The phrase “let them eat cake” is widely attributed to Marie-Antoinette (1755-93), the Queen consort of Louis XVI. She is supposed to have said this when she was told that the French populace had no bread to eat.
This statement perhaps best exemplifies the insensitive nature of the lifestyles of African leaders.
There are many ways of gauging the vanity of some African leaders. You could count the monuments, universities, football stadiums, hospitals, statutes, highways and schools that bear their names or are dedicated to them.
When it comes to lifestyles, some African leaders have no inhibitions. They spend lavishly on birthdays, anniversaries, statues and even weddings.
The money ranges from direct siphoning from government coffers and public agencies, to forcing contributions from officials, friends, corporate organisations and kickbacks from multinationals keen on securing deals for infrastructure development, oil and gas and other natural resources exploration.
The lifestyles of African presidents and their families reflect the tragedy of resource-rich African countries where the leaders spend millions on luxury items, as the ordinary people live in abject poverty, lacking access to basic amenities and services such as clean drinking water, health care and education.
Recently, the Angolan government spent $35 million to mark President José Eduardo dos Santos’s 72nd birthday. The money is said to have been spent on various activities that were undertaken in the country, including sporting activities, a state dinner and a talk by the president.
Angolan media reported that the country’s Culture Ministry spent over $6 million on hosting international public figures to talk about the president. Among the invited leaders were former Nigerian president Olesegun Obasanjo, the United Nations Secretary-General’s representative in Angola Magareth Anstee and former Namibian president Sam Nujoma.
A lavish dinner
It was also reported that international hockey and basketball tournaments were organised at the cost of $1.5 million each, while the country’s Defence ministry organised a talk on the president’s commitment to the pacification of the Great Lakes countries, at a cost of $600,000.
About 500 guests were also hosted to a lavish dinner in honour of the president at a cost of $1 million.
President Dos Santos, Africa’s longest serving leader after Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang’ Nguema has been in power since September 1979. In 2013, the president’s daughter, Isabel dos Santos, gave a personal loan to the government of Portugal when it was facing a credit crunch.
According to Forbes magazine, over the past decade Angola has been one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Its gross domestic product grew at an 11.6 per cent annual clip from 2002 to 2012, driven by a more than doubling of oil production to 1.8 million barrels a day. The government budget stands at $69 billion, up from $6.3 billion a decade ago.
Interestingly, even with its oil windfall, 70 per cent of Angolans live on less than $2 a day, while recent Angolan government estimates show that 10 per cent of the country’s population are staring at a famine, due to drought and bureaucratic neglect.
Angola’s Defence is allocated more funds from the budget than health care, education and agriculture combined.
In 2012, the International Monetary Fund reported that at least $32 billion from oil revenue went missing from the federal ledger between 2007 and 2010. The country is also faring badly on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, with the latest findings ranking it 157 out of 176 nations.
In Zimbabwe, the script is the same with political patronage and lavish spending at the expense of the economy. President Robert Mugabe’s birthday has always been marked by fanfare and celebrations, especially within the ruling Zanu-PF party.
This year, during his 90th birthday celebrations, Zimbabwean media reported that the cost of the fete hit $1 million, in a country where more than half the population lives on less than $1 a day.
On the actual birthday, the state-owned Herald newspaper ran more than 20 pages of advertisements from state enterprises, government ministries and supporters showering praise on the veteran leader.
The event featured a giant birthday cake, multi-course meals and a music gala featuring top Zimbabwean artistes.
The Zimbabwean President addressed a crowd of 45,000 at the event in Marondera. The birthday cake, in keeping with the tradition, increased in weight by one more kilogramme to 90kg.
In monetary terms, the cake represented $1,000 for every year the octogenarian leader has lived, with sections of the Zimbabwean media reporting that the birthday cake cost Mbada Diamonds, a local diamond mining company, all of $90,000.
The event also saw 90 bulls slaughtered to honour the ageing leader. To further show the extravagance of the ruling family, the president’s daughter Zona Mugabe’s wedding to Simbarashe Chikore, was televised live by the state-owned Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation.
The wedding apparently cost $5 million, and the President gave the newlyweds $100,000 as a cash gift and 55 head of cattle, while his longtime friend President Nguema gave the couple $35,000. Never mind that 60 per cent of the people of Equatorial Guinea live on less than $1 a day, despite the government earning billions of dollars oil revenue every year.
Zambian leader Michael Sata gave a gift of $4,000, Mbada Diamonds contributed $100,000 while the Zimbabwe police, represented by Commissioner General Augustine Chihuri, presented the newlyweds with $10,000.
