“We’ve found in excess of 500 million barrels of oil here, and we expect that to grow to at least 1 billion–and that’s not to say that we won’t find more. This is one of the hottest spots in the world right now.” The speaker is Jim Musselman, head of Triton Energy, and the spot he’s talking about is Equatorial Guinea, a tiny nation located on the west coast of Africa. We’re sitting in the front room of his comfortably appointed government villa in the capital city of Malabo, and though it’s blistering hot outside, the villa’s interior is pleasantly cool. It’s one of dozens that the government, flush with oil revenues, has built for visiting foreign dignitaries and businessmen, and that sit inside a walled compound guarded by soldiers posted in towers spaced alongside the perimeter.
Equatorial Guinea has long been one of the poorest and most neglected nations on the planet, but within a few years the country could be producing as much as 500,000 barrels a day–one per capita–which would make it sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest producer behind Nigeria and Angola. Thanks to oil, Equatorial Guinea’s economy is projected to grow by 34 percent this year, more than twice the rate of any other nation’s. It is also thanks to oil that under George Bush there’s been a slow but steady blossoming of relations between the United States, which buys almost two-thirds of Equatorial Guinea’s petroleum, and the government of Brig. Gen. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who took power in a coup in 1979.
Musselman, an affable, balding man wearing a blue dress shirt and cowboy boots embossed with his initials, describes himself as “an unabashed fan” of Equatorial Guinea, and it’s easy to see why. Dallas-based Triton was founded by William Lee, who ran the firm until 1993, when Triton was accused (and later convicted) of bribing Indonesian government officials. Musselman took charge five years later, after putting together a $350 million rescue package, but Triton was still floundering until it made a big oil strike here in 1999. Largely due to its Equatorial Guinea stake, Triton was recently purchased by oil giant Amerada Hess, and Musselman is here with that company’s chairman, John Hess, for meetings with Obiang.
What makes Equatorial Guinea especially important today, Musselman says, is political turmoil in the Persian Gulf and other regions from which the United States imports petroleum. “There is plenty of instability in the world, and the more diverse supplies of oil we have, the better off things are,” he says. “Knock on wood, this country is stable and the president is sincerely trying to improve things. It’s not going to turn into suburban Washington, but it could be a model for this part of the world.”
With its newfound oil wealth and tiny population, Equatorial Guinea could indeed be a model in a region known for dictatorial rule and gross corruption. But that prospect seems unlikely given that the Obiang regime is generally considered to rank among the world’s worst–an assessment shared not only by human rights groups but also the CIA. The agency’s current World Factbook says that America’s new strategic partner is a country “ruled by ruthless leaders who have badly mismanaged the economy.” From outside the villa walls, it’s easy to see how the CIA reached that conclusion.
Bringing the Oil Home
During the cold war, the United States viewed Africa as a major battleground with the Soviet Union and poured billions of dollars of economic and military aid into the continent. After the collapse of Communism, though, American interest waned. As recently as 1995, a Pentagon report concluded that the United States had “very little traditional strategic interests in Africa.” But during the past few years, Africa has become a growing source of American oil imports–especially West Africa, which in oil parlance is considered to include Angola as well as Nigeria, Congo Republic, Gabon, Cameroon and now Equatorial Guinea. The United States already buys 15 percent of its oil from West Africa–nearly as much as comes from Saudi Arabia–a figure expected to grow to 20 percent within the next five years and, according to the National Intelligence Council, to as high as 25 percent by 2015.
The Bush Administration’s national energy policy, released last May, predicted that West Africa would become “one of the fastest-growing sources of oil and gas for the American market.” The year before, Paul Michael Wihbey of Washington’s Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies described West Africa as “an area of vital US interest” in testimony before Congress. He proposed the creation of a new South Atlantic Military Command that would “permit the US Navy and armed forces to more easily project power to defend American interests and allies in West Africa.” The September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon further heightened American attention to Africa, with national security planners urging that the United States seek to diversify supplies of oil away from the Middle East.
There’s been virtually no public discussion or debate about America’s growing appetite for West African oil, though it has significant economic, military and geopolitical implications. While these countries are not Islamic regimes–a fact frequently emphasized by American strategists–US allies in West Africa are not especially attractive. In Angola, petroleum revenues have allowed the government of José Eduardo dos Santos to build a vast military and internal security apparatus. Other than oil, Angola produces little besides artificial limbs for war victims, but dos Santos has become by some estimates one of the world’s fifty richest people. Nigeria, though it formally made the transition from military dictatorship to democratic rule in 1999, is also a disaster. The army has committed several massacres of civilians since President Olusegun Obasanjo took power, and a parliamentary report recently accused his administration of corruption and ineptitude. “The Middle East presents a number of problems, but most West African regimes are neither stable nor democratic,” says Terry Karl, a professor of political science at Stanford University and author of The Paradox of Plenty: Oil Booms and Petro-States. “Oil development in that context is likely to buffer authoritarian rule and foster corruption, instability and environmental destruction.”
