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Written by Mfonobong Nsehe
The richest people in Africa could easily be former and current presidents and rulers of African countries. But don’t expect to find them on our FORBES rich list.
During a recent trip to Nairobi I had a lunch meeting with an old friend and former college classmate who now works as an analyst in one of Kenya’s most reputable Investment banks. I had set up this meeting with him because I sought his expertise in analyzing the fortunes of some of the richest people in the country.
My friend and I discussed at length, recounting the success stories of some of the country’s most recognizable and successful businessmen and ascribing figures to the value of their key holdings and assets. It was a fruitful and robust conversation, and I enjoyed every bit of it. But at some point, my friend diverted abruptly from our line of discussion and said something which really struck a chord in me. With a cheeky grin playing on his lips, he said: “Mfonobong, we’re just beating around the bush; you and I both know that in reality the richest people in Africa are our leaders – both the past and the present.”
His observation might not be entirely accurate, but there is some truth to his statement, and it’s much more than just an iota. Forbes has only estimated the net worth of one of these former dicatators, but others have done some fruitful digging.
Theoretically, Sani Abacha, Nigeria’s former military ruler, was a billionaire – and not in naira, but in dollars. Upon his death in 1998, the Nigerian government uncovered over $3 billion linked to the sadistic despot held in personal and proxy bank accounts in tax havens as diverse as Switzerland, Luxembourg, Jersey and Liechtenstein. Following a series of negotiations between the Nigerian government and the Abacha family, Abacha’s first son, Mohammed eventually returned $1.2 billion to the Nigerian government in 2002.
Another theoretical billionaire was Mobutu Sese Seko, the former president of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Over his 30-year reign as ruler of the resource-rich Central African country, Sese Seko amassed a personal fortune estimated by various sources (including Transparency International) at somewhere between $1 billion and $5 billion. Experts believe virtually all of it was illicitly acquired from the nation’s coffers and stashed away in Swiss banks. While his reign lasted, Sese Seko earned an international notoriety as a poster boy for the excesses of typical African despots. He owned a string of exotic Mercedes cars and divided his time between plush palatial residences in Paris and Lausanne, Switzerland. He also developed a special taste for pink Champagne and flew in fresh cakes from Paris for his consumption.
But one of the wealthiest, albeit lesser-talked about African leaders to emerge from Africa is Nigeria’s former military president, Ibrahim Babangida. The gap-toothed military general and self-acclaimed “Evil genius” is unofficially one of the richest men in Nigeria and in Africa.
The 70 year-old former military ruler governed Nigeria from 1985 to 1993 and is widely believed to have laundered some $12 billion earned from an oil windfall during the 1992 Gulf War. To date, Babangida has not provided any reasonable account for the money –all of which disappeared mysteriously. Since incredibly wealthy and influential Nigerians are typically above the law, Babangida walks around as a free man today. At the moment, Babangida’s wealth is invested through several proxies in a string of businesses owned or managed by wealthy Nigerian businessmen. One of the more popular Nigerians who has consistently been fingered as a front man for Babangida’s financial interests is billionaire Mike Adenuga who debuted on the FORBES World’s Billionaires list in March. For a little more insight on Babangida’s wealth, read the article, “On the trail of Babangidas’ billions” available here.
In Kenya, there is former president Daniel Arap Moi, who is unofficially one of the richest men in the country. During his 28-year rule, which lasted from 1978 to 2002, Moi famously channeled nearly a billion dollars from his country’s coffers to family-owned bank accounts and private estates across the world using a web of shell companies, secret trusts and front men, according to Kroll Associates, a corporate investigation and risk consultancy company. Kroll produced a detailed report of Moi’s illicitly acquired fortune, which is available here. According to the report, Moi’s assets, some of which are held in his children’s name, include substantial cash reserves to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, a 10,000-hectare farm in Australia and controlling stakes in oil companies, banks and shipping companies, among other concerns. But don’t expect the aged former president to be prosecuted any time soon; he has since settled into retirement and has now taken upon the rather fashionable role of elder statesman. He frequently advises the Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki on matters of state.
More recently, when Egypt’s former President Hosni Mubarak resigned following the 2011 Egyptian revolution, various news sources pried into the fortune of the man who ruled the country for 30 years. A few news sources ridiculously pegged Mubarak’s fortune at $70 billion, a figure that Forbes editors believe was extremely exaggerated and largely unproven. Concrete figures are still pretty hard to come by, but being very familiar with the avaricious tendencies of the vast majority of African dictators as it were, it is almost certain that Mubarak diverted an enormous amount of his country’s funds into his personal piggy bank. And don’t be surprised if it’s the region of 9 to 10 figures.
By now you’re probably familiar with Equatorial Guinea’s President, Teodorin Obiang, who has ruled the poverty-stricken, albeit oil-rich country for 32 years. Obiang is the only African dictator whose wealth has been estimated by FORBES. But Obiang is stupendously wealthy by any standards. In 2006, FORBES estimated his fortune at $600 million, and even though his government frowned on the list and was quick to accuse FORBES of counting state property as his personal assets, it has been well established that Obiang has a virtual grip on the country’s bank accounts and treats it as his personal piggy bank. Obiang’s eldest son has gained an international infamy for his outlandish lifestyle and expensive toys, which include a $10 million car collection, a $30 million Malibu mansion, a $38.5 million Gulfstream jet and $2 million of Michael Jackson memorabilia.
But while it is arguable that the richest people in Africa might be past or present African leaders like Babangida, Mubarak Moi and Obiang (who are all very likely worth well over $500million); don’t expect to find them in our FORBES list of the 40 Richest Africans which will be going live next week. The reason is quite simple. To quote Edwin Durgy, a member of the FORBES wealth team in his recent post titled, Did Moammar Gadhafi Die The Richest Man In The World?
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