U.S. Oil Politics in the "Kuwait of Africa"
by Ken Silverstein
The Nation magazine, April 22, 2002
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
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 fromWest
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
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
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 Jose 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
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
f 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 $ billion in
Equatorial Guinea. Sweetening the deal for the ail 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."
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 , I 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
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 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
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 1 970s 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
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
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
Sao Tome 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 fighting
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 take off
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 picapica-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 charnpions 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.
Ken Silverstein is a writer based in Washington, DC. This
article was prepared with a grant from the Fund for Investigative
Journalism, with additional support from the Investigative Fund
of the Nation Institute.