None of this has dimmed West Africa’s allure in foreign policy circles. In January the Council on Foreign Relations hosted an event on the growing importance of Africa (“America’s Response to Terrorism: Managing Africa’s Oil Revenues in a Changing Global Climate”), and Wihbey’s institute held a similar affair. The latter, at downtown Washington’s tony University Club, was attended by oil company executives, Bush Administration officials, corporate lobbyists and representatives from a number of African embassies, including Teodoro Biyogo Nsue, Equatorial Guinea’s ambassador to the United States (and General Obiang’s brother-in-law). Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Walter Kansteiner gave the introductory talk, which had the vague ring of a revival meeting sermon. “African oil is a national strategic interest,” he told the crowd. “It’s people like you who will…bring the oil home.” Other speakers included Lieut. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, an Air Force officer assigned to the Defense Secretary’s office, who said the United States needs to step up military training for African oil producers so that those countries can “secure their property, their investment and our investment.”
Washington and Malabo: The Ice Age
Not so long ago, Equatorial Guinea didn’t register as even the tiniest blip on Washington’s radar screen. Roughly the size of Maryland, the country is composed of a few islands–including Bioko, home to Malabo–and a square of land on the continent wedged between Gabon and Cameroon. Average life expectancy is 54; malaria, yellow fever and other diseases are rampant; and much of the population is engaged in subsistence farming of rice, yams and bananas.
The political picture is as grim as the economic one. The only former Spanish colony in sub-Saharan Africa, Equatorial Guinea gained independence in 1968. The country’s first ruler was Francisco Macias Nguema, a West African version of Idi Amin who banned opposition parties and in 1970 appointed himself “President for Life”–the first of a string of self-decreed titles that included “Leader of Steel,” “Implacable Apostle of Freedom” and “The Sole Miracle of Equatorial Guinea.” As many as 50,000 people, roughly 10 percent of the population, were murdered during the Macias years–some were crucified along the road to the airport, for the benefit of visiting diplomats–and 80,000 fled the country. In 1979 the Sole Miracle was overthrown and subsequently executed by Obiang, his nephew.
Obiang was no reformer: As head of the National Guard and later commander of the armed forces, he played a major role in carrying out the terrible repression of the Macias years. And while he hasn’t ruled as brutally as his predecessor, he’s been sufficiently cruel that one Western diplomat has called him “a known murderer.” The State Department’s most recent report on worldwide human rights, released March 4, says that the government employs “the psychological effects of arrest, along with the fear of beatings and harassment, to intimidate opposition party officials and members,” and that the country has never had a “free, fair and transparent” election. A case in point was Obiang’s “re-election” to a seven-year term in 1996, which he won with 99.2 percent of the vote. Three years later his ruling Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea won seventy-five of eighty seats contested in national legislative elections that were flagrantly rigged.
Obiang’s economic record is also abysmal, and only the discovery of oil has prevented the country from sinking into complete misery. “It’s a corrupt, rotten government,” says Frank Ruddy, US ambassador to Equatorial Guinea during the Reagan years. “The people there deserve better than the crooks they’ve got.”
For years US officials looked upon the country as a laughingstock. Ruddy told the story of how one of Obiang’s top aides, who was fortunate to benefit from diplomatic immunity, was once stopped at New York’s JFK airport with a suitcase full of marijuana. The police had little trouble making the bust: The aide’s bag had a hole in the side, and he was trailing pot as he strolled through the terminal. There’s a story famous in CIA circles about how two of Obiang’s intelligence operatives came to Washington in the mid-1980s to meet top agency officials. The Guineans went shopping at a suburban Virginia mall beforehand and came to the meeting dressed in identical outfits: black business suits and electric Nike sneakers.
A less amusing illustration of the Obiang regime’s nature came in 1994, when the US ambassador in Malabo, John Bennett, was threatened with death after calling for improved human rights conditions. The threat came in a message thrown from the window of a passing vehicle–which eyewitnesses said was driven by a government official–that warned Bennett, “You will go to America as a corpse.” Two years later, the Clinton Administration shut down the US Embassy in Malabo, and relations have been handled from Cameroon ever since.
