Equatorial Guinea has all the trappings of an African paradise. With emerald forests and frontage on the aquamarine waters of the Gulf of Guinea, it is absolutely beautiful. Yet these waters hold more than just beauty. They hold oil. They hold so much oil that Equatorial Guinea has become Africa’s third largest oil producer, making it the continent’s richest country in the process. It has a GDP (PPP) per capita higher than South Korea or Spain, yet 60% of the population lives on less than one dollar per day. The government funnels the oil wealth into offshore accounts, Parisian mansions, exotic supercars, and extravagant construction projects, neglecting the people along the way. On Sunday, that government will stand for re-election. And it will win.
At the helm of Equatorial Guinea’s kleptocracy is a man named Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. Having run the country since 1979, he is the longest ruling head of state in all of Africa. And despite being called a “president” who will stand in an “election,” he certainly isn’t going anywhere come Sunday. He has the Equatoguinean government firmly in his iron grip. By filling government posts with his family and clan members, he commands total loyalty from his subordinates. By funneling oil wealth into their accounts, he can stave off the possibility of internal opposition. By granting contracts to foreign corporations, his human-rights abuses are ignored by the international community. By neglecting to educate his citizens, popular unrest is unlikely. By intimidating the minuscule political opposition, any vehicle of popular unrest is squelched. With the country in such a dire state despite its valuable resources, it is not unreasonable to wonder how Obiang managed to build such a repressive political system. So how did he create such a thing? Well, he didn’t. He inherited it.
When Equatorial Guinea became independent from Spain in 1968, it had a booming timber and cacao industry. Spain helped to write a constitution and hold democratic elections. Yet years of colonial rule had taken their toll on the young country. With only a tiny educated elite, a man named Francisco Macías Nguema exploited the ethnic divisions of the uneducated majority and rose to power on a wave of xenophobic, ethnocentric nationalism. He promptly expelled Spanish citizens and harassed foreign workers. The economy collapsed, and with it came the democratic institutions. Hundreds of thousands fled the country. Macías had his opponents imprisoned or executed and filled their government posts with members of his family. One of those to benefit from this nepotism was Obiang, who is Macías’ nephew. As the country wasted away and Macías grew deaf, blind, addicted to drugs, and insane, Obiang seized his chance and staged a coup d’état. When Macías was finally captured and executed, he vowed that his spirit would come back to haunt those who had conspired to topple him.
This is history, but it is also life. As a fairly young country, thousands of today’s Equatoguineans lived through the terror and bloodshed of Macías’ rule. They lived through the promise of independence and democracy that has, to this day, not yet been fulfilled. They watched as Obiang solidified his power using the same methods that had been passed down to him from his uncle. On Sunday, they will watch as he, once again, further consolidates his power.
In elections in 2009, Obiang won 95% of the vote. The leader of the only legal opposition party, Convergencia para la Democracia Social (CPDS), came in second place with 4%. The government lavishly funds its own political party, the PDGE, while repressing the opposition. It received the lowest possible score from Freedom House, an organization that measures democracy. The organization claims that the media is dominated by the PDGE, that opposition leaders are detained arbitrarily, and the internet and press is censored. As a result, it is not difficult to predict that Obiang will be the victor in Sunday’s election. And considering his recent policy initiatives, that is truly a shame.
Recent policy initiatives, in this case, is simply a euphemism for gross mismanagement of funds. Obiang’s government recently poured millions of dollars into a resort complex outside Malabo, the country’s capital. The complex was built to host a summit of the African Union, and the government constructed 52 identical mansions to host each African leader. Now, they stand empty. Think about that for a moment. 52 abandoned mansions, each one exactly the same as the one beside it. Next, the government decided that Malabo was too vulnerable to seaborne assault. As a result, it decided to build a completely new capital city on a tract of land in the middle of the rainforest. It is expected to have shining new office towers and wide boulevards on which the president’s son, known as Teodorín, can drive his collection of supercars. Meanwhile, most of the population lives in slums without access proper education or healthcare.
Speaking of Teodorín, he is likely a much better indicator of the future of Equatorial Guinea than Sunday’s election. As Obiang’s favorite son, it is thought that he will become the leader of the country upon his father’s eventual death. Even if he doesn’t, and even in the less likely scenario of a coup d’état, the deep-seated nepotism of Equatorial Guinea all but guarantees that a member of Obiang’s family will continue to rule the country for decades to come. And as long as the oil money keeps rolling in, there is no reason to believe that the leadership will choose benevolence over corruption. Teodorín, or whoever succeeds Obiang, will continue to party in Malibu and Paris as Equatorial Guinea slowly atrophies.
So there you have it, a prediction for Sunday’s election and beyond. There is absolutely no chance that Sunday will bring an end to Obiang’s kleptocracy, and there is little chance that even his death will bring any positive change. Macías truly has come back to haunt his country. Thanks to him, Equatorial Guinea has been robbed of its potential and driven into the ground. The specter of his policies continue to plague this tiny African country to this day, turning a little slice of paradise into a twisted corner of hell.