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Equatorial Guinea: Oil but No Rights, 1

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Feb 1, 2011 (110201)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"For the past three decades, Obiang has proudly presided over one of Africa's most devastating humanitarian and political disasters. With a per capita GDP comparable to Portugal or Korea, Equatorial Guinea's national income is the highest in sub-Saharan Africa - and yet over 60 per cent of the population struggle to live on less than a dollar a day. Since oil was discovered in 1995, President Teodoro Obiang's family and close associates have grown fabulously wealthy, while the majority of the population remain mired in poverty." - Abena Ampofoa Asare

This judgment on Equatorial Guinea's President Obiang is neither novel nor surprising, as the author notes. Nor, perhaps, is it surprising that the African Union, following its principle of rotation of leadership by region, has chosen President Obiang as the chairperson for the coming year (for chairs for previous years, see Yet particularly at a time when the Arab World, and North Africa in particular, is launching a hoped-for new era of democracy, it is sad that Africa's leaders are symbolically endorsing one of the continent's worst dinosaurs. They could hardly have chosen a more apt way to undermine their own efforts to support democratic values.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains the country summary on Equatorial Guinea from the Human Rights Watch World Report 2011, and excerpts from a December 2010 article by Abena Ampofoa Asare in Foreign Policy in Focus, on President Obiang's strategies for promising reform and evading international criticism.

Another AfricaFocus Bulletin released today, but not sent out by e-mail, has excerpts from an earlier report on economic and social rights in Equatorial Guinea, by the Center for Economic and Social Rights, and the press release for a comprehensive 2009 report from Human Rights Watch on Equatorial Guinea. See

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Equatorial Guinea, and other related links, see


Note on Egypt

I'm sure most of you are following closely the hopeful (so far) evolution of events in Egypt. Given the rapid pace of events and saturation coverage by the media, there is little distinct for AfricaFocus to add on this topic. However, I am posting to the AfricaFocus Facebook page occasional links for analysis I find of particular interest. See

And, if you haven't already discovered the live stream from Al Jazeera, and you have the bandwidth to do so, you definitely should take a look at

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note++++++++++++++++++++

Equatorial Guinea

January 2011 country summary

Human Rights Watch

Equatorial Guinea remains mired in corruption, poverty, and repression under the leadership of Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the country's president for over 30 years. Vast oil revenues fund lavish lifestyles for the small elite surrounding the president, while the majority of the population lives in dire poverty. The government regularly engages in torture and arbitrary detention. It also continues a practice of abducting perceived opponents abroad and holding them in secret detention. Journalists, civil society, and members of the political opposition face heavy government repression.

President Obiang, who overwhelmingly won re-election in November 2009 in a deeply flawed vote, unsuccessfully sought to enhance his international image by announcing purported human rights reforms. Several prominent Obiang initiatives, including the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) prize in his honor, were blocked due to widespread concern over well-documented corruption and abuse in his administration.

Economic and Social Rights

Significant oil revenues and the country's small population make Equatorial Guinea's per capita gross domestic product among the highest in the world, and the highest in sub-Saharan Africa. Nevertheless, socioeconomic conditions for the country's population of approximately 600,000 remain dismal. One study published in The Lancet found that the country had the world's highest child mortality rate, though a second study in the same publication found that the country did see progress in reducing maternal mortality.

The government has failed to utilize available resources to progressively realize the social and economic rights of the population. Given its high oil revenues, it has invested only paltry sums in health, education, and other social services. As reported by the International Monetary Fund in May, after a four-year delay, Equatorial Guinea in 2010 began to disburse "small" amounts for those purposes through its Social Development Fund. The government, instead, has prioritized investments in projects, such as an ultra-modern hospital, that have little benefit for the poor who lack access to basic health services. An anti-malaria campaign largely funded by Western oil companies has lowered the incidence of malaria.

In February a United States Senate investigation revealed that President Obiang's eldest son and presumed successor--known by the nickname Teodor¡n--who serves as minister of agriculture and forestry, bypassed money-laundering controls and used suspect funds to finance expensive purchases in the US. The son's spending on luxury goods from 2004-2007 was nearly double the Equatoguinean government's 2005 budget for education. The US Senate also reported that Teodor¡n is under criminal investigation in the US. In response to this negative publicity, he hired a Washington communications firm to polish his image, selecting the same firm used by his father. President Obiang also hired a new US lobbyist, replacing the firm he retained after a 2004 US Senate investigation exposed his improper personal spending from national oil accounts.

