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Recent Developments in Equatorial Guinea

So Close to the West, So Far From Democracy

by AGUSTIN VELLOSO

United States sponsored secret flights and clandestine detention centres in Europe and elsewhere have received plenty of comment recently. Politicians and journalists tell us the "war on terror" demands extreme measures. At the same time, in countries which have nothing to do with that "war", detainees are held incommunicado, without effective judicial protection and routinely tortured in carefully ignored prisons. Reports about conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan are widespread, but almost little appears about what is going on in Equatorial Guinea, a country friendly to the West. One of Equatorial Guinea’s prisons, surrounded by a tropical sea, has the same name as a relaxing California beach : Black Beach. In spite of this, it is not a sunny spot in a lost paradise. It is an ugly compound in Bioko Island, near Malabo, Equatorial Guinea’s capital.

This tiny country of 28.000 square kilometres and 500.000 inhabitants is located on West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea between Cameroon and Gabon. Until independence in 1968, it had been a Spanish colony for almost 200 years. Since the landmark "scramble for Africa" Berlin Conference in 1884, it has been known mainly for its cocoa production, endless penury, dictatorships and the natural beauty of its jungles and beaches.

Until recently nothing much seemed to change, except now for the beauty and the cocoa, both for the worse. The country’s beauty is being mercilessly spoiled by pollution from the offshore oil industry and intensive timber exploitation. The oil industry is controlled by head of State, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who seized power from his uncle, through a coup in 1979. Timber production is controlled by the Minister of Forestry, Obiang’s eldest son. Cocoa production, formerly run by colonial entrepreneurs, has nose-dived since independence when international pressure ended Spanish rule.

Following independence, dictatorship and neo-colonialism (globalization in modern parlance) have grown and are now even stronger than before. The prison at Black Beach is an glaring example of their perverse synergy, compounded by the effects of extreme poverty on the general population. Dictatorship and neo-colonialism work hand in hand, greased by oil. Wealth from the oil industry over the last ten years has not trickled down to the population, its legitimate owner. Instead, it is channelled overseas to benefit Obiang and his entourage and the foreign corporations that back them. Equatorial Guinea is the paradigm of the "curse of natural riches".

Governments in Western capitals know this very well. International agencies and human rights organisations routinely criticise General Obiang’s rule. However, those Western governments increasingly support him, steadily developing economic, political and military ties with his regime. When it suits them, the United States and Spanish governments, two of Obiang’s major trading partners and close supporters, declare a willingness to cooperate with Equatorial Guinea’s government in what they call its "democratization process".

This and similar statements appear in the media to mark political summits and official visits. The Spanish Foreign Affairs Minister told the Spanish Parliament after a visit to Equatorial Guinea in 2005, "the President asked Spain to accompany him in his endeavours to modernise the State and reform the administration". In response, the Minister said the Spanish government was fully devoted to this task, although remaining "extremely critical and mindful concerning the rule of law and encouragement of those citizens willing to contribute to Equatorial Guinea’s democracy and political life".

Some of this "democratization process, was reported in a press conference in June 2006 by Weja Chicampo, leader of the banned MAIB (Movement for the Self-determination of Bioko Island). Chicampo arrived in Madrid after being expelled from his own country by Obiang. During the two years, three months and two days he spent in Black Beach, without proper charges, trial or legal assistance, he says, "they (the jailers) beat me until I lost my vision; then, after some more beating, I lost consciousness. My family and children were terrified. From that moment on a long agony starts and it will last for days, weeks…… In order to give you an idea I can say that I was handcuffed for four months in a row. There were many other instances of torture like this." (Chicampo press conference of June 22nd, 2006.)

The number of political prisoners in Equatorial Guinea has averaged 200 in the last six years. A proportionate comparison would mean a figure of 20.000 in Spain. It must be noted that some detention centres escape any kind of control. Prisoners have no contact with the outside world. They remain at the mercy of their jailers and the jailers’ boss: General Obiang. Chicampo reports that "there are transfers from Black Beach to other detention centres, in order to obstruct access of Red Cross teams to the prisoners while visiting facilities. I was transferred to a military prison (Acacio Mañé Military Unit) on April the 5th, 2004. Other prisoners that should not be seen were transferred to Punta Fernanda and other places".

The Spanish government has plenty of information about this reality and about the torture. But this does not prevent it from cooperating with the dictatorship in Equatorial Guinea even as, together with other European Union governments, it demands the closure of the US government’s Guantánamo prison in Cuba.

