The Sad Saga of Equatorial Guinea

Those of you who paid any attention to the Women’s World Cup of football over the past month may have noticed that in and among the usual soccer suspects was tiny Equatorial Guinea, who made it to the 16-team tournament despite a national population of less than 700 000 people (Equatorial Guinea’s previously best-known international sporting exploit may have been that of the infamous swimmer Eric ‘The Eel’ Moussambani at the 2000 Summer Olympics). This sudden rise in fortune in the country’s football fortunes has prompted allegations from rival African countries, notably women’s football powerhouse Nigeria but also from Ghana and South Africa, of gender masking with regards to two of the country’s top female players (both were removed in advance of the World Cup; other scandals involve the use of naturalised citizens from other countries to the point that the team is disqualified from Olympic qualification, and this handball goal against Australia). But above all of that, perhaps the main reason for the sudden rise in football quality is the personal patronage of the country’s president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo (whose son Ruslan just happens to be the Equatoguinean Secretary of State for Youth and Sport). His involvement is so deep that he even chose the coach of the national men’s team personally.

Certainly, there’s a lot more funding available for sideline passions of the ruling elite when your country is run by one of the largest kleptocracies on the planet. Despite Equatorial Guinea’s tiny size, its possession of two islands in the Atlantic Ocean some distance from the chunk of the country that occupies the mainland gives the country a fair amount of ocean in the heart of one of the world’s largest offshore petroleum reserves. The third largest petroleum producer in sub-Saharan Africa, the country now takes in US$3 billion per annum in oil revenue. Since the discovery of oil reserves in 1996 and the entrance of major players like ExxonMobil and ChevronTexaco, Equatorial Guinea’s per capita GDP has skyrocketed from that of your average impoverished sub-Saharan country to a figure comparable with many Western European states (US$36 000 per year, according to the Central Intelligence Agency). And yet, 70% of the population still lives on less than US$2 per day. There are only 700 km of paved roads. Sewage runs through the streets of Malabo. In a country where one in five children die before the age of five and 58% of people live without access to safe water, nearly all of that petroleum wealth has ended up in the coffers of Teodoro Obiang and his network of family and associates.

Gulf_of_Guinea_(English)

Source: Amcaja, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gulf_of_Guinea_%28English%29.jpg.Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

Equatorial Guinea is a rarity in sub-Saharan Africa, for Spain, not Britain, France, Belgium, Germany or Portugal, was the coloniser here, dating from 1778 to 1968, resulting in Spanish being the official language (because of the geographic advantage, French is also an official language here and the country is a member of the BEAC’s Central African CFA franc zone). A hodgepodge of Spanish outposts at the east end of the Gulf of Guinea, the odd borders (the country is split in three parts: a small mainland chunk known as Río Muni; the island of Bioko, where the capital of Malabo sits and where political power is concentrated; and the distant island of Annobón, which lies south of the island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe) made the country somewhat hard to manage but also served to give the country two separate exclusive economic zones, which came handy when maritime oil reserves were proven.

After independence in 1968, the country’s first election resulted in a civil servant named Francisco Macías Nguema becoming the inaugural president. By 1973, Macías Nguema had consolidated all government power within himself, repealing the constitution and abolishing the legislative and judicial systems. Positions of power were filled entirely with members of the familial clan he belonged to, the Esangui. Being from the mainland, he routinely favoured his ethnic group, the Fang, over the minority Bubi who were native to Bioko, and facilitated mass Fang emigration to the point where they dominated on the island as well. Almost all pre-colonial leaders still in the country were executed or imprisoned, as were thousands upon thousands of others. On Christmas Day 1975, he ordered the execution of 150 opponents in the national stadium, which was performed with ‘Those Were the Days’ blaring over the public address system; another execution saw 36 prisoners forced to dig a neck-deep trench and stand in it so that they could be buried to their necks and have their faces eaten by ants. Earning his young country the nickname ‘Dachau of Africa’, it is estimated that between 50-80 000 of the population of 380 000 were killed (the deceased were disproportionately Bubi). He had immigrant plantation workers from Nigeria killed when they asked for higher wages, forcing Nigeria to removes all of its nationals from the country. Macías Nguema’s reign was so oppressive and bloody that one-third of Equatorial Guinea’s population fled the country during his reign.