Freedom of Expression and Association

Equatorial Guinea remains notorious for its lack of press freedom; its ranking by Reporters Without Borders fell to 167th out of 178 countries in 2010. A few non-state-controlled media outlets publish erratically and are tightly restrained. Journalists from the state media are not permitted to criticize the government.

According to international press freedom groups, in January the government fired four reporters from the state radio and television broadcaster for "lack of enthusiasm." In February a journalist with state-run radio was arrested and held for three days after he reported on-air that seven bodies were found at a trash dump in Bata, the largest city on the country's mainland. In April the sole foreign correspondent in Equatorial Guinea, an Agence France-Presse reporter, was detained and held for several hours when he attempted to cover the arrival of foreign dignitaries at the airport in Malabo, the capital.

Freedom of association and assembly are also severely curtailed, infringing on the development of civil society. The government imposes restrictive conditions on the registration and operation of nongovernmental groups. As a result, there is not one legally registered independent human rights organization in the country. The few local activists who openly promote needed reforms are vulnerable to intimidation, harassment, and reprisals. The government is also intolerant of critical views from abroad, frequently characterizing those who expose President Obiang's autocratic and corrupt rule as racist and colonialist. It also regularly denies visas to foreign journalists.

Political Parties and Political Opposition

Contrary to President Obiang's claims that "my country is democratic," free and fair elections are denied to its people. In the lead-up to the November 2009 presidential vote, which President Obiang won with 95.4 percent of the ballot, the government stifled and harassed the country's beleaguered political opposition, denied the opposition equal access to the media, and imposed serious constraints on international observers.

The ruling Democratic Party (PDGE) maintains a monopoly over political life. Only two of the four other political parties with candidates running in the election--the Convergence for Social Democracy (CPDS) and the People's Union (UP)--actively oppose the ruling party and Obiang. Opposition parties are silenced through the use of criminal prosecution, arbitrary arrest, and harassment. Freedom House named Equatorial Guinea as one of the "worst of the worst" countries for the harsh repression of political rights and civil liberties, as it has for several previous years.

In July Teodorin was elected to head the ruling party's youth wing. That role automatically confers on the younger Mr. Obiang the vice-presidency of the PDGE and presumably ensures that he is next in line to replace his father.

Abduction, Arbitrary Detention, Torture, and Unfair Trials

There is no independent judiciary in Equatorial Guinea. The government commonly employs arbitrary detention and arrests without due process. Detainees continued to be held indefinitely without knowing the charges against them. Basic fair trial standards are disregarded. Torture remains a serious problem despite a national law prohibiting it. Equatorial Guinea's security services have kidnapped more than a dozen perceived opponents abroad, including at least four in 2010.

Amnesty International reported that Equatorial Guinea abducted four nationals living in exile in Benin in January 2010, held them in secret detention where they were tortured and forced to confess to participating in a February 2009 attack on the presidential palace, and then executed them in August following a military trial that violated international human rights standards and the country's own laws.

The government had earlier arbitrarily detained and accused 10 opposition politicians and scores of Nigerian citizens, including fisherman and traders, of involvement in the same attack on the presidential palace. In March, after more than a year in detention, seven of the Nigerian citizens were prosecuted in an unfair civilian trial and each sentenced to 12 years in prison, while two Equatoguinean opposition members were first acquitted by the civilian court and then retried in August by a military court, receiving sentences of 20 years.

Key International Actors

At its review under the Universal Periodic Review mechanism of the UN Human Rights Council in December 2009, and during a follow-up session in March 2010, Equatorial Guinea accepted over 100 recommendations to improve its human rights record, including commitments to end torture and arbitrary and secret detentions. In June President Obiang announced a reform plan at the Global Forum in Cape Town, South Africa, pledging that he would make his country's oil revenues fully transparent, increase social spending, institute legal reforms, protect human rights, and preserve the environment. Although President Obiang hired a "reform adviser" to help promote these purported improvements, the various pledges were consistently belied by his government's action.

In April the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, a global initiative promoting openness on petroleum and mining revenues, expelled Equatorial Guinea for failing to meet its most basic criteria. In July, the Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries deferred Equatorial Guinea's application to join, also in the wake of controversy over President Obiang's record. (Although Portuguese is not spoken in the former Spanish colony, President Obiang declared it Equatorial Guinea's newest national language.) In August the US government, as well as a UN working group and others, sharply criticized the unfair trial and executions that took place that month in Equatorial Guinea. In October, after stalling a decision several times, UNESCO indefinitely suspended an award named after--and funded by--President Obiang. UNESCO's executive board acted after a global civil society campaign generated an international uproar over the planned "dictator prize" that threatened to seriously taint the organization.