The United States government too has the same information. Its Department of State has even made it partially public in its annual reports. The one released in March 2006 notes of Equatorial Guinea: "The government’s human rights’ record remained poor, and the government continued to commit or condone serious abuses… security forces reportedly killed several persons through abuse and excessive force… The following human rights problems were reported: arbitrary arrest, detention, and incommunicado detention… There were reports of politically motivated kidnappings, there were continuing reports of government figures hiring persons in foreign countries to intimidate, threaten, and even assassinate citizens in exile." What can "abuse and excessive force" be except mealy-mouthed diplomatic jargon for torture?

Despite this, inter-governmental relations are excellent, according to the US ambassador in Malabo. In his 2005 Independence Day remarks at the US embassy, in front of Obiang and some members of Obiang’s regime, he said: "We value our relations with Equatorial Guinea and are pleased that they are excellent and indeed, growing closer. I personally had the pleasure of accompanying his Excellency President Obiang Nguema Mbasogo on his June visit to Baltimore and Washington. In both cities, the President was well-received. Among both business and government leaders, he made an excellent impression and called effective attention to further opportunities to strengthen our relationship."

Beyond the specious political discourse, attention should really focus on the United States’ role in Equatorial Guinea: the enormous growth of its oil industry and the consolidation of dictatorship in the face of mounting internal opposition and foreign criticism. United States oil companies operating in Equatorial Guinea have made it the third largest African oil producer South of the Sahara in just ten years of industrial activity. The US embassy, formerly closed because of political differences with the Obiang regime, as was hinted at in the State Department report quoted above, was reopened once the oil companies established themselves, even though the dictatorship did not change its policies.

A review of the hard facts corrects the ambassador’s rosy picture. ExxonMobil, Chevron-Texaco, Amerada Hess, Marathon Oil and other companies transfer vast profits to the United States from exploiting Equatorial Guineas’s oil. For exploitation rights these companies pay huge sums of money directly to Obiang and his family into United States bank accounts. It is crystal clear that these sums should benefit all the people of Equatorial Guinea, not just the ruling family. But that is not happening.

The European Union has reported: "Equatorial Guinea’s GDP growth was the world’s highest between 1995 and 2001 and well above average growth in the region …although it had one of the lowest only ten years ago. However, this increase in resources has not yet been matched in the social sphere by a similar improvement in the living conditions of the population, which still show worrying indicators."

Equally illustrative of the level of corruption among the country’s elite are the findings of the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in their "Money Laundering and Foreign Corruption" report, made public on July 15th, 2004. Among other issues, the report deals with Obiang’s – and his family’s – accounts in Riggs Bank: "The Subcommittee investigation found that Riggs opened multiple personal accounts for the President of Equatorial Guinea, his wife, and other relatives." The total amount of bank deposits held by Obiang in the United States and other countries is unknown, but it is believed that to exceed seven hundred million US dollars, in addition to the value of luxurious villas and other real estate investments.

In the meantime, Equatorial Guinea’s Human Development Index is near the bottom of the medium human development group: position 121 out of 177 countries in the UNDP 2005 Human Development Report. The country has experienced some minimal improvement: in 1999, it was in position 131 out of 174 with GDP per capita (PPP$) 1.817 in 1999, while in 2005 it was 19.780. The fact that not a single country in this medium human development group has a similar current GDP per capita indicates the grotesque injustice of wealth distribution in Equatorial Guinea.

Self-evidently, the triangle in Equatorial Guinea formed by Obiang’s dictatorship, the country’s oil wealth and Western economic interests results in prisons like Black Beach and another one in Bata (second most important city in the country). In other words: the Obiang clan’s machinations thoroughly greased by United States oil companies, have turned them into plutocrats amidst an impoverished, oppressed population, who barely enjoy even the most meagre crumbs while the dictator’s family and the oil companies feast.

General Obiang is a dictator. Backed by Western governments, he denies fundamental human rights to his compatriots. The United States government and its allies hypocritically tolerate Obiang’s dictatorship so long as their international companies enjoy rights to exploit Equatorial Guinea’s oil wealth. While an exclusive minority obtain huge benefits, the majority only enjoy a notional "democratization process", which in practice means occasional fraudulent elections, Presidential birthday "pardons" for prisoners, and empty political speeches on Independence Day, all under the complacent gaze of Western ambassadors.

AGUSTIN VELLOSO is a lecturer at the Spanish National University for Distance Learning. He can be reached at: a.velloso@reading.ac.uk