EQUATORIAL GUINEA AND THE SILENCE OF THE MANY
The history of Equatorial Guinea is emblematic of what is recurrent in the rest of Africa: a long colonial period of occupation, an independence that coincides with the birth of a dictatorship, a regime that slowly turns into a family saga. Amidst it all, a number of attempted coup d'etats, which are obviously participated by mercenaries. Lastly, the guilty silence of the rest of theh world which, as is true with EG, has more interest in the oil revenues coming from this minuscule nation than with the systematic violation of human rights that the regime enacts without remorse nor limits. These events are so common in the reality of African life that they are not newsworthy anymore.
A family affair
The history and hardship of Equatorial Guinea begin with its independence, on October 12, 1968, after centuries of colonialism under various flags and territorial configurations – Portuguese, Spanish, French, British and German.
A first presumed coup d'etat in March 1969 was sufficient to allow the nation's first president, Macias Nguema, to plunge the new-born democracy into a never ending involutive spyral and to start the repression of any and all opposition to the despot (with both selective and mass murders). There followed the end of diplomatic relations with Spain, the persecution of Christians (despite their representing about 90% of the country's population), the arrival of Cuban bodyguards, the adhesion to Marxism and the inclusion of EG into the Soviet sphere of influence. It is in this particular context that Equatorial Guinea became a player in the liberation wars raging across africa at the time alongside the Angolan MPLA. President Macias Nguema was an African-styled communist, who did not mind publicly expressing his appreciation for the likes of Adolf Hitler.
History teaches us that dictatorships feed and favor equally repressive attempts at emulation. It was thus inevitable that another coup d'etat on August 3, 1979, would cause the ousting of Macias Nguema by Teodoro Obiang Nguema, his nephew. Colonel and head of the army, Teodoro was assisted and supported by Gabon (where another dictator was affirming himself for what would be another long-lasting despotic reign, Omar Bongo).
The institutional snapshot of Equatorial Guinea is still frozen on that August 3rd because Teodoro Nguema has held on to power ever since. His presidential duty has gone through several electoral confirmations backed by “plebiscital” percentages (1989, 1996, 2002, 2009) due to an opposition, or rather what was left of it after the numerous physical eliminations, that is either rotting in prison or has found refuge overseas. To this scenario we should add some numbers on the EG population that counts 6 to 7 hundred thousand Guineans if we leave out the diaspora, with an esteemed million individuals dwelling abroad. In May 2013 parliamentary elections were held. On the eve of these elections, as often occurs, there were mass arrests among the ranks of the opposition. The result: the Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro's party, has won all the seats save one in both branches of the parliament.
In the course of the years, the Cuban bodyguards were substituted by Moroccan ones (in exchange for EG's refusal to recognize the Saharawi population in Morocco). Today US private contractors train the country's security forces and guarantee the safety of the dictator and the survival of the regime. The alliances have also changed: from China, USSR, Vietnam and North Korea to – thanks to the oil fields – United States, Spain, France and the UK. The relationship with the Catholic church has also changed, as Teodoro allows religious freedom to a certain degree. All other freedoms are disallowed: the freedom to assemble, to associate, the freedom of opinion and of expression. There are no political parties (or rather: there are parties and they are authorized to exist since 1991, but it is difficult to excercise such right when their members are systematically jailed and repressed) or labor unions.
Teodoro Obiang Nguema exercises his dictatorship with
no bonds whatsoever. He is made strong by his oil fields and
their correlated energetic interests.
The Nguema's and the Obama's
The new phase coming up for Equatorial Guinea is that of passing on the dictatorship in a dynastic context. It is no novelty, the world is filled with similar cases: Kim Jong Un in North Korea, Bashar al Assad in Syria and, without moving to the other end of the globe, the son of Omar Bongo Ondimba, Ali, in Gabon.
