The 10 Most Corrupt World Leaders of Recent History

Filed under 'corruption' - PictureRead any article on corruption prevention, and the first thing you’ll be told is that ‘political will’, or the tone at the top, is the foundation of any successful anti-corruption effort.  But what if a country’s leader, whose ethics and integrity should be beyond question, isn’t as principled as they should be?  True to the old adage that ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’, we have compiled a list of the ten most corrupt world leaders of recent history.

Proof that corruption is truly a global issue, the list de-bunks the myth that cases of grand corruption (and kleptocratic regimes responsible for it), are limited to certain parts of the world.  Of the ten world leaders who made the list: three are from Africa, three from the America’s, two from Asia, and two are from Europe.

Most corrupt world leaders of recent history

In reverse order, the tend most corrupt world leaders of recent history (measured in absolute terms) are:

10. Arnoldo Aleman, President of Nicaragua (1997 – 2002)

Amount Embezzled: $100 million | Years in Office: 5

Photo President Arnaldo Aleman of Nicaragua - CorruptionSoon after leaving office in 2002, the 81st President of Nicaragua, Arnoldo “El Gordo” Aleman, was arrested on corruption charges involving $100 million of state owned funds.  He was convicted of money laundering, fraud, embezzlement and electoral crimes the following year, and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment.  The corruption uncovered within his administration was so rife that it led to the arrest of a further 14 people, including a number of close family members.

Renowned for his use of a bottomless government credit card for personal expenditure, the amounts charged included $25,955 for a honeymoon in Italy, $68,506 for hotel expenses and handicrafts while on vacation in India (with his wife), and $13,755 for a night at the Ritz Carlton hotel in Bali.

According to the World Bank  and UNODCs Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative (StAR), a 2008 publication by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, stated that a Nicaraguan investigation found that (between 1999 and 2002), Aleman and his cronies allegedly embezzled an estimated $100 million of government funds. The money was laundered through shell companies and fraudulent investment accounts in Panama and the United States, then used to purchase high-value assets including real estate and certificates of deposit. The accounts were also used to dispense embezzled funds to Aleman’s family members.

In January 2009, the Nicaraguan Supreme Court controversially overturned Aleman’s corruption conviction and set him free.  While never made public, it is thought that his release was part of a secret power-sharing arrangement made with Nicaragua’s current president Daniel Ortega.

Return of assets: While there are on-going asset recovery cases in the Philippine’s, Singapore and the United States, the only completed case has been the forfeiture and repatriation of approximately $2.7 million of Aleman’s assets to the Nicaraguan government (by the United States) in 2004.

9. Pavlo Lazarenko, Prime Minister of Ukraine (1996 – 1997)

Amount Embezzled: $114 million to $200 million | Years in Office: 1

Photo of President Pavlo Lazarenko of the Ukraine - CorruptionAn official count by the United Nation’s found that Pavlo Ivanovych Lazarenko, the 5th Prime Minister of the Ukraine, had allegedly siphoned off $200 million from state coffers (half a million dollars for each day as Prime Minister).  The funds were funnelled through various bank accounts in Poland, Switzerland and Antigua, then laundered through a shell company in the United States, and used to purchase various properties.

In December 2008, Lazarenko was detained by Swiss authorities on money-laundering charges as he crossed the border from France, but was released a few weeks later after posting a $3 million surety.  A few months later the Ukraine stripped him of his immunity, and he fled to the United States.

Detained on suspicion of improperly entering the country, he was subsequently indicted on 53 counts of conspiracy, money laundering, wire fraud, and interstate transportation of stolen property. In November 2009, he was sentenced by a California court to 97 months’ imprisonment, and ordered to pay over $9 million in fines and forfeit $22.8 million in various other assets.  Lazarenko was released from a United States federal prison in November 2012.

Return of assets: While Swiss authorities returned an unspecified amount to the Ukraine in 2001, there are still ongoing asset recovery cases in Liechtenstein (amount unspecified), Antigua and Barbuda ($87.1 million), the United States ($271 million), Guernsey ($150 million), Lithuania ($29 million) and Switzerland ($5.4 million).

