But then Teodoro Nguema Obiang's modest salary as a minister in his father's government in Equatorial Guinea is largely symbolic, just like the elections in which his father is returned to power with 97% of the vote and the distribution of oil revenues in a country with one of the highest per capita incomes on Earth but some of the poorest people.
Little Teodoro, as President Teodoro Obiang Nguema's son is known at home, appears to spend as little time as possible fulfilling his duties as the minister of agriculture and forestry in the west African state. Instead he flits between South Africa, France and the US, pursuing business ventures such as a failed rap label while acquiring property and a fleet of Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Bentleys - all made possible by the discovery of oil in Equatorial Guinea's waters a decade ago.
At the time, there was a promise that the country would become the "Kuwait of Africa", but it has increasingly come to look like Nigeria as a few kleptocrats get rich while the masses eke out a living.
Mr Obiang probably thought his acquisition of the Malibu house through a front company of which he is the owner would slip by largely unnoticed, particularly after there was so little comment about earlier purchases of two houses in Cape Town and a $2m penthouse flat in California. But the British anti-corruption group Global Witness spotted the sale and is publicising it as evidence that the Obiang family has followed in a long tradition of African rulers who plunder their country's wealth while their people live in poverty.
Seen from the Pacific Coast Highway, Mr Obiang's house doesn't look like much, at least not in the context of the exclusive millionaires' mansions looking out from the cliffs over the Pacific Ocean. "Oh, that's a lovely house," explained Malibu Carl yesterday, watching the surfers next to Malibu pier. "That's a hell of a piece of property right there. It's huge."
The house is hidden from prying eyes by a sheer bluff and guardhouse. But while $35m may buy a lot of house, it cannot guarantee you privacy. A stroll along Malibu pier reveals arched windows, plain, cream plaster walls and a tiled roof. Royal palm trees line the drive, and the bright red of bougainvillea stands out against the sandy hillside.
Described as a "playboy", Mr Obiang may be quite interested in meeting his neighbours. Whether they would return the interest seems unlikely. Mel Gibson lives on Serra Road, as does Britney Spears. Olivia Newton John is up there too, and so are Larry Hagman and Titanic director James Cameron. Across the road is the equally exclusive Malibu Colony, the gated community that housed most of Hollywood during the 1970s and 1980s.
"That's one of the premier estates in Malibu," says a local estate agent. He notes that Cher's house in Malibu recently went on the market at $29m.
The property belonged to a Canadian developer named Bill Connor. Rumour has it that he sold two years ago for $28m to a Disney executive (some say it was someone from Fox) before its current owner paid $35m at the beginning of this year. "Most of these sales happen very quietly," says the estate agent. "The properties don't usually hit the market."
President Obiang, who has ruled since seizing power in 1979, has decreed that the management of his country's $3bn a year in oil revenues is a state secret. That is why it is difficult to say for sure exactly how he comes to have about $700m in US bank accounts. But the president's son gave an insight into his salary in an affidavit filed with the Cape high court in South Africa in August, as part of a lawsuit against him over a commercial debt.
"Cabinet ministers and public servants in Equatorial Guinea are by law allowed to own companies that, in consortium with a foreign company, can bid for government contracts ... A cabinet minister ends up with a sizeable part of the contract price in his bank account," he testified.
Global Witness wants the US government to invoke a proclamation by President Bush nearly three years ago that bars corrupt foreign officials from entering the US and allows their assets to be seized.
But Washington is unlikely to move against Mr Obiang when it was so welcoming of his father only last April. The US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, called President Obiang a "good friend" even though her own department's annual human rights report said officials in Equatorial Guinea use torture.
Among those on the receiving end have been a group of mercenaries arrested two years ago for attempting to overthrow the regime with the backing of Mark Thatcher.
