In depth: Equatorial Guinea on the brink

Equatorial Guinea UN Prize

President Obiang has not become magnanimous, tough: he is obliged to present his friendly face, overwhelmed by serious problems that for the first time threaten the absolute power he has held since 35 years ago. Cracked the monolithic unity of the clan on which he established his power in 1979 after overthrowing his uncle Francisco Macías, his effort to be succeeded by his eldest son, Teodoro Nguema Obiang, appointed second vice president and whose capacity is very doubtful, is dividing his relatives.

Furthermore, Teodorín is indicted for unjust enrichment in various summaries promoted by French and American judges. Despite spreading everywhere millions of dollars to buy wills and honors, Obiang is aware of the universal rejection of tyrannical ways and corruption of his regime; he confirms daily the erosion of a foreign fragmented and discredited opposition, and he notes that the population stops being an amorphous and resigned mass.

That is why he did, on July 5th, a shy and confused appeal to “national dialogue”, advised by prominent members of his international “lobby”, among them the Spaniards José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, José Bono and Miguel Angel Moratinos, who were his guests during the first week of July. Days earlier, he had received the visit of the Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, the only European participant in the last summit of the African Union, held in Malabo because the Mauritanian economy, which holds the rotating presidency, can not afford such extravagant expenses.

Sincerity and the scope of such an offer, received with suspicion by a large proportion of the chastened opposition after three and a half decades of deceptions and repression, will be soon calibrated. Along with the political vicissitudes, another cause of insomnia for general Obiang is the unquestionable deterioration of the economic situation. The latest IMF report, published in May, reveals that out of the 45 sub-Saharan countries analyzed, only Equatorial Guinea will stop growing. According to these forecasts, the economy is entering a recession; it will contract by 2.4% in 2014, added to the drop by 4.9% of 2013; in 2015, the IMF is forecasting a negative growth of 8.3%. Experts attribute this debacle to a fall in the production of hydrocarbons.

Uncertainty rules

Some symptoms are obvious: lack of liquidity prevents paying officials’ salaries or student grants since some months ago. The closure of private companies -linked to the construction, dependent on profits from oil exploitation – causes the dismissal of many workers, increasing social displeasure. The country is in times of uncertainty, typical from the end of a political and economic cycle that is falling apart, a concern for investors – Americans, Chinese, French, Brazilians, South Africans, Russians and, to a lesser extent, Spaniards – and the main Chancellor’s offices. Today the Gulf of Guinea is particularly a sensitive area.

In 1980, the Spanish company Hispaoil – predecessor of Repsol – started to do prospections around the island of Bioco, moving away in 1989 because it did not find profitable fields. In 1991 American companies landed in Malabo and Equatorial Guinea began exporting oil in 1994. The world discovered then an unknown country, and the regime’s propaganda – organised by Americans, French and some Spanish, in charged of muzzling the opposition – forgot its terrible record of institutionalized violence, established by the Macias tyranny and continued by its nephew, Teodoro Obiang.

Since then Guinea’s “spectacular development” was exalted, considering that in the early years of the millennium, the country’s GDP grew at an accelerated pace, between 40 and 60% annually. But mere growth does not mean development: according to reliable reports from international organizations, only a meagre 5% of the population accumulates all the national wealth. Hydrocarbon exploitation intensified corruption, visible and silenced during the years of scarcity, when the immense aid provided by international cooperation, mainly Spanish, was being wasted and it barely improved the lives of Guineans.

Scandals like Riggs Bank, in which a committee from Washington Senate, chaired by current Vice President Joe Biden, discovered in 2004 that Obiang, his family and senior officials of his government kept many accounts with balances of between 400 and 700 million dollars, were not enough to calibrate a system that perpetuates poverty and oppression to 85% of the population. On the contrary, Obiang spreaded petrodollars through the world, buying intentions and credibility. Far from diversifying and modernizing the economy to undertake the development, he embarked on unnecessary and wasteful expenditure, which only fed his megalomania and his pocket. In this country, it is negligible the border between the State budget and private fortune of the leaders.

The balance of two decades of exploitation of hydrocarbons is devastating. Without industry, services, health system or education, and  an abandoned agriculture system, the population, mostly young, flee the country. Inflation prevents the citizen access to basic products, all imported. Any minimally profitable productive sector -such as wood and fishing- is controlled by relatives of the head of state, whose first wife, Constancia Mangue, monopolizes the distribution of gas… and the commercialisation of school uniforms. Other relatives enjoy the exclusive taxi licenses and agencies, being impossible to find employment if someone does not have the card of the Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea (FSDP), founded in 1987 by Obiang. This explains why the third largest producer of hydrocarbons in Sub-Saharan Africa (4.3% of world reserves), with only 700,000 inhabitants and an GDP per capital of $32,000 -bigger than South Africa and similar to Spain-, occupies the position 144 (among 187 countries) on the Human Development Index , as reflected in the latest UNDP report.

Over the last twenty years of “boom”, the system conceals the real production figures, manipulated as they please: oil companies are required to keep the secret. Now it is known why: prominent system’s people divert on their own ships full of oil and gas, which amount is deposited in European and Asian banks and tax havens. According to Global Finance Integrity, an organization that aims to stop capital flight,  between 2001 and 2010 10,030 million dollars “disappeared” from Equatorial Guinea. While the government presumes that it exports from 250,000 to 378,000 barrels per day, recent estimates point to a production of 850,000 b / d.The opacity of transactions is assured: Gabriel Mbega Obiang Lima, the son of the second wife of the president, is the Minister of Mining, Industry and Energy; Candido Nsue Okomo, the brother of the first lady, heads GEPETROL

About the Author

Donato Ndongo
Donato Ndongo-Bidyogo was born in Niefang, Equatorial Guinea, in 1950. Writer, journalist and political exile. He was correspondent and delegate of Spanish EFE agency in central Africa (1987-1995). Director of the Center for African Studies at the University of Murcia (2000-2004). Visiting Professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia (United States, 2005-2008). Regular lecturer on American, African and European universities. He is the author of the essays "History and tragedy of Equatorial Guinea" (1977), "Anthology of Guinean literature" (1984) and co-author of "Spain in Guinea" (1998) as well as of three novels translated into several languages. Mr Ndongo is a regular contributor for Spanish media such as El País, ABC, Mundo Negro and The Corner’s print magazine Consejeros, among others.

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