Just a few weeks after the embassy closed its doors, several US companies found significant petroleum reserves off the coast of Equatorial Guinea. Subsequent discoveries led firms such as ExxonMobil and Chevron, as well as small independents like Ocean Energy, Vanco and Triton, to invest a collective $5 billion in Equatorial Guinea. Sweetening the deal for the oil companies is the fact that the Obiang regime gave them as much as 87 percent of the oil receipts. (That figure has now dropped to about 75 percent, but it’s still far above what they get in much of the Third World, which is frequently 50 percent or less.)
As US economic interests grew, a slow political shift in Washington-Malabo relations emerged. In June of 2000, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation approved $373 million in loan guarantees for construction of a methanol plant in Equatorial Guinea, its largest program ever in sub-Saharan Africa. Two US companies–Noble Affiliates and Marathon–together hold an 86 percent share in the plant. Five months later, Louisiana Representative William Jefferson led the first-ever Congressional delegation to Equatorial Guinea, taking along representatives of Baton Rouge-based Shaw Global Energy Services. Several Congressional staffers also traveled to the country, among them Malik Chaka, a top aide to Representative Ed Royce, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa. “There’s still a great deal of room for improvement in terms of democracy and transparency, but they are desirous of closer relations with the United States,” he says. “We need to take advantage of that by working with them.”
In general, though, the Clinton Administration did little to improve relations with Obiang. The primary reason, according to oil company officials, was opposition from Susan Rice, Clinton’s Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. “Obiang began to reach out in the late 1990s to improve his image, but there was little to suggest that there was any substance to it,” she recounted during a recent interview. “Equatorial Guinea was a poster child of undemocratic practices.”
All independent observers of Equatorial Guinea share that assessment. Freedom House, the conservative human rights organization, lumps the country in a group with North Korea, Burma, Iraq and a few other pariahs as the world’s most oppressive regimes. The State Department’s human rights report states, “The government’s human rights record remained poor…. The security forces committed numerous abuses, including torture, beating, and other physical abuse of prisoners and suspects.”
A Bush official I spoke to said he didn’t see any signs of improvement in the Obiang regime’s practices, and he asserted that the Administration will not ignore human rights violations to accommodate the oil industry. “Our policy is to advance human rights and democracy,” he said. “There’s no trade-off here.”
Despite such talk, there’s been a marked if unpublicized improvement in Washington-Malabo ties since Bush took office. Last November Bush quietly authorized the opening of a new US Embassy in Malabo (one site being considered is on land owned by the oil companies), a huge victory for the Obiang regime. A well-placed government source told me that the Administration will soon remove Equatorial Guinea from a list of fourteen African nations that are barred on human rights grounds from receiving trade benefits under a bill passed by Congress in 2000. Meanwhile, the State Department has given the green light–barring unforeseen Congressional opposition–to a program under which Military Professional Resources Inc. (MPRI), a private firm led by high-ranking Pentagon retirees, will train a Guinean Coast Guard that can protect the offshore oilfields. “They do have a poor human rights record, but so did the Nazi government, and we did pretty well with Germany after World War II,” says retired general Ed Soyster, a former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency who works at MPRI.
The political thaw has come in response to intense lobbying from the oil industry, which has sought to portray Obiang as a born-again reformer and, more credibly, Equatorial Guinea as a potentially huge new source of oil. “For a long time our relationship with Equatorial Guinea revolved around human rights,” one oil company official told me. “That’s a legitimate concern, but now that the energy picture is changing, that introduces something to balance out the dialogue.”
It helps that the companies active in Equatorial Guinea have close ties to the Bush Administration. In addition to political heavyweights like ExxonMobil and Chevron, those firms include CMS Energy (which recently sold its holdings in Equatorial Guinea to Marathon). CMS’s CEO, William McCormick, gave $100,000 to the Bush-Cheney 2001 Presidential Inaugural Committee. Ocean Energy’s consultant on its Malabo operations is Chester Norris, a former ambassador to Equatorial Guinea under George Bush Sr. Perhaps best connected of all is Triton, whose chairman, Tom Hicks, made Bush a millionaire fifteen times over when he bought the Texas Rangers in 1998. Hicks’s leveraged buyout firm, Hicks Muse, is Bush’s fourth-largest career financial patron, according to the Center for Public Integrity.