8. Alberto Fujimori, President of Peru (1990 – 2000)

Amount Embezzled: $600 million  | Years in Office: 10

Photo of President Alberto Fujimori of Peru - CorruptionThe son of a Japanese immigrant, Alberto Fujimori was Peru’s 45th President.  An authoritarian ‘strongman’, he was credited with crushing a number of nationwide terrorist insurgencies, while at the same time rescuing the country from economic collapse.  Notwithstanding these achievements, according to the historian Alfonso Quiroz, between $1.5 billion and $4 billion was lost to corruption, making the  Fujimori’s regime the most corrupt in Peruvian history.  During his decade in power, Fujimori is alleged to have illegally accumulated over $600 million in public funds.

In April 2001, four months into his third term, Fujimori fled to Japan after a $1 billion corruption scandal broke involving the country’s national intelligence chief (who was caught on video bribing an opposition senator to join Fujimori).  On arrival, Fujimori attempted to resign his presidency via fax, a move rejected by the country’s Congress, whose preference was to remove him by impeachment.

Four-and-a-half years after going into exile, Fujimori announced his intent to launch a new bid for the presidency.  In November 2005, he flew to Chile (from Japan) was arrested, and extradited back to Peru to face trial.  After admitting to diverting $15 million of public funds to his intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, he was found guilty of embezzlement, and in July 2009, sentenced to seven and a half years in prison. Two months later he pled guilty to another bribery charge, and was given an additional six-year term.  In 2015, Fujimori pled guilty to further bribery and graft charges (his fifth such conviction) and issued with an additional eight-year sentence.

Fujimori’s trials are historic in that they mark the first (and only) time that a democratically elected head of state has been extradited to his own country, put on trial, and found guilty.

Ironically, despite still being in jail, his daughter (Keiko Fujimori) was narrowly defeated in Peru’s recent Presidential elections, losing by just 43,597 votes!

Return of assets: While there have been no asset recovery cases specifically involving Fujimori, a combined $172.5 million worth of funds – related to Vladmiro Montesinos (see above) – has been returned by: Switzerland ($93 million), the Cayman Islands ($44 million) and the United States ($35.5 million).  Cases are still pending in Luxembourg, Panama, Mexico and the United States.

7. Jean-Claude Duvalier, President of Haiti (1971 – 1986)

Amount Embezzled: $300 million to $800 million  | Years in Office: 15

Photo of President "Baby Doc" Duvalier - CorruptionJean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier inherited Haiti’s presidency (aged 19) on the death of his father François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, in April 1971.  While implementing a number of reforms demanded by Haiti’s key ally, the United States, he maintained his father’s terror apparatus – including the infamous Tontons Macoutes (or ‘bogeyman’) – and added a raft of new techniques for skimming hundreds of millions of dollars from the country’s already poor coffers.

The year Baby Doc took over, The US Commerce Department reported that 64% of the government’s revenue had been misappropriated, with millions diverted for “extra-budgetary” expenses, including deposits made into Baby Doc’s Swiss bank accounts.  During his 15-year reign, Duvalier and his cronies allegedly amassed between $300 million and $800 million.  In 1980, the IMF provided Haiti with $22 million in aid.  Twenty million of this was allegedly siphoned off, with $16 million going to the Duvalier family and the balance to the Tonton Macoutes.  Two years later, when Mexico supplied the country with $11 million of oil, the regime’s middlemen attempted to bypass international sanctions and sell it to Apartheid South Africa.  In another moneymaking scheme, blood was bought from Haitian donors for $5 a pint and sold to Americans for $35 a pint.  Duvalier also made millions from involvement in the narcotics trade, as well as in selling body parts. The result? A flourishing cadaver market in which at one point, a ‘supply shortage’ lead to the regime raiding funeral parlours for bodies.

In 1985, after a referendum supported by 99.9% of the population, Duvalier was made President for life.  Despite this, he was ousted by a popular uprising the following year and fled to France, where he lived in self-imposed exile for the next 25 years.  He unexpectedly returned to Haiti in 2011, and was promptly arrested and charged with corruption and embezzlement.  Pleading not guilty, the case was never heard, as Duvalier died of a heart attack (at his villa in an affluent suburb in the hills overlooking Port-au-Prince) in October 2014, aged 63.