A madman who fuelled himself with hallucinogenics, Macías Nguema was not only incredibly brutal but mentally fragile. He once had a table set for eight people, sat down in the empty room, and proceeded to have an conversation with the ‘ghosts’ at the empty table. He condemned the Catholic Church and forced its clergy to praise him in sermons under penalty of imprisonment or death (by 1978, the country’s official motto was ‘There is no God but Nguema’). Similar to Mobutu Seke Seko, he ordered all Equatoguineans to switch to Africanised names; taking it one step further, he shut down hospitals and removed doctors and burses that refused to practice traditional African medicine. He banned the workers in the Malabo city power plant from using lubricating oil, promising that he could run it using magic (the plant soon exploded). He was so paranoid that he banned words like ‘intellectual’, banned the act of fishing, and attempted to have all boats in the country destroyed.

As the outside world largely ignored the atrocities in Equatorial Guinea, Macías Nguema would only be deposed because of his deteriorating mental state. When Macías Nguema’s paranoia led him to begin executing members of his own family in 1979, it was his nephew, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, then a lieutenant-colonel in the army and one of his right-hand men that presided over the largest prison in the country and countless executions and beatings, who organised the coup that removed Macías Nguema from power, tracked him down in the jungle, and executed him by firing squadObiang obtained Spanish help in organising this coup, and was welcomed by the international community, with visits from King Juan Carlos and Pope John Paul II, but little changed. Equatorial Guinea was still dirt-poor with no infrastructure, and dependent on foreign aid. And as for the presidency and the re-established legislative branch, elections took place in 1983, but they were one-party elections with all candidates chosen by Obiang. Trained in torture by his uncle, Obiang emerged as a dictator almost as paranoid and as brutal, repeating the same tactics, installing his family members in positions of power. And when oil money started pouring into government coffers in the late 1990s (major investors in the Equatoguinean oil fields include ExxonMobil and ChevronTexaco), those coffers were quickly plundered by Obiang and his family. In fact, it was those oil revenues that partially prompted a rather serious coup attempt against Obiang in 2004 led by British mercenary Simon Mann and funded by Sir Mark Thatcher (son of Margaret) among others; the idea being that a new regime would be so grateful to the men behind the coup that they would get plum deals in the Equatoguinean oil industry (Mann and 68 South African and Angolan mercenaries were arrested in Zimbabwe en route to Equatorial Guinea possessing grenades, guns, rocket launcher and ammunition, ending the coup before it started).

Secretary_Rice_and_President_Obiang 320px-Teodoro_Obiang_Nguema_Mbasogo_with_Obamas

Obiang with Condoleezza Rice and with Barack Obama.

Obiang’s eccentricities are numerous and disturbing. In the mid-1990s, the US ambassador to Equatorial Guinea was removed after state radio claimed he had been conjuring up his ancestors’ spirits in a graveyard to put spells on President Obiang (the ambassador was actually tending to the grave of a downed World War II pilot; considering this was the pre-oil era, it most likely an excuse to send home a critical US government official). In 2003, the same radio station declared Obiang to be ‘in permanent contact with the Almighty’, ‘like God in heaven’ and holding ‘all power over men and things’ (the best/most frightening quote came from a presidential aide: ‘He can decide to kill without anyone calling him to account and without going to hell because it is God himself, with whom he is in permanent contact, and who gives him this strength’; a terrifying justification of his reign of torture); all statements that echo the reign of the uncle he overthrew back in 1979. Obiang’s rampant paranoia is fuelled by incidents such as the attempted 2004 coup and the 2009 attack on his palace from seaborne gunmen believed to be from the Niger Delta area.

Legal political opposition is almost nonexistent in Equatorial Guinea, as is freedom of the press; all media is either state-owned or state-controlled (Malabo is the only world capital with no daily newspaper; in fact, there’s no bookstore). International travellers are kept on a tight leash. It is illegal for visitors to carry maps or take pictures in public without a permit; cameras will be confiscated and visitors will be held in detention on suspicion of spying or simply expelled from the country. And international observers for the show elections it puts on every few years?Forget it.According to the government press agency, Obiang took 95.4 % of the vote in the 2009 presidential election (some officials were forced to certify the results at gunpoint, and some voted by proxy for entire village populations), and in the preceding legislative elections, his Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea and allies took 99 of the 100 seatsThe official government press release proudly proclaimed the headline ‘Democracy at Its Peak in Equatorial Guinea’.

