruption charges. Obiang is something more than a mere official, I should add. Dictatorships can always turn into monarchies, as the strong man decides that only his brats are fit to succeed him. True to form, Obiang became Equatorial Guinea’s vice president as a reward for being the son of a dictator who has been in power since 1979. He is its Prince of Wales in all but name.
As significantly, the accusations against him are on the record. Under the Obama administration, the US Justice Department cited the “relentless” embezzlement and extortion Obiang and his family practised on their subject people. In 2014, it took his Malibu mansion, luxury cars and various items of Michael Jackson memorabilia as punishment.
But the settlement was made in secret and, though no one can be certain, it seems Obiang managed to hold on to a $38m (£28.8m) private jet and a treasured crystal glove that once belonged to the child-molesting pop sensation.
By contrast, the Paris trial is in open court. Obiang won’t come to France. But the judges may confiscate his £80m palace on the Avenue Foch, just west of the Arc de Triomphe, along with a hoard of luxuries. The yachts, the mansions, the jets, the cases of Chateau Petrus, the Ferraris, and the Michael Jackson cast-offs were bought with the looted wealth of a central African state, which acts as if it is in a perverse contest. Despite its oil reserves, Equatorial Guinea’s immunisation ratesare among the lowest on the planet. After examining its rigged elections and the enslavement of women and children by people traffickers, Freedom House gave Equatorial Guinea its lowest possible ranking. Syria and North Korea have claims that cannot be ignored, but Equatorial Guinea has the right to boast that it has won the competition to become the worst governed country on earth.
There is even a British connection to the trial. My contemporaries hoped we had heard the last of Mark Thatcher when his mother was forced to resign. But in 2004 he financed a failed coup in Equatorial Guinea, and his associate Simon Mann ended up in one of the country’s fetid jails.
The mercenary earned a reprieve by going over to the regime. So complete was his conversion, Mann appeared as a witness for the defence in Paris. He claimed the prosecution was orchestrated by George Soros, the favoured demonic agent of every conspiracy theorist from Putin to the US Republican party.
Mann told the court he had no evidence to substantiate his charge, but was making it nevertheless. He swore Obiang had not paid him for his testimony. As Mann is a mercenary we must take him at his word, of course.
For all that, a part of me understands the lack of interest. This trial feels dated. It is as if we are seeing the last hurrah of post-1989 liberalism. The worst of the globalisation that came with it has been covered so extensively it has become our new common sense. It is clear in retrospect – and it ought to have been clear from the start – that globalisation was doomed by its failure to take workers’ rights seriously.
A global order so insouciant it could admit China to the World Trade Organisation, even though it banned free trade unions, was never going to last. You cannot exalt capital and a statistically insignificant number of “superstar” managers and dealers while keeping labour down, and expect your system to survive.
But at its best the old order contained the promise that you could be held accountable for your crimes whoever you were. Slobodan Milosevic was prosecuted for the mass murder of Bosnian Muslims, even though he had been president of both Serbia and the now defunct Yugoslavia. Obiang himself tried and failed to claim the French had no right to prosecute him because, as Equatorial Guinea’s vice president, he enjoyed state immunity.
How quaint the hopes for global justice seem now. Russia, China, South Africa under the ANC and many another quasi and actual dictatorship have always hated the idea that leaders can be tried for crimes of robbery or violence committed within their borders for reasons that should be obvious. The notion did gain a slight purchase in the west, however. But you can see its hold weakening now.
Critics of Donald Trump naturally focus on his pornographic mind or the hope that somehow the Russia scandal will destroy him. Less noticed is his prostitution of the White House that makes him fit so neatly into a world dominated by autocrats. Like Obiang’s father, he has brought his family into government, and made no distinction between public and private interests. He has refused to reveal his tax affairs or divest himself of his businesses. The corrupt can always catch the scent of the corruptible and foreign governments and corporate lobbyists hoping to influence US policy now block book his hotels.
As Global Witness, the NGO that has pursued the Equatorial Guinea case with admirable brio, says US lawyers challenging payments to Trump are engaged in anti-kleptocracy law. The scale of the corruption may not be the same but Trump and Obiang are recognisably members of the same species.
As for the dominant strain on the global left, it talks about “resistance” but offers none. Indeed, it remains remarkably tolerant of what dictators do within their borders, as long as the dictatorships are anti-western.
Among the many reasons I find the adulation accorded to Jeremy Corbyn repellent is that he clutched at every cranky excuse to defend Slobodan Milosevicand then piously informed the world he was an opponent of Islamophobia.
But it is no use being repelled. The liberal order has been dying since Lehman Brothers went bust. Whatever good arguments you have to celebrate its fall, you should look from Obiang to Trump to Putin and wonder whether what is coming next will be worse.