Yet Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who is now aged 71 (In a country where the average life expectancy is 53 years, one of the lowest in the world), is a prudent character. He has capitalized on the social message spread by the Arab Spring and now has a problem to solve: the scarce capacity and consideration that his natural heir, “Teodorin” Nguema Obiang Mangue, has among Guineans and non-Guineans. Teodorin is the son of Teodoro's first wife and has already been involved in a case of money laundering in France in 2012. The French magistrates have issued an international arrest warrant through interpol and have seized a luscious apartment in Paris, valuable works of art, a Rolls Royce, two Bentleys, one Ferrari, two Porsches, an Aston Martin and a Peugeot 607. The seizure was later changed into a mandate valid only within the Schengen zone and Teodorin's wealth was returned to its “rightful” owner. The late change in plans by the French was triggered in part by the arrest in Malabo of the French head of Transparancy International. Teodorin had him released thanks to his diplomatic passport.
The same happened in the United States. Young Teodorin owned a luxury villa in Malibu, California, where he also collected Ferraris, has a private Gulfstream jet and other trifles. The seizes in the US add up to a net value of 71 million dollars and it appears that part of this wealth comes directly from the “gratuitous” donations of generous American oil companies. Teodorin is famous for his crazy shopping. The birthday parties that he organizes border the legendary. In 2011 he came into the spotlight for buying a super-yacth worth 235 million pounds. In the same year he had lost his bag in Swaziland with 250 thousand pounds inside. Teodorin is an unstable character with a controversial cunduct, but he is the son of the president nonetheless.
All of these things happen in a country where the per capita income is about 30 thousand dollars per year, but where 78% of the population lives with about 1 dollar per day and 85% of them dwell in shanty-towns without water nor electricity. All companies that operate in EG are in some way related to the family network of president Obiang. In every company there is a representative from the government. In order to get a job in any of these companies, this representative must be paid a bribe.
As we mentioned, the wealth of Teodorin is the fruit of corruption. It is no wonder that according to many international organizations, EG is one of the most corrupt countries on the planet. Transparancy International places EG among the first 12 corrupt countries in the world. When speaking of freedom (political, civil, etc.) it is sufficient to read “Freedom in the World” to get a pulse of the situation.
Teodorin's father is cautious because he knows that, after the death of Omar Bongo and the elimination of Khadafi, he is presently the longest lasting dictator living in the African continent. And ending up like his uncle Macias, whom Obiang had murdered for “crimes against humanity”, fits the logic of things in EG. Meanwhile, Teodorin was named second Vice-President in May 2012, a new office that was created through a makeover of the constitution (the same makeover has further increased the already all-powerful role of the president), thus making him the natural replacement for his father.
The economy of human rights
Although the world is filled with dictators and the consequent violations of human rights – which causes inurement among the public opinion – what is it that allows the Guinean president to get away with all of these odious violations without joining the ranks of rogue states against which the rage of the world is often directed?
The first answer to this question is of a “technical” nature. Equatorial Guinea has an esteemed 11 billion barrel strong oil reserve. Its gas reserves are just as gargantuous. The country is presently among the major exporters of hydrocarbon in Africa. US companies such as Exxon Mobil, Hess and Marathon, Chinese, French and Spanish companies are all interested, to different degrees, in the exploitation of such reserves. In the oil industry, investments in the initial exloration and drilling phases are very high. The revenues are produced in the medium-long term (the first Guinean oil fields were discovered in 1994). Those that pursue profits have little interest in human rights. And corruption helps all the parties keep cordial relationships with one another. There is no interest among powerful western nations to bring up the issue of a bloodthirsty regime. Even the USA, which were initially hostile to the oppressive methods of Obiang Nguema, have progressively lowered the volume of their protests. Much of the Guinean petrol ends up in the United States. In 2009 Teodoro Obiang Nguema even met Barack Obama in New York and took part in a heartwarming family portrait together with the US president.