Obiang was named chair of the African Union in January (the chair rotates between the five geographical regions of Africa), which angered human rights activists around the world. This past week, Equatorial Guinea was host to the latest summit of the African Union, held in the capital of Malabo in the new Malabo II/Sipopo development, a massive new complex designed to bring the capital into the 21st century (and segregate government operations apart from the rundown central city). According to the government, the site was developed at a cost of €600 million; the opposition claims the cost was much higher. In the months leading to the summit, 100 students was arrested and detained in an effort to clamp down on potential protests before they even got organised. At the summit itself, Obiang, dressed in his military uniform with combination cap, prefaced his opening address with the phrase ‘The intervention for human rights are nowadays causing a massive scourge’ and blamed outside agents for manipulating public sentiment and creating misinformation. This, of course, was said in the wake of the Libyan war; one intended to remove another former African Union chair, Moammar Gadhafi (at this summit, 31 of the Union’s 53 members voted to ignore the International Criminal Court warrant for Gadhafi’s arrest, calling the ICC discriminatory against Africans while ignoring crimes by western countries and instead asking for negotiations between the warring factions).

As can often be the case with dictators, there’s a fair bit of nepotism within the Obiang regime, with many of his family members in high-ranking government positions and/or living high on the hog thanks to embezzled oil revenues (because of his numerous undocumented relationships, the actual number of Obiang’s children is unknown). Almost all major businesses are in the hands of government officials and their family members. The most famous benefactor may be his son Teodoro (‘Teodorin’) Nguema Obiang Mangue, agriculture and forestry minister (after petroleum, forestry is the second-largest industry in Equatorial Guinea), and owns the only private radio station in the country (conveniently, he’s also in charge of state television). Not that he spends much time back home. Instead, he splits time between London, Paris, Rio de Janeiro and his homes in South Africa, Argentina and CaliforniaTeodorin’s frivolous spending habits are quickly becoming legend: a sprawling US$31-35 000 000 Malibu, California mansion with a four-hole golf course, $60 000 rugs and a $58 000 home theatre; $1 737 for a pair of wine glasses; private showings held for him at the Beverly Hills Dolce & Gabbana; €18.5 million on art; seven Ferraris, five Bentleys, four Rolls-Royces, two Lamborghinis, two Mercedes-Benzes, two Porsches, two Maybachs, and an Aston Martin (not to mention a $2 000 000 Bugatti Veyron). Forbes’ Africa Chronicles reports that next on the list is a US$380 million yacht. And when he enters and leaves the mansion, his underlings are required to greet him in a receiving line (he even styles himself ‘Prince Teodoro’). He has had numerous relationships with various Hollywood figures; one of which, Eve, he once designated president/CFO of one of his shell companies (the relationship reportedly ended once the allegations of cannibalism in the family surfaced). He has a known predilection for throwing expensive parties and indulging in drug binges.


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The Malibu compound in question, pretty much right above the Malibu Inn.

This large article comes with an eleven-panel slideshow of Teodorin Obiang enjoying his opulence, which is interesting seeing as how a cabinet member such as himself is only entitled to €4 800 per month. Of course, that does not include the tax he imposes on international logging firms (cash or cheque only), the proceeds of which go directly to him.Or the numerous logging companies he owns directly in addition to his cabinet post (under Equatoguinean law, public servants can own companies that can bid for government contracts when in partnership with a foreign investor). Or the shell companies he formed to funnel at least US$700 million into bank accounts in the United States plus another French account at Barclays in the name of Somagul Forestal (his logging company) used to purchase the artwork mentioned above (as President Obiang has decreed the management of the country’s oil wealth to be a state secret, the exact mechanisms by which he has embezzled the funds remain unknown). With President Obiang suffering from terminal prostate cancer, Teodorin is believed to be the odds-on favourite to succeed his father as president of Equatorial Guinea. This should prove interesting, as many high-ranking government and military officials (including members of his family) are opposed to his assent, preferring his brother Gabriel. Teodorin is already following in his brother’s footsteps, torturing family members seen as rivals, and allegation of his own retributive cannibalism have surfaced from the opposition.