Return of assets: Apart from a case being appealed in Switzerland (of $6.5 million), the only other asset recovery related case recorded, is the long running proceedings involving Duvalier assets held in the name of the Foundation Brouilly.  Based in Liechtenstein, the Brouilly Foundation is owned by a Panama based company, which in turn is owned by members of the Duvalier family.

6. Slobodan Milosevic, President of Serbia/Yugoslavia (1989 – 2000)

Amount Embezzled: $1 billion  | Years in Office: 11

Photo of President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia - Corruption

Slobodan Milosevic spent two-terms as Serbia’s President (between 1990 to 1997) before becoming President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.  He is however, best known for his role in the Yugoslav wars, where he presided over the mayhem and mass murder that took place in Kosovo, Croatia and Bosnia in the nineteen-nineties.  The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) subsequently indicted him for war crimes and crimes against humanity; the first international war crimes tribunal held since the 1945 International Military Tribunals (held in Nuremberg and Tokyo).

Following the disputed 2000 presidential elections, Milosevic resigned his presidency.  He was subsequently arrested by authorities and charged with corruption, the abuse of power and embezzlement.  When the investigation faltered over a lack of evidence, he was extradited to The Hague to face the ICTY charges.  Defending himself, Milosevic refused to recognise the court’s legitimacy, as it had not been mandated by the UN General Assembly.

According to the Washington Post, initial evidence uncovered by a joint investigation by Yugoslavia, the U.S. Treasury Department and the UN’s chief war crimes prosecutor, suggested that Milosevic, his family and a network of up to 200 loyal “businessmen-politicians”, had embezzled several billion dollars of public funds for personal use.  While Yugoslavia’s central bank speculated that as much as $4 billion had been taken, the amount includes funds thought to have been used to keep Serbia functioning through a decade of UN economic sanctions.  Notwithstanding this, insiders (including Milosevic’s close relatives) are believed to have laundered hundreds of millions of dollars through dozens of Cypriot front companies, with the trail pointing to Switzerland, Greece, France, Germany, Italy, Lebanon, Israel, Russia, China, Britain, Liechtenstein and South Africa.

In perhaps the biggest single case investigated, Yugoslav officials attempted to track the proceeds from the sale of the state-owned cell phone company PTT Serbia to a consortium of Italian and Greek phone companies.  Sold for around $1 billion, $200 million was never deposited into state accounts, and an additional $350 million allegedly went to companies controlled by Milosevic’s friends.

Milosevic died of a heart attack in March 2006, before the trial could be concluded.

Return of assets: Despite the amount allegedly stolen, there are no asset recovery cases on record.

5. Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali, President of Tunisia (1987 to 2011)

Amount Embezzled: $1.0 billion to $2.6 billion | Years in Office: 23

Photo of President Zine el Abidiene Ben Ali - CorruptionThe second President of Tunisia, Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali came to power in November 1987, after ousting President Habib Bourguiba in a bloodless coup.  Once there, he remained in power for the next 23 years, each time being ‘re-elected’ by margins exceeding 90%.

Under Ben Ali’s administration, Tunisia’s GDP grew by an average of nearly 5% (year-on-year) for 20 years, with Per capita GDP tripling from $1,201 in 1986 to $3,786 in 2008.  So stunning was its growth, that in 2009, a Boston Consulting Group report listed the country as one of Africa’s “Lions”.

While Ben Ali’s reforms halved the country’s poverty rate (from 7.4% in 1990 to an estimated 3.8% in 2005) high unemployment – particularly among the youth – a disenfranchised rural and urban poor, and continued repression, led to increasing unrest.  The situation came to a head on 18 December 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi (a 26-year-old fruit-seller) set himself alight after being humiliated by local policemen.  Sparking off  what soon became the Arab Spring, a wave of demonstrations and protests exploded across the country, and within a month Ben Ali and his wife fled the country.  Denied refuge in France, Ben Ali was offered asylum in Saudi Arabia, and currently lives in Jeddah (the same city where Uganda’s infamous Idi Amin, lived in exile until his death in 2003).

