U.S. Oil Politics in the 'Kuwait of Africa'
Everywhere you look in Malabo there is a photograph of Obiang. His serene image stares out from billboards, from portraits that hang in most businesses--not having one can result in reprisals, so even government opponents prudently display one--and from calendars that the government distributes in which he is joined by the First Lady. For the ultimate acolyte there's even a line of pants and shirts that have dozens of miniature Obiang faces spread across the fabric.
Many government ministers, judges and military officials have no education and no qualifications beyond the most important one--clan or personal ties to Obiang. "Go take a look at our armada down at the harbor," says one opposition figure--who like virtually everyone I spoke to was afraid to give his name--in a snide reference to the country's few patrol boats. All our officers are friends of the president. That's democracy, my friend."
Indeed, the country is effectively run as a family bank. The closer one's ties to Obiang--whose government took in about $200 million in petroleum revenues in 2001, a figure that could easily double this year--the bigger the share of the spoils. Gabriel, one of the president's two sons, is second in command but in effective control of the ministry of mines and energy, which oversees the oil sector. The second son, Teodoro, runs the ministry of forestry and the environment--which oversees the timber trade, the nation's only other valuable export--and in his spare time heads two domestic logging companies and an airline, as well as a music company called TNO in Beverly Hills, where he spends much of his time and owns a $6 million home. Teodoro is also a regular in New York--in 2000 he offered $11 million to buy a Fifth Avenue condominium owned by Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, only to be rebuffed by the board--and in Paris, where he is often seen driving his white Rolls Royce Barclays or yellow Lamborghini. Philippe Vasset, editor of the Paris-based Africa Energy Intelligence and an observer of Teodoro's notorious French shopping sprees and other excesses, calls him "the closest thing there is to an African oil sheik."
Spot any major new construction project or prominent business in Equatorial Guinea and it's almost certainly owned by or built for the benefit of Obiang and his cronies. The terminal at the Malabo International Airport is a dilapidated shack, yet a few hundred yards away sits a gleaming new presidential wing. On the road into town, soldiers guard two vast homes sitting across the road from each other: Obiang resides in one and the First Lady in the other. (Obiang has two wives; the second, who hails from São Tomé and has lesser status, lives in a large if less ostentatious home a short distance away.) Gabriel Obiang lives in a new mansion that sits across from Paraiso, a gaudy new restaurant and club for the elite that also boasts a swimming pool, weight room and disco. It is owned by one of the president's brothers, as is the Hotel Bahia, which offers Malabo's finest if decidedly humble lodging. (It's also where Frederick Forsyth wrote The Dogs of War, his 1974 book about a small band of mercenaries who overthrow a corrupt African regime.) Rich Guineans live in a few exclusive communities, like Pequenha Espanha--Little Spain--which has a hilltop view of the ocean. SUVs are parked in front of the neighborhood's homes, and satellite dishes shine from the roofs. Cleaning, gardening and guard duty are handled by slum dwellers.
Yolanda Asumu, a South Carolina native who moved here eleven years ago with husband Severo--he handles government relations for Triton and is a close friend and tennis partner of Obiang's--says that oil has brought many benefits. When she arrived there were just a few dozen cars on the whole island; now the roads teem with vehicles. Communications a decade ago were so backward that making a long-distance call required ringing the operator in Bata, the biggest city on the mainland, who called back when a line was free. Today cell phones are considered de rigueur by the rich. "There are a lot more flights in and out of the country, so it's much easier to get to Europe or the United States," she says. "Life here is better."
Few of the poor, who make up 90 percent of the population, would agree. I traveled through a good chunk of the poorer neighborhoods in Malabo and didn't see any sign of government investment. The oil companies pay extremely well by local standards--between $500 and $1,000 a month--but they have created relatively few jobs, as only a handful of Guineans have the training for the highly technical offshore work. Much of Malabo's population is unemployed, or they work as street vendors. In the Los Angeles neighborhood there's a huge open market where hundreds of sellers sit under stalls topped with corrugated metal and sell shriveled tomatoes, pineapples, bananas, papaya and okra, as well as dried fish, and chicken feet and necks. Homes here--tiny wooden shacks or stucco structures that run back-to-back along the dirt roads--don't have running water, so residents rise at 5 am to trudge to a well about a kilometer away.
Most people who live in Los Angeles can't afford electricity, so when the sun goes down, the shantytown is pitch dark apart from the candles and lanterns glowing behind windows. With the heat in the 80s even at night, just about everyone seeks relief outdoors. "Why look for work when there isn't any?" replied one 25-year-old woman sitting on a stool outside her home when I asked if she had a job. Her family--two kids and her husband, who drives a cab--eats a full meal once a day, typically a stew of yucca, plantains and malanga (a type of potato), with a sardine sauce. "There's only one way to find a better life, and that's to get out," says the woman, who hopes to join relatives who have left for neighboring African states or, better yet, a sister who married a German and moved to Frankfurt.
There's one paved road leading out of Malabo, and within twenty minutes you're traveling through lush forest. Conditions here and in other rural areas, where 70 percent of the population lives, are infinitely worse than in the city. Many villages don't have a school, and production of coffee, cocoa and other agricultural commodities has collapsed. People survive by hunting and gathering fruit in the woods, a state of affairs that has prompted a flood of migrants to move to the slums of Malabo in the remote but alluring hope of finding work with an oil company. In one roadside village of half a dozen houses, a few residents sell bunches of crabs hanging from wood posts, plantains and papayas. An old man returns from the forest carrying a basket full of snails over one shoulder and a bag filled with wild rats--killed by one well-placed whack to the ear with a machete--over the other. When I ask him how oil has changed life here, I get a blank face for an answer.