JC Scull taught international business relations and strategies at universities in Panama and China.
Corrupt World Leaders
For centuries, the world has been plagued by corrupt world leaders who have abused their power to not only oppress the people of their nations but also to illicitly extract wealth. The following six world leaders are only but a fraction of those who have done just that. I believe the six most corrupt leaders in recent history are:
- Alberto Fujimori (Peru)
- Sani Abacha (Nigeria)
- Mobutu Sese Seko (Zaire)
- Ferdinand Marcos (Philippines)
- Suharto (Indonesia)
- Vladimir Putin (Russia)
How Corruption Is Manifested
Corruption is dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power, undertaken as a way to enrich themselves. It can involve bribery, nepotism, and embezzlement, but it mainly occurs when an office-holder or a government employee acts in an official capacity for personal gain. Unfortunately, corruption can be difficult to define and identify as the culprits have become very adept at hiding their tracks as well as finding new ways to illicitly profit from their positions of power.
Types of Corruption
Corruption can take many forms and is seen in many sectors of society. Typically, it occurs within the interaction between private and public sectors; within the halls of government as a way of exchanging favors and benefits; or in the abuse of power.
Transparency International classifies corruption as grand, petty, and political. On their website, they describe these three types as follows:
- Grand corruption "consists of acts committed at a high level of government that distort policies or the central functioning of the state, enabling leaders to benefit at the expense of the public good."
- Petty corruption "refers to everyday abuse of entrusted power by low- and mid-level public officials in their interactions with ordinary citizens, who often are trying to access basic goods or services in places like hospitals, schools, police departments and other agencies."
- Political corruption "is a manipulation of policies, institutions and rules of procedure in the allocation of resources and financing by political decision makers, who abuse their position to sustain their power, status and wealth.”
Impact of Corruption
Corruption impacts society in many ways, from the depletion of national wealth, the erosion of the rule of law, increased pollution, and diminished democracy to unnecessary and unjust wars that cost countless human lives. Corruption has become a global blight as more people enter politics not as a way of service to their fellow citizens and the world at large, but rather as a way to obtain power or personal enrichment.
While corruption has been around since the onset of organized society, recent improvements in technology and communication have allowed us to observe firsthand its destructive effects on many countries, including our own.
The following is a list of the most corrupt world leaders in recent history, taking into account the total amount of wealth they have illicitly extracted from their countries as well as their ability to remain in power despite having been exposed for their dishonesty.
6. Alberto Fujimori (Peru)
Born: July 28, 1938
Alberto Fujimori was President of Peru from 28 July 1990 to 22 November 2000, when during the beginning of his third term, he fled to Japan in the midst of a major corruption and human rights violation scandal. Fujimori has largely been credited with defeating the Shining Path insurgency that plagued Peru and with the stabilization of its economy.
Fujimori was accused and convicted of the embezzlement of government funds, along with Director of National Intelligence Vladimiro Montesinos. They are both serving time in Peruvian jails. Montesinos has also been accused of accepting protection money from drug traffickers. Although not proven, allegations that Fujimori might have also been involved have circulated.
To date, close to $250 million stolen by Montesinos and Fujimori has been repatriated to Peru from bank accounts in the Cayman Islands and Switzerland. Allegedly, there is another $380 million missing from the original amount purportedly illegally taken by both men.
For additional information on Fujimori's corruption, please visit the following websites:
5. Sani Abacha (Nigeria)
Lived: September 20, 1943–June 8, 1998
General Sani Abacha was the de facto president and dictator of Nigeria from November 17, 1993, until June 8, 1998, when he died while in office. His cause of death was officially pronounced to be due to a heart attack, but it was rumored he was poisoned by an unknown political rival.
Abacha seized the presidency in 1993 during a transition of government following the resignation of Chief Ernest Adegunle Oladeinde Shonekan. While receiving credit for greatly improving economic conditions and bringing some degree of stability to the country, allegations of vast corruption surfaced after his death.
It is estimated that, during his time in office, Abacha and his family stole at least $7 billion from the national coffers. He accomplished this in a simple scheme in which he would instruct his National Security Advisor Aliyu Ismaila Gwarzo to provide a fake funding request, which Abacha would approve. The money would be collected from the Central Bank of Nigeria in the form of cash or travellers’ cheques. The funds would then be laundered into offshore accounts by other government officials.
For additional information on Abacha, you can read:
4. Mobutu Sese Seko (Zaire)
Lived: October 14, 1930–September 7, 1997
Mobutu, as he was commonly known, was the president of Zaire (formerly Democratic Republic of the Congo) from November 24, 1965–May 16, 1997. During the Congo Crisis of the 1960, with the support of Belgium and the United States and acting as Chief of Staff of the Army, he deposed and executed democratically elected Patrice Lumumba. Mobutu governed the country as de facto leader until he was officially named president in 1965.
During the time Mobutu was president, he looted his country’s wealth, allegedly amassing a $4 billion fortune. He considered the country’s vast wealth in diamonds, timber, copper, cobalt, and other natural resources to be his own. He felt the country owed him the riches he pilfered because of his position of president.
As with all other corrupt world leaders, he institutionalized corruption as a means of creating an efficient kleptocracy, but also to stave off potential challengers to his presidency. It is estimated the level and depth of corruption in his administration was so immense that for every dollar he extracted from the nation’s wealth, nine dollars would be dispersed among family members and cronies. This degree of theft eventually led to the nation’s economic collapse in 1996.
Prior to his death from cancer in 1997, Mobutu’s assets outside of Zaire numbered in the dozens. They included vacation homes in France, Spain, Belgium, and Portugal, all of which totaled hundreds of millions of dollars. In Zaire, he owned 11 palaces, a luxury yacht in the Zaire River, and a gold mine reportedly holding 100 tons of the precious metal.
For more information on Mobutu's corruption, please read the following:
- Mobutu leaves legacy of corruption and chaos
- Legacy of corrupt and ruthless dictator who built Versailles in the jungle
3. Ferdinand Marcos (Philippines)
Lived: September 11, 1917–September 28, 1989
Ferdinand Emmanuel Edralin Marcos Sr. was the president of the Philippines from December 30, 1965, until February 25, 1986. As the leading member of the far-right New Society Movement, he ruled his country with an iron fist and was widely considered a kleptocrat for his ability to amass an ill-gotten fortune in excess of $10 billion.
Marcos, like other corrupt world leaders before and after him, understood that the mass extraction of wealth through corrupt means cannot be accomplished alone. A legion of willing participants and enablers is required to create the foundation and organizations through which wealth can be funneled, laundered, and distributed. Consequently, his administration enabled a class of millionaire oligarchs who plundered government financial institutions, illicitly raided corporations, created monopolies, and created takeover schemes of large industries.
Marcos’ family and associates were awarded timber, mining, and oil concessions, as well as large parcels of government-owned land. During the establishment of martial law from September of 1972 until his exile in February of 1986, he appropriated and confiscated businesses and institutions in the public and private sector, later redistributing them to family and associates. These same institutions and corporations were eventually used to launder illegal proceeds and collect extortion money.
In 1976, without the consent of the people of Manila and its suburbs, Marcos merged four cities and thirteen municipalities into what is now known as the Metro Manila area. He appointed his wife, Imelda Marcos, as the governor, creating the second most powerful office in the country. By creating a metropolitan area accounting for 20% of the population of the Philippines and 70% of gross national receipts, Mrs. Marcos became the de facto Vice President of the country. This gave his inner circle of family and cronies another large government fund to easily raid or manipulate.
For more on Marcos' corruption, read:
- Remembering Ferdinand Marcos' corruption
- The $10 billion question: What happened to the Marcos millions
2. Suharto (Indonesia)
Lived: June 8, 1921–January 27, 2008
Suharto became president of Indonesia in an official capacity from March 1968 until May 1998, although he took control of the country from predecessor Sukarno in September of 1965 through a military coup. During his near 33 years in power, it is estimated he amassed a fortune between $15 and $35 billion. He accomplished this by creating a system comprising of corruption, collusion, and nepotism, in which he would hand control of state-run monopolies to family members and friends, who in turn would kick back millions of dollars in tribute payments.
He managed to hide the money in charitable foundations he created and managed. Contributions to these foundations—in Indonesian referred to as yayasans—were also compulsory for financial institutions and wealthy individuals. Additionally, any company attempting to exploit Indonesia’s vast natural resources was forced to employ one of Suharto’s associates or relatives in order to get through bureaucratic red tape. As payment, they would demand an equity stake in the enterprise without making any financial investment.
Another scam involved the state energy company Pertamina, which was forced to import its oil through trading companies owned by Suharto's family. Pertamina was then charged 35 cents per barrel for the services. Other services were provided to the company, such as cafeteria foods and insurance, through Suharto-owned corporations.