According to a 2015 World Bank research report, Ben Ali’s family and members of his inner circle are alleged to have defrauded the state of between $1 billion and U$2.6 billion over a seven-year period.  At one stage it is thought that privileged insiders were capturing 21% of all Tunisia’s private sector profits,  mostly through the illegal appropriation of national assets and skimming wealth from most sectors of the country’s economy.

Following Ben Ali’s departure, an investigation into his wealth resulted in the new government confiscating the assets of 114 members of the Ben Ali Clan (including Ben Ali himself).  Items seized included 550 properties, 48 boats, 40 share portfolios, 367 bank accounts and over 400 enterprises. The total combined value of these assets was approximately $13 billion, more than one-quarter of Tunisia’s 2011 GDP.

In June 2011 Ben Ali and his wife (Leila Trabelsi) were convicted by a Tunisian court, in absentia, for theft and unlawful possession of cash and jewellery and sentenced to 35 years in prison (NB when Leila fled Tunisia, she is reported to have taken with her over one-and-a-half tons of gold valued at $50 million).  While an international arrest warrant has been issued for Ben Ali’s arrest, Saudi Arabia has consistently refused Tunisia’s request to extradite him.

In a dramatic about face, the Tunisian government sparked controversy when they tabled the draft National Reconciliation Act (in June 2015), paving the way for a potential amnesty.  This followed a decision by Tunisian courts to annul the 2011 decree that had confiscated Ben Ali and his families assets, ordering that the be returned.

Return of assets: To date funds totalling $68.8 million have been returned: $28.8 million from Lebanon  (being the proceeds from a bank account held in the name of Ben Ali’s wife), and $40 million from Switzerland.  Apart from this, are asset recovery cases pending in Switzerland ($28.5 million) and Canada ($2.6 million).

4. Sani Abacha, President of Nigeria (1993 – 1998)

Amount Embezzled: $2 billion to $5 billion | Years in Office: 5

Photo of President Sani Abacha - CorruptionThe first Nigerian Soldier to make full General without missing a single rank, Sani Abacha led the country’s ninth military coup since its independence, when he overthrew the transitional government of Chief Ernest Shonekanon in August 1993.  The country’s seventh military head of state, Abacha was a serial coup d’état instigator, having previously played key roles in the 1966 counter-coup, and the 1983 and 1985 coups.

Although promising a return to democracy, Abacha’s actions where anything but democratic.  A year after taking power, he issued a decree that placed his government above the jurisdiction of the courts, a move that gave him absolute power.  Backed by the Special Body Guard Unit (an armed force of between 2,000 to 3,000 men based at the presidential villa), Abacha purged the military, banned political activity and took control of the press.

Despite appalling human rights abuses (which at one stage lead to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting approving the unprecedented step of suspending Nigeria from the Commonwealth) – from an economic perspective – Abacha’s five-year rule was a miracle.  External debt was reduced from $36 billion to $27 billion, foreign-exchange reserves increased from $494 million to $9.6 billion, and inflation was slashed from 54% to 8.5%.

While still shrouded in mystery, Abacha’s rule was cut short when he died of a suspected heart attack on 8 June 1998.  During his five years in power, he and his family allegedly embezzled between $3 billion and $5 billion.  According to the World Bank, part of this wealth was obtained through bribes paid by foreign companies doing business in Nigeria, and part stolen directly from the country’s Central Bank.  The funds were laundered through a network of front companies in several jurisdictions, before being deposited into bank accounts (controlled by Abacha and his family) in Switzerland, Luxemburg, Liechtenstein, Jersey and the Bahamas.

In February 2014, sixteen years after his death, Abacha was (posthumously) awarded a Centenary Award as part of Nigeria’s 50th Independence Celebrations.  According to the government, the award was in recognition of his “immense contribution to the nation’s development”.

Return of assets: The return of the Abacha fortune remains one of the most colourful of all the leaders on the list.  In return for dropping criminal prosecution (in 2002), the Abacha family agreed to return $1.2 billion taken from the Central Bank.  Jersey returned a further $160 million the same year.   This was followed by Switzerland, who in June 2006 (after numerous failed appeals by the Abacha family) agreed to repatriate $505 million.  Ironically, according to Swiss and Nigerian advocacy groups, around half of this amount may have since been ‘re-stolen’ by corrupt officials!

After a hiatus of five years Jersey returned a further $36 million and Liechtenstein $225 million (after the longest running financial court case in the principality’s history).  In August 2014, a further $480 million worth of Abacha related bank deposits were frozen by the United States Department of Justice, the largest forfeiture in the agency’s history.  Switzerland returned a further $380 million a year later.

While over $2.5 billion has been returned to date, asset recovery cases are still pending in the Bahamas, Ireland, United Kingdom and the United States.

3. Mobutu Sese Seko, President of Zaire now Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) (1965 – 1997)

Amount Embezzled: $4 to $5 billion  | Years in Office: 32

Photo of President Mobutu - CorruptionThe product of a missionary school education, Mobutu Sese Seko Koko Ngbendu wa za Banga (meaning “the all-powerful warrior who, because of endurance and an inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake”), was a serial coup plotter.  During the 1960 Congo Crises, he led the coup that ousted Patrice Lumumba, the country’s first democratically elected leader.  In return, he was appointed commander-in-chief of the armed forces.  Less than five years later he led a second coup, installing himself as President.  Declaring a regime d’exception, he assumed sweeping powers, and went on to rule the country for almost a third of a century.

The original  ‘Big Man’ of Africa, Mobutu consolidated and kept power by creating a vast patronage network.  Built on the exploitation of the country’s immense mineral wealth, Mobutu used it to effectively nullify any opposition.  Endemic governmental corruption, mismanagement and neglect over a number of years, led to hyperinflation (4,000% p.a. by 1991), a large external debt, and massive currency devaluations.  Civil unrest soon followed.

Amidst all of this, Mobutu managed to amass one of the largest personal fortunes in the world.  While the actual amount will never be known, he is alleged to have embezzled between $4 billion to $5 billion (an amount almost equivalent to the country’s foreign debt at the time it was forced to default on its international loans in 1989).  His excesses where legendary, and included having the world’s leading pastry chef, Gaston Lenôtre, flown in from Paris by Concorde to personally deliver his birthday cake.  While not publically condoned, corruption was so systemic under Mobutu, that at one stage he advised party delegates that “if you steal, do not steal too much at a time.  You may be arrested … Yibana mayele – Steal cleverly, little by little”!

Holding onto power for 32 years, Mobutu proved himself adept at maintaining rule in the face of internal rebellions, external invasions, and attempted coups. He finally relinquished power in May 1996, following an uprising led by Laurent Kabila (a Zairian Tutsi).  In the space of just three weeks, the uprising turned into to a full-scale political rebellion.  Mobutu, already terminally ill, fled to Togo and then to Morocco, where he died from prostate cancer the following year.

Aside from the title as Africa’s most corrupt ruler, Mobutu is best known for his role in hosting the heavy weight world championship title fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, in Kinshasa in October 1974.  Known as the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’, each fighter was paid $5 million for their appearance.

Return of assets:  While there has been talk of a complex network of Cayman Island shell companies, apart from a few Swiss bank accounts, little is known of the whereabouts of Mobutu’s wealth.  In 2009, Switzerland unfroze $6.68 million worth of Mobutu’s assets, ending a failed 12-year attempt to repatriate funds back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).  At the centre of this decision was a lack of “cooperation” from the DRC government, who’s Deputy Prime Minster was one of Mobutu’s son.  This lack of cooperation resulted in the funds being handed back to the Mobutu family.

2. Ferdinand Marcos, President of the Philippines (1965 – 1986)

Amount Embezzled: $5 billion to $10 billion | Years in Office: 21

Photo of President Marcos - CorruptionClaiming to be the country’s ‘most decorated war hero’ (a title now discredited, with only 3 of the 27 medals he claimed to have been awarded during the Second World War shown to be true), Ferdinand Marcos was elected the 10th President of the Philippine’s in 1965.  In September 1972, mid-way through his second term, fears of a communist takeover resulted in Marcos dissolving Congress and declaring martial law.  It stayed in place for the next decade.  He was finally ousted by the People Power Revolution in February 1986, and fled to the United States, where he lived in exile until his death in Hawaii three-and-a-half years later.

