The obscenity of it all! A dictator’s loot of millions of dollars’ worth in various currencies, stashed away in his pad, just like an ancient slave trader banking his bloody earnings in a hole under his tent.
When a friend sent me a video clip purportedly showing African men piling bundles of United States dollars on a wooden table, I thought it was one of those pranks circulated on the Internet for amusement. Turns out this was real news – captured at the residence of a chap called Omar al-Bashir, former tormentor of the Sudan, a country he misruled for 30 years.
There is nothing shocking about the find, of course. An illegitimate ruler worth his salt keeps a readily accessible personal emergency fund, preferably in his bedroom, to pay off hitmen and opponents alike, and to have a little pocket money when the time for fleeing comes. Trouble with these chaps is that they forget a few unchangeable basics. Remember a fellow called Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa Zabanga? It is fine if you have forgotten him, for he left nothing to the Congolese people, except the rotting ruins of his ugly palaces in the midst of extreme poverty. Mobutu accumulated billions of dollars – in cash and in real estate holdings – and lived like an immortal colonial governor in the footsteps of Joseph Conrad’s Mr Kurtz.
The fellow forgot that all would come tumbling down like a rickety house in the path of a landslide. Riddled with terminal cancer, Mobutu, still loaded with American dollar bills and other convertible currency, hurried out of Congo just ahead of his pursuers, in search of a comfortable place to die.
Exactly three months after his departure from Gbadolite, his self-indulgent pad in the heart of the Congo Free State, death came to the rescue. He was buried upright in a little grave in Morocco. His successors and other surviving dictators in his neighbourhood, Bashir among them, did not learn the lesson that money – even billions of dollars – was useless in the face of nature and time.
Down in Malawi, Bingu wa Mutharika, who died in his presidential bed in 2012, managed to grow his net worth from a very modest $200,000 (two hundred thousand dollars) in 2004 to $100 million, including $48 million in cash. Within hours of Mutharika’s death, Malawi police intercepted his relatives who were attempting to remove large bags full of American dollars that had been kept in the president’s bedroom.
Across the continent, Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo drinks deep from the seemingly inexhaustible oil wells of his kingdom. The United States, France and Transparency International have published evidence that shows that Nguema and his son Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, better known as Kiki, have helped themselves to their country’s wealth in a manner that relegates their Ugandan counterparts to amateur leagues.
The Economist, the distinguished British weekly magazine, reported in 2016: “Teodoro Obiang, the president of Equatorial Guinea, and Teodorín, the most influential of his 42 recognised children, have expensive tastes. While most of his citizens live on less than $2 a day, the older Mr Obiang once shelled out $55 million for a Boeing 737 with gold-plated lavatory fittings. His son had at one point amassed $300m in assets, including 32 sports cars, a Malibu mansion and nearly $2m in Michael Jackson memorabilia.”
We note in passing that Nguema is a much respected ruler in Uganda’s ruling circles, and enjoys a very special place of honour and friendship with the Ugandan ruler.
It is a very safe bet that most of Africa’s rulers, especially those who have cheated their way to their state houses, sleep with loot under their beds. Greed imposes on them an irresistible urge to see, touch, feel and smell cash – live cash - which feeds their internal insecurities and inadequacies.
Fear propels them to hold vast amounts of cash on the ready, as an illusory insurance against the very poverty and suffering to which they routinely subject their political opponents.
One feels a transient sympathy for these sad men whose swagger and reliance on cash, military support and empty rhetoric to control their people camouflages deep seated fear of sudden loss of power. They are enslaved by their greed for power and money. They are prisoners of deep fear, held captive by their soldiers who, should they turn on them, will humiliate them as they exact revenge for years of silent suffering. Yes, the soldiers see through their excellencies even as they salute them.
As Bashir, 75, sits in a prison cell, contemplating his future, including a possible visit to the International Criminal Court in the Hague, some rulers in their state houses are stashing more cash into suitcases under their beds. Some are persuaded that Bashir was a poor leader of his military or he lacked the skill to manipulate those with the means to topple him.
Such foolhardy thinking is a recipe for a disastrous end for men who were once honoured by their subjects, but now preside over the steady collapse of their countries’ social and economic foundations.
Bashir’s predicament and the exposure of his loot in cash reveal a vanity that is a calling card for pathological greed and insecurity, and a private recognition of one’s own illegitimate occupancy of the presidential palace. The Sudanese strongman, architect of mass murders and other human rights abuses, was his country’s weakest citizen after all.