The US is Equatorial Guinea's main trading partner and US companies dominate the country's oil sector. The US government took some steps to hold Equatorial Guinea to global standards, notably taking a strong stance at UNESCO against the Obiang prize. Spain could play an important role as the former colonial power, but it generally has declined to apply pressure on Equatorial Guinea regarding human rights issues. The Spanish government, however, also opposed the UNESCO prize.

In addition to the reported criminal inquiry against Teodor¡n Obiang in the US, legal challenges are proceeding in France, Spain, and before the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights alleging misuse of Equatorial Guinea's oil funds.

Equatorial Guinea: Obiang - the Sham Humanitarian

Abena Ampofoa Asare

9 December 2010

Foreign Policy in Focus

[Excerpts. Full article available at]

[Abena Ampofoa Asare is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus and a doctoral candidate at New York University's History Department. Her dissertation focuses on transitional justice and human rights in Ghana. She can be reached at

Thanks to international advocacy, attempts by Equatorial Guinean dictator Teodoro Obiang to sponsor a UNESCO prize have been thwarted. Abena Ampofoa Asare examines how, despite a dreadful human rights record, Obiang has managed to avoid international condemnation for so long.

This past October, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) suspended a three million dollar research prize funded by Teodoro Obiang, one of the world's worst dictators. Shamed by an open protest letter signed by over 60 leading global activists, UNESCO was compelled to distance itself from a man who has long ruled Equatorial Guinea with an iron fist. Precisely how a leader cut from the same cloth as Idi Amin, Omar al-Bashir, or Nicolae Ceausescu came to finance a UN prize in the first place is a truth stranger than fiction.

For the past three decades, Obiang has proudly presided over one of Africa's most devastating humanitarian and political disasters. With a per capita GDP comparable to Portugal or Korea, Equatorial Guinea's national income is the highest in sub-Saharan Africa - and yet over 60 per cent of the population struggle to live on less than a dollar a day. Since oil was discovered in 1995, President Teodoro Obiang's family and close associates have grown fabulously wealthy, while the majority of the population remain mired in poverty.

The kleptocracy in Africa's only Spanish-speaking country is neither a secret nor a surprise. Although respected international advocacy organisations including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International regularly condemn the injustice and violence of Obiang's government, it took an outraged letter from exiles, backed by international heavyweights including Mario Vargas Llosa, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, John Polanyi, Desmond Tutu and Gra‡a Machel, to persuade UNESCO that the Teodoro Obiang Nguema life science prize was 'inimical to [its] mission' and 'an affront to Africans everywhere who work for the betterment of our countries.'

This is the strangeness of Equatorial Guinea's plight. No matter how many dubiously-funded multimillion dollar houses Obiang's son buys in Malibu, California, how many dissidents are tortured and killed in Malabo prisons, or how many human rights expos‚s are published in the world's leading publications, when Teodoro Obiang travels to the United States, France, and the UN, he receives a red carpet reception - as long as he promises to do better.

Obiang's Ace in the Hole

Part of this maddening paradox is the result of Equatorial Guinea's massive oil reserves, which, according to one US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations report, have created an 'increasing capacity to buy diplomatic influence'. The extent to which oil resources distort Equatorial Guinea's global standing is evident in the most recent UNDP Human Development Index. More than any other country in the world, Equatorial Guinea's abysmal figures in health, education, and other social indicators are masked by its oil-bloated national income. When national income is removed from the human development index calculations, Equatorial Guinea's ranking plummets.

Similarly, oil wealth critically lubricates the country's bilateral relationships. Last year, a thorough Human Rights Watch report analysed the schizophrenic US government relationship with Equatorial Guinea in terms of the American oil addiction.

Alongside a number of excellent journalistic expos‚s, the US State Department itself annually condemns Equatorial Guinea in the strongest language. ...

Despite far-ranging and high-placed criticism, the thawing of the US government's relationship with the Obiang administration has steadily continued. Pressured by the US oil industry, George W. Bush quietly renewed state ties with this noxious regime in 2000 and today the US is Equatorial Guinea's single largest investor. Despite hopes to the contrary, President Obama's administration has not altered the country's course. A chilling 2009 photograph documents Barack and Michelle Obama smiling broadly with Teodoro Obiang and his wife; this picture is prominently displayed on the Equatorial Guinean government website.