During his 21 years in power, the Philippines became one of the most heavily indebted countries in Asia.  External debts increased from $360 million (in 1962) to $28 billion (by 1986). Wages fell by roughly one third, and the number of people living below the poverty line almost doubled (from 18 million to 35 million).

Over the same period, Marcos is alleged to have embezzled between $5 billion and $10 billion.  According to the World Bank, the bulk of this wealth was accumulated through six key channels: takeover of large private enterprises; creation of state-owned monopolies in key sectors of the economy; awarding of government loans to private individuals acting as fronts for Marcos or his associates; directly raiding the country’s treasury and other government financial institutions; kickbacks and commissions from firms working in the Philippines; and skimming off foreign aid and other forms of international assistance. The proceeds were laundered through shell corporations, then invested in real estate within the United States; or deposited into various domestic and offshore banking institutions, using a mixture of pseudonyms, numbered accounts and code names.

Known for their lavish living, an inventory of assets left at the Malacanang Palace in Manila (taken soon after their exile) included over a thousand pairs of shoes belonging to the First Lady, 888 handbags, 71 pairs of sunglasses and 65 parasols.  On their arrival in the United States, jewellery, now valued at over $21 million, was seized by the US Bureau of Customs and returned to the Philippines.  Currently being used as a “virtual exhibit” in an online anti-corruption campaign, the current government has recently announced plans to auction if off.

While Imelda Marcos was found guilty on corruption charges in the mid-1990s and sentenced to a minimum of 12 years in prison, the conviction was overturned on appeal.  She is currently a member of the House of Representatives, while her son, Ferdinand Jr., is a Senator (having recently failed in his bid to become the country’s Vice President in the May 9 presidential polls).  Her daughter, Imee, is the governor of their home province, Ilocos Norte.

Return of assets:  Since its inception in 1986, The Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG), a quasi-judicial agency established to recover the ill-gotten wealth accumulated during the Marcos regime, has managed to recover nearly $3.6 billion in assets.  Included in this is $688 million returned by Switzerland in 2004.  The total costs incurred in achieving this have been  around $61 million.  If civil asset recovery cases still pending in Switzerland, the Philippines, Singapore and the United States are successful, recovery efforts could reach $4.2 billion by the time the PCGG winds-up.

1. Mohamed Suharto, President of Indonesia (1967 – 1998)

Amount Embezzled: $15 billion to $35 billion | Years in Office: 31
Photo of President Suharto - CorruptionTaking top spot in our list of most corrupt world leaders of recent history is President Mohamed Suharto of Indonesia. The country’s second president, Suharto gained control of the government in 1967 (soon after a failed left-wing coup) and went on to rule for the next 31 years.

Suharto’s ‘New Order’ policy (implemented soon after taking power) was built on a strong, centralised military-dominated government, which became critical to maintaining stability over a diverse, sprawling country of over 13,000 islands.  A strong anti-Communist stance won him economic and diplomatic support from the West; while rapid and sustained economic growth, and dramatically improving health, education and living standards, guaranteed him popular support at home.

Between 1965 and 1996, Indonesia’s GNP averaged a remarkable 6.7% per annum, with GDP increasing from $806 to $4,114 per capita.  By 1997, Indonesia’s poverty rate had fallen to 11% (from 45% in 1970), life expectancy was 67 years (up from 47 years in 1966), infant mortality had been cut by more than 60%, and the country had reached rice self-sufficiency (an achievement which earned Suharto a gold medal from the FAO).

By the mid-1990s however, growing authoritarianism and widespread corruption had sown the seeds of discontent. The same economic growth that had ensured Suharto’s popularity in the 1970s and 1980s, had resulted in a rapid expansion of what Indonesians had dubbed KKN: Korupsi (corruption), Kolusi (collusion) and Nepotisme (nepotism).