The function was graced by Congolese crooner Koffi Olomide, South Africa’s Zahara and the Soweto String Quartet, who were paid thousands of dollars to provide the entertainment.
Mugabe’s former Finance minister Simba Makoni recently revealed that Local Government minister Ignatius Chombo, Commissioned two statues of Mugabe to be built by North Korea at a combined cost of $5 million.
One of the statues will be 30-feet high, made of bronze worth $3.5 million. It will be erected in the capital Harare; while the second, which will cost $1.5 million, will be erected in the proposed $3.8 million museum to be built in Mugabe’s rural Zvimba home.
Despite this lavish spending, Zimbabwe is $11 billion in loan arrears, and last month, the President was in China asking for a bailout as the country no longer qualifies for World Bank and International Monetary Fund loans.
According to Forbes, the average salary in Zimbabwe stands at $250, but Cabinet ministers’ salaries top $40,000 a month. The World Banks’ latest poverty index report says that 72 per cent of Zimbabweans live on less than a $1 a day, and 60 per cent have no access to clean water, while the economy is shrinking.
In the 2013 UNDP Human Development Index, Zimbabwe was ranked 156 out of 187 countries, and described as a low-income and food-deficit country.
Despite Equatorial Guinea being one of the world’s top 30 oil producing countries, a baby born in this country has a slim chance of survival as Unicef estimates that 20 per cent of children die before reaching the age of five.
Over 60 per cent of the population lives in poverty, the average cost of health care is about $60, average wage is at $186 and more than half the population have no access to clean drinking water.
Transparency International, the corruption watchdog, has put Equatorial Guinea on the top 12 of its list of most corrupt states while a US Senate investigation into the Washington-based Riggs Bank found that President Obiang’s family had received huge payments from US oil companies such as Exxon Mobil and Amerada Hess.
In 2012, the New York Times reported that US police had seized assets belonging to Teodore Nguema Obiang Mangue, the President’s son. Among the seized items were a $2 million wine collection, a $180 million building in Paris, thought to have 101 rooms, including a Turkish bath, a hair salon, two gym clubs, a nightclub, a movie theatre and furniture worth $50 million.
Also seized were 11 luxury cars considered to be among the world’s most expensive — they included two Bugatti Veyrons, a Maybach, an Aston Martin, a Ferrari Enzo, a Ferrari 599 GTO, a Rolls-Royce Phantom and a Maserati MC12.
As at June 2013, the US Justice Department claimed that the younger Obiang had spent $315 million on properties and luxury goods between 2004 and 2011, buying private art collections, the world’s most expensive wines, a $3.7 million clock, a Gulfstream jet, and spending $2 million on Michael Jackson memorabilia.
The amount Teodore spends on luxury is equating to three times the country’s combined budget for health and education.
In the same neighbourhood, despite Gabon being the third-largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa, a third of the country’s 1.5 million population live on less than $1 dollar a day, yet President Ali-Ben Bongo and his father, the late Omar Bongo, have amassed wealth running into billions of dollars.
According to the Guardian, President Bongo has dozens of luxury homes in places like the French Riviera and a $120 million 14-bedroom town house in Paris.
During an investigation with kickbacks-related charges, French prosecutors found the Bongo family owned 33 properties in France alone, including a $27 million villa.
At one time, Ali-Ben Bongo’s wife, Inge, appeared on a US reality television show, Really Rich Real Estate, shopping for a $25 million mansion in California.
Before his father’s death, President Ali-Ben Bongo was the minister of Defence, while his sister, Pascaline was the head of the Cabinet. Her husband, Paul Toungui, was minister of Finance.
Despite the country’s billions of dollars worth of oil revenues, Gabon, is said to have fewer kilometres of tarmac road compared with the thousands of kilometres of oil pipelines, showing how this wealth has been skimmed off the public coffers.
Internationally, Imelda Marcos, former first lady of the Philippines has been synonymous with wealth, greed and excess.
According to the BBC, Mrs Marcos amassed a huge collection of art, jewellery, property and at least 1,000 pairs of shoes during her husband’s 20 years at the helm.
Among her art collections were paintings by Michelangelo, van Gogh, Cezanne, Rembrandt and Rafael. She also owned palatial homes in the US and the Philippines; silver tableware, gold necklaces and diamond tiaras. By the time her husband was ousted through a revolution in 1986, her estimated wealth stood at $10 billion.