Bush’s decision to reopen the US Embassy was taken soon after he received a plea to do so from the oil industry. “It is important to underscore that most of the oil and gas concessions awarded in Equatorial Guinea to date, have been awarded to US firms,” said a memo drafted on behalf of the oil companies and sent to Bush last year. “This is in stark contrast to neighboring countries in the region, where the United States has consistently lost out to French and other European and Asian competitors.” Sisinio Mbana, first secretary at Equatorial Guinea’s embassy in Washington, told me that at least four Bush Administration officials have consulted with Guinean leaders, including two from the State Department who have met discreetly with Obiang. “The oil companies have done a lot for us,” Mbana said. “The State Department gets its information about Equatorial Guinea from them.”
In addition to direct lobbying, the oil industry sought to improve Obiang’s image by hiring the services of Bruce McColm, a former head of Freedom House who now runs the Institute for Democratic Strategies (IDS), a Virginia-based nonprofit whose stated mission is “strengthening democratic institutions.” The Obiang regime’s most tireless champion, McColm works closely with the government, which now pays him directly. (According to its latest nonprofit tax form, the IDS spent $223,000 in 2000, of which all but $10,000 went toward its Equatorial Guinea work.) In 2000 McColm sent a team of observers to monitor Equatorial Guinea’s municipal elections, which it reported to be basically free and fair. “Electoral officials should be recognized for discharging their responsibilities in an effective and transparent manner,” said an IDS press release at the time. “Observers generally felt that the positives of this election far outweighed the negatives.” This was in marked contrast to a UN report that said the electoral campaign “was characterized by the omnipresence of the [ruling] party, voting in public and the intimidating presence of the armed forces.”
The oil companies have also worked through the Corporate Council on Africa, which represents companies with investments on the continent. Last year the council published a “Country Profile” of Equatorial Guinea, which was paid for by six oil companies and AfricaGlobal, a DC lobby shop that at the time represented Obiang. The guidebook not only promotes the country as a new investment hot spot but also claims that the Obiang regime “has taken significant measures to encourage political diversity and address human and worker rights issues.” On February 8, the council sponsored a private luncheon for Obiang, who was visiting Washington with a small entourage. The event was held in the chandeliered dining room of downtown Washington’s Army-Navy Club, and each of the roughly fifty guests in attendance received a biography of Obiang, prepared by McColm’s IDS, that describes him as the country’s “first democratically elected president” and a man who has “embarked on the total physical reconstruction of his country and the improvement of the welfare of all its citizens.”
Sporting gold-rimmed glasses and dressed in a blue suit with American and Guinean flag pins on the lapels, Obiang sat at the head table, where he was dwarfed by oilmen and State Department officials. During a lunch of fish stuffed with crabmeat and a custard tart with raspberry syrup, a procession of five corporate executives sought to outdo each other in heaping praise on Obiang and his nation. “It will be the Kuwait of Africa,” gushed one of the speakers, Gene Van Dyke of Vanco. “It’s a fabulous country.” After presenting Obiang with a gift of a wood letterbox, Musselman of Triton thanked several members of the State Department for successfully pressing for the reopening of the US Embassy, including Robert Perry, Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, who nodded gratefully from the head table, and Assistant Secretary Kansteiner, whom Triton’s CEO said “has been a bulldog on this.”
When it came time for him to speak, the guest of honor–who looked vigorous despite suffering from cancer, for which he is periodically treated at the Mayo Clinic–spoke of his nation’s growing ties to the United States. He urged firms from outside the oil industry to invest in Equatorial Guinea, saying emphatically, “We can promise American companies that their investments are guaranteed.” Obiang also congratulated the American people for the great faith they displayed in the aftermath of September 11, and said that he too knew the importance of faith. “There was a time when we thought we didn’t have oil,” he said. “There was oil to the north, oil to the south, but none here. But I had faith–faith that Equatorial Guinea had oil.”
From a certain distance, Malabo is breathtaking: This island capital city is cut out of tropical forest and surrounded by volcanic mountains, including one that rises to about 10,000 feet. Palm trees line the hills above its horseshoe bay, and there’s a postcard-perfect square in the center of town that is bounded by a beautifully restored Spanish church with two bell towers and an orange and white three-story colonial building that serves as Obiang’s office. Several guards sit in front of the building’s arched wooden doors, which are engraved with two golden lions and the words “Unidad, Paz y Justicia.” From up close, though, Malabo, which has about 50,000 residents, looks to have been in a state of decline ever since the Spanish withdrew more than thirty years ago. Most buildings, even government ministries, are crumbling and unpainted, there are only a few paved roads and the city has electricity only sporadically. Smoke rises from piles of burning trash, which is also strewn down hillsides, where people pick through it looking for scraps.
