When the president of Equatorial Guinea arrived in Washington on Monday, he would have been celebrating more than the chance to join some 50 other African heads of state for President Barack Obama’s United States (US)-Africa Leaders Summit. This week also marks his 35th anniversary in power, and reinforces his status as the world’s longest-serving non-royal head of state.
On 3 August 1979, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo seized power from his uncle and mentor, Francisco Macías Nguema, who used to hang dissidents from the capital’s few street lamps, and who was executed by firing squad.
As graphic accounts of ongoing torture published by Human Rights Watch demonstrate, Obiang has followed in his uncle’s footsteps in more ways than one.
How does such a figure manage to stay in power for such a long time – and manage to win every election with more than 95% of the vote? And why is he included among the leaders selected as being ‘in good standing’ with the US government, rather than being excluded like the heads of Zimbabwe, Eritrea and Sudan?
Why is Obiang among the leaders who are ‘in good standing’ with the US government?
In the mid-1990s, oil was discovered off the coast of the capital city, Malabo, by an American company: so much that the central African country is now the third-largest producer of oil and gas in sub-Saharan Africa, with US oil firms playing a major role. Conservative estimates put the country’s oil production at close to 318 000 barrels per day, which translates into billions of dollars a year.
Such great wealth has allowed for lavish purchases by the Obiang family, including mansions in the US and many other countries, a collection of Ferraris, Rolls-Royces and Lamborghinis, multiple private jets and a cadre of elite Moroccan and Israeli militia who serve as a private presidential security force. In addition, Obiang’s eldest son and presumptive heir to the presidential office, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, has amassed one of the world’s finest collections of Michael Jackson memorabilia, including the original red-and-black ‘Thriller jacket,’ as well as his crystal-studded ‘Bad Tour’ glove.
Despite a per capita gross domestic product on par with Italy, two-thirds of the population in Equatorial Guinea lives below the poverty line. Average life expectancy is 53 years. Clean drinking water and adequate plumbing are scarce and child-mortality rates remain alarmingly high. Whereas Obiang has repeatedly stated that corruption is impossible under his leadership, Equatorial Guinea ranked 45 out of 52 countries in the 2013 Ibrahim Index of African Governance, and 163 out of 177 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.
Equatorial Guinea is the third-largest producer of oil and gas in sub-Saharan Africa
Even more tellingly, corruption and money laundering investigations by the US Justice Department and French police have provided a trove of details on the unexplainable wealth and ostentatious lifestyle of Obiang’s eldest son. The son claims to have immunity from prosecution because his father placed him in senior posts, most recently as second vice-president of the country.
This cannot be what Obama had in mind when he themed the summit ‘Investing in the Next Generation.’
While in Washington, Obiang and his fellow African heads of state will court closer ties with the US government and private sector representatives who are interested in participating in Africa’s current ‘economic boom. ’The Corporate Council on Africa offered its members an invitation-only dinner with Obiang, and joined law firm Greenberg Traurig LLP in co-sponsoring a day-long forum to highlight investment opportunities in Equatorial Guinea.
Interested investors had best hurry: experts believe Equatorial Guinea’s oil reserves will run dry within the next two decades. The same applies to anyone who would like to see average Equatoguineans have an opportunity to benefit from their country’s natural wealth. Businesspeople who might not hesitate to invest in countries with serious human rights problems should be forewarned: they don’t want to wind up like the Italian construction company executive Roberto Berardi, who has been locked up in a prison in Bata for 18 months and tortured to prevent him from testifying to the US Justice Department about alleged corruption in the ruling family.
The US government can do a lot to promote greater transparency and justice in Equatorial Guinea. To begin with, it should press for the rule of law by denouncing torture and pushing for a total overhaul of the country’s judicial system, which is currently under presidential control. It should also insist on concrete steps from the government of Equatorial Guinea before it reapplies for candidacy to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), to ensure protection and support for independent civil society organisations to carry out accountability work without reprisal.
It also should build on the Justice Department’s deep investigation into high-level corruption, money-laundering and bank fraud by the Obiang family and seize all their US-based assets – not only the Malibu mansion that it has pursued since 2011. It should also expand the Magnitsky Act to prevent all global autocrats, not just Russians, from using US banking and business institutions to hide ill-gotten assets.
Equatorial Guinea’s next presidential elections are currently scheduled for 2016, but there is little hope that they will provide an opportunity for citizens to exercise their rights freely. The international community, starting with leaders at this week’s summit, should commit to supporting transparent and credible elections in Equatorial Guinea. They should do this by brokering negotiations between the Obiang regime and the opposition, insisting that it create an election monitoring body not controlled by the ruling party, and supporting credible and independent election-monitoring efforts.
It might also be suggested to Obiang – as US State Secretary John Kerry recently did to the Democratic Republic of Congo’s President Joseph Kabila – that he not seek re-election. Finally, leaders – both in government and civil society – should support the creation and protection of free and independent media in the country.
On his first presidential visit to Africa in 2008, President Obama declared that, ‘Africa doesn’t need strongmen; it needs strong institutions.’ With this historic summit, dedicated to forging new economic ties and finding solutions for the continent’s burgeoning youth demographic, the Obama administration owes it to the people of Equatorial Guinea to take steps to build strong institutions and ensure the next generation doesn’t arrive to bare coffers.
Tutu Alicante, Executive Director, EG Justice
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