The rich and poor in Uganda: Who do the gods favour?

Wednesday June 09 2021

Author, Charles Onyango Obbo. PHOTO/FILE

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

I wanted to tell the story of two Ugandans, but decided last minute to tell that of two other Africans.

 Meet Teodorin Nguema Obiang. In December last year a French court fined him €30 million (USh130 billion) for corruption. In 2012 French authorities seized his €107 million (USh461 billion) Paris mansion and fleet of 11 supercars, including two Bugatti Veyrons, a Maserati MC12, a Porsche Carrera GT, a Ferrari Enzo and a Ferrari 599 GTO, all valued at $5 million (Ush18 billion).

 In September 2019 Swiss authorities raised $27 million in an auction of a fleet of super cars seized from Teodorin. The cars were seized along with a yacht. They included seven Ferraris, five Bentleys, three Lamborghinis, a Maserati, a McLaren and a Bugatti Veyron.

 In October 2014, the US Justice Department ordered Teodorin to sell more than $30 million worth of his property, including a mansion in Malibu, California, Michael Jackson memorabilia, and luxury cars.

 In 2018 Brazilian authorities seized more than $16 million in cash and luxury watches from a delegation travelling with Teodorin.

 Teodorin Obiang, as most people will know, is the Vice President of Equatorial Guinea, a job he got because he’s the son of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who’s been the country’s dictator since August 1979. Obiang Senior is the second longest consecutively serving current non-royal national leader in the world (42 years) after Cameroon’s Paul Biya, who’s clocking 46 years. In the last 10 years young Obiang’s properties havebeen seized in many parts of the world because he allegedly obtained them from money stolen from Equatoguinean  taxpayers, corrupt deals, and money laundering. The Obiang family is the richest in Equatorial Guinea – and also its most corrupt. The second African is a fine-looking Angolan woman called Isabel Dos Santos. A dollar billionaire, worth $3.5 billion (US12.4 trillion – over a third of Uganda’s 2021/22 budget) until just over a year ago, Forbes had consistently listed her for some time as Africa’s richest woman.


 In January this year, there was a story in the same Forbes headlined, “How Isabel Dos Santos, once Africa’s richest woman, went broke”. Isabel’s assets have been frozen or seized in Angola, Portugal, and the Netherlands. She is accused of accumulating riches through embezzlement andmoney laundering.  Like Teodorin, Isabel is the child of a dictator. Her father, José Eduardo dos Santos, was Angola’s dictator for 38 years, from 1979 to 2017. Like the Nguema’s in Equatorial Guinea, the dos Santos’ were the richest, and also most corrupt, family in Angola.

 As Forbes reported, “Dos Santos’ empire began to unravel under the leadership of Angola’s new president, João Lourenço, who took office in September 2017 after Dos Santos’ father retired. Lourenço vowed to attack the corruption for which Angola had become well-known.” The rest is history.  Isabel, of course, is not broke really. She has a home on a private island in Dubai, another in London, a $35 million yacht, and is believed to have several secret bank accounts.  We tell the stories of Teodorin Obiang and Isabel dos Santos, to help us put some context to President Yoweri Museveni’s statement  during his State of the Nation Address last week that he had found a new recipe, in the form of the children of the rich, to fight the corruption that has become remarkably entrenched in his 35-year rule. 

 ‘‘These are children from rich families who don’t have the problem of poverty-related pressure from home. This is a structural change. You’ll see how they will help us to fight this corruption,’’ Museveni said.

 There is a word for this rule by the rich that Museveni envisions; it is called a plutocracy. Where that ruling class is very small, dictatorial, and corrupt, it is an oligarchy.

 Museveni is partly right that poverty is one of the drivers of corruption. Where he is wrong is to see wealth and being born rich as the antidote. Children born into rich families can be equally corrupt – if not more so. 

Where someone seeking to escape three generations of poverty in the family will be corrupt to buy a Toyota pick-up, build the first permanent home in his village, and pay for a good education for his siblings, the middle class child from a rich family will steal to pay for a Caribbean holiday cruise with his expensive girlfriend, buy a Porsche Carrera, a London house, or, as in the case of Isabel’s family, collect expensive art.

 Museveni has travelled far. From privileging a revolutionary peasant army, to rule by the rich. This latest plutocratic/oligarchic phase, represents the fourth stage of his and the ruling NRM’s political evolution. There is a good reason for it. Next week, we will explore its meaning.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. 

Twitter: @cobbo3