Equatorial Guinea May Be Holding S. African Engineers Over Seized Yacht

Blue Shadow
Blue Shadow (broker listing file photo)

Published May 6, 2024 3:30 PM by The Maritime Executive

The government of South Africa is working to secure the release of two oil and gas executives who were charged and swiftly convicted of drug trafficking in Equatorial Guinea last year. They were arrested just days after South African courts seized a superyacht belonging to the country's ministry of defense, the Blue Shadow, and their 12-year prison sentence is widely believed to be a politically-motivated form of retaliation. 

Authorities and open source intelligence researchers have linked the vessel to vice president Teodoro (AKA Teodorin, Teddy) Nguema Obiang Mangue, son of lifelong ruler Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. The Obiang family has controlled Equatorial Guinea for so long that six U.S. presidents have come and gone, making the elder Teodoro Obiang the world's second-longest-ruling national leader (other than royalty). Under his leadership, the Obiang family holds almost all political power, and their government has repeatedly been accused of corruption and human rights abuses. Foreign authorities periodically seize houses, cars, properties and luxury goods allegedly linked to the president and vice president, including a Parisian mansion and wine collection seized in 2012; a $30 million Malibu estate and a Ferarri in 2014; and a $27 million collection of luxury cars in Switzerland in 2016. The younger Obiang is sanctioned in the UK for corruption and has been fined in France for a similar offense. He has denied any wrongdoing. 

The latest case stems from a civil suit brought by a South African businessman, Daniel Janse van Rensburg. In 2013, after a business deal with an Equatoguinean politician soured, van Rensburg was arrested by the Obiang regime and detained in a notorious prison. Upon his release and return home, he sued Vice President Obiang in South African courts for unlawful arrest and torture. 

In February 2023, van Rensburg won a judgement against the vice president and convinced a South African court to seize two mansions and a superyacht, the Blue Shadow, which was at a yard in Cape Town for repairs. He secured a financial settlement and the vessel was released; AIS shows that it transited back to Malabo, Equatorial Guinea.

For official purposes, the luxury vessel belongs to the Equatoguinean defense ministry, but transparency campaigners say that there is little difference between the Obiang family's personal holdings and the property of the state. The yacht has no known capability for ISR, interdiction, surface warfare or other applications as a defense-related vessel.

Bellingcat, an established open-source intelligence foundation that made its name unmasking Russian covert operations, has linked the movements of Blue Shadow to the itinerary of Vice President Obiang's private. In one example in late 2023, the yacht and the plane arrived in Sardinia at about the same time. The plane then transited to Milan, where the Vice President released a photo of himself attending the Milan Fashion Week.

In early February 2023, two days after Blue Shadow was seized by the South African court, Equatoguinean police detained two South African oil and gas engineers, Frik Potgieter and Peter Huxham. They were one day away from returning home, and the police arrested them in their hotel. They were tried in June 2023 and were convicted - allegedly without evidence or an opportunity to mount a defense - and sentenced to 12 years each.  

South Africa's foreign minister, Naledi Pandor, visited Equatorial Guinea over the weekend to discuss the case with the Equatoguinean government and negotiate for the two engineers' release. South Africa's political opposition, the Democratic Alliance, welcomed the news and said in a statement that the diplomatic effort is long overdue.