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.
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."
Rights advocates press Obiang
Advocacy groups like Human Rights Watch are keeping up the pressure, though.
A recent report accused Obiang's government of using the country's oil wealth to entrench itself while most of the country suffers on less than a dollar a day.
The director for the group's business and human rights program, Arvind Ganesan, says Equatorial Guinea could be a test of the Obama administration's policy toward Africa.
"President Obama made clear that corruption is not acceptable anymore, and that the rule of law is critical and democracy is important in Africa and elsewhere. If you look at Equatorial Guinea, it has none of those things," Ganesan said.
If a harder-line US policy forced Obiang to relax strict limits on free speech, this would be good news for someone like Fabian Nsue Nguema.
Mr. Nguema, who is not related to the president, is one of the few human rights lawyers in Equatorial Guinea.
"The situation is catastrophic," Nguema told the Monitor after triple bolting the door to his apartment, where the shades were also drawn. "They would prefer that you kill someone here than talk about politics."
Nguema was imprisoned for his criticism of the president.
Poverty and abuses amid oil wealth
In a run-down Malabo neighborhood with a wooden passageway winding above open sewers and mounds of trash, children run naked. Their dirty clothes pile up in heaps on the ground. Their mother points to her water tap, which has been dry for three days. She has been unable to do the laundry or wash or have anything to drink during that time. She smiles bravely, but said she did not want to speak to journalists.
Most Equatorial Guineans seem afraid to speak to foreign media, especially about the government, and the only major local media outlet is run by the state. When they get their reporting accreditation, foreign journalists are told they can only go to touristy areas.
Robert, a young educated man who says he can't get a decent job because he says he has no connections, strolls the streets, looking to help foreigners as a freelance guide. He didn't want to give his last name because he is afraid of government retaliation.
English is one of the many languages Robert speaks, but he says he has no future in his own country.
"The president is just lying to the international community so people will think that he is [improving] democracy and that he is [having legitimate] elections," he says. "He is just closing the eyes of international opinion like the United States, the UN, the European community and so on. It is a game so he can benefit from all of those organizations so that they will think this president is a good man."
United Nations investigations in 2007 and 2008 reported human rights abuses including secret detentions, kidnappings of opposition leaders in neighboring countries, political prisoners being held incommunicado for years at a time, and torture being used to extract confessions. According to Human Rights Watch, some prisoners they visited had been tied with rope and hung from bars with their wrists, ankles, and shoulders often dislocated as a result.
Government: Order more important than rights
Vice President of the National Commission for Human Rights Carmelo Mocong says the government does respect human rights, just in its own way.
"We have signed four international accords on human rights and we are obligated to respect those," Mr. Mocong said from a sparse government building that he shares with one secretary. "What we don't want to accept is a decree from certain countries saying Equatorial Guinea is violating human rights and this and that and so on. There is no unique formula."
Obiang has said that he has kept the country peaceful and orderly. He says the country is developing both its economy and democracy, and that it's better to do this deliberately, rather than risk chaos and civil war.
In 2008 legislative elections, the president's party won 99 out of 100 seats, amid accusations of fraud and intimidation. In one case reported by human rights organizations, a member of a banned opposition party was arrested in the lead up to the election and later found dead in his prison cell. Officials labeled it a suicide, saying the man had plunged to his death by jumping off the top of a bunk bed and fracturing his own skull. The government refused appeals from the man's lawyer for an investigation.
Oil: A blessing and a curse?
Since discovery of oil in the 1990s, the GDP per capita has shot up to more than $39,000 a year according to some economists, which is on par with Italy and Spain. But Human Rights Watch says this is because of a huge imbalance between the few who are very close to the president – and are getting extremely rich – and the rest of the population, which is getting little oil benefit.
From 2004 to 2006, Obiang's son is reported to have spent $43.45 million on luxury cars and mansions, while the total education budget for the country in 2005 was $43 million.
Unusual transfers of large sums of money tied to the Obiang family also led to a 2004 US Senate sub-committee investigation into the Washington-based Riggs Bank where the family had held balances of up to $500 million.
The investigation found that millions of dollars in cash had been brought into the bank in plastic wrap and suitcases to be deposited into the Obiang accounts with few questions asked, according to the Department of Justice records. Riggs pled guilty for failure to report suspicious transactions involving the government of Equatorial Guinea as well as former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and was fined $16 million, the largest penalty ever levied under the Bank Secrecy Act.
Oil firms say they aren't responsible
Oil companies were also investigated in the Riggs Bank scandal and later in an SEC inquiry into their actions in Equatorial Guinea. One of only two companies to grant a phone interview for this report was Devon Energy Corporation, which suspended its operations in Equatorial Guinea in 2008.
"Devon complies with the US government's expectations in how we should conduct ourselves in foreign countries and with foreign governments," said Devon spokesman Chip Minty. "I don't believe US companies can be held responsible for the actions of foreign governments."
Richard Horstman, assistant general counsel for the Marathon Oil Corporation, which counts on Equatorial Guinea for about a quarter of its oil and gas production, says he is also not satisfied with how far the Equatorial Guinea government has come in terms of transparency. "It is our hope, as well as the hope of the world, that better transparency will result in better governance," Mr. Horstman said.
He says the company is trying to train more local people in hopes of developing a middle class and that it has been cooperative in all investigations.
A window of opportunity for the US?
Mr. Pham says that now is a ripe opportunity for the US government to wield its influence.
"The administration would do well to leverage opportunities like Equatorial Guinea's membership in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and its desire for enhanced relationship with the US to help facilitate positive trends," Pham said.
The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative is an international set of standards that the Equatorial Guinea government has signed but on which it has made "only modest progress," according to the International Monetary Fund.
Ganesan says he would like to see the US government draw up new laws and regulations that would require companies to disclose how much they are paying governments like Obiang's.
While the Bush administration sought to strengthen ties with Equatorial Guinea and then Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice called President Obiang "a good friend," it is not yet clear exactly what approach President Obama will take.
Ganesan says he remains hopeful.
"Equatorial Guinea was for many years flying under the radar. People didn't know how severe the problems were there, and by exposing them we hope that this will really create momentum for reform," Ganesan said, "We think that there is a real opportunity in Washington to do that."