Before the oil, relations were not always so friendly. In the mid-1990s the US ambassador to Malabo was withdrawn after the state radio station said he had been spotted conjuring up his ancestors' spirits in a graveyard to put spells on President Obiang. In fact, the ambassador was the son of a Canadian airman and was tending the graves of an RAF bomber crew killed during the second world war.
But once the oil started flowing, American drillers such as ExxonMobil and ChevronTexaco began pouring billions of dollars into the country. The US diplomats were soon back in a very different frame of mind. Today, the $3bn annual oil revenues gives Equatorial Guinea's 520,000 citizens the second highest income in the world at about £26,000 per head.
But ordinary people see little of it. Most of the population live on less than a pound a day. Equatorial Guinea comes bottom in the United Nations' Human Development Index, which measures quality of life.
Three years ago, state radio declared that the president is a god who is "in permanent contact with the Almighty" and can "kill anyone without being called to account". But President Obiang is mortal after all: he is suffering from terminal prostate cancer. He has made it known he favours Little Teodoro as his successor.
The tiny state of Equatorial Guinea, five inhabited islands and a mainland portion of jungle, is one of the smallest in Africa, with 520,000 citizens. In 1979, nine years after independence from Spain, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema seized power, and has been absolute ruler ever since. In the past decade, Equatorial Guinea has become Africa's third largest oil producer. On paper, oil has made its citizens the second wealthiest on the planet. In practice, much of the £370m revenue is grabbed by the president, while most people live on less than a dollar a day. A coup plot was staged in 2004, led by Simon Mann, a friend of Sir Mark Thatcher; the former prime minister's son escaped a claim for millions of pounds in damages when the UK appeal court blocked an attempt by the dictator to sue him.
Ruler: Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasongo, Equatorial Guinea
Son: Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue
Bling King: Teodoro Nguema Obiang has a decidedly unflashy title, minister of agriculture and forestry, and a meager official salary -- about $5,000 a month -- in his father's administration, but none of that has kept him from becoming Africa's most glamorous kleptocrat-heir-apparent. The younger Obiang -- nicknamed Teodorín -- owns a $35 million estate in Malibu, California, as well as other properties in Los Angeles, Paris, Buenos Aires, and South Africa.
His assets (exhaustively chronicled in Harper's) also include a $33.8 million private jet, a fleet of luxury cars, and a small armada of speedboats. He once ran a record label and for a time dated the rapper Eve (she reportedly dumped him when she learned that his father was accused of having once eaten one of his political opponents).
Teodorín's playboy habits were once believed to have taken a toll on his political future, leading his harder-working, half-brother Gabriel -- who has the support of other members of the Obiang family, as well as of the international oil companies whose drilling operations provide the regime with most of its wealth -- to encroach on his prospects as the country's next ruler. But Teodorín is rumored to be the elder Obiang's favorite -- no small accomplishment, considering that there are some 40 siblings vying for the attention.
By Ken Silverstein
Not even Gabriel Garcia Marquez could have dreamed up Teodorin Nguema Obiang, the skirt-chasing, champagne-swilling, nightclub-hopping, would-be president of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea. Teodorin would be a mere embarrassment if not for the fact that he's the son of the current dictator, Teodoro Obiang, and a strong candidate to succeed his ailing father.
The Bush Administration has embraced Equatorial Guinea, and State Department officials have even been known to claim (though never for attribution) that Obiang Sr. could be a “model” for African reform. That's like saying Enron could be a model for corporate reform. Obiang was “elected” with 97 percent of the vote in 2002 and is widely deemed to be one of the world's most kleptocratic rulers. Indeed, court papers I've acquired from South Africa show that Teodorin effectively acknowledges that ministers can legally plunder the treasury under his father's rule.