Foreign oil workers, of whom there are several thousand, mostly Americans, live in guarded corporate compounds with tennis courts, swimming pools and other amenities. Foreigners aren’t seen much in Malabo other than at a handful of restaurants that are considered “safe,” like the Pizza Place, where many customers wear green, blue or orange jumpsuits issued by their respective employers. Foreign workers also frequent bars like La Bamba, which is run by a Chinese family and blares 1970s rock by the likes of Peter Frampton, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Steely Dan. La Bamba and other bars that cater to the expat community also attract young prostitutes dressed in glittering miniskirts and high heels who are seeking a husband and a home abroad but are willing to settle for a good deal less.
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.
Democracy, Obiang Style
Soldiers are a common if not pervasive sight on the streets of Malabo, and security is tight, particularly as several coup plots, organized abroad by exile groups, have been busted up the past few years by authorities in Angola and Nigeria. The biggest threat to Obiang, though, comes from within his own clan, as infighting has erupted over who is to get the biggest share of the petroleum spoils. Lacking confidence in the loyalty of his own troops, Obiang depends for his primary protection on roughly 100 Moroccans, provided by the former king, Hassan, who serve as the regime’s praetorian guard. When Obiang is at his office or the nearby presidential palace, the surrounding area is sealed off. One day, unaware that Musselman and John Hess were meeting with Obiang, I asked a cabdriver to take me to the church off the main square. When we got close, the driver spotted a group of armed men standing by a squadron of five SUVs, and he quickly turned tail.
Democracy appears to be spreading about as slowly as the oil wealth. Guineans can choose among two TV and two radio stations–in both cases the government operates one and Teodoro Obiang the other. There are no daily newspapers, and the few publications that do circulate offer fawning praise of the regime. La Gaceta de Guinea Ecuatorial, a glossy monthly, is filled with interviews with government officials and local businessmen. The ministry of information sells Ebano, a thin newsletter; the issue I bought, for about $1, hailed Teodoro as “the minister most loved by the people for his pragmatic, humanitarian and very dynamic character.” Criticism of the government is rare but tolerated–one article in Ebano denounced official corruption and said some officials “consider themselves to have won the lottery”–but direct criticism of Obiang is forbidden.
Obiang did legalize political parties in the early 1990s, though by then many prominent opposition figures had fled abroad and remained fearful of returning. The government has also banned a number of parties, and others have waited years to be recognized. Of twelve authorized opposition parties that do function, eleven have aligned themselves with the Obiang regime, after receiving cash payoffs and other blandishments.
Rafael, a tall man with flecks of white in his beard, belongs to the Convergence for Social Democracy (CPDS), the one opposition group that has refused to work with the government. Until a few years ago, he said, it was a crime to greet a member of the opposition. Obiang has lifted that law, as well as one that banned opposition members from owning a business or working (public-sector jobs and some private-sector positions still require ruling-party membership). “The government has taken some important steps,” he says. “At least they are willing to talk to the opposition.”
Rafael escorted me to an interview with the CPDS’s leader, Placido Mico, who was jailed and tortured in 1993 and has been detained periodically since then. We met at party headquarters, a few rooms on the second floor of a run-down residential building. There’s a desk at the front of the main room, upon which sits an old manual typewriter, and about fifteen school chairs. This, pretty much, constitutes the party’s assets. Mico, 38, a short man neatly dressed in slacks and a short-sleeved dress shirt, and wearing glasses with one lens cracked, looks like a high school teacher, which is what he was before he ran afoul of the authorities. He is dubious of the government’s political “opening,” particularly as the oil bonanza has left Obiang less dependent on the kindness of foreign donors. “When you need aid you are more sensitive to international criticism,” he says. “The government now has its own money and doesn’t have to listen to anyone.”
Mico’s party has virtually no access to the media. It does put out its own publication, La Verdad (The Truth), a few times a year. The latest issue has been set to go to press for a week, but the party hasn’t been able to print it because the city has been virtually without electricity. CPDS members can generally circulate freely in Malabo and Bata, but not in the rest of the country. And even in Bata, two party members have been in jail for the past four months, charged with “defaming the head of state.” “If we send people to villages, the authorities will ask them for authorization papers,” Mico says. “There’s a climate here of intimidation and fear.”
In many ways, that intimidation is directed more at the general population than at the political opposition. I heard an eyewitness account of a recent incident that took place in the small town of Luba. There a soldier shot a man drinking in a bar after he complained about the city’s shortage of electricity. The man lay bleeding in the street for an hour before security forces allowed him to be moved to a hospital, where he died a short time later.
‘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.