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Equatorial Guinea tests Obama vow to hold African leaders accountable

President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo – who today pardoned British mercenary Simon Mann – is widely seen as one of Africa's most corrupt leaders. But will oil interests prevent a shift in US policy?

By Kari BarberCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 3, 2009

Rich Clabaugh/Staff

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Malabo, Equatorial Guinea

At the United States Embassy in Malabo, the sweltering capital of this tiny West African nation, a picture of each former US ambassador hangs neatly on the wall.

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But there is a jarring space where one photograph has been removed. The US closed its embassy in the oil-rich nation in 1995 in part to protest repeated human rights abuses and large-scale corruption.

The ambassador at the time departed the country abruptly, and only a nail is left to mark his time. Under the presidency of George W. Bush the embassy was reopened, and exports of Equatorial Guinean oil to the United States swelled to 100,000 barrels a day.

President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo – who made world headlines today with his decision to pardon British mercenary Simon Mann on humanitarian grounds – is expected on Nov. 29 to win another election and a fresh mandate to lead sub-Saharan Africa's third-largest oil producer, which he has ruled since a 1979 coup. But Equatorial Guinea is consistently ranked near the top of the list of the most corrupt countries on the world's most corrupt continent. And rights advocates continue to heap fierce criticism on President Obiang for his government's alleged human rights abuses and draconian limits on free speech.

Now eyes across Africa are turning to President Obama, who has pledged to do more to hold the continent's leaders to account. US policy toward the often-overlooked nation could be a test case. But so far, there has been little indication as to how the new administration will shape its foreign policy toward Africa and the State Department refused to comment for this report. Experts say that's because there won't likely be much in the way of tangible change, at least not in places where significant US business or energy interests are at stake.

"I tend to doubt whether, at the end of the day, the current administration's actual policy will be much different from its predecessor's toward much of Africa," says J. Peter Pham, a professor at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, who has been a frequent adviser to both Republican and Democratic administrations. "This is especially true when national interests are involved, including the significant investments made in [Equatorial Guinea] by US companies – one of the largest destinations for American corporate investment in Africa after South Africa, Angola, and Nigeria – and the fact that Equatorial Guinea supplied America with an average of 2.4 million barrels of oil a month last year."