Rich in Oil, Poor in Human Rights Torture and Poverty in Equatorial Guinea
Oilmen sit around tables covered with empty beer bottles at the Hotel Paraíso late into the evening. Later, during karaoke, one of them jumps, fully clothed, into the pool. They come from northern England, Croatia, Houston and the Philippines.
"I have two lives," says Mark, a drilling engineer with Marathon, accompanied by a girl with melancholy eyes. He's used his oil earnings to buy a farm in Yorkshire, complete with horses for his two daughters and surrounded by a hedge where blackbirds make their nests.
In Malabo, he always has a girl from Cameroon in his room, swallows large amounts of high-dosage malaria pills and spends three-month, seven-day a week, around-the-clock shifts working on a drilling platform. He says: "I have trouble explaining life here to people at home."
Most of Marathon's men are taken directly from the airport to the company-owned complex on the Punta Europa peninsula, a sort of high-security Green Zone in the rainforest, complete with Wi-Fi Internet access, signs that read "Speed Limit 25 KPH" and air-conditioned bungalows with local phone service for calls to Houston.
Four thousand people live here, including about 1,000 Americans. Marathon bought the roughly 120-acre site directly from the president. It has its own water and power system, hospitals and supermarkets. The oil people call the complex "Pleasantville."
Despite the comforts here, everyone counts the days before boarding the "Houston Express," a direct flight home. Hardly anyone ever sets foot in downtown Malabo, only a few kilometers away.
Malabo sits like a bead of sweat above its harbor, a lethargic collection of colonial buildings, homemade-looking shacks, "rendezvous" bars and the ostentatious new houses of the kleptocracy. The city appears to be crawling toward its future at a snail's pace. Of its population of 50,000, there are no beggars and no smiles.
Only 15 years ago, Malabo's telephone book consisted of two pages, with listings by first name only. The city's only hotel had no water, no power and no kitchen. Cars were rare and asphalt was unknown.
Nowadays Toyotas are even parked in front of slum huts, and mobile phones outnumber inhabitants. But the city still lacks running water. Various sanitation projects have been initiated, paid for with foreign aid and then canceled without any visible results.
There is some construction underway in the city's old section, the Spanish quarter. Practically everything built in Malabo belongs to the Obiang clan. The standard response to "Who is building this hotel?" is "the president." And the owner of this fantastically elegant apartment building? "Hassan, the president's youngest son." And who has mechanics flown in from Maranello to service his Ferraris? "Teodoríno, the president's son and minister of agriculture."
Power and arrogance are reflected in the stretch SUVs parked at odd angles, in the facades of air-conditioned office buildings, in the mirrored sunglasses of police officers and in their whips made of power cables, which they use to drive passengers onto the ferry.
One of the few Europeans who feels comfortable in Malabo is Jean-Louis Ecard, a native of the French region of Burgundy. He has been through four marriages that are more or less over, prides himself on his resemblance to the late Anthony Quinn and runs the Le Bourguignon restaurant in the French cultural center. "Poverty? Don't be fooled," he says. "The people live in filth, but they have cars in front of their houses. There are more mobile phones than residents here. Hey!" A brown rat rushes past and a waiter kicks it against a wall. "This is Malabo. It has nothing in common with the rest of Africa. Have you seen anyone smiling here? You see? They don't like foreigners. The whites are thieves, missionaries or some other form of insult, and immigrants are despised and beaten."
Ecard has lived in Malabo long enough to be qualified to say things like: "The people here are not ready for democracy. The Europeans should take a page from the Americans' book. They know what they're doing. All they want is their oil, not their souls."
Ecard is an eccentric. Hardly anyone speaks freely in Malabo, not as long as there is Black Beach prison and its torture chambers. Some oil company employees have already been flown out quickly for voicing criticism of the regime. Even Pleasantville has ears. And even behind the wall of a monastery above the harbor, the head monk closes the door before he speaks, saying that he has had to bail out too many priests from Black Beach. "Those who tell the truth end up in jail." He talks about plane crashes that no one is allowed to discuss, and about Annabón Island, where the government is burying nuclear waste in return for a lot of money.