Neither the Bush nor the Obama administrations in the United States have been exactly punitive toward the regime, although things seem to be (slowly) changing from the US end. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice once referred to Obiang as a ‘good friend’ despite this rather damning report from her own department on the use of torture in Obiang’s regime.And there’s a prominent posed photo of President Obama and Obiang with their wives at a 2009 New York reception. However, in 2010 the US ambassador to UNESCO was part of a group including Desmond Tutu that convinced the UN arm not to accept a US$3 million donation to establish a life science prize aimed at ‘improving the quality of life’ in Obiang’s name (the country’s Ministry of Information responded by calling the reversal ‘absurd, cynical’, ‘colonialist, discriminatory, racist and prejudiced’). Earlier this year, US State Department officials met with the Equatoguinean opposition and finally used the word ‘dictator’ in describing Obiang. Under the Bush administration, a proclamation was enacted banning corrupt foreign officials from obtaining visas. The Obama administration has pledged to enforce this proclamation. But neither administration has taken action against Obiang, Teodorin, the Equatoguinean government, or the US banks where this money has been laundered, Wachovia and Citibank (Riggs Bank, where much of that money ended up, was fined $25 million in 2004 and 2005 for various money laundering actions, including moving money tied to Augusto Pinochet out of Britain), even in the face of the US Senate findings. With $12 billion worth of investments in Equatorial Guinea, the US is the largest investor in the country.

Meanwhile, the Equatoguinean populace live with some of the lowest living standards on the planet. For all of its oil wealth, infrastructure here is limited (oil production has actually peaked and has been on the decline since 2008; although they should keep pumping out crude for some time yet, it’s a fraction of the what leading global producers can pump out). There is not a single automated telling machine in Equatorial Guinea, nor are credit cards accepted.Electricity is unreliable and brownouts are constant. Almost all new infrastructural investments are directed toward projects in Malabo, Bata or the new complex on the mainland at Oyala (for which residents are often forcibly evicted to make way). The people have been rendered rather shy and docile in public from the decades of oppression.Freedom House lists the regime as ranking next to North Korea, Sudan and Turkmenistan when it comes to violating civil liberties and human rights. The human rights reports on the country produced by the US Department of State and Amnesty International tell tales of acts of torture, the harassment and beatings of foreign diplomats, disease-ridden prisons, abuse of immigrants, and a near-total lack of jurisprudence. The presence of foreign NGOs to assist the populace is almost non-existent. Eventually, there must be some sort of breaking point where the international community finally throws up its hands, but when that time comes is anyone’s guess.

Further Reading

Amnesty International USA (2010). Annual Report: Equatorial Guinea 2010. 28 May 2010. Available at http://www.amnestyusa.org/research/reports/annual-report-equatorial-guinea-2010?page=show. Accessed 13 July 2011.

Associated Press (2010). Equatorial Guinea women’s soccer team accused of fielding 2 men. STLtoday.com, 26 November 2010. Available at http://www.stltoday.com/sports/soccer/article_fbdbac4c-31ce-5bcf-8e3b-ad68eeda0bce.html. Accessed 11 July 2011.

BBC News (2011). Equatorial Guinea country profile. 4 May 2011. Available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/country_profiles/1023151.stm. Accessed 12 July 2011.

BBC News (2003). Equatorial Guinea’s “God”. 26 July 2003. Available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/3098007.stm. Accessed 12 July 2011.

Bureau of African Affairs (2011). Background Note: Equatorial Guinea. U.S. Department of State, 6 April 2011. Available at http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/7221.htm. Accessed 13 July 2011.

Callimachi, R. (2011). Obiang tells world not to intervene in Africa. The Herald (Rock Hill), 30 June 2011.
Available at http://www.heraldonline.com/2011/06/30/3187495/obiang-dont-intervene-in-africas.html. Accessed 13 July 2011.

