U.S. Oil Politics in the 'Kuwait of Africa'
'The Land of the Future'
To travel to Bata, I boarded an old Soviet Antonov plane whose pilots, a pair of Russians, took tickets on the tarmac and helped to seat passengers as well. Forty-five minutes after takeoff we landed in the city, which turns out to be similar to Malabo, only larger, poorer and hotter. The oceanfront Pan Africa Hotel, unofficial headquarters of the expat community, sits near the National Stadium, where on Christmas of 1975 Macias executed 150 political prisoners as a military band played "Those Were the Days." Now the stadium is used for soccer matches; in a few days a local team will play host to a club from Libya.
Though not as numerous as in Malabo, there are plenty of foreign businessmen in Bata chasing after the government's oil dollars. At the Pan Africa's bar, which plays bland tunes by bands like Maele and La Orquestra Machosky International--who like most Guinean musicians sing the praises of Obiang and the ruling party--I met a Portuguese contractor who has been picked to construct several new government buildings. The contractor, who had spent the previous nine years in Gabon ("a paradise next to here"), has met Obiang five times and calls him "fabulous, like a daddy." The problem, though, is that he still needs signatures and approvals at the ministerial level, which he's been expecting for almost a year. "The country is very rich suddenly, but the mentality remains the same," he says with a shake of his head. "But it is the land of the future, and I will stay and wait."
Across from the Pan Africa is a neatly painted health clinic operated by Spanish nuns. I know even before asking, because they provide most social services in the country, and the building is too well maintained to be run by the government. Dozens of people are standing outside, while in the waiting room mothers are changing their babies on long brown benches. A worker at the clinic, which is subsidized by Triton, says the nuns feed about forty malnourished children and see up to seventy patients daily.
After hailing a cab, I drive through the center of town. A pair of young barefoot boys are selling pica pica--skewers of meat--by a square with a monument of a soldier atop a pedestal that carries the words To Those Who Died for a Better Guinea, August 3, 1979--the date of Obiang's coup against Macias. Not far away, there's a crowd milling around a small auditorium. Inside, hundreds of people are sitting on folding chairs, all eyes focused on a small TV. Obiang, in a speech before government officials taped weeks earlier, is explaining why he found it necessary to rescind a 200 percent pay increase that had been announced for federal workers. There is silence in the audience of public employees but thunderous applause from the TV.
Heading away from the central part of the city, we enter an area of large mansions, including one that Teodoro is building atop a hill that offers a view of the area. His new estate--which will replace his current beachfront mansion--is so vast that the construction crew has brought a crane to the site to build it. I've been told that Teodoro has a following among the poor, whom he champions during his constant appearances on government news broadcasts, but it still comes as a shock when the driver says that the president's son "has a lot of love for the people." Descending the hilltop, we stop by the driver's home, which is in a slum far worse than any I saw in Malabo. Most people live in mud-and-wattle huts, and when we entered his shack--bare apart from a few old pieces of furniture and sacks of cement piled in a corner--his wife was sprawled on a shaggy couch while their three naked children, all with distended bellies, sat on the floor. Later that day I told a longtime foreign resident of Equatorial Guinea about my day. "The worst part about this," he replied, "is that with the riches this country has, Guineans could live better than people in Monaco. Instead they live worse than people in refugee camps."
In mid-March, about ten days after I returned to the United States from Equatorial Guinea, security forces there seized dozens of people who were accused of plotting against the government. The Obiang regime refused to provide information on the whereabouts of the detainees--including a pregnant woman--though some were reportedly being held in the presidential palace in Bata. "The fact that the families [of the detainees] are being denied access to their relatives and that nobody knows where they are currently held has led to fears that some of them may already have died under torture," Amnesty International said in a press release. Placido Mico was not arrested, but the government accused him and other party leaders of having ties to the detainees and warned that the CPDS could be outlawed.
Faced with these domestic responsibilities, Obiang had to cancel a scheduled trip to attend the United Nations Development Conference in Monterrey, Mexico. There he was to have met with US Secretary of State Colin Powell at a Corporate Council on Africa fete. It was a definite setback for improved Washington-Malabo ties, but with the oil companies regularly announcing new finds and the US Embassy expected to reopen later this year, it's likely to be a temporary one.