But first a brief profile of the man who would be king: Teodorin holds a cabinet post—he's the Minister of Forestry, or the “Minister of Chopping Down Trees,” as a recent New York Daily News article called him—but very rarely attends government meetings. That's because he spends most of his time abroad: in Beverly Hills, where he owned a lavish estate, started a music company called TNO, and dated the rapper Eve, who recently dumped him; in New York City, where several years ago he offered $11 million to buy a Fifth Avenue condominium owned by Saudi arms-dealer Adnan Khashoggi, only to be rebuffed by the condo's board; in Paris, where he tools around in a white Rolls Royce; and in South Africa, where he recently has bought several vacation homes.
Like his father and many other top government officials, Teodorin used to stash part of his loot at Riggs Bank in Washington—until a Senate investigation ignited a scandal that ended the relationship between the bank and Equatorial Guinea. A source familiar with Teodorin's outlandish spending habits told me that Junior would frequently call his personal banker at Riggs with imperious and extravagant demands. One day he'd want arrangements made to fly his friends to Rio for Carnival; on another day he'd need to have a Bentley airfreighted from London to Los Angeles; and on another still he'd demand that a helicopter be immediately dispatched to offload a female companion from a cruise ship because she fallen out of his favor.
Antony Goldman, a London-based risk analyst specializing in west African oil, has long followed Obiang Jr.'s antics. “Teodorin has many enemies in and outside of Equatorial Guinea but the allegations of impropriety and excess [that surround him] are well documented,” Goldman says. “If even a quarter were close to the truth, it would make him a particularly extraordinary character, and peculiarly ill-equipped to be president.”
Now a man named George Ehlers, the owner of a South African construction company, is suing the government of Equatorial Guinea. According to several stories in the Sunday Times of Johannesburg, Ehlers signed a contract to develop an airport in Equatorial Guinea seven years ago. But after becoming embroiled in a dispute with a government official, Ehlers had to abandon the project and surreptitiously evacuate his staff, which at one point had been jailed.
Ehlers was never paid for any of his work, and was forced to leave behind millions of dollars in equipment in Equatorial Guinea. He sued in Cape Town High Court and asked that he be compensated in the form of two homes that Teodorin purchased in the city in 2004 and that are worth a combined $6 million (about half of Equatorial Guinea's annual education budget). Ehlers claimed that while the homes were registered in Teodorin's name, they were purchased with state money and hence formally owned by the Obiang government, with which he had signed the airport deal.
Teodorin denies that, saying he paid for the homes with his own money and the properties therefore cannot be seized to pay a government debt. The court initially ruled in favor of Ehlers and attached the properties but it is now considering an appeal by Teodorin.
Either way, the questions remains as to how a humble public servant in Equatorial Guinea, whose official salary is no more than a few thousand dollars a month, could possibly afford to buy such lavish properties. In fact, the Sunday Times reports that the homes apparently “were not fit for the son of the president of one of Africa's most prolific oil-producing countries.” Teodorin's substantial expenditure on renovations and refurbishment included hundreds of thousands of dollars for a home-theater sound system, plasma-screen televisions, and bathrooms replete with spa baths, chrome fittings and marble surfaces. (The newspaper also quoted an unnamed security guard who had worked for Teodorin. The guard said his employer “always had a briefcase filled with cash on hand” and that he spent thousands of dollars on champagne and wining and dining female companions.)
So how does Teodorin foot the bills? In a notarized affidavit he filed in the case, he sought to explain the source of his income:
Cabinet Ministers and public servants in Equatorial Guinea are by law allowed to own companies that, in consortium with a foreign company, can bid for government contracts and should the company be successful, then what percentage of the total cost of the contract the company gets will depend on the terms negotiated between the parties. But, in any event, it means that a cabinet minister ends up with a sizable part of the contract price in his bank account.
The only thing that may prevent Teodorin from succeeding his father is intense opposition from other members of the country's tiny ruling circle, who fear that the kooky but menacing Teodorin will become an international laughingstock who will hog billions of dollars of oil spoils, most which is produced by American firms. If he does ascend to the throne, rest assured that the Bush Administration will find a way to justify continued warm ties with its “model” ally.