Fort, P. (2011). Eq. Guinea opposition slams president after summit. Agence France-Presse, 5 July 2011. Available at http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5jK2ew96IbNuzEw2rg4OtTM0Q1SsA?docId=CNG.3ae8c77c338eb527620bd8b4c01772d6.261. Accessed 13 July 2011.

Gardner, D. (2005). The Pariah President. Ottawa Citizen, 6 November 2005. Available at http://web.archive.org/web/20080612161320/http://www.dangardner.ca/Featnov605.html. Accessed 13 July 2011.

Global Witness (2011). Barclays account used by Dictator’s son to buy €18m of artwork with suspect funds. 22 June 2011. Available at http://www.globalwitness.org/library/barclays-account-used-dictator%E2%80%99s-son-buy-%E2%82%AC18m-artwork-suspect-funds. Accessed 12 July 2011.

Human Rights Watch (2009). Equatorial Guinea: Human Rights Concerns Taint Election. 25 November 2009. Available at http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2009/11/24/equatorial-guinea-human-rights-concerns-taint-election. Accessed 12 July 2011.

Johnson, R.W. (2006). Playboy waits for his African throne. The Sunday Times, 3 September 2006. Available at http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/article626511.ece. Accessed 12 July 2011.

Lynch, C. (2011). Thanks, but no thanks. Foreign Policy: Turtle Bay, 15 June 2010. Available at http://turtlebay.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2010/06/15/thanks_but_no_thanks. Accessed 12 July 2011.

Maass, P. (2008). Who’s Africa’s Worst Dictator? Slate, 24 June 2008. Available at http://www.slate.com/id/2193870/pagenum/all/#p2. Accessed 13 July 2011.

McGreal, C. and D. Glaister (2006). The tiny African state, the president’s playboy son and the $35m Malibu mansion. The Guardian, 10 November 2006. Available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2006/nov/10/equatorialguinea.danglaister. Accessed 12 July 2011.

Nsehe, M. (2011). An African Dictator’s Son And His Very Lavish Toys. The Africa Chronicles. Forbes, 7 July 2011. Available at http://blogs.forbes.com/mfonobongnsehe/2011/07/07/an-african-dictators-son-and-his-very-lavish-toys/. Accessed 12 July 2011.

Roberts, B. (2011). Obiang keeps tight rein on Equatorial Guinea. Mail & Guardian, 11 July 2011. Available at http://mg.co.za/article/2011-07-05-obiang-keeps-tight-reign-on-equatorial-guinea/. Accessed 11 July 2011.

Sengupta, K. (2008). An African adventure: Inside story of the wonga coup. The Independent, 12 March 2008. Available at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/an-african-adventure-inside-story-of-the-wonga-coup-794470.html. Accessed 13 July 2011.

Silverstein, K. (2011). Teodorin’s World. Foreign Policy, March/April 2011. Available at http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/02/22/teodorins_world?page=0,0. Accessed 13 July 2011.

Smoltczyk, A. (2006). Rich in Oil, Poor in Human Rights. Spiegel Online, 28 August 2006. Available at http://www.spiegel.de/international/spiegel/0,1518,434691,00.html. Accessed 13 July 2011.

Stearns, S. (2011). African Union Says ICC Prosecutions Are Discriminatory. Voice of America, 5 July 2011. Available at http://www.voanews.com/english/news/africa/-African-Union-Says-ICC-Prosecutions-Are-Discriminatory-125012734.html. Accessed 13 July 2011.

Suleiman, R. (2008). Macias Nguema: Ruthless and bloody dictator. Afro Articles, 6 August 2008. Available at http://www.afroarticles.com/article-dashboard/Article/Macias-Nguema–Ruthless-and-bloody-dictator/117291. Accessed 12 July 2011.

Tran, M. (2009). President Nguema of Equatorial Guinea on course to extend three-decade rule. The Guardian, 30 November 2009. Available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/nov/30/president-equatorial-guinea-extends-rule. Accessed 12 July 2011.

U.S. Department of State Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (2010). 2009 Human Rights Report: Equatorial Guinea. 11 March 2010. Available at http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2009/af/135951.htm. Accessed 13 July 2011.

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