The U.S. seized many of Obiang’s assets in 2014, saying that through “relentless embezzlement and extortion… Obiang shamelessly looted his government and shook down businesses in his country to support his lavish lifestyle, while many of his fellow citizens lived in extreme poverty.” (As the U.S. asserted in a September announcement detailing how some of the seized funds will be used, Obiang “used his position and influence to amass more than $300 million worth of assets through corruption and money laundering.”) Other countries have also accused Obiang of gargantuan corruption. The U.K. recently sanctioned Obiang directly for reportedly soliciting bribes and corrupt contracting arrangements. And France and Switzerland have moved to seize his assets purchased via corruption.
All of this has taken place while Obiang, now vice president, and his dictatorial father oversee a regime that arguably rivals North Korea in terms of brutality. Not only is the government accused of wide-scale prisoner torture and repression (with state-run media referring to the dictator as a “god”), but more than half the residents have no access to things like clean water and nearly 80% of the country lives in poverty. And that reality is reflected in things like maternal mortality rates and gender inequality (where Equatorial Guinea scores worse than places like Cambodia or Tajikistan, according to the U.N.).
To be fair to Ludacris, Kingston, and the others, it’s unclear how much they knew about the regime before they agreed to perform at Obiang’s birthday party. (It’s also unclear how much they were paid to attend. None of their representatives responded to my questions.) But their willingness to perform for one of the world’s worst kleptocrats is symptomatic of a bigger trend we’ve seen blossom over the past decade: American celebrities agreeing to take money to perform for dictators and their families — for regimes that stand against the progressive policies many of these celebrities claim to support.
In just the past decade, for instance, we’ve seen Nicki Minaj travel to Angola to schmooze with Isabel dos Santos, the daughter of Angola’s former dictator, and a woman recently accused of large-scale money laundering linked to her father’s brutal, 38-year reign. (Minaj posted a photo of herself with dos Santos on Instagram, writing, “GIRL POWER!!!!! This motivates me soooooooooo much!!!!”) Elsewhere, Jennifer Lopez performed at a private birthday party for the longstanding dictator in Turkmenistan, with Lopez singing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” for him. Kanye West even got in on the action, performing for the wildly corrupt family of Kazakhstan’s dictator.
Some dictatorships tend to gravitate toward American celebrities more than others. The family of former Libyan despot Muammar Gaddafi, for instance, shelled out millions to celebrities like Mariah Carey, Usher, and Nelly Furtado. Even Beyoncé took some of the Gaddafi family’s riches, reportedly making upwards of $2 million to perform for the dictator’s family at New Year’s 2009. (Beyoncé’s publicist said in 2011 that the singer later donated the proceeds, while Furtado, Carey, and Usher either returned the proceeds, made separate donations to human rights causes, or promised to do so in the future. Lopez apologized, though there’s no indication she returned any proceeds, while neither Minaj nor West addressed their performances or returned any funds.)