"There was a cholera epidemic last year. We had to read masses day and night and bury the dead. The government still denies that there was even an epidemic. It turned down Spain's offer of assistance."
The monk says: "Wealth has descended on the country like a pestilence, and it's stifling the local economy. Values no longer exist. Everyone who is part of it feels important. No one wants to learn. All they want are the oil dollars."
The "water tank principle"
It's a phenomenon economists call the " curse of raw materials." Why work when money is bubbling out of the ground? Entire cities disintegrate into lethargy, agriculture and the trades fall into decline and society turns into an amalgam of oil pensioners, petroleum profiteurs and beneficiaries. Immigrants do the work. Society becomes a bourgeoisie that's at the mercy of the crude oil price, passively watching as oil tankers sail westward along the horizon. Just as it is in Kuwait.
And as it is in Kuwait, Malabo's supermarkets already sell eggs imported from Holland and meat imported from Spain. The country's mainland has its own sources of mineral water, and yet mineral water is imported from Portugal.
Obiang promised to cooperate with the World Bank, and he replaced a few of his relatives in government posts with technocrats. But the capital Malabo still has no running water, no reliable power supply and no healthcare system worth mentioning. The Economist writes in its current country report that "there appears to be no sign that Mr. Obiang has any real interest in economic reforms beyond rhetoric and cultivating his image."
The IMF has recommended that Obiang establish a resource fund based on models in Botswana and Norway. The country's oil dollars would be deposited into the fund and distributed based on sensible decisions. But that would require the software of a modern state. It would require functioning ministries, legal certainty and transparency. None of these things exist in Manabo. Instead, the economy is based on what could be termed a water tank principle. The coffers of the powerful and their extended families are already filled to overflowing. Water now reaches the middle classes, and the first drops are already trickling to the bottom. There are even cars parked in the slums. They are little more than molecules in the country's flood of wealth, but this seems sufficient to keep the people in check. Hope is the strongest weapon of repression.
There is no opposition of any consequence. Severo Moto, the chairman of the Progress Party who fled the country, is now in Madrid and is forced to look on as Teodoro Obiang is received with full honors by the European Commission.
At night, the Punta Europe peninsula and its modern facilities sticks out like an orange, constantly humming spaceship amidst the banyan trees. The man with the graying temples comes from Houston. He has attended countless top meetings at Marathon and Exxon. The man likes his job, which explains why he doesn't want to reveal his name.
He says: "This is the shit-hole of the planet. Our bosses hate the corruption, they hate these guys and most of all they hate the protocol. They're oil titans who have more people working for them than this place has residents. They fly in from Houston in their Lear jets. When they get here, they meet with a minister who decides to cancel the negotiations if anyone dares to sit down before he does or neglects to call him Excelentíssimo."
There are the loud, backslapping Texans, accustomed to rough talk and country music clubs. And then there are the military men wearing the outfits of cabinet ministers, the formerly colonized who think in terms of the Fang and the Bubi tribes, trapped in a web of paternal and maternal lines.
But that's the deal. What the Texans want is to be left alone while they extract as many resources as possible from the ocean floor off Malabo between now and 2032, and then they want to get out as quickly as possible. In return, the regime wants 25 cents on the dollar and the guarantee that it will be left alone: no coup, no intervention, no excessive talk of human rights. And at some point, the president wants that photo with George W. Bush.
Money is the issue here, not souls. There may be some mention of cooperation with local officials in the Marathon and Exxon business reports. But the superficial friendliness masks a different tone altogether. "The Texans know, of course, that their business partner sitting across the table is no 'Excellency,' but in truth a 'son of a bitch.' Deep in their hearts, they despise themselves. Both sides despise themselves. And each side knows that this is true of the other."
It doesn't fit together. Those on one side of the equation are from the slave island, and those on the other are the descendants of plantation owners. Master and slave. Black and white. Water and oil.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan