Magazine article New Internationalist

Equatorial Guinea

Magazine article New Internationalist

Equatorial Guinea

Article excerpt

Guinea is a beautiful country, with virgin forests that hide some of the last populations of gorillas in the world. It has a rich diversity of ancient customs and languages. It has paradisal beaches, as yet untouched by luxury hotels, where local fisherfolk continue to make their living from dugout canoes. It is a country of deep forest, where the light spills out with the water - today, as it has for thousands of years.

Yet on arriving at the airport in the capital, Malabo, a visitor might have the strange sensation of not being even in Africa. A grand, excessively lit avenue takes you for several kilometres towards the city. Alongside luxury hotels are residential areas, surrounded by freshly mown lawns, and quarters for transnational companies.

These business and residential zones have sprung up to cater for the President's clan members and for the executives and employees of international companies - for all those who have come to exploit the third-largest reserve of oil in Africa, discovered in 2006. But the country has not a single refinery - direct accords with China and the US dispense with that complication, and thus, in exchange for a lot of money and all kinds of loans, Equatorial Guinea's dictator, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, is constructing a country with a split personality.

Venture further, and drive around the island of Bioko, and you may come upon an immense fantasy-like hill where the President ordered the construction of 52 luxury mansions - one for each of the national leaders who attended the African Union summit here in 2011, which was presided over by Obiang and lasted all of three days. This summit, along with the co-hosting with Gabon of the Africa Cup of Nations football tournament in 2012, formed part of Obiang's attempt to tidy up his country's terrible international image.

This country's bizarre and somewhat impenetrable character has been shaped by a number of factors, including: decolonization from Franco's Spain that came as late as 1968; a Spanish Catholic morality that survives in strange conjunction with local animist beliefs; and an arrogance in its ruling class inherited from the schizoid dictatorship of its first leader, Francisco Macías Nguema (1968-79).

Inequality is growing exponentially day by day. Equatorial Guinea is now the richest country in Africa in terms of income per person - and ostensibly one of the richest in the world, with an annual per-capita income that should put it comfortably at a European level. But all of that wealth is vacuumed up by the élite and very little of it put at the service of human development. It is true that roads now penetrate deep into the interior of the country's mainland section, Río Muni, where five years ago there were just impassable muddy tracks, and that there has been a recent surge in investment in infrastructure.

But the vast majority of Guineans still live without drinking water, with continual power cuts and without sanitation, while average life expectancy stands at just 51 years - the eighth-lowest in the world.

How could so much money be put to so little use? A news item from 2012 gives an indication. Obiang's son, known as Theodorín, who is currently Second Vice-President and mired in all kinds of international corruption charges, had hundreds of luxury items and large quantities of money confiscated from his fivestorey, 5,000-square-metre mansion in Paris. Theodorín had spent over $65 million decorating it and the French Central Office for the Control of Financial Crime confiscated objects to the value of $50 million. …

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