Rich in Oil, Poor in Human Rights Torture and Poverty in Equatorial Guinea
It has the makings of a modern-day fairy tale, the story of a country transformed from a pariah state into an oil paradise. But the reality is that Equatorial Guinea, almost unnoticed by the rest of the world, is experiencing a modern-day tragedy, a story of the dark niches of global politics in times of oil and terror.
Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang at a meeting with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice: The easiest way to earn Washington's graces is to discover oil.
President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo is a gaunt man. He is an excellent tennis player, and those who know him -- and plan to remain in the country -- describe him as modest and likeable. Human rights organizations, on the other hand, place him on par with the likes of Uganda's Idi Amin and Cambodia's Pol Pot.
There are a few ways to be removed from the United State's list of pariah states. Regime change, negotiations and scrapping weapons and torture chambers are options, but the easiest way to be considered honorable by the United States is to discover oil. Lots of oil. After all, everyone wants to drive.
Obiang gets into his bulletproof limousine. A former lieutenant colonel, he is now 64 and the condition of his prostate compels him to make frequent visits to the Mayo Clinic across the Atlantic. The hospitals in his country aren't nearly as good. In fact, they aren't really recognizable as hospitals.
Equatorial Guinea now has the highest per capita income, adjusted for purchasing power, in Africa. No other economy in the world has experienced 30 percent average annual growth in the last five years. The country has fewer inhabitants than the German city of Düsseldorf, but each year it collects several hundred million dollars in revenues from oil companies. "Unfortunately," writes the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in its country report, "this wealth has not even led to a measurable improvement in living conditions."
So where is the money going?
President Teodoro Obiang gazes out through the darkened windows of his limousine. The four-lane "Carretera del Aeropuerto" is closed to regular traffic, which normally happens only when the president's son, Teodorín, wants to take his Ferrari for a spin. New warehouses and residential areas for the country's new foreign residents line the highway.
One only has to see the billboards lining the road -- for international energy conglomerates like Schlumberger, Exxon, Bouygues and Marathon -- to realize that an oil boom is taking place in this small West African country. According to one billboard, Chevron is "pleased to be working in the Republic of Equatorial Guinea again." They're all here to do business with Obiang, and at $74 a barrel, he no longer has to answer certain questions.
Most people have never heard of Equatorial Guinea. Into the 1990s, this malaria-infested postage stamp of a country in the neck of Africa was best know for gorillas, giant frogs and the ten-foot-long, deadly Green Mamba snake. In the past, slave cargos were stored here en route to America's plantations.
The country gained a drop of notoriety in the Nicole Kidman film, "The Interpreter," and in Frederick Forsyth's mercenary thriller, "The Dogs of War." In both the film and the bestseller, the country is portrayed as a miserable republic of torture, one with which nobody would want to have any relations if it weren't for its raw materials, an obscure pariah state that really couldn't exist, except in the heads of imaginative writers. Forsyth, considered an excellent observer, wrote his book in the Hotel Bahía on Malabo's harbor.
Malabo is the world's only capital that has no daily newspaper, no newspaper stands and not a single bookstore. The only book available for purchase is displayed in the supermarket. It's called "Practical Handbook of Ceremony" -- a behavioral guide for potentates and those who aspire to be like them.
Former US President Bill Clinton ordered the US embassy in Malabo shut down, because he believed that his ambassador wasn't safe there. That was in the spring of 1995. Only a few weeks later, geologists working for Mobil discovered an oil field, now called the "Zafiro field," only 20 minutes by helicopter from Malabo. It promised to be huge, to the tune of up to 1.2 billion barrels.
Since then, the only powerful adversary President Teodoro Obiang has to fear is his prostate.
Map: Equitorial Guinea
It happened in 1979, when Obiang's uncle, Francisco Macías Nguema, known as "Papa Macías," embarked on a wave of executions that also extended to close relatives. After the country gained its independence from Spain in 1968, Papa Macías began having his troops slaughter the Bubi, an ethnic minority, drove a third of the country's population into exile, murdered 65,000 citizens -- and called the whole thing "socialism."