Using a system of patronage to ensure loyalty, Suharto managed to amass a fortune of between $15 billion and $35 billion.  The control of state-run monopolies, access to exclusive supply contracts and special tax breaks were given to companies owned by his four children, family members and close friends.  Many organisations included a Suharto crony in various business activities, as it became the only way of reducing the ‘uncertainties’ caused by bureaucratic red tape.  In return, kickbacks and tribute payments (usually cloaked as charitable donations) were made to dozens of foundations (‘yayasams’) overseen by Suharto.  While created to ‘assist’ with the construction of rural schools and hospitals, they effectively functioned as the President’s personal piggy bank. Donating millions to yayasams became part of the cost of doing business in Indonesia, with financial institutions required to contribute 2.5% of their annual profits each year.  According to Robert Elson, Suharto’s biographer:

“corruption [was] a well-managed franchise, like McDonald’s or Subway … Everybody knew how much you had to pay and to whom.  Suharto didn’t invent the depth and breadth of corruption. What he did was to manage it on a scale that no one had ever been able to do before.”

In 1998 the tide turned when the Asian Financial Crises took Indonesia to the brink of economic collapse.  Rising discontent led to riots and demonstrations forcing Suharto to resign.  Two years later he was charged with misusing $550 million from seven charities he controlled while president, and temporarily placed under house arrest.  Pronounced to ill to stand trial, another attempt (two years later) ended the same way.  Finally, in July 2007, a $1.5 billion civil lawsuit was filed against Suharto.  The case was never heard, as he died a few months later.

Return of assets:  In 2010, the Indonesian government successfully brought a private civil action against the Suharto family for the recovery of $307.4 million.  Apart from this (and the cases mentioned above), the only other case recorded, relates to $50.4 million worth of assets controlled by Suharto’s son, “Tommy”, which was frozen by Guernsey in 2002.  Tommy subsequently served five years of a 15-year prison sentence for ordering the murder of the Indonesian Supreme Court judge who convicted him of corruption in connection to a (unrelated) multimillion-dollar real estate scam case.

Other contenders for the most corrupt world leader

While the ten leaders listed above stood out, they were not the only ones vying  for the title of the world’s most corrupt leader.  Other strong contenders included Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych, who is alleged to have kept a log book showing that he had paid $2 billion in bribes while in office (or $1.4 million for each day he was president).  Then there is Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, President of Equatorial Guinea.  With a personal fortune thought to be around $600 million, in 2003, Obiang took personal control of the country’s treasury, arguing that this personal ‘intervention’ was the only way to prevent civil servants from being ‘tempted’ to engage in corrupt practices. The following year he transferred $700 million into various US bank accounts controlled by himself and his family.

Another potential candidate worth mentioning (as no list would be complete without him) is Italy’s enigmatic Silvio Berlusconi.  With a personal net worth thought to be around $9 billion, Berlusconi estimated (in 2009) that his 2,500+ court appearances, in 106 corruption related trials spanning two decades, had cost him more than $200 million in legal fees!  Notwithstanding this, Italians still elected him president!

Finally, in an effort to ensure gender equality, it is worth mentioning that a lone female also made the list of contenders.  While President Marcos of the Philippines managed to make it to number two on the list of most corrupt world leaders of recent history, a 2007 poll carried out by Pulse Asia, indicated that 42% of his countrymen (and women) felt that Philippine’s most corrupt leader of all time wasn’t Ferdinand Marcus … but Gloria Macapagal Arroyo!

Is there a world leader that you feel should have made the list but didn’t? If so, share it with us in the comments section below, as I’d love to hear from you.

Jeremy Sandbrook - Chief Executive Integritas360About the author: Jeremy Sandbrook is the Chief Executive of Integritas360, a global social enterprise that helps charities and NGOs/NFPs  ‘corruption-proof’ themselves. An internationally recognised anti-corruption expert, he has spent the last decade working in the international development sector, predominantly in Africa, Europe and Australasia. Jeremy also lectures on the topic at the University of Sydney’s Centre for Continuing Education. 

Key sources: While the above rankings were based on information sourced from various articles, heavy reliance was placed on the Stolen Asset Recovery (StAR) Initiative (established by the World Bank Group and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in 2007) and Transparency International.