Even Spain, EG's former colonial power, has a special connection with its former colony (there is even an officer of the CNI that is stationed in Malabo, the capital of EG, for intelligence cooperation). Spain allegedly offered their support for an attempted coup d'etat in 2004, during the government of Jose Maria Aznar, when a group of mercenaries led by Briton Simon Francis Mann wanted to oust Obiang and replace him with an exiled opposition leader, former seminarist Severo Moto. The attempt failed when Mann's team was arrested in Zimbabwe where they were supposed to pick up their weapons and now Madrid has rekindled its relationship with president Obiang. In 2008, Severo Moto went from being a political refugee to being accused of dealing arms and had to fight his way through Spanish court to see his status of exiled oppositor confirmed. In the end profits have prevailed over conscience in Spain as well.
There is a certain cunning on the part of the
dictator in cultivating or humoring relations with those
nations that can help his cause. The Guinean constitution says
that the official languages of EG are Spanish (the most
diffused language after the local tongue) and French. Since
2007, Portuguese has been added to the list. In practice, most
of the former colonial powers have been indulged. And Obiang
spends huge amounts of money in public relations each year. He
went so far as financing a UNESCO prize which was never
assigned due to the international protests that followed. In
2011 Obiang hosted a summit of the African Union in Malabo
(the summit coincided with the arrest of oppositors, students,
politicians and immigrants). In 2012 he managed to host,
together with his Gabonean friends, the African Cup of
Nations, one of the most important football tournaments of the
Teodorin Nguema Obiang Mangue
The second reason for Obiang's lasting rule is of a “religious” character. As we have said, the Christian faith is prevalent in EG. Other common practices are animists, the voodoo rite and a number of Christian sects. Yet the preponderant faith is the Catholic faith. The interest of the regime with regards to the Vatican is due to the threat represented by the aforementioned Christian sects. Headed by African preachers (Nigerians, Ghaneans, Congolese), they collect huge amounts of funding and often practice exorcisms that end up in the murder of innocent individuals. Teodoro Ogiang Nguema also knows that the benevolence of the Vatican helps him in preserving his image.
On October 2013, Nguema landed in Italy with his wife and visited Pope Francesco in the Vatican for a 15 minute chat. He then met the archbishop Dominique Mamberti, Vatican Secretary for Relationships with foreign States. During the meeting the two exchanged documents that ratify the bilateral accord undersigned by the two nations on October 13, 2012 in Mongomo. The accord certifies good bilateral relations between the two nations and recognizes the juridic person of the Church and its institutions. It also touches upon the canonic wedding, the assistence to the Catholics in hospitals and prisons, the exercise of free cult and other similar amenity. The silence of the Vatican on the notorious evil deeds of Obiang's regime goes to join the solemn silence that surrounds everything that happens in EG. Even the silence of Italy, where there was no form of protest against the arrival of the dictator.
Teodoro Obiang Nguema's dictatorship is based on solid social prerequisites. The first is the scarce population of EG, which ensures the regimes control over its inhabitants. The nation's geographical extension is also scant (about 28 thousand square km's) and is divided between the coastline and the island of Bioko in the Gulf of Guinea. The second social prerequisite is of a tribal nature. Teodoro is a Fang like a good 85% of Guinea's population and belongs to the sub-ethnic group fo the Mongolo. The victims of his oppression are thus usually the Bubi, which dwell on the island of Bioko. One of their leaders, Martin Puye, who headed the Movement for self-determination of the island of Bioko, died in the regime's prisons in 1998.
Teodoro Obiang Nguema controls, through his militias, all of the strategic areas in the country. The object of his attention are mostly politicians, activists and journalists. It is easy to land in the regime's aims: a protest (perhaps because of the lack of drinkable water), a critique, an unlikeable comment suffices. There follows arbitrary arrests, detentions, vanishings, tortures, extra-judicial executions, threats and piloted trials by a judicial system that serves the regime.
According to Human Rights Watch, the country is a leader in: corruption, poverty and repression. Equatorial Guinea is one of those rare cases where the citizens of an independent nation regret the colonial occupation, when the quality of life was inversely proportional to the wealth of the country they were living in. Yet this does not prevent Teodoro Obiang Nguema from hoding on to power among the silence of the many.