The only countries supporting Equatorial Guinea in those years were Cuba, China, the Soviet Union and France. The country was later admitted to the International Organization of Francophone States.
Papa Macías shocked diplomats with his outrageous statements, including his claim that Adolf Hitler was "Africa's savior." The use of the world "intellectuals" was made punishable by law. Macías would celebrate his birthdays by having prisoners shot by a firing squad in Malabo's stadium, while loudspeakers played his favorite song, "Those Were the Days." In this staunchly Catholic country, he once had political opponents crucified.
Before Teodoro Obiang had his despotic uncle shot, he was the director of the notorious "Black Beach Prison," a place known for its torture practices. Now that he is president and is being driven through Malabo, he says he is tired of constantly having to listen to these old stories. After all, the US Secretary of State called him "a good friend" at a reception in Washington on April 12. The higher the price of crude oil in New York, the stronger that friendship seems to get.
The president's motorcade passes the fenced grounds of Exxon's local headquarters building, followed by the powerful Chinese embassy. China is important. It's always a good idea to have several friends, especially when they buy up every drop of oil the country has to offer and do little more than smile and nod when they're told that a state in Africa should be dealt with more sternly than countries elsewhere.
Especially Equatorial Guinea. After all, Obiang was the one who organized the country's first elections and permitted political parties, even for the Bubi. Of course, most party leaders could be bought. Others couldn't understand why one shouldn't criticize a government, and were sent to prison to think about it. "What right does the opposition have to criticize the actions of a government?" the president asked. Severo Moto, an opposition leader who fled the country, was recently sentenced in absentia to 100 years in prison.
Obiang was reelected by almost 100 percent of voters in the last election, a little less than four years ago. Some election precincts even managed to count 103 percent of voters in support of the incumbent candidate, setting what could well be a democratic record.
At the gas station, the motorcade turns left toward the old port. It passes the governing party's headquarters and then a memorial honoring Cuba -- and then something happens.
Someone is standing in the road, a foreign woman holding a camera. She is an American, and she has a photography permit in her bag, a permit for which she paid a $30 fee at the Ministry of Tourism, housed in a crumbling colonial building. The other $70 must have been some sort of tax on white people.
Under government decree number 42, tourists are permitted to take pictures. But there are no tourists in Malabo. No one takes pictures here.
Especially not of the president.
The motorcade speeds up and disappears past guard dogs and behind the gates of the old governor's palace.
But the last vehicle, a military jeep, screeches to a halt, turns to the side and stops in front of the American woman. An officer jumps out, wielding an automatic weapon. The American smiles, but the officer doesn't.
The American puts up a spirited fight that consists of hysterical screams, a great deal of arm-waving and, finally, tears. The soldiers carry automatic pistols. The woman is thrown into the back of the Jeep, searched and, finally, left standing in the road, pale and sobbing. She will leave the country on the next flight.
"It was very reckless of that woman. It was very stupid. The president is quite touchy when he sees cameras." Brigadier General Manuel Nguema Mba, minister of national security, is a friendly man with bad teeth and an easy, guffawing laugh. He is the man to whom human rights organization Amnesty International addresses all of its appeals. According to reports by the United Nations Commission for Human Rights, the minister has been known to supervise the torture of political enemies. The government in Malabo believes that torturing prisoners is not a violation of human rights, because prisoners have no rights.
The US government for many years listed the regime as a junta that uses torture to maintain its grip on power. Indeed, it was only after Sept. 11, 2001 that Equatorial Guinea was suddenly transformed from a pariah state into a key element in the new American oil strategy. A few months after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Walter Kansteiner, assistant secretary of state for African Affairs in the Bush administration, called together a meeting of oil barons: "Bring that oil home." He was talking about African oil, and "home," in his view, wasn't Malabo.
The Americans hope that the Gulf of Guinea will make them less dependent on the Persian Gulf. They want to be able to fill up their SUVs in Idaho without having the uncomfortable feeling that they may be enriching their political enemies.