Equatorial Guinea: Ignorance worth fistfuls of dollars

Guest blogger Vukasin Petrovic asks why US retains positive ties with Equatorial Guinea's long-ruling president Teodoro Obiang Nguema, despite evidence of brutality, corruption, and neglect of his people.

•  A version of this post appeared on the blog "Freedom at Issue." The views expressed are the author's own.

This week, US officials will once again welcome one of the world’s most kleptocratic living autocrats: president of Equatorial Guinea Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. What possible reason, you might ask, does the administration have for meeting with a man who has amassed an enormous personal fortune by siphoning the lion’s share of his country’s wealth for himself and his cronies while his citizens are literally starving? We are wondering the same thing.

Teodoro Obiang Nguema seized power in 1979 after deposing and executing his uncle, President Francisco Macías Nguema. Though international pressure compelled President Obiang to establish a multiparty system in 1992, Equatorial Guinea has yet to hold credible elections. He and his Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea (PDGE) remain firmly entrenched in power and justly retain the title as one of the world’s worst human rights abusers. Freedom House has ranked Equatorial Guinea Not Free for the last 29 years in its annual Freedom in the World survey. The utter lack of political rights and civil liberties in Equatorial Guinea puts the country in the same class as abysmal performers such as Sudan, Eritrea, and Somalia.

RELATED: Five things to know about Freedom House's latest global rankings 

Although recent constitutional changes, including imposing a two-term limit on the presidency and pardoning a prominent political opponent as well as a number of human rights defenders, could be seen as positive developments, Obiang and his inner circle still run the country with a whip. Political opponents are monitored, harassed, arrested and tortured; ethnic groups that do not belong to Teodoro’s clan are deprived of their political rights and marginalized; and journalists are censored and prosecuted while the parliament and judiciary serve as nothing more than a rubber stamp for the regime. In the most recent showcase of autocratic crazes, in late May, Obiang has named 12 family members and friends, including his two sons and a brother, to the country's new government.

The discovery and exploitation of hydrocarbon resources off Equatorial Guinea’s coast has allowed Obiang to stockpile a vast personal fortune (estimated in 2006 by Forbes to $600 million). While the GDP per capita has reached that of Switzerland, oil revenues have stayed out of the reach for the majority of its citizens. According to the watchdog group Global Witness, 60 percent of the population lives on less than $1 a day. The vast majority of Equatorial Guineans hardly have access to clean drinking water and 20 percent of children die before the age of 5—the world’s highest under-5 mortality rate.

Obiangs’s natural instinct to ignore completely his own people is appalling enough. What is more appalling is that in 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hailed President Obiang as a "good friend," despite repeated criticism of his human rights and civil liberties record by the State Department. More recently, in 2009, President Barack Obama posed for an official photograph with President Obiang at a New York reception.

Truth be told, the US has done some work to tackle Obiang’s kleptocratic and egotistic tendencies. Domestically, several federal and congressional investigations led to initiatives to seize his and his family members’ financial and material assets and to prevent further money laundering. Internationally, the US heavily lobbied in 2010 to prevent United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) from adopting the Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences aimed to recognize "scientific achievements that improve the quality of human life."

Still, these are nothing more than a Pyrrhic victory. The United States, together with China, is the biggest cumulative bilateral foreign investor in Equatorial Guinea with investments totaling $12 billion and historically, the US has been one of the largest buyers of their oil. According to the latest publicly available information from January this year, Equatorial Guinea’s exports to the US totaled over $2.39 billion in 2009 and consisted overwhelmingly of petroleum products. In the same year, US exports to Equatorial Guinea totaled $304 million, making the country the seventh-largest export market for US products in Sub-Saharan Africa. In March, UNESCO's executive board voted in favor of keeping the prize following assurances by Equatorial Guinea that it would be funded by the country's state treasury rather than Obiang's personal foundation.

Though Obiang and his clique currently run the country as their own personal feudal estate, the future could get even bleaker for ordinary Equatorial Guineans. If, as anticipated, Theodor, the oldest and most reckless of Teodoro’s sons and currently under indictment in the United States for embezzling resources from the country’s oil profits, takes over the reins from his father, the situation could easily go from bad to worse. The United States must react now and prevent making the mistake of continuously encouraging bad behavior as it did with oil rich Middle Eastern autocracies.

Quiet diplomacy—denying or overlooking issues of human rights abuses, restricted political rights, and rampant corruption—will simply encourage Obiang and Theodor’s future kleptocratic, autocratic tendencies. The US administration must act now with full force, introducing targeted sanctions and travel restrictions, not to mention acting upon its own findings and going after Teodoro for financial crimes conducted on US soil. More importantly, the US must openly support proponents of democracy and human rights in Equatorial Guinea.

-- Vukasin Petrovic, the director of Africa programs at Freedom House, blogs at Freedom at Issue. 

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