For more on Suharto's corruption, go to:
1. Vladimir Putin (Russia)
Born: October 7, 1952
Perhaps the most enigmatic of all world leaders is Vladimir Putin, who stepped into the world’s stage when, on August 9, 1999, Boris Yeltsin appointed him acting Prime Minister of the Government of the Russian Federation and announced he wanted him as his successor. By August 16, he was confirmed as Russia’s Prime Minister by the Duma. Upon Yeltsin's resignation on December 31, 1999, Putin became Russia’s acting president. He won a snap election held on March 26, 2000, and was inaugurated president on May 7 of the same year. After serving two terms in office, he became Prime Minister under President Dimitry Medvedev until 2012, when he again became President of Russia. After winning the 2018 elections, Putin is expected to serve as president until 2024.
Prior to serving at a national level, Putin worked as a KGB counterintelligence agent until 1990 when he went to work for the city of Leningrad (St. Petersburg today) under Mayor Anatoly Sobchak. It is at this time that Putin is first suspected of engaging in corrupt behavior as he was investigated by the city legislative council for exporting $93 million of underpriced metals in exchange for foreign food, which never arrived. Although the council found sufficient evidence to warrant his dismissal, Putin remained in his position as head of the Committee for External Relations.
Since this incident, there have been other troubling signs pointing to Putin’s possible corruption involving large sums of money. Although official figures from Russia claim Putin to be worth approximately $150,000, he has been photographed wearing expensive wristwatches with a collective value of $700,000; nearly six times his annual salary. Russian government adviser Stanislav Belkovsky has publicly claimed Putin’s net worth to be $70 billion. Other speculations have come from hedge fund manager Bill Browder, who claims his wealth is closer to $200 billion.
Anders Åslund, a Swedish economist and a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, was quoted by Newsweek as saying:
"You can see the Russian state transactions and the money leaving the country. Capital flight is around $800 billion, and one-sixth probably belongs to Putin and one-sixth for his friends. I would estimate that Putin is worth around $100–160 billion. We can see that Putin and his friends have taken $10–15 billion from Gazprom every year since 2004. That’s just Gazprom. There are large numbers of transactions being made."
As reported by Polygraph.Info, Anders Aslund in an interview spoke about his book Russia’s Crony Capitalism: The Path from Market Economy to Kleptocracy. In the book, Aslund says:
“My assessment is that since Putin’s circle got its looting fully organized around 2006, they have extracted $15–25 billion a year, reaching a total of $195–325 billion, a large share of the Russian private offshore wealth. Presuming that half of this wealth belongs to Putin, his net wealth would amount to $100-160 billion. Naturally, Putin and his cronies cannot enjoy their wealth. It is all about power. If they are not the wealthiest, they fear they will lose power.”
Putin’s fortunes are difficult to exactly pin down, since as the 2015 Panama Papers revealed, Putin wealth is obscured as well as bolstered through the many proxies he uses. This is also the reason why connecting him to properties is so difficult. In spite of this, his and his family’s usage of extravagant homes, jets, and yachts have been well documented. These include:
- Volkonsky House in central Moscow—owned and rented out to tenants by ex-wife Lyudmila. The property generates an estimated $3.18 million annually.
- “Putin’s Palace,” a Black Sea property worth $1 billion dollars, allegedly built through a cash flow scheme.
- 15 helicopters.
- 43 aircrafts.
- 1 airliner.
- 53.7-metre yacht: with designer interior, a spa pool, waterfall, and wine cellar.
- 11 luxury watches.
- Five-decked yacht: with jacuzzi, barbecue, maple wood colonnade and bathroom faced in marble.
For additional information on Vladimir Putin's corruption, see the following:
- How Rich is Vladimir Putin?
- Revealed: the $2bn offshore trail that leads to Vladimir Putin
- Putin's Palace
- Putin's Palaces: The Life of a Galley Slave
Dishonorable Mention Goes to Kim Jong-un
Born: January 1983 or 1984
Kim has been the Supreme Leader of North Korea since 2011, following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il. As perhaps one of the most entrenched and brutal despots on the world stage today, Kim has followed his father's and grandfather's (Kim Il-sung) playbook of running the country as his own. As most brutal dictators go, he is typical in considering the national wealth to be his possession.
Because of the secrecy of his regime, it is difficult to ascertain how wealthy he, as well as his dynastic family has become since his grandfather became the supreme leader of North Korea in 1948. However, the unbound power he wields goes far beyond normal human comprehension.
Therefore, we can only award him with the "dishonorable mention" rating in this article.
For additional information on the Kim dynasty, see below:
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on October 01, 2019:
Indeed Dana. You are correct.
Dana Tate from LOS ANGELES on October 01, 2019:
These people and many other corrupt leaders have no conscience. I don't see how they live with themselves.