A recent article in the New York Sun described the US government's continuing support for Equatorial Guinea as a source of growing tension between Barack Obama's 'human rights absolutists' and Clintonian 'pragmatists' who think it wiser to 'nudge [Obiang] toward reform' than to 'wag an accusatory finger'. The Sun quotes lobbyist and former Clinton advisor Lanny J. Davis, a man currently on Teodoro Obiang's payroll to the tune of $2.5 million, explaining that 'it is in the interests of the US as well as those who care about democracy and human rights to take up President Obiang on his request for help to implement his reform program.' This perspective ignores the lessons of Equatorial Guinea's long political history. Depicting Teodoro Obiang as a credible reformer or oil companies as entities able to 'nudge' a dictator toward human rights responsibility is at best na‹ve and at worst a highly strategic blindness to Equatorial Guinea's troubled past.


Gaming the System

Over the past 30 years, Obiang has perfected a formula of publicising small rhetorical capitulations to good governance ideals while leaving the architecture of his state's repression entirely unchanged. In 1979, after propelling himself into power by assassinating his uncle, Obiang publicly promised to restore the struggling country to democracy and received UN technical and financial assistance in return. Thirty years later, Equatorial Guinea's long-awaited democracy remains elusive. During the 2008 legislative elections, the authorities arrested a leader of a banned opposition party. He was later found dead in his prison cell in a suspicious 'suicide'. In the 2009 presidential elections, Teodoro Obiang prevailed with 95 per cent of the vote in an election where soldiers manned all the voting stations, ballot boxes were not sealed, and independent election observers were prohibited.

The gap between Teodoro Obiang's reformist rhetoric and the reality of entrenched injustice is even more striking in the administration's maneuverings around Equatorial Guinea's oil revenues. In 1997, Obiang inaugurated the country's first National Economic Conference, where the president loudly proclaimed its intention to be transparent and rational in oil revenue. The conference recommended that the government create an independent agency, accountable to the parliament, to audit the state's revenue streams and expose corruption and irregularities. More than a decade later, this agency does not exist. ...

In his 2010 Cape Town Global Forum speech, Teodoro Obiang again pledged to standards of oil revenue transparency by touting his burgeoning relationship with the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), the global oil-monitoring agency, as evidence of a five-point reform program. In reality, Obiang has been executing the same evasive dance with the EITI as with earlier accountability efforts. In 2007, Obiang applied for Equatorial Guinea to be recognised as an EITI Candidate, meaning that in two years, the country would be expected to progress toward basic standards of oil revenue transparency. When little progress had been made in the allotted time, the president applied for an extension. The EITI board refused the extension request and revoked Equatorial Guinea's status as a candidate country, essentially throwing the country out of the monitoring program. Just two months later, Teodoro Obiang was boasting in Cape Town about his efforts to seek EITI candidacy, again. This type of disingenuousness is the hallmark of Teodoro Obiang's rhetoric of reform; as one Global Witness campaigner dryly noted 'transparency doesn't take ten years'.


Evading Responsibility

The president's first step in avoiding responsibility is to acknowledge the country's woeful situation, and then quickly attribute the problems to the colonial and early independence history. The fact that he himself has been at the helm for the past three decades, and has managed oil-engorged coffers for the past fifteen years, is irrelevant in his accountability assessment. ...

Next, Equatorial Guinea's president waxes eloquent about his tireless efforts to combat 'mindsets rooted in underdevelopment' and 'habits...such as corruption, illiteracy, tribalism, political opportunism and on and on.' This shameful circular reasoning describes the nation's underdevelopment as a force rooted in the country's people, rather than as an injustice done to them during the past three decades of state violence and neglect. Deriding a national 'habit' of illiteracy is supremely cynical given that the wealthy Obiang administration's public education expenditures are a quarter of the sub-Saharan average. ...

Finally, Obiang proudly notes his generous response to Hurricane Katrina, the Tsunami, the famine in Niger, the Nigerian pipeline explosion, the volcanic eruption in Cameroon's Victoria Peak, and the explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. But regardless of how much money he doles out to humanitarian causes - or how earnestly he trumpets his desire to 'partner with the world's democracies', Teodoro Obiang can never be counted as a good global citizen.

The longer the international community focuses on Obiang's resources and rhetoric at the expense of a hard-nosed assessment of his policies, the bleaker the future for Equatorial Guinea.


AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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